Jan Amos KOMENSKÝ - life, work, legacy

The Legacy of J. A. Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius is among those who have left behind them traces that are impossible to overlook in his case, clearly visible in educated European circles even during his own lifetime. He was also a person to whom those around could not be indifferent; he had his adherents and followers, just as he had his enemies and opponents. At the same time, he himself had similarly clear-cut relationships with the personalities and phenomena around him, and was adept at making it clear.


By profession a clergyman of the Unitas Fratrum, a small evangelical church that was attempting to retain its own nature in the face of the strong current of the German Reformation, at heart a Humanist who gradually grew to the theoretical demands of a grand worldwide Union incorporating the whole of humanity in peaceful good order. In this he ranks among the authors of famous projects, including for example Thomas More and Tommasso Campanella, even though his social improvement projects were more calls or appeals that visions. In connection with these aspects of his works and personality he has been called a man of yearning (as he himself termed others in his treatise on The Only Necessary (Unum necessarium). He has been called the last encyclopaedist, a polymath: and indeed, a look at his works quickly and easily leads to the conclusion that he was a teacher, a philosopher, a theologian, a natural scientist, a linguist, a literary theoretician, a historian and a political thinker, often straying from the level of the theoretical and into the realms of practice; it may well be objected that in his day, such a breadth of expert interests was nothing unusual, and that he was not, of course, absolutely at the level of the times in all of the fields mentioned, but nevertheless his wide engagement in a period when individual scientific fields were still nascent as independent disciplines is something worthy of respect. His successes in the field of pedagogy, and particularly the very broad take-up of his textbooks were instrumental in earning him the honorary appellation of teacher of nations .


In 1628 Comenius went into exile. It was an exile that was markedly turbulent, full of sometimes feverish work, worries regarding the material and financial stability of the members of his church, a leader of which he soon became, full of conflicts with ideological opponents, the winning over of influential politicians with regard to the justification of interests of the Czech evangelical emigration, and also full of travelling, at the end of which was either a new place of work or some mission to the benefit of his homeland and commissioned by the church. It is remarkable, given this lifestyle, how much he was still able to study, consider and write.



He had, it is true, his sponsors, whose support enabled him to secure his family`s existence and even take on assistants, but often his own view of his mission was different to that of those sponsors, who in their turn had notions as to what he should (or should not) be doing with their money.


The individual stops on his journey of exile also represented, coincidentally, the important stages in the development of Comenius thought, or influenced the inception of some of his major works.


The first of these phases fell within the period prior to his leaving his homeland; this was the period of encyclopaedism. Comenius from the very beginning treated the world as a theatre of affairs, and intended to work up a summary of all material knowledge in some kind of lucid organisation. This was the period in which he worked above all for his homeland, and in a deliberate attempt to refine his native language wrote in Czech; later, he himself would write that his intention was originally to write in Czech especially, for the needs of his own nation. In the same spirit, in the years leading up to his exile he also began to take an interest in didactic problems, and contemplate a better teaching method; in this he had in mind Czechs schools, as he believed that he would eventually return to them.


It was during this period, too, that the famous Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart (the Labyrinth) originated, a potent literary picture of a pilgrim looking at the world as a theatre of affairs, a theatre of human activity, effort, conceived of course as a theatre of futility, because there is some kind of defect with everything observed. Thus it is that the pilgrim finds nothing amongst all these things that would be of more than transient importance to Man. In accordance with the Christian perspective, and consistent with the difficult conditions in the world that surrounded the author, the world does not suffice the pilgrim, and it is necessary for him to seek a paradise of the heart beyond it, and the balm for the world that is offered by God. At this time Comenius was coming to terms with the situation arising after the Battle of White Mountain, and with the political reverses that heavily affected his life. From this came his search for values, certainty and a relationship to the world and to God, inner conflicts that are reflected in particular in Sorrowing (Sorrowing I), in literary dialogues on reason, faith and Christ. While Christ ultimately triumphs, bringing composure (the paradise of the heart), the reader can nevertheless feel the struggle for the integrity of the personality itself at the tragic moment of the loss of a family and a perspective on life.




Jan Amos first halt on his pilgrimage in exile was the Polish town of Leszno. Comenius first stay at Leszno brought his fundamental didactical work into the world. The inception of a number of textbooks, in particularly his far-famed Gate of Tongues (the Janua linguarum), which was rapidly disseminated across the whole of Europe, are linked to his teaching activities at the local gymnasium. In its organisation the Gate of Tongues is bound up with his depiction of the world as a theatre of affairs, but adds moreover an important element that of choice, the deliberate selection of things to be acquired, as to depict the world in a summary of all things would, given the ages of the pupils for whom the textbook was intended, have been inadequate to the purpose.


