By Rachel Ritman
Jan Amos Comenius’s identity was shaped by the Unitas Fratrum, whose roots go back to the popular movement inspired by Johannes Hus, the religious reformer who was burnt as a heretic in 1415. Comenius had been raised in the faith as it were, as already his parents were members of the Unitas Fratrum or Church of the Brethren. The Brethren abided by stern Christian principles and lived in community of property, following the example of the early Christian groups at the beginning of our era.
The members of the Unitas Fratrum practised Christian charity and were tolerant of other convictions. They developed their own educational system, refused to be enlisted or take the oath and read the Bible in the vernacular. Without a doubt, Comenius’ early experiences of a community of kindred spirits living a life of peace and harmony fed his inexhaustible faith in the pansophical reform programme which he formulated in later days.
Orphaned at a young age, the highly gifted Comenius was sent to the University of Herborn by the Bohemian Brethren, where he was introduced to the concept of ‘Pansophia’ or universal wisdom. Around the age of 21 he went on to study at Heidelberg, where he came across the Fama Fraternitatis (the Call of the Brotherhood of the Rosycross), a text which had a profound influence on his later work, as did the second Rosicrucian Manifesto, the Confessio Fraternitatis (the Confession of the Brotherhood of the Rosycross).
Fifteen years later he began a correspondence with the author of these manifestoes, Johann Valentin Andreae, eager to learn about his ideas for the future and wishing to be accepted as Andreae’s pupil and spiritual son. Andreae was inspired by their correspondence to pass the torch to Comenius, whom he entrusted with the task of promoting the ‘General Reformation of the Whole World’, as it is called in the Fama.
The passionate Comenius hardly needed encouragement in this respect. From then on, his life was devoted to developing the high ideals of the Rosicrucians and other kindred spirits into a method which everyone might practise, irrespective of his or her individual background, and which would lead step by step to God, the source of Light itself.
The Thirty Years’ War, in effect a religious war against the Protestants, drove Comenius out of his native country along with over 30,000 other Protestant families. His first wife and his two children, who had remained behind, died of the plague. The population of Bohemia, which consisted of some 4 million people at the start of the war, was reduced to ca. 80,000 when the war was over. When the Peace of Münster was concluded in 1648, freedom of religion was granted to all Protestant churches except for the still suppressed and slowly crumbling Unitas Fratrum. Comenius was to become the last bishop of the Brethren in 1648.
Comenius’ personal life is marked by numerous setbacks and disappointments. His second wife also died, after which he remarried once more. Twice his possessions, including his library and many of his manuscripts, fell prey to the flames. His efforts on behalf of the Brethren ended in failure, and his attempts to anchor his pansophical ideals in society proved equally unsuccessful. Yet his energy, his faith and his trust in God remained undaunted.
In spite of the many journeys he had to undertake, the educational tasks and peace activities which fell to him and the care for his community and his family, he managed to produce a steady flow of works. Among them are philosophical and pansophical works, pedagogical manuals, lexicons, language study manuals and textbooks, as well as proposals towards formulating a universal language to promote greater understanding among the nations and make the ideals of pansophy generally available. His renown spread across Europe as his activities became better known and he was invited to a great many countries, including Poland, Germany, the Dutch Republic, England, Sweden and Hungary. The last fourteen years of his life were spent in Amsterdam, where he died at the age of 78 in 1670. His travels brought him into contact with the major philosophers and learned heads of Europe, and with the sources on which they drew.
All the while Comenius kept an open mind, which is apparent from the fact that his work is not only informed by his theological upbringing, but also by ideas belonging to the more specific Rosicrucian and Hermetic body of thought. Already in 1633 he published the Physicae ad lumen divinum reformandae synopsis, a work which elaborates on neo-Platonic and Hermetic concepts such as the Anima Mundi, the ‘World Soul’, the tripartite division of man according to body, soul and spirit, as well as the elemental paradigm of Paracelsus. Comenius derived the image of the Light of Divine Wisdom leading man to his ultimate destination from the German Lutheran Johannes Arndt. Robert Fludd’s definition of light as the third cosmological principle connecting spirit and matter was elaborated by Comenius as a ‘Physics of the Light’.
