Jan Amos Comenius - the teacher of nations

Jan Amos Comenius

When one looks back on a thousand years of Czech history one of the names that still carries great weight is that of 17th century thinker Jan Amos Komenský - the humanist reformer, Protestant bishop, and philosopher the world came to know as Comenius. A man who witnessed the tragic subjugation of his country in the era of religious and political conflict known as the Thirty Years' War. Who would be forced to flee his own homeland, yet never wavered in his overriding belief that the reform of mankind was possible, necessary, and indeed within reach.

But would Jan Amos persevere? And, what kind of life would be his to lead?

The answers to those questions plus why Comenius' ideas clashed most strongly with those of philosopher Rene Descartes. All will be examined in the programme today.

Jan Amos Comenius was born in the farthest reaches of the Czech kingdom in 1592, in south eastern Moravia, a region still known for its quiet hills, sweet pastures, and exquisite vineyards. In Comenius' day Moravia was also known for it religious tolerance: the majority of its inhabitants, including Comenius' parents, were Protestants and belonged either to the Protestant Utraquists, or to the small but highly influential Unity of Brethren, a church founded on the principles laid down by the great Czech reformer Jan Hus.

Hus had anticipated the German Reformation by more than a century when he criticised the clergy in the 1400s. He called for the Church to recognise equality among the clergy and common believers, to share communion in both kinds.

His criticism and proposals - which led to his being burnt at the stake in 1415 - leading to a social and spiritual revolution in the Czech lands that survived six papal crusades.

Though the situation would calm somewhat by the 16th century, the Czech lands would remain split by faith, with the minority Catholics ruling over a Protestant population.

Religious freedom, however, persevered for some time.

It was only natural for young Comenius, two hundred years later, to be brought up in the Protestant tradition, in his case, by the Unity of Brethren. Under the Unity's patronage he received an education and was steered towards the priesthood, studying in the towns of Prerov in Moravia, where he learned Latin, and later in Herborn and Heidelberg in Germany, where he was introduced to the European Humanist tradition and taught by professors that included Johann Heinrich Alsted, Johann Fischer-Piscator, and David Pareus. All of whom had a profound impact on Comenius' thought.

Alsted, for example, called for all knowledge to be compiled in a single clear system - an idea which would form the cornerstone of Comenius' work.

Danuse Vecerova of south Moravia's Comenius Musuem in Uherský Brod, confirms that for Comenius his studies in Germany marked one of the most important periods in his life.

"In Herborn and Heidelberg Comenius began to form his first professional outlook. Those were universities where Protestants could study and it was there that Comenius met figures who were influencing European scientific, theological, and philosophical thought. A period of great reforms."

Invigorated by his studies Comenius returned to Moravia in 1614, first to teach, then to run a parish. His first efforts as a theologian and educator were compiling the very first Czech encyclopaedia, called "The Theatre of All Things", as well as writing a text on Czech grammar.

Prague defenestration in 1618
The inexhaustible mapping and understanding of knowledge were crucial in putting together pieces of life's puzzle he saw as parts of a harmonious and ultimately perfect unity.

But ultimately his first projects would be derailed, his dream of peace disrupted: for Comenius, indeed for the whole Czech nation, fate had something quite different in store.

"A terrible turn of events would turn Comenius' life upside down. Terrible though it would be, it would succeed in doing one thing: strengthening Comenius' resolution in his ideas and beliefs."

The event to which Mrs Vecerova refers was the rapid deterioration of relations between the Czech Estates and the Habsburg emperor on the Czech throne.

Following increased persecution by the Catholic minority, the Protestant Czech Estates deposed Ferdinand II, supporting protests that eventually led to the Thirty Years War.

The Czech spark came when Czech Protestants tossed two Catholic representatives from a high window at Prague Castle in the so-called Defenestration of Prague.

Soon, however, the Catholics would reply.

On November 8th, 1620, their armies routed Czech Protestant forces at the utterly decisive Battle of White Mountain, just outside of Prague. The defeat marked the end of the Protestant dream of religious freedom and marked the beginning of forced re-Catholicisation of the Czech lands.

Battle of White Mountain in 1620
Within just a few years the Czech kingdom would be turned into a political backwater, and the Czechs would have to endure Habsburg rule for the next three centuries.