Another of Comenius most famous works, the Great Didactic, appeared at the same time, outlining the fundamental of pedagogy from pre-school age to the academies, as universities were then known. Anyone born as a person should live as a person. To this end, it is necessary to equip them with the opportunity for appropriate upbringing and education, that they might become thinking beings. This realisation is the point of departure for the democratisation of schooling, as it is necessary to provide the prerequisites allowing them to live in a truly human fashion to all, drawing no distinction between them.


While at Leszno Comenius began to apply himself to his pansophic project. What, then, is pansophy? In simple terms, it is the organisation of a selection of information about the world, accessible to the understanding of all people, and containing the knowledge most needful to Man, if he is to live on earth as a person and consummate his existence in the afterlife. In Comenius development this represents a higher level of resolving the problem of how to mediate information about the world, because it uses a specific conception and has a specific goal.


The Gate of Tongues quickly made Comenius well known and indeed famous, while with his pansophic projects he drew the attention of Samuel Hartlib. The latter, a German living in Londonwho was interested in the organisation of scientific life, played what might fairly be called a key role in Jan Amos life. Hartlib published Comenius Foreword to Philosophy (the Prodromus pansophiae) in English, and by doing so became one of the first to publicise the pansophic projects that Comenius had hitherto kept secret.



Later, it was Hartlib who engineered Comenius visit to England; unfortunately, the latter event took place at an inauspicious time, between 1641 and 1642, when Englandwas embroiled in serious internal political difficulties that culminated in civil war. The English Parliament had a certain interest in reforming the school system, thanks to Hartlib and his circle who had laid the groundwork for Comenius himself, but the conditions were not ripe for the instigation of reforms in the spirit of his pansophy. Comenius nevertheless made useful contacts while in England, and while there completed his treatise the Way of Light (Via lucis), in which he summarised and set out reformist proposals for the role of pansophy, schools and languages in society.


When the English Civil War broke out, Comenius made use of an offer by the Dutch/Swedish arms manufacturer Louis de Geer to work for Swedish schools; he left first for the Netherlands, where he met the important philosopher René Descartes, amongst others, in person, and then travelled to Sweden for negotiations, where he was received by Queen Christina, who had learned Latin through the Gate of Tongues, and Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. In the autumn of 1642 he and his family settled at Elbląg - a compromise, as the town belonged to Sweden while not being a part of Sweden proper, and was somewhat closer to Leszno, which was still the centre of the diaspora of the Bohemian Brethren in Polish territory.


It was the feeling of his Swedish admirers and supports that whilst at Elbląg, Comenius was to devote himself to work on a system of linguistic textbooks for use in Swedish schools. This employ, however, proceeded only slowly and with difficulty, for Comenius heart was heavy with work associated with his pansophic projects and his English friends. For this reason this period is tied to mutual attempts at conviction as to what was more important at the given moment, the textbooks or pansophy. This of course set Comenius against a powerful arms manufacturer, behind whom stood the Great Power that was Sweden, to his disadvantage. Nevertheless, it was here that his fundamental treatise the Newest Method of Languages (the Methodus) originated, and application of Comenius didactic principles to the teaching of languages. According to the principles set forth in this work, Comenius was working in Elbląg on a three-stage set of textbooks, the Vestibulum (Vestibule or Anteroom), the Janua (Gate or Door) and the Atrium (Atrium or Auditorium). For these he reworked his earlier versions of the Vestibule and the Janua, and at each stage appended a dictionary and grammar.



This set was developed, like the Gate of Tongues before it, to match the needs of the concurrent teaching of languages and things: the lowest level (the Vestibulum) was to provide a first introduction to language, the second (the Janua) was to teach the naming of a selected group of things (Comenius, in accordance with period practice, terming this a nomenclatura rerum literally a nomenclature of things) and the basic relations into which such names in the language enter; the third level (the Atrium) was to teach stylistic polish. This is a cyclical approach, each successive level covering the same material, but from a different perspective and at a higher level.