In 1642 Comenius stayed for a while in Amsterdam, a thriving and booming city which had become a haven for many great minds attracted by its reputation of tolerance. Still others were able to have their works printed in Amsterdam which were censured in their own countries. The atmosphere of open exchange was both encouraging and inspiring, so that Amsterdam in the Golden Age perhaps deserves to be called not only the Venice of the North but also a Little Alexandria.
At that time Comenius was introduced to the De Geer family, who were to offer him protection and hospitality in the years 1656-1670, welcoming him as their guest in their family home called the House with the Heads on Keizersgracht. The circle of friends connected with this powerful family included many admirers of the German theosopher Jacob Böhme, such as Abraham Willemszoon van Beyerland, who managed to acquire works of Böhme and also translated and published them at his own expense. Van Beyerland looked upon Böhme as the European Hermes and translated the Corpus Hermeticum from Latin into Dutch the year Comenius was staying in Amsterdam. The edition was published in 1643. Comenius, too, was familiar with the Hermetic works, while he was also greatly inspired by Böhme. His network included Abraham van Franckenberg, a close friend of Böhme, and intimately familiar with the works of the early Rosicrucians as much as with the gnostic works of Valentinus. These contacts suggest the extent of Comenius’ knowledge and his ability to integrate information into his own ideas.
Later in 1642 Comenius travelled to England, where he wrote his Via Lucis, (The Way of the Light), which is regarded as his only fully elaborated pansophical work. Comenius hoped the English parliament would afford him the means to set up a universal college of learned men, drawn from various countries and able to initiate a general reformation of education in accordance with the principles laid down in Via Lucis.
It is good to bear in mind that Comenius may have been able to unfold his thoughts in freedom, but that he had to be very circumspect about expressing them. His position and his responsibilities towards his community meant that he must undertake nothing that could compromise his credibility. Most of all, though, his main objective in life, namely the ‘improvement ofALLthat concerns man, forALLand onALLSIDES’, was dependent on thoughtful terminology able to preempt any opposition.
For this reason the third Rosicrucian Manifesto, The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, a work describing the process of the individual’s inner transformation, adopted the device of allegory, a well-tried literary method. Comenius, on the other hand, chose a thoroughly rational method, guiding the reader step by step along his line of reasoning and inviting him to test his arguments in the light of his own observations. In his works, Comenius drew on biblical texts and the previously mentioned Physics of the Light, two stepping stones with which he built a sort of Jacob’s ladder able to lead back man to his original destination.
Comenius proceeded in such a clear and translucent way that the reader of Via Lucis might almost miss the depth, eloquence and especially the sagacity of his vision. In his own words, Via Lucis ‘describes all visible and invisible things both in our own time and in the time to come according to a single and uniform method, described as the links in a chain, in an undeniable and unbroken sequence and in such a way that nobody who reads this work attentively will be unable to understand or appreciate it’.
The Civil War which broke out in England at the time Comenius was staying there forced him to return to the continent. Only 26 years later, in Amsterdam, did he complete his Via Lucis by dedicating it to Charles II of England and to the members of the recently founded Royal Society for improving Natural Knowledge.
Via Lucis was published in Latin two years before his death, at the time when Rembrandt painted his portrait. The great artist shows Comenius in a striking posture. The light falling across Comenius guides the attention to his mellowed face and his folded hands, which appear to allude to his deep faith, his active life but also to his drive to reconcile apparent differences by placing them in the higher light of divine wisdom.
Together, the head, shoulders, arms and hands moreover clearly form a triangle, which might be seen to refer to Comenius’ principle that everything takes its origin from the threefold revelatory force of the divine Being, which is reflected in creation as a universal law.
In the dedication to his Via Lucis, Comenius expressed his deep appreciation of the Royal Society, noting that a considerable share of what he has wished for in his work has come true by the initiative to found the venerable society. Nevertheless, he admonishes its members that: ‘You, too, who are also working in the interest of mankind, will understand that this is not all we have longed for, and which is required until the bliss of the final era has been fulfilled. We must certainly continue to look further!’
