Jan Amos Comenius: a philosopher for the 21st century

The 17th century Czech philosopher and writer, Jan Amos Komenský – known internationally as Comenius - is one of the best known Czechs of all time. He is most widely celebrated for his progressive and enlightened ideas about education that earned him the epithet “the Teacher of Nations”. But the many other aspects of his thinking - and he was indeed a prolific writer with some 250 books to his name – remain somewhat neglected. This is something that Benjamin Kuras has decided to try to put right, in a small but inspiring book that he has just written for Prague’s Comenius Museum, entitled “Restoring Comenius”. As Ben told me, when we met to discuss the book, it did not take long before he realized the extraordinary breadth of Comenius’ thinking, that in many ways was far ahead of its time.

Benjamin KurasBenjamin Kuras “I discovered, as I went through all his books, that he was in fact one of the greatest philosophers of his time, rather in conflict or opposition to Descartes. Descartes had split matter from spirit and religion from science while Comenius had a fully holistic approach to all things in the universe, which makes him one of the most modern philosophers, talking to us even in the 21st century:"

We all stand on the stage of the great world and whatever takes place here, concerns us all.

We must aim unreservedly to restore to the human race freedom of thought, religious freedom and civic freedom, for freedom is the most precious human asset created along with man and inseparable from him.

“He saw life in his time as being like a broken vessel, which needs repairing, and Comenius actually talks about gluing the pieces together.”

In the book you explore his idea that everything is connected – if you get one thing wrong it can have implications for other aspects of your life, of your philosophy or view of the world, and you have to try to fit all things together.

“Yes, he was aware of everything being connected to everything else, including the human body. He did talk of human affairs as being in need of being healed holistically.”

There is an element of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” in that idea.

“Precisely. He did actually have a very healthy body. He walked miles and miles on end. He walked with books on his back from his studies in Heidelberg, all the way back to Moravia, where he finished his high school before going to university in Heidelberg.”

The context that Comenius came from is fascinating. His Central Europe was a meeting place of different cultures at the beginning of the 17th century, and then this melting pot turned into a place of conflict. You can see many different influences in his thinking, including – and this is a fascinating element in your book – the Cabbalistic, Jewish influence on his thinking.

“He was known to be a Hebrew scholar. He had known the Old Testament by heart. He must have studied some Hebrew scripts or Hebrew methods of teaching of his own time, because some of his methods are almost directly derived from the famous Rabbi Loew of Prague, who lived about seventy years before him. The philosophy or methodology of teaching of Rabbi Loew is very similar to that of Comenius, which means the Comenius might have arrived at the same conclusions or derived some of his ideas from Loew directly – either reading his books or discussing the methods with some of the Jewish teachers he may have known in Southern Moravia, where there were one or two very famous Jewish schools of the time.”

Do you think that this mix of different philosophies, ideas and religions in the world he grew up in is the key to understanding his very modern view of the world – embracing the many different elements to our lives that we need to put together, rather than a more doctrinal approach that would have been more common at the time?

“I think he was every bit a Protestant – a typical Protestant of his time – which would have been in the 17th century probably the most progressive method of thinking at the time. He obviously derived that from the Hussites of two centuries earlier, and one of the things that his particular religious sect – the Moravian Brethren as they were called and still are called in America – achieved was general education for children from the age of six all the way to learning a craft, achieving higher education and continuing education till the day they died. And he had devised several stages of learning. One of the main aims of his educational system was first to teach everybody to be able to make a living, which would have been the beginning of Protestant ethics, as we know it now.”

And you also describe him – somewhat controversially – as a conservative.

“As a conservative, again because of his holistic approach – that everything is connected to everything. He connects previous generations to the present time and to future generations, which is very similar to what the classical conservatism of Edmund Burke does. Of course, he lived a century before Burke, so if Burke was the father of conservatism, Comenius would have been the grandfather.”

I suppose you could say that Marxism owes something to Comenius as well, in the sense that all things are connected, because that is also something that Marx perceived – that you cannot look at the world in isolation, that things are connected by different economic and social threads.

“Yes, except that Marx saw the development of humanity as being a conflict between the classes, which is in complete opposition to Comenius’ idea of everything being connected to everything and everybody having to support everybody else.”

Politics are based on self-control, for nothing can control that does not first control itself, and no one can govern others who does not at the same time, and indeed, foremost, govern himself.

He actually spent much of his life in exile. He was destined to travel around different parts of Europe, which obviously in some ways was frustrating and limiting for him, but also did expose him to a broader spectrum of ideas and made him well known across Europe.

“It also made him a greater intellect than he would have been had he stayed at home, because back home, when he was still living in Moravia, he was committed to educating the Czechs and bringing the Czechs up to the level of the rest of Europe as it was at that time. When he was forced to leave the country and work with other nations like the Swedes and the Dutch and the English, he was catapulted in fact into higher spheres of thinking that he had not even imagined that he would ever be interested in.”

There was recently a conference in Prague about Comenius and his influence as an educator internationally. Participants came from all over the world, including countries as far away as South Korea. It must have been intriguing to see how people in different countries have been influenced by Comenius’ thinking.

“I gave a short paper on the holistic aspect of Comenius’ philosophy, which was something new, as none of the Comenius scholars had thought of it yet. The most fascinating contingent were the South Koreans. There were five or six of them, out of two hundred foreign speakers, and they were talking about the need for Comenius’ system, based on some form of Christianity, in South Korea. They were talking about how difficult it is to get people well educated in a completely irreligious framework. They told us that South Korea too is a non-religious or secular society – although it is the fastest growing Christian community in the world. So they were Korean Christians who found Comenius to be a kind of prophet.”

Why did you write the book in English rather than Czech?

“The first version was written in Czech. It was intended to be written in Czech and English, because I do most of my books now in both languages. The purpose was to help the Comenius Museum in Prague to get itself onto a more international footing. They are well connected with all the Comenius societies and institutions around the world and they needed an English book summarizing Comenius that they could present to their colleagues in the Western World – or in South Korea, Japan and China, as well.”

Is the book readily available?

“At the moment it is only available at the Comenius Museum (www.pmjak.cz, Valdštejnská 20, Praha 1), where it can be ordered. We are hoping to get a foreign distributor soon, and there is talk about a German translation in the near future.”

You can also get hold of the book directly from Benjamin Kuras himself (benkuras@aol.com).