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Books from the writing desk of Jan Amos Comenius

Books from the writing desk of Jan Amos Comenius

By Theodor Harmsen

1 Nicolaus de Cusa

De pace fidei, in Opera, part II, Basel 1565; Über den Frieden im Glauben. De pace fidei, ed. Ludwig Mohler, Leipzig 1943

Comenius was familiar with the central themes of the unity of opposites and learned ignorance (De docta ignorantia, 1440) in the work of Cardinal Nicolaus de Cusa (1401-1464). The concepts of finite human thought and divine infinity, the relationship between unity and pluriformity, the individual and the All, microcosm and macrocosm, played an important role in many of Comenius’ pansophical works. In addition to Cusa, Comenius was aware of related ideas in the work of metaphysical thinkers such as Ramón Lull (who was a great influence on Cusa), Ramón de Sabunde and the theosopher Jacob Böhme – Comenius quoted Böhme and may also have known not only published works but also some of his unpublished work via his contacts in Görlitz. Cusa’s De pace fidei (On the peace in faith, 1453 – the year Constantinople fell) departs from the thought that there exists an essential religious unity, even though in this world we are confronted with various religions (Una est religio in rituum diversitate). The work was translated into German during the Thirty Years’ War (1643) and was re-discovered by Lessing in the eighteenth century (Nathan der Weise, 1779). It is not clear whether Comenius actually knew De pace fidei, but there is certainly an affinity with his ideas on tolerance and pacifism in a society which for Cusa and Comenius was ultimately Christian.

2a Johann Heinrich Alsted

Praecognitorum theologicorum libri duo, Frankfurt 1614

Comenius was influenced by several reformers, including Theodor Zwinger, Francis Bacon, Johann Arndt, Wolfgang Ratke, and Tommaso Campanella. One of the earliest influences on the thought of Comenius was Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638). Alsted’s influence probably made itself felt since 1611, when Comenius was a student of the Protestant Academy in Herborn, where the Calvinist scholar Alsted taught pansophy (universal wisdom). This term had already been used before Alsted and Comenius by both the medieval encyclopedists and the mystics. The polyhistor or universal scholar Alsted wrote compendious encyclopedic works in the fields of theology and philosophy and combined Calvinism, Humanism and Hermetism. In Alsted’s work biblical-chiliastic or millenarian features can also be detected: ideas about the Millennium were also current in the Tübingen circle of the Rosicrucians (Alsted was a keen follower of the Rosicrucian debate at the time). In Alsted’s views the history of man – and the hoped-for ‘Generalreformation’ – formed part of salvation history. To further this reformation was the professed purpose of his Encyclopaedia (1620 and 1630). Alsted’s encyclopedic thought is reflected in the pedagogic world reformation campaigns of Comenius and the Rosicrucians.

2b Comenius, ed. Rámon de Sabunde, (Oculus fidei). Theologia naturalis, Amsterdam 1661

Alsted elaborated on the work of Rámon Lull and his follower Rámon de Sabunde. Alsted’s theology has a natural and a supernatural aspect. The theologia naturalis (natural theology) describes the divine in nature, in Creation. The theologia supernaturalis, the supernatural theology, deals with revelation. Comenius later edited a work of De Sabunde under the title Oculis fidei.

3 Johann Arndt

Vom wahren Christentum (first edition book 1, 1605; books 2-4, 1610); Dutch edition: Vier boecken van het waere christendom: dat is, oprechte practijke en Oeffeninghe der Godsaligheyd, Haarlem, Amsterdam 1631

Comenius admired Johann Arndt to such an extent that he adopted entire passages on the theme of light and even the opening of Via Lucis from the fourth book of Arndt’s Vom wahren Christentum. The light of truth or divine wisdom is here seen as the purpose of man’s life. Arndt’s four books, respectively Liber scripturae, liber vitae, liber conscientiae and liber naturae, had to be read as a reflection on the divine creator. The pansophic concept which Comenius was to develop drew not only upon the Hermetica but also on the nascent Pietism, the new ‘Frömmigkeit’. These served as an important background to the complete (re)formation of man (rational, emotional, moral, intellectual, spiritual) in relationship to Nature, fellow-men and God.

