Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Universal Language, Part III

The Secret and Panorthosia; Universal Language, Part III
By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 31, 01 Sharaf, 165 BE

I just came across some time lapse videos that seem designed to illustrate Abdu'l-Baha's words about reform in the Secret of Divine Civilization. I put them together in the following blog entry:

Abdu'l-Baha's "Secret of Divine Civilization" is the foundation document for this blog. Some five years ago the Universal House of Justice called this book "a celebration of the creative role played by the rational faculty -- God's greatest gift to humankind -- in the advancement of civilization." (Letter dated 2003 Nov 26, To the Followers of Baha'u'llah in the Cradle of the Faith, p. 1) In this book, Abdu'l-Baha writes,

"The basis of Europe's progress and civilization was actually laid in the fifteenth century of the Christian era, and from that time on, all her present evident culture has been, under the stimulus of great minds and as a result of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and the exertion of energetic and ambitious efforts, in the process of development." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 10)

I have no doubt that the most far seeing of these "great minds" was Jan Amos Comenius. A few days ago we took up Comenius's proposal for a universal language in Panorthosia. As a result the Badi' blog has been joined by a new group of readers interested in an international language. I probably should give a little background as to just who Johannes Amos Comenius was.

Born in 1592, Comenius is largely known today for his contributions to education. He invented what we now call "child centered learning," wrote the first illustrated children's book and was an early advocate of kinder and gentler treatment of students, both young and old. He also invented a more effective way to teach the De Facto Lingua Franca for intellectuals of the time, Latin.

He wrote some 160 books and was actively involved in the adult home study movement allowed by the cheaper books put out by the newly invented printing press. Perhaps most important, he argued for universal education (that is, everybody goes to school, including girls and the poor), which has yet to be fully implimented around the world.

Recent research has turned up further contributions of Comenius beyond education. That is what I am popularizing here.

It turns out Comenius was an early advocate of world government, universal language and several other principles of world federalism. To give more background, here is my latest draft of a précis of this project on the Badi' blog for the Association for Baha'i Studies,

"Among the geniuses in the Western Canon, the utopian vision of Johannes Amos Comenius (1592-1670) comes closest in spirit to the Baha'i principles. Today, Comenius is known largely as an educational reformer but in a recently translated, largely posthumous work, the Panorthosia (Universal Reform), Comenius offers a plan for broad reform on a planetary level that, like the Baha'i principles, remains far ahead of anything seriously considered on the world stage today. I am an essayist and author of the Badi' Blog, a daily blog specializing in the application of the Baha'i principles. Over the past year I have been examining the Panorthosia in detail, comparing and contrasting its proposals with the Baha'i viewpoint. I have so far found that many principles and teachings that uninitiated Baha'is think of as distinctive features of their Faith are clearly discernable in the writings of Comenius. For example, education for all, including girls as the mothers of the next generation, independent search for truth, a common faith for all, universal language and world government were all pioneered by Comenius..."

That said, let us continue with the fourteenth chapter of the Panorthosia, "Concerning A Universal Language, Why, And By Whom, And How It Should Be Introduced."

There is a detailed history of the various proposals and candidates for an international language through the centuries called, as I recall, "The Universal Language Movement." I borrowed the book from the McMaster University library and read it many years ago. It is an interesting document, but unfortunately I no longer have access to it. The Wikipedia article on Universal Language mentions many early proponents of a universal language and Francis Bacon is the earliest. Comenius was an enthusiastic reader of Bacon, and there is evidence that Leibniz, the next major writer on this theme, had access to the Panorthosia in his early years. That would make Comenius either the first or the second major European thinker to advocate for a universal language. Of course, as the Wikipedia article points out, the earlier Arab civilization had Arabic as its own equivalent to a universal language, India had Sanscrit and China had classical written Chinese.

