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A biography of Jan Amos Comenius by Jan Hábl

20/6/2019

Jan Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670), Komenský in Czech, was a Protestant Moravian (currently a part of the Czech Republic) pastor, philosopher and educator who is celebrated especially for his revolutionary approach to education. His universal (holistic) notion of education and international success earned him the epithet “the teacher of nations.”

Early Background and Education

Comenius was born on March 28, 1592 in Moravia. His family belonged to the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), which was a branch of the Czech Reformation movement begun in 1457. Inspired by the ideas of Petr Chelčický (c.1380 – c.1460) and Jan Hus (c.1369 – 1415) they strove for radical piety and a return to a Christ-like simplicity of life. Due to their interaction with the Reformation ideas of the time, the community gradually developed into a Protestant denomination, standing theologically between Lutheranism and Calvinism.

Comenius’ life was marked by a series of particularly difficult afflictions, which significantly shaped both his theology and pedagogy. At the age of twelve (in 1604), Comenius lost his parents and two sisters, probably from the plague, and had to live with one of his other sisters and her family. As a thirteen-year-old boy Comenius experienced the destructiveness of war – as a consequence of the religious conflict between the Hungarians (Calvinists) and the Habsburgs (Roman Catholics) he lost all his inherited possessions, as well as his guardian family. His church community soon recognized his natural talent and sent him to one of the best high schools in the country. Later Comenius was sent to the reformed Universities in Herborn and Heidelberg, where he encountered some of the most influential ideas of the time (Alstead’s encyclopediasm, Piscator’s irenism, Ratichius’ educational reforms, etc.). Two years after his return from his studies he was ordained as a minister, and his first pastoral appointment was to the church at Fulnek in Northern Moravia.

The beginning of the Thirty-Years War, in 1618, brought about another series of life afflictions for Comenius. His homeland was devastated by various troops of the Habsburg (Roman Catholic) armies. Being a cleric of the Protestant church, Comenius was forced to leave both his family and his community, and hide in various locations in Northern Moravia. By 1623 he had lost virtually everything: his house was destroyed, his congregation dispersed, his library was burned by the Jesuits, and his young wife, having just delivered their second child, died of the plague along with the two babies. For the next five years Comenius led an insecure life, until the final expulsion of all the Protestants from the country. The Brethren found refuge for a short while in Leszno, Poland. Comenius remarried, but his second wife also died, leaving him with four children. His third wife outlived him. In Leszno he became a co-rector of the Brethren's school and later bishop (the last one) of the denomination. It was during this period that most of his educational works were written. Comenius’ fruitful, 28-year-long Leszno period (1628-1656), was interrupted by three sojourns to other countries – where he was invited to work on educational reforms as his reputation as an outstanding educator spread across Europe. The first invitation came from England (1641-1642), the second from Sweden (1642-1648), and the third from (today’s) Hungary (1650-1654). Comenius even received an invitation to work as rector of the newly founded Harvard College in America. The Northern Wars in 1655 between the Protestant Swedish King Charles X Gustav and the Roman Catholic Polish King, John II Casimir, proved to be fatal for Comenius and his denomination. The Lezsno Brethren community naturally sided with Swedish party, which the Polish Catholic majority considered to be a betrayal of Poland. As soon as the city of Lezsno was no longer protected by the Swedish troops the Polish partisans invaded it and burned it. Comenius and his family barely escaped with their lives, lost all their property, and were forced into exile once again. Particularly painful for Comenius was the loss of certain manuscripts on which he had worked for more than 40 years. From Leszno he took refuge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where he died in 1670. 

Contributions to Christian Education

Comenius’ contributions to education can be summarized under three main areas;

I) General philosophy of education. He was the first person to formulate the idea of “education according to nature.” However his ideas were very different from the popular concepts of later thinkers such as Rousseau etc. Besides his educational interests Comenius also pursued philosophical ones, which he later developed into a specific notion of universal wisdom called pansophy. Assuming the universe is a harmonic unity created by one Creator, Comenius saw a fundamental parallelism between the cosmos (nature), the micro cosmos (human nature) and revelation (Scripture). Bringing human nature into harmony with nature and Scripture is the real essence of education. It is the “art” (ars) of “forging” such humanity in which the “nexus hypostaticus” (the personal relationship) to God is restored.

II) Holistic approach to education. The notion of “wholeness” or “universality”is essential in Comenius’ education. He often expressed it in a motto “omnes, omnia, omneno” meaning that all people ought to learn, in all possible ways, all that is necessary for a good life that honors God. Similarly, on the individual level, Comenius argued that the “whole man” has to be educated, that is, both boys and girls need to be trained not only in knowledge, but also morals and godliness, for according to Comenius humankind has been endowed with three fundamental capacities i) to be knowledgeable of things, ii) to have power over things and one’s self, and iii) to turn to God, the source of everything. Epistemologically, Comenius expresses this in the triad theoria – praxis –chrésis (wise use) pointing to the fact that knowledge without virtue and piety is never complete. To accomplish such goals Comenius designed a complex system of schools based on both horizontal unity in respect to curricula at a given educational level, and vertical unity in the hierarchy of the stages of education. For a time when education had neither stable institutions nor general programs of study, such a proposal was quite revolutionary.

III) Language teaching/learning. In 1633 Comenius himself was surprised by the worldwide success of his Latin textbook Janua linguarum reserata (The Gate of Tongues Unlocked). It was based on the pansophic idea of the encyclopedic organization of material and the interconnection of real things, sense experience, and words. Together with “Principles for Facilitating Teaching and Study” derived from operations of nature, it proved to be very effective in language learning. This was followed by a series of other textbooks of which perhaps the most famous is Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures), the first illustrated language textbook. 

Most Important Works

The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (1631), an allegorical and partly autobiographical narrative describing the quest for hope and meaning in the midst of worldly decay (John Bunyan, who published his Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678 never knew this book since it was written in the Czech language). The School of Infancy (1632) a handbook for parents dealing with the early years of a child’s education, The Way of Light (1642) an outline of a universal plan for peace and harmony among nations, Opera Didactica Omnia (1657) a complete collection of his educational works, De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica (A General Consultation Concerning the Improvement of Human Affairs), his final and greatest piece of work, which was lost and remained unpublished for about 250 years (it was first published in 1966 in Latin).  

Bibliography

J. Hábl, Lessons in Humanity from the Life and work of Jan Amos Comenius. Bonn: Culture and Science Publ. 2011.

J. A. Comenius, Didactica magna (Great Didactics) in DJAK, vol.XV, Academia, Praha 1986.

D. Murphy, Comenius: A Critical Reassessment of his Life and Work. Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1995.

R. Palouš, J.A.Komenský – náboženský myslitel (J.A.Comenius – a Religious Thinker), in Studia  Comeniana et Historica, 51, XXIV/1994.

R.Palouš, Komenského Boží Svět (Comenius’ God’s World), SPN Praha, 1992.

J. Patočka, “Komenského duchovní biografie” (Komenský’s Spiritual Biography) in Komeniologickéstudie III (Comeniological Studies, vol.III), Oikoymenh, Praha 2003.

 

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