What did Comenius mean when he referred to the final era? He is regarded as a chiliast or millenarian, someone who believed that Christ would reign for a thousand years on earth before the final judgement. In the wake of early millennial thought, Joachim of Fiore in the thirteenth century had already formulated a theory of three ages of man, speaking of the Age of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Tobias Hess, the great inspiring force behind the Rosicrucian Manifestoes, also believed that mankind should prepare itself for a glorious and imminent Golden Age. Like most of their contemporaries, they interpreted the age of the earth and of mankind along biblical lines, whereby, in the words of Comenius, the threefold school of the world reflected the Tri-Une God, since the creation of the world is attributed to God the Father, the illumination of the soul to God the Son, and the inspiration of the heart to God the Holy Spirit.
As the Age of the illumination of the soul was to have commenced with the first coming of Christ, mankind was now to look forward to the Age of the Holy Spirit, the era of universal Wisdom and universal Light. Nowadays we would probably refer to this era as the Age of Gnosis.
According to Comenius, the world as it then existed seemed to prepare itself for a sort of rebirth which was to take shape in the universal reformation of the human spirit. The well-known Rosicrucian motto, ‘born from God, died in Our Lord Jesus, reborn from the Holy Spirit’ did not only carry an individual but also a cosmic meaning for the early Rosicrucians. It was the anticipation of an imminent era of divine revelation which drove chiliasts to prepare a confused people for the millennium.
Naturally our concept of ‘time’ has progressed with the ages. To Comenius, time and the processes of living and coming into awareness which unfolds in time was a temporary phenomenon, moving between the eternity which preceded time and the eternity in which all that exists will be reabsorbed. Nowadays we no longer think in terms of the beginning and the end of ‘time’, but think along the lines of an increasing and decreasing ‘current’, a movement of ebb and flow in which civilisations emerge and decline.
When we follow the line of thought expounded by Comenius, however, according to which he recorded and defined the successive stages of human awakening with the tools available to him at the time, it appears that his observations are very precise. When we also think of a ‘fulfilment’ of time rather than an ‘end of time’, in the sense of the accomplishment of a task set within space and time, his vision becomes once again transparent and relevant.
Comenius believed that the world had come into being out of the primal complete darkness of the unconscious, the way a child is born from its mother’s womb. The purpose and destination of life unfold in a gradual awakening of consciousness which is marked by the increase of an ever more encompassing light. In the ninth chapter of Via Lucis, Comenius provided a description based on the well-known engraving in Robert Fludd’s Philosophica Mosaica.
Before God kindled the primal light, darkness lay over the world; even though the spirit of life (and with the latter, as it were the designer of all things, also the seeds) had already been breathed into matter. But then from within this darkness, the light began to circle around the abyss and to work upon its dark fumes and mists.
A little further on he alludes to the human spirit in the following terms: ‘When God created man, he planted the seeds of all sorts of knowledge in him; these seeds we call “innate notions”’. Comenius also referred to the image of God impressed upon man’s spirit, and written in the myriad characters making up the alphabet of our general concepts, urges and potentialities, in other words:
the principles of what man needs to know,
the incentives for what he needs to long for,
and the instruments or abilities to act upon.
Furnished with these three essential principles, embedded in a sort of divine consciousness, a primal knowledge, man enters a threefold school upon birth, where he is given three elementary textbooks.
The first and largest book is that of the visible world, written in as many characters as there are creatures of God.
The second book is man himself, made in the image of God. The spirit has been made the measure of all things for the benefit of man, inspired as he is by the breath of divine life, that is to say by the rational spirit or Logos. Since man measures all things by the concepts instilled in him at birth, he is also better able to know God, his primal image, through himself than through any other source. […] Since everything that exists naturally flows back to its source, man, too, is naturally guided by his longings to turn to God, and to learn what and how God is because of these longings instilled in him. […] Man, therefore, is truly a book of God, not one set before his eyes, like the great book of the world, but one which is planted in his heart.
God, however, gave man yet a third book, as it were elucidating the outward book of the world and as a guide for his conscience, which is the inward book: Holy Writ, in which He throws light on some of the matters which remain obscured in the other two books, pointing to the true purpose and use of all things.