As far as I have so far found out, Bacon did not come up with a specific proposal for a world language but rather emphasized the dangers of the "Idols of Language," speaking in general terms of the deceptiveness of the means of communication, speech. Like Wittgenstein, he gleaned his linguistic vision directly from long and careful reading of the Bible. Comenius also elaborated on this Biblical understanding, but as far as I can tell right now, he was the first person in history to advocate a universal language that would be formally agreed upon by a world federation and placed under the aegis of a world ministry of education, an institution that he termed the "Collegium Lucis," or College of Light. Comenius saw the universal language as integral to the reform program that a world government would implement. In the second paragraph of the chapter of the Panorthosia that we have been examining is his mission statement for this new, consensual language of the human race:

"For in the Universal Reform of Affairs it would be both wrong and impossible to desire anything but the very best. But only one thing can be the very best of its kind. Therefore LANGUAGE also should be no exception to the rule that we desire but one, and that the very best and most suitable in all respects for its purpose, namely, to give accurate expression to things and the nature of things, and to communicate every meaning fluently and clearly from one mind to another, as I have outlined in my Panglottia, chapters VI-VIII.'" (Panorthosia, p. 207)

Some of the Psalms (2 and 22) speak of the dominion of the heavens and the earth being placed by God into the hands of mankind. Comenius reasons from this that language too must, by its very nature, be unitary and as boundless as earth and sky. Language should not, therefore, be an ethnic or national possession, it must be the domain of all,

"Therefore language should also be in keeping with this infinite extent. And since the languages at present in use among the nations are confined within their own territory (although some of them do not even cover it as they are suppressed by foreign powers, or if they do spread abroad they only infiltrate into the neighbourhood), there is every reason to seek a Universal Language, whose boundaries are the uttermost ends of the earth, as widespread as Mankind itself." (Panorthosia, para 7, p. 209)

As soon as all nations gather into a world federation the first task of educators, Comenius holds, will be to come together and agree upon a universal language. Language is the one thing that can make all the various cultures into one human race. The outer political act of joining nations together has no effect, in itself, on the hearts and minds of the world's people. It does not involve education or religion. The paltry results are to be seen today with the half-hearted, stilted token gesture that is the United Nations. The only way to make a true act of union would be to start with a universal language and follow it up with a well organized educational system for all students, everywhere, and to involve all the world's religious denominations as well. This, for Comenius, could not help but be wrapped up in the expected Return of the Christ,

"For it is the custom of new monarchs to pass on their laws to conquered nations in their own language, and thereby impose on them the need to learn their language (as the Greeks and the Romans did, and the kings of Peru' and Turkey etc.); surely Christ, the new monarch of the universe, will impose some new language on his World? It would be most fitting for the majesty of the most high monarchy to provide a language that is wholly wise and enlightened and worthy to represent it." (para 7, p. 209)
"If the Romans felt it necessary to enforce the adoption of their language by all nations as a measure towards easier control and administration of their empire (although it was not destined to last for ever), how much more shall we be justified in our efforts to establish one universal language as a measure towards securing an everlasting Empire for Christ all over the world? Therefore the whole Babylon must be destroyed and no trace of it must be left to survive." (Panorthosia, para 16, pp. 212-213)

After Comenius there were many weird and wonderful suggestions for a world language, most more weird than wonderful. More than one was entirely based on mathematics and another on music, so that Beethoven's opening phrase of the Fifth was actually saying something rather more mundane than its sublime flavour would suggest. As some readers have pointed out, Esperanto found a broad following because of its learner friendliness. As the following makes clear, Comenius envisioned a world language that would be attractive in itself. It would be not only appealing but robust; that is, if part of it were somehow lost it would still be possible to reconstruct it again using basic principles.

"Who shall persuade the Nations of so many languages to discontinue their traditional tongue in favour of a strange one? My answer is that if the new language is wholly reasonable, harmonious, pleasant, and clear according to our requirements, it will freely commend itself to every nation that has a taste of it. Therefore philosophers, churchmen, and the political leaders will make a concerted effort to extend it to all nations. For it is in the common interest to promote light and peace and the favour of God among all people." (Panorthosia, 14:16, pp. 212-213)

John Taylor


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