Monday, September 27, 2010

On Universal Reform


If the majority of citizens in the world want a world government, only one question remains: what kind of government should it be? Is it enough to strengthen the United Nations by making it more democratic? Or, does it make more sense to start with completely new institutions and new ways of choosing their members? Should there be a world senate as well as a world parliament? And perhaps most importantly, who should make all of these decisions?

churchill by karsh

We noted before that Winston Churchill, the man who suggested the name "United Nations," disliked how it was eventually organized. He called it a "Babel" and preferred instead that there be intermediary institutions to thresh out regional issues before they entered the world stage. Several years after the U.N. had formed in San Francisco, Churchill wrote,

"I have always held the view that the foundation of a World Instrument should be sought on a regional basis. Most of the principal regions suggest themselves -- the United States, United Europe, the British Commonwealth and Empire, the Soviet Union, South America. Others are more difficult at present to define -- like the Asian group or groups, or the African group -- but could be developed with study. But the object would be to have many issues of fierce local controversy thrashed out in the Regional Council, which would then send three or four representatives to the Supreme Body, choosing men of the greatest eminence. This would make a Supreme Group of thirty or forty world statesmen, each responsible not only for representing his own region, but for dealing with world causes, and primarily the prevention of war." (Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1953, p. 610)

It is not well known that something very similar to this eminently sensible arrangement had been set out in detail almost three hundred years before by John Amos Comenius in his posthumous work, Universal Reform, or Panorthosia. Here, Comenius suggested that a constitutional convention be held among representatives of every continent -- in fact, Panorthosia was written to be the conference handout for that gathering. Afterwards a permanent world capital city would be chosen either in Rome or London. Elections for the world government would take place every ten years.

He even foresaw the need for a world governing body to be based upon principles of what we now call democracy, power sharing and de-centralization. Indeed, Comenius' model is superior to the regional arrangement favoured by Churchill, which lumped sovereign nations in with geographically disparate organizations like the British Empire and Commonwealth. A strictly continental division would save travel costs and allow for a more reasonable balance between regional integrity and representation by population.

Even so, it would seem to make sense today for India and China, in view of their exceptionally large populations, to be considered "continents" equal in voting power to the geographical continents. A world government based on Comenius' proposal, then, would have seven or eight standing continental parliaments who meet every decade to choose from among themselves representatives at a world gathering where the world government would be established.

Comenian governance has other unique features as well. As we shall see, Comenius also proposed a sort of division of labour among three governing institutions, one each for science, religion and politics. This tripartite functioning is not restricted to one level of society, it extends from the individual's own struggles for balance -- life is a triathlon where we must excel in learning, in working and in the aspect of eternity -- right on up to the struggle for peace at the world level.

As soon as I came across the Panorthosia I was convinced that here is the most insightful and appealing plan for a world government conceivable. It could only have been written when it was, just before the great divorce of the so-called Enlightenment, where human aspirations in science and religion were split, leaving a monolithic state to feed upon the spoils. Nothing else comes close to this work of genius of the first order. It does for political science what Copernicus did for how we understand our place in the heavens. Whereas Copernicus proved that the earth revolves around the sun, Comenius shows that world order revolves not around any ideological system but the balance, moderation and universality achieved by a well-rounded individual.

comenius close up

Comenius and Panorthosia

Comenius was one of the founding thinkers of the Royal Society, which remains one of the leading lights of science. He was also a bishop in the Moravian Brotherhood, a church that was persecuted and exiled during the bloody wars of the Reformation. By profession, Comenius was a teacher and school principal, and a prolific author of over 150 books. His ideas about early childhood education anticipated Rousseau, and his educational theories and technique for teaching foreign languages are still taught to student teachers today.

Late in life Comenius was shocked to learn that England and Holland had gone to war with one another. The two most tolerant and freethinking nations, both of which had welcomed Comenius and protected his church from persecution, were at one another's throats! This was as surprising as it was for many in the 20th Century when Germany, perhaps the most cultured and civilized nation in the world, dragged the world into global war, not once but twice. In spite of ill health, Comenius spoke to the peace negotiators, pointing out that first-hand experience with the devastation of war had taught him that the motivation for going to war is selfish, its methods foolish and brutal and its results self-defeating.

His bitter failure to persuade the negotiators to halt the war set Comenius thinking about how we could end wars once and for all. Fighting failing health, Comenius wrote his final work, Panorthosia, on his deathbed. In it, he conceived of what the title says, universal reform, change not restricted to one human interest, but to everything that upholds peace; that is, not just politics but religion and science as well. Reform should not just be of individuals, groups and international relations, it should work on all three at once, starting by agreeing upon a common language, religion and educational system. Such a comprehensive approach would end the flagrant greed and other vices that that lead to to conflict and war.

Panorthosia had a peculiar and perilous publishing history. Comenius completed the manuscript and as his last wish charged his son to have it published. His son only managed to deposit one copy of the book in the library of an obscure monastery. Some think that Gottfried Leibniz was one of the few who came across it and that it influenced his thinking about world federalism. Panorthosia was rediscovered in the 1930's and translated from Latin into Czech. It gained enough influence to inspire the founders of UNESCO. They recognized its contribution by having selections translated into English and published as part of the memorial volume commemorating the organization's formation in the 1950's. Not until the 1990's was Panorthosia as a whole translated and published in English.


SMK said...

Fascinating. I shall share around. But can you provide links to the full work? So far I'm only aware of A Volume of Ch 19-26, and a An extract.

Also I'm wondering if we had a second Axial age in the 16-1800s.... or a double age as we have to entertain the 20th century following quickly.... or some other dynamic....

The Baha'i Principles said...

The book should be completed within a couple of months. Should have its own website soon. Stay tuned...

As for ages, we are about to enter what might be called the cosmopolitan age. All we need is the will to act to form a world government. That resolution is what I am aiming to stir up with this book.

Anonymous said...

I got my copies of the two volumes of Panorthosia from a Chicago bookstore, using Amazon as middleman. Try searching Amazon.