As already noted, Comenius was engaged at the same time on his pansophic works, which were taking on the dimensions of being universally remedial. The optimism and clarity with which the pansophic project burned (amongst other things thanks to the conception of knowledge as light) were gradually smelted in the conviction that society could be put right, taken to an ideal condition on the basis of the acculturation and education of all, without restriction, in all things necessary. Education meant an understanding of the truth, and a knowledge of the truth was the fundamental basis for a life in peace. If, therefore, all people will adopt the truth, then the causes of all conflicts, both between individuals in all areas of their endeavour, and between churches and nations, will fall by the wayside. To this end, pansophy must set everything forth so convincingly that no objection would be possible. Comenius was outlining a task that was truly superhuman; in a turbulent time of war, this vision of the peaceful organisation of society on a worldwide scale must have been extremely attractive to him, and it is thus no wonder that he expended so much energy in convincing himself and those around him that the completion of such a task was possible, indeed necessary, and that this task was more important to him personally than the writing of textbooks.


After a subsequent two year stay in Leszno, an offer arrived from elsewhere in the form of an invitation from the Transylvanian Prince Rákóczi (the Rákóczis) to reform the gymnasium at Sárospatak. The leaders of the Unitas Fratrum were loathe to release Comenius, but recognised the advantages to be had in obliging the Rákóczis, given that Moravian exiles, too, lived under their protection; thus it was that from 1650 to 1654 Comenius removed to Sárospatak. This period was significant for his pedagogical work in particular. It was at Sárospatak that he completed the series of textbooks that had been conceived during his residence at Elbląg.



In addition, it was here that he began work on his famous Visible World in Pictures (the Orbis Pictus), and wrote and, with gymnasium students studied, a theatrical reworking of the Gate of Tongues (the Janua linguarum) called the School as Play (Schola ludus). In terms of school theatre productions Comenius relied on his earlier experiences at Leszno, where he had put on his plays Patriarch Abraham (Abrahamus) and Diogenes the Cynic Redivivus (Diogenes) with the local students.


School theatre presentations were one of the media through wish Comenius wished to make learning pleasant and attractive. Plays were successful at Sárospatak, but this could not lighten Comenius disenchantment with the unwillingness to put his reforms of the school into practice. His project is summarised in the treatise on the Pansophic School (Schola pansophica); it grew out of his earlier proposal for a three-year Latin school (the Vestibulum Janua Atrium system), to which he had added classes in philosophy, logic, politics and theology, so that in this design it would have been a seven-year gymnasium. In addition, other minor works were written at Sárospatak for various occasions, such as the beginning of the school year etc., of which two were also related to his pan-remedial projects. These are the speech On Educating the Spirit (the De cultura ingeniorum) and a treatise on the Fortune of the Nation (Gentis felicitas). Both works are evidence of the observational talents of their author, who analyses within them the economic and cultural situation of Hungaryas he himself had perceived it during his travels.


Comenius returned from Sárospatak to Leszno in 1654. The following year the First Northern War broke out between Swedenand Poland, which was to have catastrophic consequences for him. In April 1656 Leszno was razed by Polish Catholic smallholders, who saw it as the seat of evangelicals who sympathised with the Swedes. The fire destroyed most of Comenius library and papers, his greatest regret being the loss of his Treasury of the Czech Language (the Thesaurus), a manuscript dictionary for which he had been collecting material for his entire life, and of a fair copy of his extensive, pan-remedial collection, the General Consultation Concerning the Improvement of Human Affairs (the Consultatio), ready for printing and again the result of many years of work. Jan Amos found his last refuge in Amsterdam, where he lived from 1656 until his death in 1670. Even these latter years were richly occupied in work.



He arranged and published his Collected Didactic Works (the ODO), and from his surviving notes he resurrected the General Consultation (the Consultatio), as well as finishing and publishing his celebrated Visible World in Picture (the Orbis) and a series of other treatises, not to mention reworking several older tracts for new editions including some in Czech, such as the Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.


While in Amsterdam, Comenius prepared, in addition to his own works, a collection of period prophecies or visions, the so-called revelations, for publication. These revelations were in fact a kind of mystical expression of the desire to change the political situation in the lands under Habsburg sway in favour of the evangelicals. The fact that actual events did not confirm the veracity of these visions was irrelevant, as they were not understood as straightforward prophecy but rather as callings. Comenius always, even in his pansophic and pan-remedial projected, aimed at the harmonious fusion of faith and reason (and sensual perception as well). His inclination towards chiliasm and with it revelations is thus a highly distinctive example of such endeavour, faith harmoniously complemented by a reasoned consideration of two means for understanding the world. In spite of this, of course, to believe in the effect of revelations mean in his situation to hang on to the hope of a change in the situation for the better, of a return to his homeland. This belief, too that Divine revelation had not ceased with the New Testament but continued through the medium of contemporaries gifted with the power of prophecy, is also part of the complete picture of Comenius personality.


