Alsted, Johann Heinrich

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Alsted, Johann Heinrich

(b. Ballersbach, Germany, 1588; d. Weissenburg, Transylvania [after 1715 Karlsburg; now Alba Iulia, Rumania], 9 November 1638)

natural philosophy.

Alsted was the second son of Jacob Alsted (d. 1622), a Reformed Church minister, and Rebecca Pincier, the daughter of a Reformed Church minister and sister of Johannes Pincier, humanist scholar and professor of medicine and philosophy at the Herborn Academy. After an elementary education at Ballersbach, Alsted entered the lower school of the Herborn Academy in 1602. This academy, founded in 1584, had achieved considerable prominence as a center of Calvinist and Ramist influence.

After completing his studies at Herborn, Alsted undertook the customary peregrinatio academicae, visiting Frankfurt am Main, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Basel, where he met Amandus Polanus von Polandsdorf. In 1608 he returned to Herborn and was appointed teacher and examiner at the high school of the academy. Two years later he became professor of philosophy, and in 1619 rector and professor of theology. He made brief visits to other parts of Europe, attending the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618.

Alsted married Anna Katherine Rab (1593–1648), daughter of the Herborn printer Christoph Rab (Corvinus), who was to print the majority of Alsted’s works. They had four children.

Alsted attracted students from numerous German and Slavic states; the most famous was Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), who taught for a short time at Herborn before embarking upon his pansophic missions. The Thirty Years’ War upset the continuity of Alsted’s work, and he reluctantly decided to leave Herborn in 1629, to become the first rector of the new high school at Stuhlweissenburg, which had been established by the Protestant prince Gabriel Bethlen von Siebenbürgen.

The majority of Alsted’s writings were on theology, and in them he displayed the same logical and encyclopedic approach found in the philosophical writings. Throughout the areas of Calvinist influence, form Transylvania to New England, Alsted’s systematic treatises on educational theory, theology, and philosophy exerted great influence in the universities during most of the seventeenth century. His writings covered the whole spectrum of natural philosophy: commentaries on the cabala, the Ars magna of Lull, mnemonics, traditional and Ramist logic, physics, mathematics, and astronomy.

Alsted’s major monographs—compendia or harmonia of logic, physics, the Scriptures, and education—display a strikingly uniform organization, at the cost of oversimplification. This was an inherent danger of the Ramist approach. The Systema physicae harmonicae (1612) is typical. It analyzes the principles of “physics” derived according to four conflicting systems: physicum Mosaicum; rabbinica et cabbalistica; peripateticam; and chemicam. These systems are based respectively, on the Old Testament, Jewish mystical writings, Aristotle, and Paracelsus. The principles of each system are discussed in a clear logical sequence that draws upon a wide range of sources, from the humanist editors of the cabala to the late sixteenth-century neo-scholastic commentators Magirus and Scaliger, and the Paracelsian or mystical authors John Dee and Oswald Croll. Throughout, Alsted gives his own judgments on the physical principles, favoring a “Christianized” Peripatetic philosophy, the description of which occupies more than half the book.

The Methodus admirandorum contains information about improved techniques of surveying and physical astronomy, and discusses the merits of the Copernican hypothesis. Copernicus is admired, but his system is deemed unacceptable, for it is refuted by the Scriptures and common sense.

Alsted’s ultimate fame rests upon his conception of the encyclopedia as a universal system of knowledge. He believed in the fundamental unity of divine and secular knowledge, the nature of which unity could be displayed by the use of logica-mnemonica, the art of directing the mind and perfecting the memory. Also prominent was his logical analysis of the nature and divisions of the parts of knowledge, or technologia, which provided the basis for the organization of his encyclopedia.

These systematic writings had an immediate but ephemeral appeal in institutions of higher education, his Encyclopaedia being to such students as Cotton Mather the “North-West Passage to all the sciences,” More important, they influenced the educational theories of Comenius, as well as his pansophia, and the encyclopedic philosophies of Leibniz and Morhof.


1.Original Works. Alsted’s writings most directly related to natural philosophy are Clavis artis Lullianae et verae logices (Strasbourg, 1609); Methodus formandorum studiorum, continens commonfactiones concilia, regulas... de ratione bene discendi et ordine studiorum recte instituendo (Strasbourg, 1610); Panacae philosophica, id est.... Methodus docendi et discendi universam encyclopaediam (Herborn,1610), to which was appended Harmonico philosophiae Arestotelicae, Lullianae et Rameae; Systema mnemonicaum duplex (Frankfurt,1610); Theatrum scholasticum.... I Sustema et gymnasium mnemonicum... II Gymnasium logicum... III Systema et gymnasium oratorium (Herborn, 1610); Compendium I Systematis logici... II Gymnasii logici (Herborn, 1611); Elementale mathematicum in quo mathesis methodice traditur (Frankfurt, 1611); Philosophia digne restituta: librosquatuor (Herborn, 1612); systema physica harmonicae (Herborn, 1612), entitled Physica harmonica in later editions; Compendium logicae harmonicae... accedit nucleus logicae (Herborn, 1613), which appeared in a slightly different form in 1614; Methodus admirandorum mathematicorum (Herborn, 1613), an expanded version of the Elementale mathematicum that was often reprinted; Theologia naturalis exhibens augustissimam naturae scholam (Frankfurt, 1615); Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia libris XXVII (Herborn, 1620), also in an expanded edition with a new section entitled Compendium lexici philosophici (Herborn, 1626); and Encyclopaedia septem tomis distincta (Herborn, 1630; Leiden, 1649; Stuttgart, 1663, abridged).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Alsted are Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, I, 354–355; C. G. Jöcher, Allgemeines Gelehrten–Lexicon (Leipzig, 1750), I, 302–303; Johann Kvacsala, “Johann Heinrich Alsted,” in Ungarische Revue, 9 (1889), 628–642, and J. A. Comenius (Leipzig, 1892), pp. 98–104; Max Lippert, J. H. Alsted pädagogischdidactische Reform Bestrebungen (Meissen, 1899); L. E. Loemker, “Leibniz and the Herborn Encyclopaedists,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 22 (1961), 323–338; Neue deutsche Biographie, I, 206; Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass., 1958); Wilhelm Risse, Die Logik der Neuzeit, I (Stuttgart–Bad Canstatt, 1964), 477–485, and Bibliographia logica, I (Hildesheim, 1965); E. W. E. Roth, “Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638), sein Leben und sein Schriften,” in Monatshefte der Comenius–Gesellschaft, 4 (1895), 29–44, the most complete bibliography of Alsted’s works; and Max Wundt. Die deutsche Schulmetaphysik des 17 Jahrhunderts (Tü;bingen, 1939), pp. 80–83, 236–237.

Charles Webster