Monday, December 22, 2008

Who put the Pan in Panorthosia?

Comenius on the Difference between Reform and Universal Reform

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 22, 11 Masa'il 165 BE

If we are ever to respond adequately to the challenges of this Twenty-First Century, then science, religion, politics and most especially education will have to be far more all-encompassing in approach.


That is why I have such a strong affinity for the 16th Century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. To use the example of transportation, anybody who gets a job in anything to do with the transportation industry should be licensed so as to be certain that they have been introduced to the universal problems of transportation. For example, a car salesperson should have a general understanding of airlines, shipping and rail as well as automobiles. Teachers could instil a broader outlook quickly and economically by using computer games and other simulations.

This would reduce the prejudices of partisan loyalty, as well as increasing the flexibility of employment opportunities. When that car salesperson loses her job, she would be qualified for a wider variety of positions in the transport industry than just selling cars. The benefit for society is that it would avoid destructive competition among transport sectors, as when lobbyists for the trucking industry nullified train transport out of bald self-interest at the expense of overall efficiency, or when labor unions block the containerization of large ports, or when automobile interests bought up and scrapped trams and tramways, and so forth.

This broadening of perspective Comenius called universality, and he applied it not only to education but to reform in general.

Today I want to look at Comenius's definition of reform and how he distinguishes between that and universal reform. This he presents especially in the fifth chapter of "Universal Reform," or "Panorthosia" in Latin. Here is how he defines what he calls Orthosis, or reform:

"Reform is the restoration to its rightful state of a good thing which has begun to be corrupted. It must have three components, a Subject of Reform, a Reformer, and an Agency of Reform. Eventually the act of Reform depends on their interaction and the wisdom duly required to carry it out. We must see what conditions are necessary in all these if Reform is to be successful." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 5, para 2, p. 87)

Reform in Comenius's view is active justice. It is the removal of rot, as it were, taking what is best and cutting off what is not. Reform takes a good thing from disease and restores it to its pure, natural and ideal condition. The problem is that the more advanced the organism, the harder this tends to be.

A chemist may purify minerals and chemicals in total isolation from their surroundings. However, higher organisms are much more difficult to separate it from the context and surroundings that brought them into existence. Hardest of all is the reform of human beings. By far the most daunting prospect is the reformation of the entire human race. But that is just what universal reform sets out to do.

"Panorthosia or universal reform has to deal with the same requirements on a universal scale, namely 1. all subjects of reform, 2. all reformers, 3. all agencies of reform; and the act of reform itself, which shall be thoroughly universal and straightforward and so agreeable." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 5, para 16, p. 93)

When Comenius calls universal reform "straightforward" and "agreeable" he seems to be referring to a sort of economy of scale that universality gives to efforts at reform that go beyond the limitations of exclusivity. Universality is in a sense more characteristic of the human than the piecemeal, Ad Hoc variety of making changes. If it is true that the difference between humans and animals not in that we die but in that we know we will die, then the natural type of reform is not reform but the reform of reform itself. By effecting change on the whole world we learn what is divine in who we are, and because it is divine, it gains its own power to work change for the better.

Universal reform or Panorthosia, then, is a complete change in thinking and education, a way of raising everything to the level of principle, and every principle to the sphere of influence of the entire planet. It is not a kludge, tweak or hack but total reformation, starting with our image of who we are. This is of the nature of reform itself, which has no choice but be as maximally holistic as possible. As Comenius puts it,

i. "If the whole is corrupted, to reform a part is no reform at all. (for the whole will remain useless)."

ii. "To reform only a few among many corruptions is no reform at all. (for the part that is made sound will deteriorate)." (Panorthosia, Ch. V, p. 91)

How does Comenius propose that we attain to this unheard of level holistic understanding? He proposes that we do so by systematically taking everything back to first principles. That is, every conscious act involves a sort of dialectic among knowledge, volition and action. We dealt with this in some detail recently on the Badi' Blog in an essay called "Reform's Trinity: Thought, Will and Works," which is at:

Knowing that all things of any universal gravity are divided into these three steps allows us to take in the entirety of human understanding, power and enterprise without any fear that we may have left anything out. Comenius proposes a clear, simple "constitution" for each of the three steps.

"But now let us examine Universal Philosophy, Politics and Religion in turn, considering the kind of full, simple, and clear constitution required by each, but treating them in relation to one another to obtain a clearer picture of all three. In doing so we shall always keep in our mind's eye the enlightened purpose which must be achieved universally; then suitable means, as few and simple as possible, but sufficient to achieve this purpose; and lastly easy methods of using the given means so that they may be freely and continuously put into practice." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 55, p. 174)

Abdu'l-Baha used this generalist methodology in His talks and exposition of what we now call the Baha'i principles. He advised against a narrow approach to change. For example in a letter addressed to a Baha'i who was in contact with the educational reformer Maria Montessori, He advised that in spite of the profound influence of early childhood education on later life, even that cannot be taken as an exclusive solution to everything.

"the human world will not turn into a celestial paradise by the promotion of one thing. The education of children is but one matter. Any useful matter which is the cause of advancement of the world of humanity is like one element. A single element cannot confer life. But once the elements come together, creation taketh place. Thus, Baha'u'llah's Cause and His heavenly Teachings bring together all the perfections which include the education of children; unity of humankind; harmony between religion, science, and reason; equality among all human beings; the breathings of the holy spirit; oneness of women and men; elimination of religious prejudice; heavenly manners; fragrances of the Merciful; universal peace. Thus the Cause of Baha'u'llah combineth all the perfections." (Tablet of Abdu'l-Baha, quoted in Janet Khan, "Louise Dixon Boyle and Maria Montessori," Journal of Baha'i Studies, 16.1/4.2006, pp. 76-77)

Like both Abdu'l-Baha and Socrates, Comenius understood that the only way to panorthosia is by expunging imitation. All kinds of superstition and servile acquiescence to the opinions of others are extremely dangerous. The minds of most men and women need to be trained to be more self reliant,

"The second disadvantage arising from excessive reliance on the guidance of others is an infinite perplexity of opinions, policies, and actions. For so long as some people only wish or know how to follow in the footsteps of others, if they are attached to leaders who have gone wrong, they are bound to go wrong at the same time; if they follow various leaders, it is impossible for them to take their various diversions without uncertainty and perplexity. There is evidence of this in educated nations, where we see that the more schools and books and studies they have, the more they are divided and exhausted by conflicting opinions, so that if there is to be any chance of the reform of our affairs, it is necessary in the first instance that these labyrinths should now be destroyed or closed. (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 8, p. 146)

Once we move these mental blocks out of the way, the way is clear. The prospects for human reform are bright, Comenius confidently held. Next time let us look at the reasons for his optimism.


John Taylor



No comments: