Jan Amos KOMENSKÝ - life, work, legacy

The literary works of J. A. Comenius


Comenius set down his extensive, multidimensional works in the course of the 17th century, and in doing so brought the development of early Czech literature as a whole to its apex. Philosophical, pedagogical, theological, political, historical and poetic works have come down to us. Thanks to the great interval of time since the inception of the individual works, they bring the reader and the literary historian a series of difficulties. Thus far, a number of tasks of fundamental importance have yet to be completed. Even today there is no complete inventory of the imprints and manuscripts, while, moreover, new materials of various degrees of importance are still being discovered. As yet there has been no primary, scholarly edition of the works, while for those works written in other languages translations into Czech are either completely absent, or are markedly antiquated.


In Comenius time the nation s literature was not confined to the national language. The international language of the educated was Latin, in which Comenius wrote the majority of his works even though he had initially wanted to write only in Czech and for his own nation. After his forced departure from his homeland, the content of his works turns to the ever-wider human comity, from which of course Czech reader is never excepted. Literary historians of the 19th and part of the 20th centuries understood Comenius works primarily as a source for understanding his personality, at times with only little consideration of the times in which they were created. It was for this reason that scholars assigned central themes to Comenius work on the basis of their own angles of approach. For some he was above all a philosopher, for others a theologian, and for still others a teacher. Only since the second half of the 20th century has his output been studied as an independent, primarily literary, whole, with due consideration to the world and perceptions of a man of the 17th century. Above all else, there was not at that time a strictly defined boundary between professional literature and belles-lettres for which reason there are lyrical elements in Comenius professional works and vice versa. The originality of works in the period, too, was understood differently from today. They adopted motifs and approaches to work from other works, without the new work being taken as mere imitation. It is for this reason that it is important to apply literary critical methods to identify the authors whose works inspired Comenius, or from which he drew directly. Only thus is it possible to decide within which ideological current he was moving, where he is truly the originator of new thoughts, and where he is merely citing others.




Comenius early works in printed form begin with an academic disputation published at Herborn, Assorted Problems (Problemata) and the Collection of Contentious Questions (Sylloge). Dissatisfied with the state of domestic science, even during the period of his studies Comenius already planned to create an extensive encyclopaedic work, the Theatre of Universal Affairs (the Theatrum and Amphitheatrum) for the Czech intellectual community, that it might become the foundation for the lifting of Czech culture to the European level. At the same time he also began to collect material for a large Czech-Latin dictionary, the Treasury of the Czech Language (the Thesaurus) and to collect proverbs, adages and sayings the Wisdom of the Old Czechs (the Wisdom). He also planned the publication of a Biblical encyclopaedia the Little Manual or Core of the Whole Holy Bible (the Little Manual). He later wrote several works connected in various ways to the Bible; these were The Door, or An Introduction to Holy Scripture (Introductorium in Biblia), an Epitome of the New Testament (NT epitome), the Dedication for the Turkish Bible (Bibliorum Turc. dedicatio) and Notes on the English Translation of the New Testament into Turkish (De Turcica versione). The breadth of the young Comenius interests is also attested by other, works, now unaccounted for On the Antiquities of Moravia (De antiquitatibus) and On the Origin of the Žerotíns (De origine). At this time he also worked up a new Map of Moravia (Moraviae delineatio). As the spiritual administrator of the Brethren s congregation at Fulnek he undertook a thorough consideration of preaching, in theory as well as in its practical preparation, in his work The Account and Precepts of Preaching (the Precepts of Preaching).


In addition to the creation of basic scientific literature, he further intended to develop Czech poetry in the direction of verse based on syllabic quantity. He wrote on this subject in his On Czech Poesy (On Poesy) and in the Short Remarks on Verses Suitable for Czech Poesy (the De metris adnotatiuncula). From the writings of Antiquity he wrote an adaptation of the verses of Dionysius Cato under the title The Wise Cato s Moral Teachings (Cato). Comenius could not ignore social and political questions, either. He reacted to the increasing sharp Catholic assaults on non-Catholics with his scathing polemic Salvation from the Antichrist. The onerous social conditions of the residents of Fulnek compelled him to write a book in the form of five fictitious letters, the Epistles to Heaven (the Epistles).




