Stein M. Wivestad 16.06.11

In The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart the Czech theologian and educator Jan Amos Comenius gives a representation of his own life experiences in the 17th century. According to the Slavic scholar Dmitrij Tschizewskij (1972, p. 139) the book is one of the most beautiful works in Czech literature and an important work in world literature. I have used two translations, both are based on the edition of Jan V. Novk from 1910: Matthew Spinka's American translation from 1942, which tries to "modernize the diction and to approximate the original with modern idiom" (p. VI) and Milada Blekastad's poetic Norwegian version from 1955. Citations are given from Spinka's translation. References also show to the subdivisions of the chapters as indicated in Blekastad's version.

The book is an allegoric tale about a pilgrimage, written 50 years before John Bunyan's more famous The pilgrim's progress, and quite different from it. The pilgrim in Comenius' work starts in his own heart, thinking through the aims of the pilgrimage:

I finally concluded to test all human affairs under the sun, and afterwards, when I had intelligently compared one with another, to choose such a profession as would permit me to spend a peaceful life. ... choose such mode of life as involves the least amount of care and labor and affords the greatest degree of comfort, peace, and cheerfulness. (Chapter 1.5 and 1.2)

"Thereupon, I went out of myself ... [and I] left my home to wander about the world in order to gain experience."

He describes life as a labyrinth, a more difficult one than the classical Greek model (Chapter 2). The labyrinth is seen as a city. It "formed a circle, and was surrounded with walls and ramparts, but in place of moats there yawned a gloomy abyss, apparently boundless and bottomless. Light shone only above the city, while beyond the walls it was pitch dark." (Chapter 5.1). (The drawing is made by Comenius).

The entrance is our birth, the exit is our death. Both are blurred in darkness. People are moving towards the castle of Fortuna, moving towards Happiness seen as wealth, pleasures and honour (Chapter 5).

The castle of Happiness is the residence of the queen of the world: "Her Most Gracious Queen Wisdom", in Chapter 33.1 unveiled as Vanity, with painted, swollen face, a foul breath and a disgusting body.

The pilgrim in The Labyrinth gets two "helpers". The first is the inquisitive guide who finds out everything: "Searchall, called Ubiquitous" (Chapter 2). The second is the interpreter, who is named "Delusion" (Chapter 3). He blurs all problems with soothing words, so that the problems seem to be harmless. It is said to be difficult to find good translations of the Czech names on the two helpers. In German Klaus Schaller proposes "Frwitz ... beralldabei" and "Verblendung" (Schaller, 1962, p. 185 and 193). Both these guides are the Queen's men. The pilgrim is tempted by Searchall to a mania for novelty, a persistent tendency to make digressions, "ein stndiges Abspringung von der Sache" (Patocka, 1971, p. 12), which also may be interpreted as a restless transcending of all limits - an urge for perfect knowledge and power - to be like God (Schaller, 1962, p. 190-194). By Delusion he is tempted to resignation, to be satisfied by half-truths. However, he resists seduction by these helpers, thanks to his own personal view. He does not always look through the glasses they have given him, and therefore he is not led astray by superficial inquiry or the accumulated "wisdom" of the world.

An example may be given from his visit to the academic world. Comenius likens academic studies with work in a drug store or pharmacist's shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landstorget, Bergen, Norway.
Photo: Stein M. Wivestad, 1992

 

Comenius gives a critical description of people who try to compound academic papers, or in his vocabulary, try to produce fine jars and bottles filled with remedies against cultural diseases. He divides these products into two distinct categories of quality (Chapter 10.9):

Seized with the desire to examine how those things (which were called talents and wisdom) were made and prepared, I observed one or two of the workmen. They collected fragrant spices and herbs; then they cut, ground, boiled, and distilled them, preparing various delectable medicines, extracts, syrups, and other medicaments for the cure of human diseases. On the other hand, I saw others who contented themselves with transferring the contents of some bottle into their own. Of the latter there were hundreds. I exclaimed: "They are but pouring water from one jar into another!" ... seeing plainly that a fraud was being practiced here. For some of the workmen seized somebody else's bottle, and in order to fill several of their own, diluted the contents as much as they could, even with slops. Others thickened it with any kind of hodge-podge, perhaps dirt or refuse, that it might appear as something new. Besides, they labeled their concoctions with more splendid titles than the originals and shamelessly, like the other quacks, exalted the merits of their own stuff. ... the more of those medicines one had swallowed, the more he grew pale, pined away, and sickened.

I accept Comenius' notions about the first two workers as ideals for my own educational study and writing: Personal selection of the best materials ("fragrant spices and herbs") both in educational practice and writing, intense analysis, balanced synthesis and pure and precise presentation; all done to further education for a good life. But I'm afraid I am inclined to follow the "hundreds", caring most for the outward appearance of the products.

Comenius, J. A. (1942). The labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the heart (translated by M. Spinka). Reprinted in Montana, USA: Kessinger Publishing Co. ISBN 1-56459-293-6. http://www.kessingerpub.com/catalog/

Comenius, J. A. (1955). Verdsens labyrint og hjartans paradis.(translated by M. Blekastad). Oslo: Dreyer.

Murphy, D. (1995). Comenius: A critical reassessment of his life and work. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Schaller, K. (1962). Die Pdagogik des Johann Amos Comenius und die Anfnge des pdagogischen Realismus in 17. Jahrhundert. Heidelberg : Quelle & Meyer.

Schaller, K. (1987). Pdagogik der Kommunikation : Annherungen - Erprobungen. St. Augustin: Richarz.

Patocka, J. (1971). Die Philosophie der Erziehung des J. A. Comenius. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schningh.

Tschizewskij, D. (1972). Kleinere Schriften:.II. Bohemica. Mnchen: Wilhelm Fink.