John Amos Comenius, Citizen of the World

By I. L. Kandel, New York


It is one of the ironies of history that a man who devoted his whole life to the cause of peace and universal brotherhood should be remembered only for his contributions to educational theory and the text-books which he prepared. It is also characteristic of the politician’s state of mind that, when he sought Sweden as a haven where he could work for the great cause which he had espoused, Comenius was advised by [Axel] Oxenstierna [chancellor of Sweden] to devote himself to schoolmastering. “My advice”, said Oxenstierna, “is that you first do something for the schools, and bring the study of the Latin tongue to a greater facility; thus you will prepare for those greater matters”—the program of word peace. This attitude of mind was to be repeated three centuries later when the League of Nations turned a deaf ear to the plea that education should also be employed under its aegis as an instrument for the promotion of a new world order.

Comenius, however, showed greater insight into the needs of his age than did the politicians. It is not necessary to attempt to establish a claim to originality for Comenius. If he was not original, he did at least have the ability to see the real bearings of the contributions which had been made by his predecessors and his contemporaries to human thought and to a new world order. He had insight to bring together the somewhat isolated suggestions and recommendations made by other into one program and to go beyond them in an active campaign to convert this program into a practical reality. Others had dreamed dreams and seen visions but it remained for Comenius to attempt to make them the basis of both national and international policy. To trace Comenius’s ideas back to their origins is not difficult, but the fact that he may have derived inspiration from others does not in any way diminish the credit which should be his due for the efforts which he put forward throughout his career to make them effective and vital springs for political action. He was heir to the faith in universal brotherhood which had animated every humane man before him and will continue to be an inspiration to all men of good will until it is established on earth. He was in this sense a citizen of the world.

His faith in universal brotherhood and an internationally ordered world did not deflect him, however, from doing all that was in his power to restore his people to the homeland from which they had been ruthlessly driven. If his first thoughts were directed to the education of his people, it was, as he wrote: “with no other intent but that, should God in His mercy toward us restore us to our native land, supports might be in readiness, whereby the harm wrought to our schools and our youth might be the more rapidly repaired.” But he was more then a nationalist; he was a humanitarian who wished to see educational opportunities provided for “all alike, gentle and simple, rich and poor, boys and girls, in great towns and small, down to the country villages. And for this reason. Everyone who is born a human being is born with this intent—that he should be a human being, that is a reasonable creature ruling over the other creatures and bearing the likeness of his Maker.” Nearly two centuries were to pass before this ideal was to be incorporated in the educational policies of nations.

Comenius was not content, however, with the provision of educational opportunities for all according to their abilities. Universal education must be informed with knowledge garnered from all the world, if universal humane education was to be disseminated. Education must become a way of light “that the young”, as Comenius wrote, “might be rescued from the mazes of the world and better instructed about all things from their very elements” and that “men’s minds should be gradually raised from darkness to light and withdrawn from the vague and casual opinions to the one straightforward way of everlasting truth”.

In the contributions of Comenius to education no longer arouse the interest which they did even as recently as fifty years ago, it is not because they have become obsolete or discredited; it is because they have been embodied in the thinking of the world of education. Of the teacher of Poland, Sweden, England and Holland, whose “Gate of Tongues Unlocked” was translated in his own day into most of the languages of Europe and into Turkish, Arabic, Persian and “Mongolian”, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler could say on the occasion of the celebration of his 300th anniversary: “The place of Comenius in the history of education, therefore, is one of commanding importance. He introduces and dominates the whole modern movement in the field of elementary and secondary education. His relation to our present teaching is similar to that held by Copernicus and Newton toward modern science, and Bacon and Descartes toward modern philosophy.”

A great injustice has been done to the work and memory of Comenius in the failure to understand that he was more than a schoolman and that his lifelong devotion to education was based on his desire to lay the foundations for the larger scheme which he developed simultaneously with his works on education. Education, as [Jules] Michelet [one of France’s greates historians] pointed out, was, in Comenius’s opinion, to be the way to peace and to universal brotherhood. For Comenius was not a dreamer; the times in which he lived were such as to impel any thoughtful man to turn his mind to plans for the amelioration of the ills which overwhelmed the world. A refugee in a world torn by religious dissensions and imperialist aggressions he saw Europe being devastated by prolonged wars and in England, where he hoped to see the fruition of his plans for a better world order, the outbreak of war and civil strife in which men could find no time to consider proposals for perpetual peace destroyed the great hope which he had entertained of seeing his ideas realized. Homeless in a world which refused to turn its attention to plans for the restoration of world sanity, Comenius rejected the offers of a safe haven in the American colonies in order that he might devote himself to the redemption of Europe.

