Comenius, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart

Jan Amos Komensky, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, trans. Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk (New York: Paulist Press, 1998). Originally published in 1623, but again published in 1663 with additions.

ComeniusComenius writes in the person of a pilgrim who has decided to survey all the walks of life before deciding upon one for his own. He meets Search-All, or Ubiquitous, who informs him that the world is a labyrinth and offers to serve as a guide. The pair then meets Delusion, whose job it is to interpret the Queen of the World – Wisdom, also known as Vanity – for others and to teach how all things in the world should be understood. Delusion fits the pilgrim with the bridle of curiosity and the spectacles of delusion (with lenses made of presumption and frames made of a horn called habit). The spectacles make near things seem far, and far things near – but the pilgrim finds that by tilting his head up and looking under the glasses he can sneak some more accurate glances.

The pilgrim, with guide Ubiquitous and interpreter Delusion, travels above the world to look down upon it. He sees that there are six main avenues – the domestic, the crafts and trades, the learned, the spiritual, the rulers, and the soldiers. There is also the Castle of Fortune, and a marketplace where the queen has her residence.

All those who enter the world are given a slip of paper by Fate that tells them to “Rule” or “Obey” or “Plow” or “Learn” or “Judge” and so on. The pilgrim is given “Examine”, and the trio proceeds to the marketplace. The pilgrim finds a great disorder there – all are monstrously deformed in different ways, but they put on masks as soon as they encounter one another. And the misshapen beasts busy themselves in the strangest ways –

Indeed, some collected garbage and distributed it among themselves. Some were rolling logs and stones here and there or hoisting them on pulleys and setting them down again. Some were digging earth and conveying or carrying it from place to place. The rest were working with bells, mirrors, children’s games, rattles, and other trinkets. Others were even playing with their own shadows – measuring, chasing, and trying to catch them. They did so vigorously that many groaned and perspired, and some even collapsed from over-exertion. (chapter 7, section 6)

All behave in foolish ways, and laugh at one another and hurt each other. Some constantly change their clothes and behold themselves in mirrors, while others walk on stilts to be higher than everyone else – and everyone laughs uproariously when they fall down. Delusion of course claims that everything is orderly and the monsters are quite normal human beings. Death walks among them, cutting down people at random, and reminding all that they are mortal – but she is roundly ignored.

They enter into domestic avenue and see married couples and families. Couples are shackled together, usually with one pulling the other along. Most of them have “a flock of children around them, attached to them with bridles. They screamed, shrieked, stank, quarreled, and got sick and died, to say nothing of the pains, tears, and dangers to their own life with which they came into the world” (8.5). As Death would kill children or spouses, the pilgrim expects the survivors to be relieved of the burden – but instead, they weep bitterly and then rush to be chained again to someone else. [It should be noted that Comenius’s first wife and two children died from plague, and his second wife also died young.]

In the next avenue – that of the trades – workers and sailors all labor like mules in horrible conditions, mainly in exchange for food for themselves and families. Their lives are filled with danger, arduous toil, difficulties, envy, and sin.

The gate to the avenue of learned people is Discipline, and each person entering it is examined for having a steel head (for it will otherwise burst), a mercury brain (to reflect well), buttocks of lead (for sitting), iron skin (to endure the beatings and whippings), and a purse of gold (to pay for it all). The library is filled with boxes, and scholars tear off portions of them. Some eat the portions, and cram themselves greedily with everything they can find; others put the chunks into bags that they carry around with them, and bring out on occasion; and some just put the chunks on display in their rooms. Other scholars are busy fashioning the boxes and filling them with potions – sometimes original, sometimes stolen from other boxes, and often diluted. And there is great fighting among them, with swords, spears, and daggers made of leather, which they hold in their mouths.

The pilgrim goes on to visit the philosophers, the grammarians, the rhetoricians, the poets, the dialecticians, the natural scientists, the metaphysicians, the arithmeticians, the geometricians, the land surveyors, the musicians, the astronomers, the astrologers, the historians, and the moralists and political thinkers. As one would expect, he finds all manner of confused controversy, hypocrisy, delusion, and concern over petty or trivial things. The historians, for example, have curved, backward-peering telescopes, each one offering a different distorted vision of what lies behind the viewer – and this of course engenders endless quarrel about what’s really back there. The pilgrim continues on to visit the alchemists, the Rosicrucians, the medical doctors, and the lawyers, finding them all to be fools engaged in efforts that provide little or no benefit to others.

