Comenius and Pansophic Education

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Zak Stein:

"Comenius ushered in an era of “modern education.” Yet he was largely forgotten once the secular, capitalist, and nationalistic projects of modernity were fully underway. Although he was world famous, his systemic educational reform efforts (in Sweden and elsewhere) largely failed in his own day due to the persistence and inertia of medieval systems of education. The metaphysical and philosophical foundations of his system—pansophy—were not acceptable to the church because they made a place for science and for a diversity of faiths. Comenius’ system was also not acceptable to the future creators and maintainers of scientific knowledge, many of whom took up residence in institutions he inspired (e.g., The Royal Society). Although Descartes and Leibniz admired the pansophic system, they themselves would find more of a place in the modern world without it. Leibniz himself wrote in homage: “May the time come, Comenius, when multitudes of men of good will shall pay homage to thee, thy deeds, and thine aspirations.”[22] So far this has not come to pass.

It is useful to see the comparisons between the time that Comenius lived in and our own. Comenius’ life and work, as I understand it, provides certain clues into how and why education can make history. His vision is relevant, but so is the historical context that was provoking it and responding to it. The overwhelming social need to define and implement a new paideia is paramount in a time between worlds. Had the Comenian pansophic planetary paideia been more fully adopted as a cosmopolitan framework for modern schooling, instead of its piecemeal adoption by capitalist nation states, the history of the modern world would have been different. It is impossible to say, but the nearly four centuries since Comenius’ death could have been quite different had some of his plans come more fully to fruition.


As Piaget notes in the introduction to the UNESCO retrospective, Comenius was not only the first to conceive of a comprehensive science and theory of education, but he also made this the core of his entire philosophical system of pansophy. The art of teaching was placed at the core of a comprehensive philosophy and universal system of knowledge (and faiths). He wished to construct a “theory of everything,” but also to make it teachable and learnable to all people in all ways.

Comenius offered an unprecedented (and in many ways still unparalleled) use of philosophical theory as the foundation for a systemic approach to education. He worked out a metaphysical basis for education, as different from a religious basis, and as different from a governmental basis. Education should be grounded in the truths of nature, he argued, not in dogma or power. Moreover, any comprehensive system of science and philosophy must bring into the world those ways of teaching and learning that constitute its very essence. Philosophy and science themselves must, as part of their true essence, result in a planetary educational system, affecting all people of all ages, putting all humans in constant touch with the full state of knowledge.

This is an idea that is foreign to our own time, let alone the 17th century: education should be put in primary place as the core of human society. Pansophy entails an education-centric society. As Piaget points out: Comenius comprehended society as a whole sub specie educationis:

The central idea [of Comenius’ thought] is probably that of nature as a creator of form, which, being reflected in the human mind, thanks to a parallelism between man and nature, makes the ordering of the educative process automatic. That natural order is the true principle of teaching, but the sequence is dynamic, and the educator can carry out his task only if he remains a tool in nature’s hands. Education is thus an integral part of the formative process to which all beings are subject and is only one aspect of that vast development… [This view] merges into one spontaneous development [both of] nature and the educative process. Education is therefore not limited to the action of school and family but is part and parcel of general social life. Human society is an educative society… Comenius’ genius lay in grasping that education is one aspect of nature’s formative machinery and so integrating the educative process into a [metaphysical] system in which the process is indeed the essential axis.[23]

Piaget suggests Comenius’ metaphysical system be understood as halfway between Aristotle and Francis Bacon. This rings true but neglects almost entirely the theological and mystical writings and arguments that bring Comenius’ thought closer to the Rosicrucian theosophists and Renaissance alchemists, who were Neo-Platonists. Piaget is trying to protect readers from the intense religiosity of Comenius’ vision and writings, which is understandable given the common-place modern reaction against religious thought.[24] But this is not in fitting with Comenius’ own commitment to a framework that integrates science, religion, and politics within a general theory of education—i.e., Piaget is pulling the punch that Comenius would like to land. Interestingly, Rudolf Steiner lands this punch, but that is ahead of the story.

What Piaget does embrace are the immensely important innovations in Comenius’ thinking that would make him a precursor to evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, functionalist sociology of education, and international education. The first metaphysical innovation Comenius offers along these lines is replacing the static Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian hierarchies of being with a focus on emergence, advance, and isomorphism between different strata of existence.

Take the great vertical chain of being as articulated by Plotinus, lay it down horizontally, and set it unfolding over time as a developmental process. Comenius was one of the first to do this and to run with the implications; these implications involve understanding humans in a new way, where evolving and developing, and thereby adding to and completing “the work of God,” is what nature (including human nature) does. Piaget sees this as a crucial moment in the history of ideas, and he is right. Comenius was seeking to understand human beings on analogy with natural processes as studied by science, while not abandoning the sacred dimensions of human experience. It was biomimicry meets Integral Theory circa 1635, and they combine in the planning of an international educational system.

Comenius offers a system of ideas that is a clear precursor of developmental psychology. This was related then to a theory of schooling based on a system of progressive instruction adjusted to the stage of development of the student. His method involved finding (apparent) laws of growth and change in nature through observation (à la Bacon) and then applying these as analogies to understand human growth and development. This made Comenius a proponent of understanding students as active learners, the mind itself being something spontaneously growing and adapting to its environment.

Piaget would demonstrate 300 years later that the growth of capacity and insight in children is spontaneous, requiring active engagement, interests, and developmentally appropriate contexts. Comenius suggested leaving children half their time for independent (but loosely supervised) work, driven by their own interests. He also suggests having curricular materials available at various levels of complexity and sophistication, so that every student would have some way into every subject, and then once in, there would be a clear path “upwards” towards increasing understanding.

The higher reaches of all disciplines converge within the pansophic vision of knowledge, faith, and society. And although Piaget studiously avoids this particular conclusion, for Comenius this means each path ascends toward Christ and God. Have no doubt about it: Comenius is a writer from the 1600s, a devout Christian, and the head Bishop of a radical and mystical sect. This can make reading Comenius disorienting for the contemporary reader, even if it is tremendously rewarding and fascinating.


The deeper cut of Comenius’ metaphysics gets into the true meaning of the German word Bildung, which is in literal translation close to: “making one’s self into the image of God.” It comes from the German Bild, which means “image” and was coined as a way of expressing a sacred sentiment: that the purpose of education and self-development is to make oneself into the image of Christ or God. While he did not use this word (he wrote mostly in Latin), nevertheless Comenius is at the root when thinking about Bildung.

The planetary paideia he proposed involved more than spreading scientific knowledge and modern social systems around the world. Comenius sought to lead humanity towards truth, through peaceful efforts of wholesale cooperation in the interest of universal education. His was not a project of nation building or economic development (although many of his ideas were repurposed to this end as “modern” education), his was a project about the future of humanity and the potential for a new kind of world. The vision was grounded in a new metaphysical and philosophical system, which was neither religion nor science, but rather an embodied and institutionalized system of universal discovery and education.

Centuries before Google we find here the idea of a universal clearinghouse for all scientific and non-scientific knowledge, culture, and practices of faiths. The idea is then to use this to “teach all things to all people in all ways.” The result would be to lift all humanity beyond ignorance and into a Christlike and Divine way of being."