But, did Comenius, who had prominent ties in the Protestant community, in any way foresee the coming disaster? Erazim Kohak, a professor at Charles University's Philosophy Faculty, thinks he did not. In Kohak's view none among the Protestants really anticipated the depth of their defeat. They believed fully in their success, and could not accept failure as a likely conclusion.

"The Estates undertook the uprising not just out of desperation but in the conviction that they could win and change the social order in central Europe. Comenius was not politically involved at that time - he was a minister in a small village taking care of his church and his family. I don't believe, or I have run into no evidence, that during the uprising Comenius was aware a tragedy was coming."

But it was.

In Moravia the reality of the Protestants' defeat sank in, and for his own role in the Czech Protestant movement Comenius himself would soon be forced into hiding.

Earlier, in 1617, he had written a treatise titled "Protection Against the Anti-Christ and his Trials", calling for the struggle against the papacy. He had also supported the Protestant's short-lived Winter King, Frederick of the Palatinate, and thus had even more reason to fear. But, he also had powerful friends who would help hide him on their estates. As such, Comenius would remain "incognito" in the Czech lands for another eight years.

Given the shock of White Mountain and the repercussions that followed, most of his writing from this period was of a consolatory nature. Erazim Kohak again:

Execution of 27 Protestant noblemen in 1621
"The tragedy of White Mountain and what followed was the basic given of the first half of his life and his concern had to be not simply caring for a parish, but coming to terms with the perennial question of 'why do bad things happen to good people'. He was aware that the church which he loved, the Unity of the Brethren, was perishing. He had no illusions about the state of Bohemia. Yes, he kept hoping in a reversal of fortune in the Thirty Years' War, but he saw the destruction and devastation around him. So his first writings of this period were consolatory. You hear very strongly of the futility of the world and the hope of the 'centrum securitatis': the depth of the soul in which he finds steadiness in the fortunes of life."

The first waves of repression and revenge began in 1621 with the execution of 27 Protestant noblemen on Prague's Old Town Square. Throughout the country property was seized and Protestants were persecuted.

There would be no turning back.

Comenius also suffered personal tragedy: the loss of his wife and sons to plague. Now he was alone.

It was at this time he began writing his last text in Czech, one of the great early gems of the Czech language, titled "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart", an extremely critical view of the world, human relations, and human behaviour.

"The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart" is first and foremost an allegory, using imagery and devices popular in allegorical writing in Comenius' day; in the book he presents the world as "a town" and all its inhabitants as its "dwellers", all who have lost their way in different labyrinths of their own making. As Dagmar Capkova, a specialist on Comenius at Charles University's Faculty of Education explains, what set it apart was Comenius' unrelenting, cutting wit.

"This writing, in fact, should show the conflicting problems of a corrupted world and then the endeavour to find consolation in Christian creed. Comenius presents a fierce satire of contemporary society."

The story's narrator is the Pilgrim who is accompanied on a journey by two highly questionable guides named Ubiquitous and Delusion. Upon the Pilgrim's wish they take him to the town to investigate, as Comenius puts it, "all things under the sun". He hopes to find not only underlying happiness but also meaning.

Instead the Pilgrim is shocked to discover the basest of human behaviour: hypocrisy, foolishness and moral depravity, often leading to untimely death.

Even as the trio approach from afar, the Pilgrim senses things are somehow amiss.

"One thing that I disliked was... that the streets intersected each other in many places, so that here and there they ran together. It seemed that this might result in confusion and straying. Moreover as I gazed at the global shape of the world, I palpably felt it move and whirl in a circle until I feared I would be overcome with dizziness. For wherever I cast my glance, everything to the least mote seemed to swarm before my eyes... when I stopped to listen the air was filled with the sounds of pounding, striking, shuffling, whispering, and screaming."

But, at least the Pilgrim is fortunate in being able to see things as they really are. Though his guide Delusion gives him a pair of what today we would call "rose-coloured glasses", the glasses fit the Pilgrim poorly so that he sees over their rim. Unbeknownst to his guides, he views the world in its true form.

It is not a pretty sight.

Among the town's winding streets inhabitants wallow in the mire without rhyme or reason, never once giving thought to eternal questions of morality and the afterlife before it's too late.