He then observes the promotions of masters and doctors, only to find that many of them cannot calculate, measure, name a star, give a decent oration, or speak a foreign language – “’Am I to understand,’ I inquired, ‘that after spending an eternity in schools, expending a fortune on education, amassing titles and seals, it is still necessary to ask whether he has learned anything? May God save us from such a process!” (16.3). University education had its assessment issues even in the 17th century.

The pilgrim enters the spiritual avenue next, where similar disappointments are encountered. The avenue is rife with confusion, division, hypocrisy, and all manner of duplicity and sin. The pilgrim does happen across a group of true Christians, who engage in no doctrinal disputes: “They walked silently, as if in deep thought, looking often to heaven and conducting themselves kindly toward all.” He wants to follow them – but he is then restrained by Delusion, and he plunges back into the labyrinth of the world. He admits now that this was the way he should have gone, and later on he will have the chance to make it right.

His visit to the politicians and the soldiers goes exactly as one might expect. Among the ruling class, some are lacking ears, others noses or eyes: they cannot hear, smell, or see the complaints of their subjects. Some lack the heart to do anything about it. The ears of kings and princes are attached to long tubes, so they only hear what is whispered into them, though the tubes have so many twists and holes that many words do not survive the voyage. The soldiers enter into their avenue by opening up their purses into which gold is poured – and they are told that their skin has now been bought.

The pilgrim makes an unexpected stop to visit the newsmen – or, as we would say, the media. They blow whistles at one another, rejoicing when the whistle sounds pleasant and feeling sad when it sounds shrill. The pilgrim notes that “there was indeed a certain pleasure in hearing different voices coming from everywhere. But it displeased me that some acted immoderately, buying all the whistles that they possibly could get, blowing them awhile and then throwing each of them away…. It was amusing to see that people allowed themselves to be deceived by every gust of wind” (22.4-5).

The pilgrim visits the castle of Fortune, the rich, the hedonists, the elite, and the famous, and comes finally upon the palace of the Queen of the World. This section of Comenius’s allegory is especially interesting. The Queen, rather than punishing the pilgrim for all his carping and cynicism, decides to give him the chance to attain a better understanding of what he has observed. Suddenly, Solomon and his retinue enter the palace, and the pilgrim is overjoyed to find that Solomon agrees with the pilgrim’s view of the world. The Queen’s officials (Industry, Fortune, Prudence, and so on) attempt to offer explanations and justifications for all the woes of the human world, showing that sometimes compromises and difficult decisions have to be made, and that what seems wrong here and now turns out eventually to benefit all. Solomon at first is unconvinced – “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! Cannot what is crooked be made straight, and cannot what is lacking be counted?” But then Affability and Craftiness and Delight set upon him, and he is eventually seduced by clever crafts and by beautiful young women. He joins in the wisdom of the world. But his corruption causes other members of his company – Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah – to launch a violent protest, and before long there is a terrible battle, and the pilgrim is forced to flee.

The pilgrim has truly hit bottom. He has seen the world, and found nothing worthy in it. Even the wisdom of Solomon fails. The pilgrim cries out, “Oh, that I had never been born! That I had never passed through the gate of life, if after all the vanities of the world I should have as my portion only this darkness and horror! Oh, God, God, God! God, if you are God, have mercy on me, a wretched man!” It is at this point that the work shifts from the Labyrinth of the World to the Paradise of the Heart, for Christ enters the heart of the pilgrim and makes it his home: “Let your religion be to serve me in quietness.” Christ tells the pilgrim –

If you possess riches, learning, beauty, wit, favor among the people, and whatever is considered successful in the world, by no means exalt yourself on this account. If you do not have these things, do not be concerned about it; but leaving all these things, whether they belong to you or others, commune inwardly with me here alone. Thus ridding yourself of all created beings and denying and renouncing even your own self, I promise that you will find me, and in me the fullness of peace. (39.15)

And the rest of the work is a guide to maintaining one’s true Christianity – humility, love, and freedom from earthly dispute – while living in the twisted work that is the world. The conclusion is Comenius’s own consolation in his own experience. His parents died when he was young, and he spent most of his life being chased around Europe by the flesh-grinding terror of the Thirty Years War. He steadily preached the gentle sort of Christianity expressed in this book, and also advocated for kinder and more effective forms of education for all children, boys and girls, rich and poor. He supported the radical idea that education should be shaped to the individual, and that it did not require beatings. His great major work, an encyclopedic seven-volume De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica – “A General Consultation on the Improvement of all Human Things” – was an outline for the whole of knowledge as well as a treatise on how to teach everything to everybody. As the editors of this edition of the Labyrinth explain, Comenius thought of education as “the process by which people could be trained to see beyond the apparent chaos of the world and discover the underlying harmony of God’s universe.”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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