In terms of the number of books published, the years following his arrival in Amsterdam were among Jan Amos most productive. Amsterdam was an important trading and cultural centre, which fully suited Comenius broad interests and enabled him to maintain contacts in many directions.


Although Comenius was able while in Amsterdam to successfully bring a series of books to publication, and in many ways bring his achievements to a climax by so doing, he was not able to finish everything. This was true in particular of a key work, the pan-remedial General Consultation Concerning the Improvement of Human Affairs (the Consultatio), which has already been mentioned several times above. Of this extensive, seven volume work, he was only able to bring the preamble and the first two parts to publication; the rest remained in manuscript, incomplete in several places.



The whole work is permeated with the idea that education and upbringing are among the primary preconditions for realising his pan-remedial aims. These preconditions also included peaceful coexistence between nations and churches. Peace (irenicism) was the focal point of Comenius interest for most of his life; nevertheless, it can be seen that his position changed. From an interest that was narrowly confessional, he progressed to efforts to bring about peaceful coexistence between the members of the various evangelical faiths, and later to address the peaceful arrangement of the whole world and this despite the fact that while the Thirty Years War lasted, so too did the hope for a return of the Bohemian evangelists to their homeland. It was in relation to this hope that Comenius bore the military conflicts between evangelical countries so hard, always seeking to use his influence on various political figures to strengthen evangelical Europe. At the end of his life, in the tract The Messenger of Peace (the Angelus) he judged the conflict between Englandand the Netherlands(the Second Anglo-Dutch War), and with it war in general.


The aim of Jan Amos pan-remedial endeavours was not, however, unity limited by national boundaries or religious grouping; his concern was the unity of Mankind as a whole. From this came his emphasis of seeking out everything that links people together, and removing without force that which divides them.


This was, as implied the title of his principal pan-remedial work, an effort to improve human affairs. Comenius divided this endeavour into three areas: knowledge, social organisation and religious life. It was necessary to improve schools, and ecclesiastical policy. It is characteristic of Comenius that he approaches this constructively: destruction was foreign to him. While he saw the imperfections around him, he conscientiously sought for a way not just to their removal, but to their correction, defining the goal and showing the road that leads to it.


For the whole of his active life he was concerned with improving schools. From the outset he was led to this for humane reasons, as he wished simply to make the work and exertions of pupils and teachers less arduous. His Didactic falls within this phase. Of course, he always had an eye to the content of the teaching, too. The importance of the content of education, however, grew alongside his emphasis on methods of teaching and upbringing in the pan-remedial period. It was here that pansophy had a key role, the universal science of everything for everyone, the unifying cement of human society.



Improved politics was to bring about a unification of all the nations of the world, to serve the good of the whole of humanity, meaning the resolution of disputes and excision of wars. In this sense, politics was to be above the state and supra-national, and should never raise partial (national, estates etc.) interests above common human interests.


The improvement of the churches was to lead to a tolerant Christianity, stripped of confessional and sectarian conflicts. Over each of these areas a kind of decision-making body was to be established, always comprising leading figures from the relevant fields from around the world. Comenius termed these the Congregation of Light (for schooling and the propagation of education), the Court of Peace (for politics) and the Consistory of Sanctity (for unifying the churches). These bodies were to guide rather than direct.


Importantly, every person was mandated to begin the improvements with himself and in his immediate vicinity. In this active participation in the universal improvement of all people and all things, Comenius saw the furtherance by Man of God s work of Creation, a fulfilment of the Biblical picture of Man as a being created by God in His own image.


Such is the legacy of this great figure from the small Czech nation for people of all ages and nations the seeking of a path to the improvement of one s self, to a dignified, truly human life. The key values on which it is necessary to rely in so doing are the wisdom and knowledge amassed over the ages, and, not the least, deliberate human action.



Čapková, Dagmar: Myslitelsko-vychovatelský odkaz Jana Amose Komenského. Prague 1987.

Floss, Pavel: Jan Amos Komenský. Od divadla věcí k dramatu člověka. Ostrava 1970.

Floss, Pavel: Od počátků novověku ke konci milénia. Brno 1998.

Kopecký, Milan: Komenský jako umělec slova. Brno 1992.

Kumpera, Jan: Jan Amos Komenský, poutník na rozhraní věků. Prague & Ostrava 1992.

Patočka, Jan: Komeniologické studie I III. Prague 1997, 1998, 2002.

Polišenský, Josef: Jan Amos Komenský. Muž labyrintů a naděje. Prague 1996.




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