"...I saw Death carrying a sharp scythe, along with a bow and arrows, stalking among them everywhere and warning all in a loud voice to remember that they are mortal. Nevertheless, nobody heeded her, and went on with his folly and wickedness as before. Thereupon, she snatched her arrows and shot at them in all directions. Whoever in the crowd was hit, whether young or old, poor or rich, learned or simple, instantly fell to the ground."

Comenius spares no one and no profession: not the lower or higher castes, not the nobility or the beggars, the philosophers, mathematicians, scientists or knights. After experiencing a series of one absurd situation after another, the Pilgrim finally despairs.

"O thrice miserable wretched, unhappy men! Is this your ultimate glory?... Is this the goal of your learning and manifold wisdom...? Is this the desired peace and rest after your innumerable labours and struggles?... O that I had never been born!"

Men, Comenius suggests, had forgotten where to look for spiritual redemption.

It is The Labyrinth of the World's second part, The Paradise of the Heart, that the possibility for hope and renewal is addressed. Dagmar Capkova again:

"Now, the second part of Labyrinth of the World is a picture of the Pilgrim who returns to his heart, first to be isolated from the corruption of the world, but also to find consolation in transformation and a way to help each other, and in such a way to present a better life in comparison to what it was."

Salvation is to be found in the interior, in man's soul, in this case in the acceptance of Christ. Comenius even has the saviour address the Pilgrim in the end:

"Remain in the world with your body but in me with your heart. If you do these things [you will be blessed] and it shall be well..."

Thus ended his first major work revealing the eternal hope for a better world, a theme that would become central to Comenius' thought and an important part of his legacy.

In the material world, though, the burden of defeat and personal loss weighed heavily. In 1623 the town of Fulnek where he had once held his parish was burned and Comenius' books with it. By 1628, Comenius' time in the Czech lands had run out: the religious thinker would be forced to escape into exile. Yet, ultimately his departure would spur him to develop his ideas and themes, which he would work into a complex practical and philosophical system.

In these works he would not address just the Czech nation but the world, and soon they would make him famous on the world stage.

He called his system Pansofia - Pansophy in English - a system which strived to integrate all knowledge for the betterment of mankind.

"When the period dramatically changed after 1620 [Comenius] saw that the encyclopaedia wasn't something that would help him to express what he wanted to present for his people. At that time he wrote only Czech, as was usual for Unitas Fratrum. So, he tried to find an integrating factor that would combine or integrate everything that was necessary for a better life for all people. That is how he came upon the idea of Pansofia. Pansofia, of course, was understood by his contemporaries as an integration of knowledge, and as such it was accepted in the beginning."

One of the first works in which Comenius incorporated Pansophic ideals was Janua Linguarum Reserata: "The Gate of Languages Unlocked". Published in Latin 1633 it was a textbook for learning Latin and other languages more easily that became a Europe-wide hit.

"Comenius in fact presented a textbook which could enrich pupils and students by factual knowledge about the whole world and this "whole" was a very important aspect of Pansofia. Comenius tried to emphasise that Pansofia in content should not encompass only factual knowledge - a part of language teaching - but also a methodological introduction into the knowledge about the whole world. The whole of the world for Comenius meant Nature - Man - God."

This integrated triadic view was very different from the rationalism of the Enlightenment -incorporating not only reason but also experience, spiritual revelation, moral values. All side by side all as a necessary basis for knowledge, understanding, wisdom. His world view could not have been more different from the vision that would ultimately prevail in the West, the tradition laid down by Rene Descartes.

"They met, you know. Comenius himself describes it that they spoke for four hours, each explaining his own philosophy, but of course they could not find agreement, because their lines were quite different. Descartes was a natural scientist and philosopher and the Cartesian line went as late as the 20th century, while Comenius was stopped in the 17th century."

Erazim Kohak of Charles University's Philosophy Faculty also agrees their meeting was a clash of ideals.

"This was basically not a meeting of "two men" but a meeting of two minds, of two wholly different ways of perceiving the world. One of them humanistic in our sense, the second, enlightenment in the Western sense; when you read about it you see neither of them understood the other, that the other came simply from a different world. Descartes was speaking prophetically of the world that was to come. Comenius was speaking of the world that I wish had come, but which was still rooted in the Christian past."

