John Amos Comenius

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Comenius, John Amos

(b. Nivnice [near Uherský Brod], Moravia, 28 March 1592; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, 15 November 1670),


The youngest of five children, Comenius was born into a moderately prosperous family who were devout members of the Bohemian Brethren. His father, Martin, is said to have been a miuller. After the death of his parents and two sisters in 1604, presumably from the plague, Comeius lived with relatives and received only a poor education until he entered the Latin school of Přerov, kept by the Brethren, in 1608. Three years later, thanks to the patronage of Count Charles of Žerotin, he matriculated at the Reformed University of Herborn, where he came under the influence of Johann Heinrich Alsted. Significant aspects of Comenius’ thought closely resemble Alsted’s concerns. Alsted, and anti-Aristotelian and a follower of Ramus, had a profound interest in Ramon Lull and Giordano Bruno, was a chiliast in theology, and worked for the gathering of all knowledge in his famous Encyclopaedia (1630). After completing his studies at Heidelberg in 1613 and 1614, Comenius returned to his native land, where he first taught school; but in 1618, two years after his ordination as a priest of the Bohemian Brethren, he became pastor at Fulnek, His firest publised work, a Latin grammar, dates from these years.

The Thirty Years’s War and the battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 had a decisive effect on Comenius’s life, since much of his work was directed toward the ultimately unsuccessful effort to have his people’s native land and worship restored to them. For the next eight years Comenius led an insecure existence, until the final expulsion of the Brethren from the imperial lands and worship restored to them. For the next eight years Comenius led an insecure existence, until the final expulsion of the Brethren from the imperial lands brought him to Leszno, Poland, which he had previously visited to negotiate rights of settlement. During these years his first wife, Magdalena, and their two children died, and he remarried in 1624. He finished Labyrint Swěta a Lusthauz Srdce in 1623, and Centrum securitatis in 1625, published in 1631and 1633, respectively (both in Czech).

Form 1628 to 1641 Comenius lived at Leszno as bishop of his flock and rector of the local Gymnasium. He also found time to work on the reformation of knowledge and pedagogy, writing, among other things, his first major work, the Didatica magna. Written in Czech, it was not published until 1657, when it appeared in Latin as part of the Opera didactica omnia, which contained most of the works he had wirtten since 1627.

In 1633 Comenius suddenly gained European fame with the publication of his Janua linguarum reserata; an English version, The Gate of Tongues Unlocked and Opened, appeared in the same year. The Janua presented a simple introduction to Latin according to a new method based on principles derived from Wolfgang Ratke and from the primers produced by the Spanish Jesuits of Salamanca. The reform of language learning, by making it speedier and easier for all, was characteristic of that general reformation of mankind and the world which all chiliasts sought to bring about in the eleventh hour before the return of Christ to rule on earth.

In England, Comenius gained contact with Samuel Hartlib, to whom he sent the manuscript of his “Christian pansophy,” under the title Conatuum Comenianorum praeludia, and then again at London in 1639 as Pansophiae prodromus. In 1642 Hartilib published an English translation with the title A Reformation of Schools. These publications raised such high expectations in certain circles in England that Hartlib found it possible to invite Comenius to London, with the support of Bishop John Williams, John Dury, John Selden, and John Williams, John Dury, John Selden, and John Pym. In September 1641 Comenius arrived in London, where the met his supporters as well as such men as John Pell, Theodore Haak, and Sir Cheney Culpeper. He was invited to remain permanently in England, and there were plans for the establishment of a pansophic college. But the Irish Rebellion soon put an end to all these optimistic plans, although Comenius stayed until June 1642. While in London he wrote the Via lucis, which circulated in manuscript in England but was not published until 1668 at Amsterdam. In the meantime Comenius had offers from Richelieu to continue his pansophic work in Paris, but he accepted instead an earlier On his way there he visited Descartes near Leiden, minds. Descartes thought comenius confused philosapppertain to philosophy I go not; mine therefore is that only in part, whereof yours is the whole.”