Comenius has been described as a millenarian; devoutly religious, he could not but accept the promise of a better world. Faced with the conditions of his day, however, he felt it his duty to contribute, so far as his powers would permit, to hastening the realization of that promise in his time. It was in this connection that he sought to turn to practical use the new knowledge which was being accumulated. With his contemporaries he shared the hope that the newly discovered sciences would, as [Francis] Bacon had already expressed it, be used “to endow human life with new discoveries and resources”, “to extend more widely the powers and greatness of man’s estate, to secure the sovereignty of man over nature”, “for the finding out the true nature of all things, whereby God might have the more glory in the workmanship of them, and men the more fruit of them”.

While Comenius welcomed the new learning, he was disturbed by the threatened danger of specialization in which men would become immersed in their own immediate interests and neglect the practical contribution which could only be made by a synthesis of all the knowledge then in process of being accumulated. He anticipated by three centuries the current movement for the unification and coordination of the sciences as a tool for social progress and human welfare. Comenius was not a scientist but he realized fully the potentialities of the sciences. A disciple of Bacon, he constituted himself a “Merchant of Light”, a mission which brought him an invitation to England in 1641. This visit has been described by R. Fitzgibbon Young in his scholarly study of “Comenius in England” and its anniversary was widely celebrated last fall by the British universities. If he did not succeed in securing the establishment of the international center, or Pansophic College, for the coordination of the knowledge and sciences of the world, he did participate in, and probably contributed to, the discussions which ultimately resulted in the founding of the Royal Society.

It can not be emphasized too strongly that, important as where the contributions of Comenius to education, nothing that he did in this field has meaning except as it is related to his larger design for the coordination of the knowledge of the world for the advancement of human welfare. This task, as he wrote in 1669, “would be the work of more than one man, particularly when he was a Comenius, so frankly confessing the scantiness of his own equipment in this regard; wherefore he must be given collaborators, six or eight learned men who would ransack all the libraries and supply him with the more choice materials for his own pen to reduce in order. Nor would the work be of a single age even, if it were brought to its proper perfection. Consequently there would have to be founded at this juncture a college such as the illustrious Bacon desired, dedicated to all the studies of the world, of men whose care was to bring about augmentations, worthy of the human race, in the sciences and arts.”

A few years earlier, in his “Great Didactic”, Comenius described the kind of college which should be established. Learned men “should make it the object of their combined labors to establish thoroughly the foundations of the sciences, to spread the light of wisdom throughout the human race with greater success than has heretofore been attained and to benefit mankind by new and useful inventions. For unless we desire to remain ever in the same position, or even to go back, we must take care that our successful beginnings lead on to further advances. For this no individual, and no single generation sufficeth, and it is therefore essential that the work should be carried on by many persons, working in concert and using as a starting-point the researches of their predecessors. This Universal College would bear the same relation to other schools that the belly bears to other members of the body, that of a living laboratory supplying sap, vitality and strength to all.”

This was the great task to which Comenius dedicated his life—the creation of a Universal College, a Pansophic College, a Temple of Universal Wisdom, “a structure of truth, human and divine”, which would take all knowledge as the sphere of its activities and in which learned men from all over the world would cooperate. It was not, however, the accumulation of knowledge for its one sake in which Comenius was interested, but its unification, coordination and advancement for human welfare and universal peace. In expressing his hopes Comenius speaks as any contemporary would speak to us to-day:

“There is needed in this century”, he wrote in his ‘Pansophiae Diatyposis’ (Pattern of Universal Knowledge, 1643), “an immediate remedy for the frenzy which has seized many men and is driving them in their madness to their mutual destruction. For we witness throughout the world disastrous and destructive flames of discords and wars devastating kingdoms and peoples with such persistence that all men seem to have conspired for their mutual ruin which will end only with the destruction of themselves and the universe. Nothing is, therefore, more necessary for the stability of the world, if it is not to perish completely, than some universal rededication of minds. Universal harmony and peace must be secured for the whole human race. By peace and harmony, however, I mean not that external peace between rulers and peoples among themselves, but an internal peace of minds inspired by a system of ideas and feelings. If this could be attained, the human race has a position of great promise.”