4 Jan Amos Comenius

Jan Amos Comenius, the Moravian-born pansophist, theologist, philosopher and pedagogue, lived for a great part of his life in the turbulent centre of Europe, a region torn by war and violence, working for his ideal of a universal peace for all men. All his attempts to found a Collegium Lucis in European cities were thwarted by the prevailing political reality, whether it was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) or the English Civil War (1642-1651). Comenius was an ‘eternal refugee’, always on the move but steadily working to realize his ideals, in Moravia, after the Battle of the White Mountain – which ended the brief reign of Frederic of the Palatinate, the ‘Winter King’ – in Bohemia, in Poland and during the last years of his life in the Dutch Republic. Comenius developed a didactical system to accomplish a general reformation of the world, of education, religion, politics and arts and sciences: by means of pansophy, universal wisdom, a further and far-reaching reformation of  society might become reality. In 1631 he published his Janua linguarum reserata (The door of languages unlocked), an influential Latin manual, new style. Education and schooling would, according to Comenius, lead to inner perfection of the individual in a Christian-pansophic society. His work is often compared to that of well-known Utopians like Campanella, Andreae, and Thomas More. Comenius spent some time in Sweden and in Prussia and Hungary before settling in the Dutch Republic. The Peace of West-Phalia (1648) for the time being dashed any hopes of Czech (Moravian) and Slovakian independence from the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire. Comenius was forced to flee again during the Polish-Swedish war, this time from Poland to the Dutch Republic, where he settled in the capital. Many of his works appeared in print for the first time in Amsterdam. In his pedagogical reform work and also in his political efforts to bring peace by advising world leaders (see e.g. his Angelus pacis (Angel of peace, 1667), Comenius tried to effect a Societas Christiana. The 20th-century history of Czecho-Slovakia was partly informed by the thought of Comenius, which was an important source of inspiration for the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1907-1977), one of the founders of Charta 77.

5 Hermetism

Physicae ad lumen divinum reformandae synopsis, Amsterdam 1645 (first ed. 1633)

Comenius tried to harmonize science and faith in a neoplatonic approach to the study of physics, whereby he wished to integrate Bacon’s natural philosophy in his Christian-pansophic world view. Hermetism, too, is accorded a place. Comenius probably read the Corpus Hermeticum in a Latin translation. The present work, conceived and published prior to his Amsterdam period, is clearly influenced by Hermetic ideas like the anima mundi, the tripartition of man in body, soul and mind, and also Paracelsian teaching on the elements. The physics of the light as a cosmological principle in addition to matter and mind also derives from the work of Robert Fludd. Comenius’ Physicae ad lumen was published in the same city where two years before Abraham Willemszoon van Beyerland, translator and publisher of the works of Jacob Böhme, had published his Dutch translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

6 Pansophy

Pansophiae prodromus et conatuum pansophicorum dilucidatio, Leiden 1644 (first edition (Latin) 1639); Pansophiae diatyposis, Amsterdam 1645; [De bono unitatis ] Ratio disciplinae ordinisque ecclesiastici in unitate Fratrum Bohemorum, Amsterdam 1660; Halle 1702, contains De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica, ad genus humanum ante alios vero ad eruditos, religiosos, potentes, Europae.

Pansophiae prodromusis the prequel to Pansophiae diatyposis in which Comenius also uses phrases from the Fama Fraternitatis. It is followed by the Sketch of Universal Wisdom. Comenius’ most compendious work on pansophy is De rerum humanarum emendatione (On the amelioration of human conditions, 1668), but this work was never finished. Pansophy strives for universal wisdom and harmony, “panharmony”; it intends to educate people who live in a world of strife and disorder, war and destruction and to reform church, school, society, arts and sciences. Comenius devoted his at times turbulent and dramatic life to this mission. His work covers all of the fields of theology, pedagogy, politics, literature, Hermetica, Christian theosophy and mysticism.

7 The labyrinth of the world: war and peace

Labyrint sweta a Lusthauz srdce (written 1623; first edition Leszno (Lissa) 1631) Prague 1782 and Dutch edition, R.A.B. Oosterhuis, Het labyrint der wereld en het paradijs des harten, Utrecht 1926

In this work Comenius expressed his moral and religious criticism on society as he knew it, although the work may equally be read as a literary satire on a chaotic and divided world. The first Dutch translation appeared in The Hague in 1788 under a different title: Wysgeerige en heekelende reizen, door de geheele wereld en door alle standen der menschelyke bedryven. In the chapter on the Rosicrucians, Comenius included statements by Andreae in which he distanced himself from the Rosicrucian movement he had helped to initiate. In his later (unpublished) “Clamores Eliae” (1668) Comenius surprisingly enough claimed allegiance to these very Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucian programme of a general reformation of the entire world was sufficiently close to Comenius’ pansophic continuation and was based on comparable didactical principles. The Moravian Brotherhood with which he was so intimately connected became to Comenius the first embodiment of the Fraternitas Roseae Crucis, a community which, persecuted throughout history, would be led to the light through the cross.