In Sweden, Comenius was to meet difficulty again. The chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, wanted him to work on useful books for the schools; Comenius, at the urging of his English friends, proposed to work on pansophy. He worked on both, retiring to Elbing, Prussia (then under Swedish rule), between 1642 and 1648. His Pansophiae diatyposis was published at Danzig, in 1643, and Linguarum methodus nouissima, at Lesszno, in 1648; in 1651 the Pansophiae came out in English as A Pattern of Universal Knowledge; and his Natural Philosophy Reformed by Divine Light: Or lumen divinuem reformatate synopsis (Leipzig, 1633), appeared in the same year. In 1648, having returned to Leszno, Comenius became the twentieth—and last—presiding bishop of the Bohemian Brethren (later reconstituted as the Moravian Brethren).

In 1650 Comenius received a call from Prince Sigismund Rákóczy of Transylvania, the younger brother of George II Gakoczy, to come to Sarospatak to give advice on school reform and pansophy. He introduced many reforms into the pansophic school there; but in spite of much hard work, he met with little success, and in 1654 he returned to Leszno. In the meantime Comenius had prepared one of his best-known and most charateristic works, the Orbis sensualium pictus (1658), with Latin and German text. Significantly, it opened with an epigraph on Adam’s givin of names (Gen 2: 19–20). The first school book consistently to use pictures of things in the learning of languages, it illustrated a principle that was fundamental to Comenius: Words must go with things and cannot properly be learned apart from them. In 1659 Charles Hoole brought out an English version, Comenius’s Visible World, Or a Picture and Nomenclature of All the Chief Things That Are in the Word; and of Mens Employments Therein.

Comenius’ lack of success at Sarospatak was probably due in large measure to his acceptance of the fantastic prophecies of the visionary and enthusiast Nicholas Darbik; this was not the first time Comenius had put trust in a latter-day prophet, a weakness he shared with other chiliasts. They were only too willing to listen to optimistic predictions of apocalyptic events and sudden reversals to occur in the near future, such as the fall of the House of Hapsburg or the end of popery and the Roman church. Comenius’ publications of these prophecies, with the intent of influencing political events, had a very depressing effect on his reputation.

Soon after Comenius’s return to Leszno, war broke out between Poland and Sweden, and in 1656 Leszno was completely destroyed by Polish troops. Comenius lost all his books and manuscripts and was again forced into exile. He was invited to settle at Amsterdam, where he spent the remaining years of his life at the house of Lawrence de Geer, the son of his former patron. During these years he completed the great work that had occupied him for at least twenty years, De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica, a seven- part work summing up his lifelong and all-embracing deliberations on the improvement of human things. The “Pampaedia,” directions for universal education, is preceded by the “Pansophia,” its foundation, and is followed by the “Panglottia,” directions for overcoming the confusion of languages, Which alone will make the final reformation possible. Although some parts of the work were published as late as 1702, it was presumed lost until late 1934, when it was found in the Francke Stiftung in Halle. It was first published in its entirety in 1966. Comenius was buried in the Walloon church at Naarden, near Amsterdam. His thought was highly esteemed by German Pietists in the eighteenth century. In his own country Comenius occupies a place of eminence both as a national hero and as a literary artist.

All Comenius’ efforts were directed toward the speedy and efficient reformation of all things pertaining to the life of man in the spheres of religion, society, and knowledge. His program was a “way of light” designed to ensure the highest possible enlightenment of man before the imminent return of Christ to reign on earth during the millennium. The universal aims were piety, virtue, and wisdom; to be wise was to excel in all three.

Thus, all Comenius’ work found both its beginning and its end in theology. His beliefs and aspirations were shared by many of his contemporaries, but his system was certainly the most comprehensive of the many that were offered in the seventeenth century. It was essentially a prescription for salvation through knowledge raised to the level of universal wisdom, or pansophy, supported by a corresponding program of education. It was in the divine order of things that “modern man” at that time, in what was thought to be the last age of the world, had been made capable of achieving universal reform through the invention of printing and the extension of shipping and commerce, which for the first time in history gave promise of complete universality in the sharing of this new, reforming wisdom.

