By John Taylor; 2010 Oct 01
John Amos Comenius proposed that we consciously make power structures diverse and inherently decentralized, in accordance with the dictum of Christ to “call no man master” or father, only our Father in heaven. Otherwise, power is unrestrained as a cancer; it becomes an idol by arrogating to itself the absoluteness of God. And, as we saw in Plato’s teaching last time, absolute or disproportionate power inevitably results in corruption. Because of this constant danger, we must see ourselves as servants to all humanity, remove all emphasis on individual, charismatic leaders and subsume narrow loyalties to universal ones.
Comenius would have all educated comprehensively, trained as world citizens comfortable with each of the big three human needs, our need for contact with nature, for contact with others and contact with God. Each must learn to balance them in all phases of life. No matter how wrapped up in friends, family or work, we still keep a hand in politics, religion and philosophy — science is too narrow a term, since it does not cover non-natural philosophy and the art of teaching.
“Philosophy deals with books and knowledge and the reasons for things for the purpose of enlightening mankind. Politics deals with rule and authority for the purpose of keeping mankind in order. Religion deals with God and conscience for the purpose of kindling in mankind the flame of faith, charity and hope (or keeping it alight).” (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 13, para 12, p. 205)
This places a heavier burden on individuals than what is expected of us today. Everyone must become, in effect, a Renaissance Man. Instead of being either a “man of faith” or a “man of science” or a “man of action,” a Comenian world order lays all three responsibilities on our shoulders. What is more, every individual initiative or group enterprise requires all three, knowledge (science), volition (faith) and action (politics).
It would be impossible for everybody to excel at all three — by definition. However, we have a duty at least to keep a hand in each; parents and teachers should make each generation more competent and concerned with them than the generation that came before. Otherwise, corruption will set in. Leaders and experts will be prone to becoming unbalanced, narrow, parochial and overspecialized. The general public will be susceptible to fanaticism, fundamentalism and distorted worldviews.
The Abdication of Homo Universalis
I called an early draft of this chapter, “The Plan of a Renaissance Man,” but moderns are uncomfortable with the generic sense of “man” that was fashionable in Comenius’ day. Today, “man” is commonly misunderstood as excluding women and children. So I looked up the term, “Renaissance Man.” Various synonyms turned up, including “jack of all trades,” “generalist,” “polymath” and “Homo Universalis.” “Polymath” and the others describe someone who achieves prominence in several areas of knowledge; it describes a kind of knowing that is more technical than what Comenius had in mind for the world citizen. The most comprehensive term seems to be “Homo Universalis,” which does not have sexist overtones. It is also a Latin term, and that is appropriate since Comenius wrote mostly in Latin, although he himself would probably have preferred his own Latin neologism, “pansophism,” or universal wisdom. He believed that only by concentrating upon on wisdom in its most universal guise can we strike the needed balance. Still, I will use the term “Homo Universalis” because it is more widely understood today than “pansophist.”
The ideal of Homo Universalis is all but lost in modern times. Individuals tend to guard their rights jealously, forget social obligations and remain content if government keeps out of their hair. To us, that is what good government means. It is difficult to picture anything else. As a result of this abdication, we are used to living under a monolithic state where politicians jealously guard their own bailiwick.
Politics is the sole, central power and others are dependents. They make the big decisions, and all taxes go to them. Even in a democracy their power is, if not absolutist, at least predominating. In religious matters, the state either withdraws completely from ethics and faith concerns, allowing groups to dissipate their energy by fighting with one another, or it interferes, setting the rights of one religion over all others. Every other expression of human nature, even essentials like science, economics, education and the arts, must go hat in hand to government for financial support.
The distinctive object of Comenius’s proposal is to break up the monopoly of the monolithic state by dividing it into at least three parts. This in my opinion is a stroke of genius as revolutionary for human governance as what Copernicus, Darwin or Einstein did for our scientific worldview. Rather than a single world body, a global constitution would institute three parliaments. In accordance with the triple duties of Homo Universalis, these parliaments address each of the three main concerns of human life, enlightenment, ethics and peace.
One parliament he called the “college of light;” its members are charged with the reform of science and education. The second parliament, the “holy consistory,” acts as a parliament of religions. Its job is to encourage cooperation among religious groups while removing fundamentalism and interfaith conflict. A third parliament, the “dicastery of peace,” addresses the basic purpose of politics, laying the groundwork for peace on earth.
“These will serve as three universal antidotes to the plagues which have afflicted us in the past… For the college of light will purify the light of understanding … The holy consistory with intent to maintain the zeal for piety will salt … against elements of moral corruption (such as impiety and hypocrisy). Lastly, the dicastery of peace will keep the whole political world in order, so that no power either succumbs in face of danger to its possessions or degenerates into tyranny by destroying the possessions of others.” (Panorthosia, Chapter 25, p. 142)
Thus, in a Comenian democracy all three houses would be independent and equal, yet cooperating closely with the others — as the “call no man master” principle demands. Each body is elected and raises taxes independently. Constitutional stipulations assure equality and balance among them. Firm legal protections keep one from lording it over the others. In this way, with power divided externally, citizens can be robust, balanced and unified within themselves and society. Homo Universalis will walk through the broad gates of Cosmopolis Earth.