This system of ideas and feelings could be attained through universal knowledge which, as the foundation and coordinator of all things, would secure order and produce good rulers of states. But it would do more, if the masses would be permitted to learn and understand that the public and private welfare of all depend upon the acceptance of responsibility by each for his own proper function in life. With nations scattered over the whole world and divided by differences of languages much could be gained not only for each nation but for all peoples of the earth, if they had a common basis for mutual understanding which they could share through a common language. Such a common basis could be achieved and disseminated because of the expansion of intercourse between all parts of the world through navigation, printing and the promises of the sciences. Further, the dissemination of universal knowledge was made possible by the discovery of a method whereby all men could learn all things thoroughly (omnes omnia omnino). The great task for the Pansophic College would be to coordinate and unify all knowledge and adapt it for convenient use by this method.

Comenius was not content, however, with the coordination and unification of the knowledge of the past and of his day. The Pansophic College would be concerned with emphasizing the coherence of all things, with stressing the possibilities of constant progress and with insisting on the perpetual interdependence and unification of all knowledge. Directly attacking the current belief that intellectual achievement had already reached its limits, he urged that the duty of the Pansophic College would also be to reveal the unknown areas which still remained to be discovered. Knowledge to be effective must, he urged, be universal and without any serious gaps; it must be true and sifted from the false and useless, and it must be so simplified and free from obscurities and ambiguities that it would of itself exercise an influence on the mind. The light of true knowledge would serve to promote universal knowledge and cultural unity throughout the world.

More than three centuries separate the age of Comenius from that in which we live. Comenius may have expressed his ideas in mold which differs from ours; his faith may have been rooted in sanctions which a world, become skeptical and cynical, has questioned. We may know more of the hidden causes of things than even the optimistic age of Comenius considered possible. And yet we may well ask ourselves whether, with all the apparatus of knowledge and learning and with all the equipment for modern methods of investigation, we have advanced much further toward the realization of the hopes which Comenius entertained for an understanding world of peace and universal brotherhood. The world, again enveloped by the destructive flames of a devastating war which threatens to end in the destruction of ourselves and the universe, is once more setting out on the same quest which makes Comenius as real for our day as for his and gives him his rightful place among those who have labored for an internationally ordered world.

More clearly than the statesman of his day Comenius realized that the ideals which he preached could not be achieved by political methods and conventions alone nor by the increase and dissemination of knowledge alone unless that knowledge were imbued with the common ideals and purposes, shared by the whole of the human race. If any one should be disposed to ignore the design of Comenius, the theologian and idealist philosopher, for a peaceful and harmonious world, he is urged to compare that design with the proposal for a “World Encyclopaedia” put forward a few years ago by H. G. Wells, the secularist and naturalist philosopher.

Like Comenius, Wells deplores “the conspicuous ineffectiveness of modern knowledge and ... trained and studied thought in contemporary affairs”. Wells, like Comenius before him, is critical of the intense specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge. Referring to those who watched the birth of the League of Nation, Wells writes: “Possibly all the knowledge and all the directive ideas needed to establish a wise and stable settlement of the world’s affairs in 1919 existed in bits and fragments, here and there, but practically nothing had been assembled, practically nothing had been thought out, nothing practically had been done to draw that knowledge and these ideas together into a comprehensive conception of the world ... We live in a world of unused and misapplied knowledge and skill ... Can scientific knowledge and specialized thought be brought into more effective relation to general affairs?”

Comenius’s answer to this question was his design for the Temple of Universal Wisdom; Wells’s answer is that “a new social organ, a new institution—which for a time I shall call World Encyclopedia, is the means whereby we can solve the problem of that jigsaw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding, and into effective reaction upon our vulgar everyday political, social an economic life ... I am sketching what is really a scheme for the reorganization and reorientation of education and information throughout the world.”

The World Encyclopaedia of Wells, like the Pansophic College of Comenius, would be a world-wide organization of intellectuals and specialists, corresponding associates of the Encyclopaedia organization.

“Such an Encyclopaedia organization (writes Wells in words which almost sound like quotations from Comenius) could spread, like a nervous network, a system of mental control over the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression into more and more conscious cooperating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity ... Without a World Encyclopaedia to hold men’s minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles. As mankind is, so it will remain, until it pulls its mind together.”

So speaks Wells, the modernist; so spoke Comenius, the educator and theologian. It is his community of thought with the present which justified the universities of Great Britain and justifies us in celebrating the anniversary of a man who, as educator and as an internationalist, belongs to all ages. Comenius was a citizen of the world, but he could believe in a world united by a common ideal and a common purpose without surrendering faith in his own people. He could trust God that the rule of their affairs would again be restored to the Czech people, and at the same time cling to his faith in universal brotherhood and peace through universal understanding, which alone can ensure the security of nations and the welfare of the world.

From: School and Society, The Publication of The Society for the

Advancement of Education, Inc., vol. 55, nr. 1424, New York, April 11, 1942