Since God is hidden behind his work, man must turn to the threefold revelation before him: the visible creation, in which God’s power is made manifest; man, created in the image of God and showing forth proof of His divine wisdom; and the Word, with its promise of good will toward man. Thus, all that man needs to know and not know must be learned from three diving books: nature, the mind or spirit of man, and the Scriptures. For the achievement of this education man has been supplied with his senses, his reason, and faith. Since both man and nature are God’s creations, they must share the same order, a postulate that guarantees the complete harmony of all things among themselves and with the mind of man.

This familiar macrocosm-microcosm doctrine gives assurance that man is indeed capable of hitherto unrealized wisdom; each individual thus becomes a pansophist, a little god. Heathens, lacking the revealed word, cannot attain this wisdom; even Christians have until recently been lost in a labyrinth of error handed on by tradition and authority in a flood of books that at best contain piecemeal knowledge. Comenius was not a humanist: Man must turn to the to the divine books alone and begin to learn by direct confrontation with things—by autopsy, as Comenius called it. All learning and knowledge begin with the senses; but according to the correspondence doctrine, it follows that the mind has innate notions, or germs, that make man capable of comprehending the order he confronts. The world and the life of each individual form a school; nature teaches, the teacher is a servant of nature, and naturalists are priests in the temple of nature. Man must know himself (nosce teipsum) and nature.

What man needs in order to find his way out of the labyrinth is an Ariadne thread, a method by which he will see the order of things by understanding their causes. This method is to be supplied by the book of pansophy, a book in which the order of nature and the order of the mind will move together stepwise (per gradatim) toward wisdom and insight. This book will contain nothing but certain and useful knowledge, thus replacing all other books. A complete record of knowledge arranged according to this method will constitute a true encyclopedia, in much the same sense as Robert Hooke’s “repository” of natural curiosities in the Royal Society when arranged according to the categories of John WilkinsEssay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, a subject on which Comenius also had much to say. By following this natural method, all men will find it easy to gain complete and thorough mastery of all knowledge. From this vast expansion of wisdom true universality will result; and there will again be order, light, and peace. Through this reformation man and the world will return to a state similar to that before the Fall.

This pansophic program led Comenius to take a profound interest in language and in education. From earliest infancy the child must learn to join things and words. His native speech is his first introduction to reality, which must not be clouded by empty words and ill-understood concepts. In school foreign languages—first those of neighboring nations and then Latin—must be learned by reference to the mother tongue, and the school books must follow the pansophic method; the “door to languages” would offer the same material as the “door to things,” and both will constitute a little encyclopedia. School books must be graded for each age level, dealing only with things that are already within the child’s experience. Latin was best suited for the purpose of wider communication; but Comenius looked forward to the framing of a perfect philosophical language that would reflect the method of pansophy, a language in which nothing false or trivial could be expressed. Latin was best suited for the purpose of wider communication; but Comenius looked forward to the framing of a perfect philosophical language that would reflect the method of pansophy, a language in which nothing false or trivial could be expressed. Language was the mere vehicle of knowledge, but rightly used and taught it was one of the surest means to light and wisdom.

Comenius’ concern with didactics was directed not merely toward formal schooling but to all ages of man, on the principle that all of life is a school and a preparation for eternal life. Girls and boys must be educated together; and since all men have an innate desire for knowledge and piety, they must be taught in a spontaneous and playful manner. Corporal punishment must not be applied. Failure in learning was not the learner’s fault but evidence of the teacher’s inadequacy to perform his role as the servant of nature, or—as Comenius often said—as the obstetrician of knowledge.

Pedagogy is Comenius’ most lasting—perhaps his only lasting—contribution to knowledge, and until recently it has generally been considered his primary concern. However, it was only a means toward that universal reformation of mankind of which pansophy was the foundation and theology the single guiding motive. The profusion of scriptural citations in Comenius’ works is a constant reminder of this source of inspiration. The books of Daniel and Revelation were the chief texts for the increase of knowledge and the imminence of the millennium. The story of Adam’s name-giving in Genesis and The Wisdom of Solomon gave Comenius his conception of man and his conviction of the order that was reflected in pansophy, since God had “ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” Comenius relied heavily on elaborate metaphorical and structural uses of the temple of Solomon. To Comenius man was, like Adam, placed in the middle of creation, with the charge of knowing all of nature and thereby controlling and using it. Hence the reformation of man was only a part of the complete reformation of the world, which would restore creation to its initial purity and order and would be the ultimate tribute to its creator.