The gloomy period of persecution and hiding that followed the defeat at White Mountain failed to silence Comenius. Indeed, several of the works created in this period are among the fundamentals of Czech literature, above the Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart (the Labyrinth). The treatises from this period are described, not entirely accurately, as consoling; among these are the Unconquerable Castle, the Thoughts on Christian Perfection (the Thoughts on Perfection), Sorrowful I, On Orphanhood, the Press of God (the Press) and Sorrowful II. He was also meeting with the authors of prophetic visions of a religious and political nature. These revelations gave the Czech emigrants hope of a reverse in political fortune and a return to their homeland. Comenius made them available under the titles The Visions and Revelations of Kryštof Kotter (the Visions of Kotter) and The Visions of the Maiden Kristina Poniatovská (the Visions of Poniatovská). This relationship to prophecy deeply influenced Comenius throughout his life, and caused him difficulties on more than one occasion.


After departure into exile in 1628, Comenius literary creations necessarily changed. The author`s interests shifted to the area of scientific work. In this, he abandoned neither the Czech language nor his position with regard to the Czech milieu, as he believed that a return to his homeland would soon be possible.


Comenius did not leave the traditions of his church behind in the field of theology, and concerned himself with religious practice in particular in the texts On Exercises in True Piety (the Praxis I. and Praxis II.), the Catechism, An Account from Faith (the Confessio) and the Ancient Christian Common Religion (the Uralte Religion). He published and translated into Latin the ecclesiastical regulations of the Collection of Teachings and Ecclesiastical Order in the Unity of Bohemian Brethren (the Ratio disciplinae), and drew up a valuable historical treatise dedicated to the history of the Brethren`s Church, the History of the Great Tribulations of the Bohemian Church (the History of Tribulations), conceived of a stimulating flyer entitled the Bugle of Gracious Years (the Bazuine) and considered in more specific form the renewal of the culture of social life in Bohemia. He elected to use allegory in the case of the Testament of a Dying Mother, the Unity of Brethren (the Testament), which was a reaction to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Comenius resigned himself to this cruel and hopeless situation in the tracts Sorrowful III and Sorrowful IV.




An inseparable part of the priest s office was preaching. Comenius had wanted to show his carefully kept sermons to his son Daniel, but almost all were lost in the fire at Leszno. Those that survived attest to an original selection of Biblical texts, and the creative approach of the author to their interpretation. Among these are On the Exorcism of Demonism (On Exorcism), the Christmas Sermon, the History of Martyrdom, Sermon XXI On the Secrets of Death the Saviour of the World (the Sermon on Secrets), the Spiegel guter Obrigkeit (the Spiegel), Enoch, Methuselah, the Funeral Sermon for Pavel Fabricius (the Funeral Sermon) and the Conflict with God in Prayer (the Conflict with God).

In exile, Comenius also continued in his poetry. While in his striving for an artistic literature he used quantitative verse, in religious practice for spiritual songs he inclined rather towards accentual verse. The Hymnal represents the culmination of two centuries of development in Brethren song. Comenius enriched it not just with his own compositions, but with translations from the German and the Polish in Some New Songs (New Songs).


In the last decades of his life in particular, Comenius devoted much time to religious disputes, even at the expense of other work. These conflicts gave rise to the treatises On the Tract Against the Declaration of the Unity of Brethren (the Declaration), The Way to Peace, A Reply to Discussions on the Question of Whether Lord Jesus Rose from the Dead by His Own Strength (the Antwort), To the Right and Left (the A dextris), The Verdict of the Court on Valerianus Magnus (the Judicium Valeriani Magni), The Trial of Ulrik Neufeld (the Judicium Neufeldii), A Judgement on the Dispute over the Ceremony of Communion (De controversia), A Defence of Reputation and Conscience Against the Calumny of Nicholas Arnold (the Vindicatio famae), On the Pacific Efforts of the Peacemakers (the De irenico irenicorum), A Repeated Warning of a Christian Against the Repeated Socinian Offer of Conciliation (the De iterato Sociniano irenico), The Mirror of Socianism (the Socinismi speculum), The Third Admonition (the Admonitio tertia) and On Zeal without Art and Love in Fraternal Admonition (the De zelo). Nevertheless, it is thanks to one of these disagreements that part of an autobiographical memoir has been preserved in the Continuation in Fraternal Admonition (the Continuatio admonitionis).