8 The Way of the Light

Via Lucis(first edition 1668) published by the BPH, Amsterdam 1992

Pansophic work in which Comenius (then staying in London, 1641-1642) continued his programme for a general reformation of the entire world. It was a call to Europe, the same which had resounded in the Fama Fraternitatis. The programme was also included in his last chief work, which he never finished: De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica. When it appeared in 1668, Comenius dedicated Via Lucis to the Royal Society, a newly founded society (London 1660) for the study of empirical science (natural philosophy): with all due respect, he informed the Society that all their scientific results put together were only a very first beginning, intended to lead to the verge of the temple of Universal Wisdom. Physics was followed by the schools of metaphysics and hyperphysics. Comenius argued for a college of wise men or scholars from various countries pledged to devote themselves to the reformation of all disciplines. The Civil War in England making these efforts futile, Comenius thought of Amsterdam instead of London as a possible seat for his College.

9 The Amsterdam period 1656-1670

Comenius arrived in Amsterdam via Groningen towards the end of August 1656, where he was the guest of the De Geer family for a while and stayed in their house on the Keizersgracht, known as the House with the Heads. Comenius received the key of the City Library, a stipend from the city council and Laurentius de Geer financed his publications. Comenius would stay at several addresses: Prinsengracht, Egelantiergracht, Westermarkt. During the last years of his life – which had been a life of hunted exile before – he intensified his contacts with radical dissidents (among them pietists, spiritualists and theosophers) who had found a home in the tolerant Republic. In this ‘Babel of the sects’ they gathered in the house of Comenius, who began to consider that Amsterdam might be the most appropriate town for his Collegium Lucis. Comenius’ book production, helped by having his own press on the Prinsengracht, was considerable in these years. The dedications were addressed to several members of the Amsterdam patriciate. Comenius was in high esteem although he also had opponents, especially theologians who criticized his chiliastic ideas as expressed in for instance Lux ex tenebris, which presented the visions of mystical-political prophets from Bohemia and Silesia.

10 Cynical stage: Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic

Diogenes cynicus redivivus, Amsterdam 1662 (first edition 1658); Dutch translation in Amsterdam in 1710: Verrezen hondschen Diogenes .

There is also literature in Comenius. This play (as like Labyrinth of the world ) can be seen as a critique of society in the guise of a satire. The play – written in the tradition of the school plays of Leszno and perhaps with Poland’s faith in mind – is intended as a reflection of the divine comedy carried out in the theatre of the world. Comenius introduces the Greek philosopher and exile Diogenes, the legendary embodiment of a cynical attitude towards life (the anecdotes on Diogenes were drawn from Diogenes Laertius and Erasmus). The translation is by Frans van Hoogstraten (first edition 1672), who also translated Erasmus’ satirical Lof der zotheid (In Praise of Folly), published in a new edition the next year and bound in with this copy; a volume on the vanity of this world.

11 Light out of darkness

Lux e Tenebris , Amsterdam 1657

Lux e Tenebris(Light out of darkness) combines chiliastic works of three prophets who ever since his Czech period had impressed Comenius with their political-religious visions of a general Reformation of Christendom, the collapse of the Habsburgs, the fall of Rome, and the arrival of the ‘Löwe von Mitternacht’ (the Lion from the North) (a symbol of king Frederic V, or Gustav Adolf of Sweden, or Christ the King). Although Comenius was not uncritical – for a universalist truth does not abide with prophecy as such, and there were also false prophets – the images of Europe’s political and religious future continued to fascinate him. He printed the works of Mikulás Drabik Christoph Kotter and Christina Poniatowska on his own presses in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam edition also provoked fierce criticism from Calvinist theologians as Samuel Maresius from Groningen; a polemic ensued. Maresius and others mainly regarded Comenius as a dangerous heretical thinker who had an affinity with chiliasts such as Sebastian Castellio, Valentin Weigel and the Rosicrucians. Comenius answered Maresius with an autobiographical outline. “Read my diaries, study my life”, he advised the theologians.