Comenius made no contribution to natural science, and he was profoundly alienated from the developments in science that occurred during his lifetime. Contrary claims have been made, but only at the cost of ignoring his dependence on a priori postulates and his entire theological orientation. On the other hand, it is also clear that several men who later figured prominently in the Royal Society showed close affinity with much of his thought. The motto of the Royal Society—Nullius in Verba—occupies a significant place in Comenius’ Natural Philosophy Reformed by Divine Light: Or a Synopsis of Physice, and in both contexts it had the same meaning. It was a reminder that tradition and authority were no longer the arbiters of truth; they had yielded to nature and autopsy as the sole sources of certain knowledge. The muchdebated problem of the relationship between Comenius and the early Royal Society is still unsolved, chiefly because discussions of that subject reveal skimpy knowledge of Comenius’ writings and nearly total ignorance of his very important correspondence.

The claims that have been made for Comenius’ influence on Leibniz would appear to be much exaggerated. Comenius was so typical of certain beliefs, doctrines, and concerns in his age that the same ideas were also expressed by a number of others who occupy more prominent positions in Leibniz’ early writings. In addition to the sources already cited, Comenius was influenced by the theology of the Bohemian Brethren (with their strong chiliastic tendencies) as well as by the following figures, to mention only the better known and most important: Johann Valentin Andreae, Jacob Boehme, Nicholas of Cusa, Juan Luis Vives, Bacon, Campanella, Raymond of Sabunde (whose Theologia naturalis he published at Amsterdam in 1661 under the title Oculus fidei), and Marin Mersenne, whose correspondence gives evidence of a positive attitude toward Comenius and his work.


I. Original Works. Comenius’ bibliography contains a great a many items, published in many places and languages. Two useful guides are Kurt pilz; Die Ausgaben des Orbis sensualium pictus (Nuremberg, 1967); and Emma Urbankova, ed., Soupis děl J. A. Komenskeho v Československych Knihovnach, Archivecha Museich (Prague, 1959), See also Jan Patočka, “L’état present des edudes comemnioennes,” Historica (Prague),1 (1959),197–240.

Among his major works are Opera didactica omnia, repr, of the 1657 ed., 3 vols. (Prague, 1957); and De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica 2 vols. (Prague, 1966). The great modern ed. is Veskere Spisy Jana Amosa Komenskeho (Brno, 1914–1938); only9 of the porojected 30 volumes have been published in the following collections: A. Patera, ed., Jana Amosa Komenskeho Korrespondence Jana Amosa Komenského 2 vols, (prpague, 1898–1902) and Johannes Kvačala, ed., Die Padagogische Reform des Comenuus inn Deuschland bis zum Ausgange des XVII Jahrhunderts 2 vols. (Berlin, 1903–1904), vols. 26 and 32 in the series Monumenta Germaniae Paedagogica. Translations include The Great Didactic M. W. Keatinge, trans(London,1896;repr. New York 1968); and The way of Light E. T. Campagnac, trans.(Liverpool-London, 1938). Excellent eds., all with good introductions and notes are Pampaedia Dmitrij Tschizewskij, Heidelberg, 1960); Informatorium der Mutterschul, Joachim Heubach, ed. (Heidelberg, 1962); and Centrum securitatis, Klaus Schallelr, ed. (Heidelberg, 1964), nos. 5, 16, and 26, respectively, in the series Pädagogische Forschungen, Veröffentlichungen des Comenius-Instituts. Vorspiele: Prodromuspanmsophiae., vorldufer der pansophie Herbert Hornstein ed and trans. (Dusseldorf, 1963), with excellent notes and “Nachwort” by Hornstein, forms the best single introduction to Comenius. See also Janua rerum Klaus Schaller, ed. (Munich, 1968), vol. IX of Slavische Propylaen; and Ausgewahlte Werke K. Schaller and D. Tschizewskiji. eds.,3 vols.(Hildesheim, 1970)