In his preface, written at a later time and based on a profound inner ripeness, Comenius felt urged to explore the subject still further. ‘I have said’, he writes, ‘that the whole world is a school of the Wisdom of God, which is true, but I now see that I should add that this earthly school (which is subordinate to the heavenly Academy) needs to be divided into three classes…’
By honing his definition, he wishes to make clear that we can advance to various levels of development according to how we make use of the three books given to us:
In order to learn from the great book of the world, we are endowed with organs, which are the five senses. Since we enter this world at birth, it may be called the natural world, or that of Physics.
The natural world passes into another, higher world, that of the Metaphysics, a world completely different from the previous one. In this metaphysical world, the objects, books and preceptors are not apart from us, but dwell within us, contained within our spirit, or rather the image of God impressed upon our spirit, written in the myriad characters making up the alphabet of our innate concepts, urges and potentialities.
They command, instruct, admonish, move, incite and urge every man (learned or unlearned, wise or foolish, waking or sleeping) – this time along the right path, if they are well directed, another time along the wrong path, when they have been allowed to deviate.
The senses (inward or outward) have no role to play in learning to distinguish these paths: only reason, the inner light or the mind’s eye is able to accomplish this.
What Comenius is here describing in rational terms is in fact nothing else but the soul; the immortal soul, with its universal qualities, which do not differ individually as they do in the school of physics, but lie hidden within each man as the same universal principles, urges and potentialities.
Comenius says on this score that the universal concepts (the primary and innate concepts, not yet deformed by misshapen ideas) have always been the same for every man and woman, young child and old person, Greek and Arab, Christian and Muslim, saint and sinner.
If man were to become more aware of this inner primal knowing, he would come to appreciate this element in his fellow human beings in spite of individual and collective differences and act accordingly. Such an open attitude would solve many of the conflicts keeping mankind divided and a natural harmony might be achieved with the World Soul, the Anima Mundi. Man would come to see and experience the book of the world in a new light, like a true school of eternity. He would learn to discover the hidden connections governing the law of life, both in the Cosmos and within himself, and would want to abide by this law with an entirely new sense of responsibility for everything around him.
Such an awareness would also fundamentally change our image of God. God would no longer be a lofty authority who has to be obeyed and worshipped but would be experienced more like a universal reality expressing itself in the individual.
The school of physics and the school of metaphysics, Comenius continues, is superseded by the school of hyperphysics, in which no creature or man is able to teach anybody anything, only He who is above all, God.
For the subjects that are here taught and instilled are such that no eye has ever seen them, no ear has ever heard them, nor have they risen in the heart of man, but are only revealed by God through his spirit.
Man’s consciousness here enters upon an entirely new reality, placing his views on the world and on himself in a far broader perspective. Just as the one divine Essence manifests itself threefold, man here encounters the divine Idea, the divine Love and the divine Wisdom, in a sequence corresponding with that of the cosmic Eras.
The innate image of God in man, containing the perfect Idea, God’s Plan, can now begin to grow. The divine Love will ensoul this image, bring it to life, and the divine Wisdom will cause man to understand God, himself and consequently the entire Creation.
We might say that the first school places man before the reflection of light, as the world is as it were the outer mirror of God’s Being.
The second school places man before the workings of the light, the pulsing, flowing and outpouring reality of it, both in itself and in the world. This is the divine Love, fulfilling, ensouling and secretly motivating all that exists.
The third school places man before the light source himself, God, or rather, the light source is kindled in man himself. In this light, man can see he and all created things originate from the Oneness, from the Truth, from the All-encompassing Wisdom. Having achieved this perception, all opposites are resolved, and there is no more room for light or dark, beginning or end, only perfect Being.
Thus, according to Comenius, the three schools of God are open to every man, to guide him towards gradual perfection, so that God may be praised by His perfected image. Every man is able to finish these schools; for everyone finds the world surrounding him on all sides, experiences himself entirely within himself, and God in the depth of his thoughts.
In the first school we are ontodidacts, that is to say: we are taught by what is; in the second school we are autodidacts: taught by our Self; in the third school we are theodidacts: taught by God. If men would really turn to these three books, to these three schools, they would need no other. But because men do not make proper use of these books, or do not heed them at all, they have turned the paradise of the heart into a labyrinth of the world.