12 You only need one thing

Unum necessarium(1668); Dutch edition R.A.B. Oosterhuis: Een ding is noodig. Unum necessarium, Utrecht [1929]

Via Lucis appeared in Amsterdam in 1668, the year Comenius’ literary testament Unum necessarium was published. The one needful thing, a saying of Christ (Luke 10: 42), is interpreted by Comenius in what may be seen as an attempt to educate man and enable him to distinguish what is needful from what is not. The one neddful thing is man himself, or pansophy, light, wisdom. The mysticism of the union with God or the universal wisdom is in Comenius’ work forever accompanied by practical suggestions towards a better world, a world which is no longer a labyrinth. “Is it easy or difficult to strive for wisdom? It is both!”

13 Rosenkreuzer Reformation der ganzen Welt

Allgemeine und General Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt. Beneben der Fama fraternitatis, Kassel 1614

The Fama Fraternitatis , a work which originated in the Tübingen circle around Johann Valentin Andreae and Tobias Hess and which intended to arouse Europe to fulfill a thorough reformation, caused a considerable response. The Rosicrucian debate and the reformation programme which also had a strong didactic and pedagogic component – the reformation of man after the divine image – impressed Comenius greatly, as witnessed his Labyrinth of the World, a work which is also indebted to later works by Andreae such as Peregrinus and Civis Christianus . Although Andreae later distanced himself from the Rosicrucian movement and their manifestoes, he never abandoned the Christian reformation programme as expressed in the Fama .

14 Utopias: Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654)

Peregrini in patria errores(1618); Christianopolis (1619)

For his Labyrinth of the world Comenius derived much from Andreae’s Peregrini in patria errores, Civis christianis and Christianopolis , utopian, christological and pedagogical work which occupies an important place amongst other texts portraying a ideal or idealized Christian society. The best known are Campanella’s Civitas solis (City of the Sun), Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Comenius had lost all his books in a fire at Leszno; once in Amsterdam he once again tried to obtain the works of Andreae in Tübingen, amongst which Turbo (1616), Peregrinus (1618) and Christianopolis (1619), but also works in which Andreae had expressed criticism of the Rosicrucian movement, such as Menippus (1617) and Turris Babel (1619). Andreae himself, a life-long Lutheran who never left the orthodox fold, for his part had less admiration for Comenius; he could not embrace Comenius’ pansophy, which advocated personal freedom (free will) and responsibility as the road to man’s perfection, a road which actually led further away from Luther. To Comenius, however, Andreae remained the teacher who had assigned him in a personal letter as his successor, the new torch bearer of the reformation of the world.

15 Advancement of Learning: Samuel Hartlib and his circle

Copy of four letters by Comenius to Samuel Hartlib, 26 January 1638 – 1 July 1638 BPH MS M372

The educational reformers Samuel Hartlib and John Dury knew Comenius and his pedagogical work before the pansophist they so admired came to stay in London (at Hartlib’s invitation), to work on Via Lucis and prepare the possible foundation of a universal college in the English capital, for which he had petitioned the English Parliament. England, however, was on the verge of the Civil War and the plans for a Collegium Lucis could not be carried any further. Ties between Comenius and his English followers nevertheless remained close. The letters, all on pansophy, originally date to 1638. The year before, Hartlib on his own initiative had published Comenius’ Prodromus as Praeludia pansophiae in Oxford.

16 R.A.B. Oosterhuis and his Comenius editions

In Amsterdam much of Comenius’ work was first printed on his own initiative and with the support of Louis de Geer. In the 1920s the Amsterdam physician R.A.B. Oosterhuis translated many of Comenius’ works from Czech in to Dutch and brought them out in modern editions. Oosterhuis also wrote short studies on the Amsterdam pansophist and searched for Comenius’grave in the Walloon Church in Naarden, where he had been buried amongst other religious exiles. The present work is Oosterhuis’ translation of Het testament van de stervende moeder, de Broeder-Uniteit , written in 1650, a few years after the Peace of West-Phalia. This edition was made possible by J.R. Ritman, founder of the BPH, who knew Oosterhuis well. Other translations by Oosterhuis (Unum Necessarium and Labyrint) were later published in new editions by the Rozekruis Pers in Haarlem.