"Descartes used to say 'What with me is only a part, with you will be the whole'. And this was the main difference between them. Comenius' methodological emphasis on 'the whole' was decisive for all his work. He always wanted to have harmony. In the background of all his explanations was the idea of panharmonia - that the interrelation between that the microcosm and the macrocosm should be one of harmony, because they were created by a perfect God. That's why he would never separate reason from will, reason from emotion, reason from activity. Descartes saw the whole world was a mechanism, he makes man an observer of the world from the outside, not seeing man and nature as a unity. The type of rationalism that Comenius had was radically different."

In other words, for Comenius pure reason could never be enough to describe the purpose of man's being.

"With Descartes it was without question: Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. For Comenius it was not sufficient. He says not only I think is the reason why I know but also I will, I feel, I act. And so on. And that's why reason was not sufficient."

In order to reform humanity, along the lines of his Pansophic ideal, Comenius realised the importance of setting up proper didactic and pedagogical methods to create a more suitable environment for children to learn, eventually transforming the human condition. In short, he believed that proper education for all would be the first step for a better world. Orbis Pictus - the World in Pictures, for example, became one of the first illustrated books for young people ever, in effect, a visual dictionary that was translated into most European languages, and was still in use decades after Comenius' death.

Finally, Comenius' writing culminated in a seven-volume text that would become his opus: "The General Consultation Concerning the Improvement of Human Affairs". Dagmar Capkova again:

"Comenius wanted with his Pansophy to comprise everything and that was of course was a Utopia but nevertheless this emphasis on the whole has something important and as late as the 19th century it has been recognised - even in philosophy."

It went unfinished with only two volumes published during his life; the rest were rediscovered much later, in the 19th century, leading to a resurging interest in his life, in effect reinstating his proper place in Czech history. Finally, to understand Comenius' life it is also important to look at him as a man in exile: years after the ill-fated Battle of White Mountain his Unity of Brethren were scattered, a man without a country, he dreamed nonetheless of other Protestant nations coming to Bohemia's aid, trying to persuade Protestant allies in Europe to fight on behalf of his nation's cause. After all the Thirty Years' War was continuing, having entered newer stages involving Sweden and England. As his fame grew, it was to those countries Comenius looked for support, Erazim Kohak says:

"He was elected bishop of the Brethren by a group of exiles in 1632, which was significantly into the Thirty Years' War, and at that time his great concern was to affect the Swedes and their allies to place the liberation of Bohemia on their agenda. This is the period of his life in which he was intensely politically active."

Swedes siege Prague in 1648
But, increasingly Comenius failed to realise that the situation in his homeland was far different from the one he had known: when the Swedes did indeed invade Prague their attack was repelled by the very Czechs Comenius had hoped to set free.

Later, he would also travel to Revolutionary England where his ideas had attracted admirers, and he dreamed of finding support from an invasion by Cromwell forces.

It never came to pass.

The final stage of Comenius' life finds the Moravian thinker moving to the Netherlands where he would spend the last fourteen highly-productive years of his life. After living in exile in Poland, Sweden, even Transylvania, there was never any question of returning home.

Centuries later Comenius would come to symbolically represent exile for thousands of Czechs, who themselves were forced to flee in the 20th century, following occupation by the Nazis, a communist putsch, and a Soviet-led invasion.

"For Czechs who found themselves displaced in the West, Comenius became a symbol. He is the 'archetype' of the 'exile', complete with his readiness to settle in the places where he lived. His willingness to work for his country wherever he settled, and the eternal hope which is there even though it was clear in the latter half of his life he would never get to return. And yet there is the confession of faith when he speaks of the dying Mother, the Unity of Czech Brethren, and the Czech nation, saying 'I believe one day the management of your affairs will return to your hands, O Czech people!"

Comenius statue in Naarden
It is not easy now, now in one's mind's eye to imagine Comenius, so far from home, a figure somewhere between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, who never doubted a supreme order of meaning guiding the Universe. Says Erazim Kohak, Comenius lived out his days accepting the life he had been given, for all the hurdles it presented him.

Dagmar Capkova meanwhile stresses his concept of "hope" - as an important aspect of man's life.

In that sense even if all the labyrinths of Comenius' day were not unravelled in his time, he died firmly believing in the future they would be. That the world would one day live in tolerance and harmony and that mankind's potential would be fulfilled.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on July 5, 2004.