II. Secondary Literature. There are two standard biographies:Jan Kvačcala, Johann Amos Comentius, sein Leben and seineSchhriften (Berlin-Leipzig-Vienna,1892); and Matthew Spinka, Jean Amos Comenius, sa vie et son oeuvre d’educateur (Paris, 1928), pp. 243–259, hasa convenient list of the works in chronological order. Robert Fitzgibbon Young, Comenius in England (London 1932) contains a useful collection of documents in English translation. See also G. H. Turnbull, Hartlib, Dury, and Comenius, Gleanings From Hartlib’s papers (Liverpool, 1947), Three recent German works on Comenius are of unusual distinction: Heinrich Geissier, Comenius and die Sprache (Heidelberg, 1959); Klaus Schaller, Die padagogik des Johann Amos Comenius und die Anfange des padagogischen Realismus im17 Jahrhundert, 2nd ed.(Heidelberg, 1967), with a very full biblioigraphy of primary and secondary literature and relevance far beyound its immediate subject; and Schaller’s Die Pampaedia des Johann Amos Comenius, eine Einfuhrung in sein padagogisches Hauptwerk 3rd ed.(Heidelberg, 1963). Thesearenos. 10, 21, and 4, respectively, in Padagogische Forschungen. Also excellent are Herbert Hornstein, Weisheit and Bildung, Studien zur Bildungsleshre des Comenius (Dusseldorf, 1968); and Charles Webster, ed. Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, 1970). John Edward Sadler, J. A. Comenius and the Concepot of Universal Education (London, 1966), may have been certain uses but cannot be relied upon for an adequate understanding of the thought of Comenius and his contemporaries. For a characteristic, very unsympathetic early eighteenth-century account of Comenius, see the article on him in Bayle’sDictioinnaire historique et critique

Hans Aarsleff

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John Amos Comenius

The Moravian theologian and educational reformer John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) is often called the father of modern education.

John Amos Comenius was born on Mar. 28, 1592, in southeastern Moravia. His early education was irregular. After deciding to become a priest of the Bohemian Unity of Brethren (a German Baptist sect), he received his higher education in Germany at Herborn, Nassau, and Heidelberg. In 1614 he returned to Bohemia, where he taught in the schools of the Brethren. He was ordained a priest 2 years later and appointed pastor of a parish in Fulneck in 1618.

The sack of Fulneck by the Catholic forces after the outbreak of the Thirty Years War forced Comenius into hiding in Bohemia. Shortly afterward he wrote the allegory The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. In this classic of Czech literature, man finds true happiness in mystical union with Christ.

Because of persecution, the Brethren were forced to leave Bohemia in 1628. Comenius went to Leszno, Poland, where his position as corector of the Brethren's school led him to become interested in educational reform. Many of the educational ideas expressed in his Didactica magna (1657; The Great Didactic) were developed during this period. Among the reforms that he advocated were gentler discipline; use of the vernacular instead of Latin in the primary schools; and free, universal, compulsory education for both sexes and all social classes. His book Janua linguarum reserata (1631; The Gate of Languages Unlocked) revolutionized the teaching of Latin and helped establish his reputation throughout Europe as an educational reformer.

Elected a bishop of his church in 1632, Comenius expressed his great interest in Christian unity and was conspicuous in the 17th century for his ecumenical beliefs. His development of a universal system of human knowledge among all men and nations, called pansophy, led to his being invited to England. From there he went to Sweden in 1642 and was employed in reforming the nation's school system. In 1650 he established a pansophic school in Hungary as a model for others, but conflicts caused his return to Leszno in 1655. After the sack of the city in 1656, he fled to Amsterdam, where he resided until his death on Nov. 4, 1670.

Further Reading

In English, the best biography of Comenius is Matthew Spinka, John Amos Comenius: That Incomparable Moravian (1943). The earliest biography is S. S. Laurie, John Amos Comenius, Bishop of the Moravians: His Life and Educational Works (1881; new ed. 1892). Otakar Odloziik wrote a brief biographical sketch, Jan Amos Komensky (1942). Two books focus on his educational reforms: Will S. Monroe, Comenius, and the Beginnings of Educational Reform (1900), and John E. Sadler, Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education (1966). □

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Comenius, John Amos (1592–1670) Czech religious leader and educational reformer, who influenced modern education. Comenius believed in equal education for all children. His best-known book was Orbis Sensualum Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures, 1658).

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