Comenius made many efforts at translation and publication in order to disseminate revelations, the aforementioned prophecies of God s will, interpreted through the mouths of chosen individuals. This was the purpose served by his Light in Darkness (the Lux in tenebris), A Description of the Revelations of Kryštof Kotter, Kristina Poniatowská and Mikuláš Drabík (the Historia Revelationum), The Nightly Visions of Štěpán Meliš (the Visiones Melisch), the Epitome of God s Revelations (the Revelationum epitome) and Light from Darkness (the Lux e tenebris). Comenius relationship to prophecy, which damaged his prestige in the period of the Enlightenment in particular, has not as yet been satisfactorily laid bare (traditionally its role in 17th century culture is recalled). For Comenius revelations were significant even in some politically-motivated works, to which he devoted his literary time in the period after the Peace of Westphalia above all; among these are The Secret Counsel of Nathan for David (the Sermo secretus), The Even More Secret Speech (the Sermo secretior) and the Panegyric on Charles Gustav (the Panegyricus).


Comenius was, of course, made famous mainly by his works intended for schools and education. His life s successes have caused Comenius to become known in the general consciousness as the teacher of nations . His first work considering teaching in schools, the Precepts for Easier Grammar (the Grammaticae praecepta) is no longer extant. In the period prior to his going into exile, the most important place in Comenius plan of work was occupied by consideration of the organisation of schools, teaching and textbooks, which was to lead to the working up of his Paradise of the Church, an extensive collection of theoretical plans and practical treatises intended for the renewal of Czech schooling. While the plan as a whole could not be realised, several completed fragments yielded excellent results, above all in the famous Didactic, in which in innovative style he attempted to put education on a systematic, scientific basis. Another work that was unique on a global scale was his handbook for the rearing of infants, the Informatorium for Kindergartens. Comenius pedagogical and reformist efforts grave rise in various countries to the creation of new textbooks, in particular for languages. Language teaching was also the subject of his theoretical treatise Newest Method of Languages (the Methodus), but beyond this he also wrote or planned aids for the teaching of particular disciplines in schools: for history the Secular History (Historia profana), for philosophy the First Philosophy (Prima philosophia), for geometry the Geometria and for the physics the Overview of Physics (Physica).




He laid out a school code in the Guidelines for Well-Organised Schools (the Leges scholae) and the Precepts of Behaviour (the Praecepta morum) and the moralising handbooks the Maker of Luck (the Faber), the Rules of Life (the Regulae vitae) and the Fortius redivivus. His textbook for the teaching of Latin, the Gate of Tongues Unlocked (the Janua linguarum) retrieved truly universal acclaim, on the basis of which he drew up further textbooks, the Vestibule (Vestibulum) and the Auditorium (Eruditio I-III). The climax of the methods used in these textbooks came in the most successful of all of Comenius works, the encyclopaedia The Visible World in Pictures (the Orbis). For schooling purposes, Comenius also became a dramatist; in addition to the plays Diogenes the Cynic Redivivus and Father Abraham (Abrahamus) he worked up the subject of the Janua in a collection of school plays in School as Play (the Schola ludus).


After definitively settling in Amsterdam, Comenius accepted a proposal made by the city council and in the short term prepared for publication a very large collection of school works, entitled the Complete Didactic Works (the Opera didactica omnia ODO). This was the first collected edition of works by any Czech author.


One of the central motifs of Comenius work as a whole was the idea of pansophy (universal wisdom), presuming the establishment of a common basis for all human knowledge through many disciplines. With the aid of pansophic textbooks and handbooks, every student should quickly and easily be able to fathom the basics of learning, which should at the same time orient him in a morally positive manner. The creation of pansophy was Comenius condition for the general reform of upbringing and education, and thus a condition for the general improvement of the human situation. As an author he devoted great mental effort to the pansophic ideal, as can be seen in his completed pansophic treatises the Foreword to Pansophy (the Prodromus) and the Way of Light (the Via lucis), and in the pansophic outline the Door of Things (the Pansophiae seminarium).




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