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The Czech Republic and Jan Amos Comenius

It is four centuries ago, on 23rd May, 1618, that the Thirty Years’ War broke out. Pierre-Olivier Léchot presents the reaction of the great Czech theologian
Comenius to what can be considered the first global conflict.

Pierre-Olivier Léchot
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
When we talk about the Sixteenth-century Reformation, we often think about what is happening in Germany, in France, Switzerland or England. We forget all too often that the Reformation was also a milestone in the history of the ancient lands of Eastern Europe. As a matter of fact, in Bohemia and Moravia, the present-day Czech Republic, the Reformation evolved quickly after the appearance of Luther, because of the presence of disciples of Jan Hus, who was burned at the Council of Constance in 1415 because of his opposition to the papacy. These so-called Hussites quickly joined the camp of the reformers, creating religious turmoil in their country. At the beginning of the 17th century, they were in the majority among the nobility and many of them moreover were in correspondence with great figures of the time, like Charles de Žerotín, who was a friend of Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Theodore de Bèze (Beza). Future Czech pastors often attended, at some point in their studies, Swiss and German Protestant academies. That is the case with the young pastor Jan Amos Comenius (Komenský). Born in 1592, Comenius was scarred by the horrors that his country went through: as a teenager, he saw his family wiped out in the conflicts which set the Hungarian haïdouks against the masters of Bohemia-Moravia, the Habsburgs, who were Catholics and German speakers. As he returned to country to be a pastor, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) broke out, ravaging his homeland and setting German-speaking Catholics against Czech-speaking Protestants. Comenius then lost everything he had: his parish, his house, his wife and children. He then began a wandering life that would end in 1670 in the Netherlands. Now, what is striking is that this life of pain would not be, for him, the motive for a rhetoric of revenge. While he defended before the Thirty Years War positions that were strongly anti-Catholic and « nationalist », from then on Comenius opted for a different vision. For him, the chaotic situation was the fruit of the inner ruin of humanity. Saving the human being from armed conflict must therefore be accomplished through its reformation in depth (emendatio in Latin). For Comenius, there is no doubt: paradise is in the human heart and saving humanity from disorder is possible, if we manage to restore this lost paradise, buried deep within each one of us. Restoring paradise involves tackling the question of sin but, and this is where Comenius is an innovator, not by restoring the old or by taking refuge in a reassuring future (life after death), but by changing the world. The lost paradise thus becomes a model for transforming reality. If this perspective is clearly political, nevertheless it does not lead Comenius to advocate political reform or revolution. What he wants is to change people by changing the way they are educated. Unlike the dominant Calvinist tradition, humanity is not for Comenius deeply marked by Adam’s sin: at his birth, he is a clean slate onto which good and bad things can be transplanted. We have to measure the change which takes place, given that Comenius here puts forward an optimistic view of the human being, even a sinner, since he is convinced of his ability to change. However, the sinful man carries a tendency in him to turn away from God that we must be able to eliminate, not only relying on divine grace, but also on the human capabilities that God left to humanity – hence the central importance of education. This constitutes the vestibule (vestibulum) of the divine dwelling-place (paradise) into which God intends to bring humanity. However, the forms of education practised in the Europe of his time seemed to Comenius to be travelling in a direction exactly opposite to his project. Too marked by violence (corporal punishment was the norm), too oriented towards a theoretical knowledge detached from experience, they led children to their destruction. Comenius is in this respect the champion of inductive learning: when one teaches children the words of a new language, for example, they need to be able to see, touch and feel what they are told about and so associate the word, the idea and the thing. Nor should we just value the education of young men, but also that of women, including at university level.. For Comenius there was no doubt: women are « Endowed with a keen intelligence and an aptitude for knowledge equal, or even superior, to ours « . If Comenius did not experience during his lifetime the success for which he hoped, he would know it later: his theses on human nature, profoundly modern, anticipated the developments of modern theology, philosophy and pedagogy. In the twentieth century, many people would lay claim to him: Jean Piaget, in the psychology of childhood, Marguerite Yourcenar in literature or the Czech philosopher and opponent of Communism, Jan Patočka.

P.-O. L.


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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