Comenius was therefore urged to formulate a comprehensive programme, to make every individual, emphatically mentioning craftsmen, farmers and women (for how would they otherwise be able to urge their children to learn) aware once more of the potentialities lying within them as a gift. The primary objective is not to turn men into scholars, but to raise the awareness that nobody is excluded from the light of Wisdom as his rightful heritage.
The threefold objective of the path of the universal light is that ALL may be seen by ALL on ALL SIDES, whether it concerns eternal or temporary things, spiritual or material, heavenly or earthly, natural or artificial, theological or philosophical, good or evil, general or particular.
In the light of divine Wisdom, all faculties would need to be renewed completely. Care should be taken not just to transfer theoretical concepts, but to offer the possibility to learn to grasp things fully, so that they may become an infallible certainty. This approach, Comenius argued, entails that we will from now on regard the school of the world as brimming with exercises.
Comenius claimed four instruments were required to achieve these goals, namely universal books, universal schools, a universal college and a universal language. The books would be nothing other than introductions to the books of God, to be able to fully understand them at last. The schools would be nothing other than preparatory schools leading to the higher school of life itself. The college finds its sole existence in ensuring that all men are given the means to enter the heavenly host of saints. The universal language, finally, only attempts to help us understand each other better in our present daily lives and mutually advance each other.
With this vision before his eyes, Comenius allowed himself a flowery metaphor to elaborate his meaning.
He referred to Proverbs of Solomon 9, in which it is said that Wisdom has built herself a house, prepared her meat, mixed her wine, set her table and sent her daughters to invite people dwelling near the sanctuaries and the high places of the city (the world), even the foolish and the unwise, to join her and eat and drink with her. The dishes that are prepared, Comenius wrote, represent the things as they are, which must be experienced and known, arranged in their several parts and seasoned with wine of various delicious blends; in the same way as the sumptuously laid dinner tables refer to the schools. The virgins, however, sent out to invite the guests to the holy meal, are the members of the College, calling all those with a pure and virginal heart to attend the wedding of divine Wisdom, in new and effective wordings.
In a universal College of Light, Comenius continued, all three levels forming the steps of Jacob’s Ladder must be present in its members. In short, only those who have climbed all steps can be called truly wise. The characteristic of a wise man is to know many things relating to what is universal, because their own percepttion shows them that everything flows from and returns to the original source of existence. With this key in hand, they are able to acknowledge the divine Wisdom in any type of culture, religion or tradition. The essence of these assembled testimonies of Wisdom ought to be collected, uncoloured and unprejudiced, in a book entitled ‘Pansophia’, or universal wisdom, and with the original written sources from which these testimonies have been derived made available in libraries.
Those who have advanced to the second level possess great knowledge of the various currents and branches that have developed out of Pansophia or universal wisdom, and the workings of wisdom in religion, the sciences and the arts.
Comenius calls them the competent. The competent, he continues, are characterized by their ability to know things in their particular aspects through reliable observation. A summary of this kind of proven knowledge might be collected in a book called ‘Panhistoria’.
Comenius calls those who have acquired their knowledge by means of things studied, seen or understood, scholars. Scholars, Comenius adds, are knowledgeable because they rely on recorded traditions as they have been compiled by authoritative authors.
A third book is needed, entitled ‘Pandogmatica’, which will contain a diversity of opinions on a variety of subjects, wherever and however they were recorded (whether true or false).
Thus, the book of Pansophia includes all that is essential for all those who wish to be wise, so that its clear light can guide men to see the aims of all things and the means to achieve these aims, and the infallible use of these means, and be directed in all that they do by these good aims and continue along this path (which would be truly wise).
Panhistoria offers things which are perhaps not vital, but are still necessary in their own way, because it is by knowing the course of things ‘in particular’ (with respect to what is natural and artificial, moral and social, and also spiritual) that the universal wisdom is confirmed and explained and reinforced.
Pandogmatica is not so much essential as it is useful for those who crave an exhaustive erudition, and are able to devote their time freely to this pursuit. […]
It is time to unite all that is divided and to collect all sums in sums of sums and to make them generally available, so that everything may be shared, not neglecting or ignoring any corner of the earth, nation, culture or class.
