Comenius, The Way of Light: “to plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth”

The College of Light (www.ritmanlibrary.com)

The College of Light (www.ritmanlibrary.com)

John Amos Comenius, The Way of Light, translated by E. T. Campagnac (The University Press of Liverpool, printed by Hodder & Stoughton (London), 1938).

In Via Lucis, vestigata et vestiganda [“The Way of Light,” written in 1641 but not published until 1668], John Amos Comenius proposed to a group of scholars on its way toward becoming the Royal Society of London a new effort on the part of learned Christendom to establish a College of Light, or a broad community of scholars who share the same foundation of knowledge, the same sacred mission, and even the same language. Comenius had been invited by some members of parliament to serve on a commission to reform public education in England. Comenius evidently took his charge very seriously, and the English ended up with more than they bargained for.

A hefty portion of Comenius’s book is dedicated to a careful unpacking of the familiar analogy of learning to light. Since the Fall, darkness has covered the earth, and there has been no shortage of ignorance, pain, and catastrophe. As in medicine, the cure is to remove the cause of the malady, and in this case our cure requires lots more light. And this light is available in three forms: the eternal light, through which God made all that is made, the external light, through which God enlightens our minds in our knowledge of nature, and internal light, shining upon our intellects, our wills, and our feelings. Comenius offers 48 theorems, definitions, and axioms about the behavior of light that reads less like a geometrical treatise on optics than like a series of parables. So, for example, axiom 37 tells us the great light produces great heat, “so if there is a great light in the intellect, a strong inclination of the will is produced towards good things.” The overall effect is to give us confidence that, with the help of God, we can gather together our sources of light to overcome the darkness in which we now live.

Overcoming the darkness will require four campaigns, for universal books, universal schools, a universal college, and a universal language. The universal books will establish a common foundation of knowledge. The first book will be a Pansophia, or “the very marrow of eternal truth, that is, the whole fundamental condition of all things as they are in their ideas”. I can’t help but think of this as something like Spinoza’s Ethics, if only in form – for I am quite sure Comenius would not have approved the content! The second book will be a Panhistoria, or “all the particular actions, accidents and issues of things (which have hitherto been discovered) from their origin up to the present time.” So: something like Hegel’s history, showing how the wisdom of the world has been expressed through concrete particulars. The final book will be the Pandogmatia, recounting all of the “theories or opinions which have been held about things wherever and however they have been produced and whether they are true or mistaken.” So, something like Wikipedia.

The three books put everyone on the same page – literally – and I am sure Comenius’s motivation in producing a compendium of human knowledge is exactly the same as the one that led soon to the early encyclopedias of Moréri, Furetiére, and Chambers. Comenius writes further of the Pansophia that it will have universal scope, setting forth “all things that are necessary for man for this life and the future life to know, believe, to do, and to hope.” It will have clear organization, it will be easy to read, and it will be the only book anyone ever need read – “Fullness, Order and Truth.” Every encyclopedist shares the same goal: to replace the many with the one, in the clearest and most judicious order, with the aim of instructing the reader in the most necessary things. Comenius’s encyclopedic ambitions are most clearly seen in what he says of the Pandomatia: “We are not urging the destruction of all authors of whatever kind they may be who now exist, but rather the gutting of them by means of epitomes, summaries, indices and collections, out of which it will be easy to learn the whole mind of every author upon whatever subject he has written.”

The universal schools have the aim of preparing every mind to share in the light. And Comenius did mean every mind, in his own compassionate vision of no child left behind:

By the pious care of Christian magistrates, provision can be made that all young people, even the children of needy parents and orphans, may, notwithstanding their disabilities, be educated. The richer citizens, for instance, might bring up with their own boys or girls an equal number of poor children of the same age, thus honouring God and earning the gratitude of good men, with great advantage and benefit both to themselves and their children.

The idea is that everyone is helped by making sure that all our children are taught well.

The universal college is not a particular institution, but a network of honorary professors from every nation – like “a Lipsius, a Scaliger, or a Salmasius” – all of whom are dedicated to the sacred task of bringing light into the world: “Universal learning should be their care and their delight.” One of these elites masters of universal learning shall serve as their Head, to whom reports are written and through whom news is shared. The College will be held together by a set of common laws:

These men must form a just estimate of the nobility of their vocation and rejoice that they are appointed to be the teachers of mankind, and that they are sent to plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth: they must regard themselves as, by the nature of their office, set to foster that piety enjoined by God; and so they must strive to copy the zeal of the apostles whose task it was to teach all men in all wisdom.

These evangelical masters of learning would guide and oversee the colleges in their own nations and serve as the channels through which the universal books are written and taught.

The universal language is needed, since Latin was quickly fading from the learned world. And good riddance too, Comenius thought; for while Latin has a long and rich history, and an intrinsic nobility, it is hard to learn and often misleads our thinking. Better to start from scratch and construct a language that replicates nature’s own concepts and is easy for the young mind to learn, regardless of what culture the young person is coming from.

Comenius’s aim in bringing about universal learning and a universal language is not merely so that we can bring relief to our blighted present. He also sees it as preparation for the days foretold by the prophets. With our dedicated efforts, and with God’s blessing,

all things will be truly known, not through theories and conjectures, but through the discovery of the very reasons and causes of the things themselves; so that all men who have eyes to see shall with their own eyes perceive not only what those things are which make up the whole fabric of the world, the whole structure of the church and the whole texture of all the ages, but also why not one of these things could be missing or in any other condition than that in which it is actually found. And then that prophecy will be fulfilled that one day it shall come about that men shall cease to be taught by men (Jeremiah 31:34) – that is, be led hither and thither by human authorities – and shall begin indeed to be God-taught (Isaiah 54:13).

And the rest of Comenius’s work is an avalanche of scriptural citations, followed by a devout prayer for success in the eventual illumination of the entire human race.

In many ways, Comenius’s Way of Light is a perfect instance of philosophical revolution in the early Enlightenment. It shows pride in the reach of human knowledge – though always under the umbrella of God’s grace. It is radically democratic, led by the hope that all people can become enlightened about themselves and the natural world. It sets its sights on institutional reform. And, at its heart, it nurses the hope that more knowledge is the panacea to human ills.

About Huenemann

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