Comenius, Jan Amos

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COMENIUS, JAN AMOS (Jan Ámos Komenský; 15921670), Czech theologian, educator, and encyclopedic philosopher. Comenius's influence on later centuries is even greater than it was during his lifetime. He was born in Moravia, and would later describe himself as "from Nivnice" as well as "from Uherský Brod." He was taught by the Community of Brethren, acquiring both an excellent knowledge of Latin and powerful protectors. Destined to serve in the clergy of the Brethren, he was sent to complete his education at Herborn and Heidelberg. He returned to Moravia in 1614, was ordained a pastor in 1616, and promoted to head teacher of the school at Fulnek in 1618. In the Bohemian crisis of that year, Comenius sided with the confederate estates and, with the disastrous defeat of their forces two years later, was forced to take shelter while his wife and two sons died of plague and his books were publicly burned in the town square of Fulnek in May 1623. Comenius's early works from this period have only partially survived. Among them is The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (Labyrint svĕta a ráj srdce), a masterpiece of Czech literature that centered on the gulf between human folly and capacity for good.

In the late 1620s and 1630s, now based at Leszno in Poland and a Senior of the Brethren, Comenius completed the Czech version of the Didactics, his first important vision of a universal educational system, one that drew on the innate interest of the learner through innovative textbooks, games, and interactive learning. His textbooks turned out to be his greatest success. That on the teaching of Latin (the Janua linguarum reserata [Gateway of languages opened]) abandoned memorization of texts in favor of a direct explanation of vocabulary drawing on daily life. This was followed by an even more elementary textbook for the beginner, first published in 1633, the Vestibulum linguarum (Antechamber of languages). These regularly reprinted works earned Comenius his wider reputation. Behind these publications lay a bigger project for a Janua rerum (Gateway of things), an encyclopedia of the physical world intended to unite our understanding of the physical world with that of God. Comenius termed this project pansophia ('pansophy'), and a sketch of his ideas that he sent to a correspondent in England, Samuel Hartlib, was published there in 1637.

This publication resulted in an eight-month visit to London in 16411642. There, he outlined the reform of society through a process of learning that he described by means of the metaphor of light in Via lucis (The way of light). But, unable to pursue his studies in the midst of the Civil War, he left for the Netherlands and eventually settled in Elblag, then part of the newly acquired Swedish empire, and refined his method of language instruction. It was during this period that he began to write his most ambitious work, De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica (General discourse on the emendation of human affairs, or Consultatio ).

The decade from 1648 to 1658 was a sequence of personal defeats and catastrophes for Comenius that he interpreted in an increasingly millennial light. It was accompanied by a stream of writings. The pictorial version of his language-teaching method, the Orbis sensualium pictus (The world in pictures)written in Sárospatak but only finally published in Nuremberg in 1658was one of his most enduring and successful legacies.

Comenius eventually retired to Amsterdam and spent the last fourteen years of his life under the protection of the de Geer family. His productivity in these last years was remarkable. He published a compendium of his educational writings and set about rewriting the Consultatio, the first two volumes of which were printed in his lifetime. In the preface, Comenius addressed himself to the Republic of Letters of his day, seeking a profound reform of the organization of human affairs through a right philosophy, religion, and method that would produce harmony and enlightenment rather than division and chaos. The remainder of the work remained in manuscript and was only rediscovered in 1935, a remarkable testimony to the complex, universalist tendencies of Renaissance thought that had survived the Reformation.

See also Czech Literature and Language ; Education ; Hartlib, Samuel ; Moravian Brethren ; Renaissance ; Republic of Letters .


Primary Sources

The volume of work on Comenius is huge and comeniology is now an accepted term of art. What follows is a very arbitrary selection of his non-Czech language works. The standard critical edition is Johannis Amos Comenii opera omnia published by the Czechoslovak [now Czech] Academy of Sciences, Prague, 1969. English editions of Comenius's main works are of varying quality; those that follow are listed by year of publication.

Comenius, Jan Amos. The Analytic Didactic of Comenius. Edited by Vladimír Jelinek. Chicago, 1953.

. Comenius's Pampaedia or Universal Education. Edited by A. M. O. Dobbie. Dover, U.K., 1986. See also his translations of Panaugia (Part II) (1987), Panglottia (Part V) (1989), Panegersia (Part I) (1990), and Pannuthesia (Part VII) (1991) (all published in Warwickshire, U.K.) and Panorthosia (Part VI) (published in Sheffield, U.K., 1993).

. The Great Didactic. Edited by M. W. Keatinge. London, 1896.

. Orbis Pictus. London, 1968. (A facsimile of the first English edition of 1659.)

. A Reformation of Schooles, Designed in Two Excellent Treatises [ . . . ]. Menston, U.K., 1969.

. The Way of Light. Edited by E. T. Compagnac. Liverpool and London, 1938.

Secondary Sources

Blekastad, Milada. Comenius: Versuch eines Umrisses von Leben, Werk, und Schicksal des Jan Amos Komenský. Oslo and Prague, 1969.

Kyralová, M., and J. Přívratská, eds. Symposium Comenianum 1986: J. A. Comenius's Contribution to World Science and Culture. Prague, 1989.

Murphy, Daniel. Comenius: A Critical Reassessment of His Life and Work. Dublin, 1995.

Peskova, J., J. Cach, and M. Svatos, eds. Homage to J. A. Comenius. Prague, 1991.

Sadler, J. E. J. A. Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education. London, 1996.

The academic journals Acta Comeniana (Prague) and Studia Comeniana (Uherský Brod) are devoted to research on Comenius and provide summaries of Czech research in German and English.

Mark Greengrass