Education, too, ought to be reformed and renewed on this basis. Young people, from the smallest children, should be made familiar with the ways of the Light, so that they will not be raised as wild creatures, as they now are. No child should be devoid of education, because, Comenius says, it is in the general interest that there are no troublemakers who pass their time in idleness and infect others.
All this and much more ought to be directed by an international Fraternity of wise men, the College of Light. Obviously Comenius believed that the members of such a College must not only be learned but definitely also competent and especially wise. Each member should be skilled in the ABC of divine wisdom, able to fully fathom the three levels of the universal books, creation, the creature and God.
Comenius therefore addressed the members of the Royal Society as follows in his dedication:
Be fully aware, I say, that with all your learnedness, you only possess the elementary principles of divine wisdom, and that you are merely preparing the groundwork for the perfection of human wisdom.
Should you stop here and not continue to build on what you have started, you will appear to be as ludicrous as the man named in the gospel, who began building a tower but never ended the work. […]
Your work would be an inverted Babel, that is a structure not aiming at the heavens but at the earth.
It would be unfinished, in the same way as the work of Solomon would be incomplete had he neglected to add the sanctuary for the Priests and the Holy of Holies for the Highpriest after having built the outer temple for the common people. […]
You, therefore, who are the initiates of truth in the natural sciences, do everything that is in your power!
Make sure that mankind will not forever be deceived by an idle, unfulfilled, superficial, false and oversophisticated philosophy. […]
More than three and a half centuries later, Comenius would probably have no cause to be satisfied. An advantage is that the source texts of universal wisdom from all over the world and from all ages are now more accessible than ever, as Comenius meant them to be. However, these sources are still not available to all, even though the Internet has increased global access. (Arranging them in a coherent order is of course something we must undertake ourselves, though the various search engines are a great help.) Many parts of the world are still deprived of good education, and the situation for women and girls in many places is cause for grave concern. Occasionally, efforts are made to explain the more conspicuous features of major religious currents, though mainly with a view to prevent tensions arising between parts of the population with different backgrounds.
In general, however, the ways of Light as universal guidelines for everyday life are not to be found on the curriculum, yet this is what Comenius hoped to achieve.
Nor is there a College of Light, at least, not along the structured lines proposed by Comenius. Until it is founded, all options that are presently open to us must be used to promote its cause. Such an effort requires people able to appreciate the need to come to a global agreement on what is essential to each man’s life. The key notion for such an agreement is not to promote tolerance, but to foster closeness, drawing on the Treasure Houses of the Light of divine Wisdom without reserve.
Comenius noted that people who truly unite the three levels of wisdom within themselves, function as it were as a burning lens, which can concentrate the Light of the universal Wisdom. In this way they can kindle the Light in others, inspire them and show them the ways of the Light.
Comenius himself was a living example of such a threefold testimony. That is why he is able to show anyone seeking the truth the way to the unchanging compass lodged in man’s heart, which is the image of God impressed upon man, the immortal soul. Hidden in the immortal soul lie the innate principles of what man needs to know, the incentives for what he needs to long for, and the instruments or abilities to act upon. Because these innate concepts derive from a single divine source and a single divine inspiration, they form the natural foundation for mutual solidarity and understanding.
Real truth and real wisdom are inclusive and do not exclude anybody or anything. When Comenius described the threefold purpose of the way of the universal Light ‘as ALLthat can be seen and lived by ALLon ALLSIDES’, it is evident that he belonged to a universal College or Fraternity, one that is not forged by men, which has always sent emissaries throughout the ages, in every race, in every culture, in every religion and philosophy. Without exception, they have endeavoured to make man aware of the fact that he can become learned on three levels, for each man learns through experience; he can also become competent on three levels, by applying what he has learnt; and he can partake of Wisdom on three levels.
It is true indeed that wisdom can never be possessed, but that it is something in which we can only share. As it was beautifully expressed in a little poem in a seventeenth-century manuscript attributed to the Dutch inventor and alchemist Cornelis Drebbel:
He who is able to lose himself
in the operations of Wisdom,
will be possessed by Wisdom
without even being wise.
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