When the Moravian bishop and education reformer John Amos Comenius died in 1670, he was just a few chapters short of completing his 7-volume General Consultation on the Reform of Human Affairs (De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica). This ambitious work ranged across a vast array of topics including philosophy, theology, linguistics, education, politics, and social structures, proposing detailed reforms in each area. The final volume, which stops part-way through chapter 10 (of an intended 16) is titled Universal Admonition (Panuthesia)1. It amounts to a collection of passionately articulated reasons to not give up on making a positive difference in the world in spite of all the perfectly understandable grounds for cynicism.
The fourth chapter of this final volume contains the rather disingenuously named “Author’s Private Exhortation to Himself,” in which he preemptively addresses ad hominem arguments against the wisdom of his proposals. Who are you to start reform? What about the criticism you will face and all the worthy folk you will offend? How can you be sure your proposals are correct? Won’t even those few who listen soon relapse into laziness and irresponsibility? Why is your own work on reform not perfect after 20 years of labor? Aren’t you ashamed?
Although he mentions the actual detractors who provided real-life models to work from, the chapter is framed primarily as a conversation with himself. He stares down a welter of arguments circling in his own mind for the foolishness of his labors. He names existential fears and wistful sadness (“I am frightened at the prospect of death which will snatch me to your judgement-seat. I should have liked to be regarded as your imitator.” [4.15]) He engages in extended dialogue with that sly, acidic, inner voice that whispers about futility, shame, and the merits of creeping quietly away instead of finishing this wretched book. He blusters bravely and with rhetorical verve in defense of laboring to the bitter end. The chapter is a bracing read for those who dare to address weighty matters and sense their own smallness measured against the weight of the world’s reluctance to improve. I, for one, do not find it hard to recognize his inner voice.
I have long been struck by his response to one particular line of attack. When considering whether he ought to be ashamed when he sees so much imperfection in his own work, he reflects:
Penelope needed twenty years to weave and unravel her handiwork during the absence of her husband Ulysses, and there was no reason for her to be ashamed of this scheme to preserve her chastity. Equally in the absence of my Ulysses, my life’s vocation, I chose this line of action to avoid doing nothing, that is to say, I preferred to weave certain inventions for the benefit of a new generation and to unravel them when I discovered better ones. But since my Ulysses is now arriving in the form of the everlasting Bridegroom, my heart rejoices to have kept faith with him, and behold! I am now ceasing from unravelling my life’s work. Let this be my final fabric for the use of any who may desire it. But those who long for a better one (being now awakened to its importance) must be free to weave it. (4.13)
Comenius alludes here to Christ’s return pictured in terms of the classical figure of Ulysses/Odysseus, with himself as Penelope, who was beset by suitors competing for her commitment on the assumption that her husband would never return. One of her strategies for holding out was to declare that she would marry when she finished weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s father, Laertes. What she wove during each day, she unpicked again in secret during the night, creating an enduring state of incompletion that made space for her to continue waiting for Ulysses amid the pressures to settle for a replacement.
Here is an image for Christian scholarship that I have not come across elsewhere: Christian scholarship is weaving and unraveling a burial shroud, an ongoing exercise in intentional deferral of completion.
The image of weaving and unraveling a shroud strikes a rather different note from, say, the more familiar images of building God’s city to which Comenius turns a few paragraphs later. Building images suggest solidity and gradual progress, matters literally set in stone, a shape that will stand proud and endure. The shroud is a more transient, vulnerable thing, destined for decay. This particular shroud does not even last through the next night. In this image, Comenius pictures his life’s work as a process not of building, but of repeated unraveling, a recurring disintegration of each day’s efforts.
At this point we have to remind ourselves that the intention of this chapter was to articulate reasons for not giving up. What makes this constant unraveling into an image of hope?
The image is hopeful because of its tether to eschatology. He is told that he should be ashamed of the imperfection of his work. Well of course his current efforts are imperfect and incomplete. They always have been, and they will be for as long as he lives. Why would anyone expect otherwise? He is not the bridegroom who will renew all things. He is someone trying to hear and embody the truth, trying to work out his Christian commitment to the good of others in public service, but that noble intent does not turn his work into bedrock. The presence of a more comprehensive goodness breaking in at the culmination of history relativizes his succession of present approximations to the good. It is precisely commitment to that goodness that makes him ready to unpick past efforts whenever their defects become visible. To refuse this process of partial efforts and constant revision would make him “no longer a humble disciple of truth” (4.12). It was Pilate, he reminds us, who said “I have written what I have written.” Christian engagement entails finding all of the threads in our own work that are not the kingdom of God and standing ready to unravel them. The unraveling renders each attempt frail, temporary, and incomplete. It also makes each effort a sign of hope, evidence that a bridegroom is still expected, that we are not the best that can be hoped for.
This hope, in turn, makes space for others. I find it moving that at the end of a long life of prodigious labor, Comenius does not focus in this passage on buffing and buttressing his legacy, but instead invites others to unravel his work further as he rests from his own unraveling. He hopes that he has offered something that others can use (and you are now reading about his work over three centuries later). Yet those who see a better way to weave must be free to do so. As he puts it elsewhere in the same chapter:
I have done what I could. If the weakness due to old age and overwork or the misfortunes and distractions of a busy life have prevented me from doing much more, I trust that I shall be forgiven. I shall not be the first nor the last of those who have wished to do more than they could manage. (4.7)
He certainly wasn’t the first, or the last. And in acknowledging his position as neither, he was able to offer us an image of the repeated unraveling of our best work as our authentic calling.
- Unfortunately, the extant English translation of this work, from which I quote in this piece, is quite hard to find. (John Amos Comenius, Pannuthesia or Universal Warning. Translated by A. M. O. Dobbie. Shipston-on-Stour: Peter Drinkwater, 1991.) For those able to read it, the Latin text is more accessible – the entire Consultatio can be accessed for free, for instance, via Google Books.
Professor Smith’s reminder of eschatological hope is encouraging and lovely in the details. Let me recommend two cross-references:
In “Towards a Phenomenology of Ritual and Language” (included in Lawrence Schmidt, ed., Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics), Hans-Georg Gadamer says, “Philosophers have no texts because they, just as Penelope, always are undoing their weaving in order to prepare anew for the return home to truth” (43). Gadamer’s application resembles Smith’s; philosophical work is, according to Gadamer, finite and therefore perpetually corrigible–in this life.
In the poem “Fabrications,” Richard Wilbur uses the image of the unraveling of a spider’s web to similar effect, connecting the spider’s rebuilding of its web to (1) the human use of weaving and (2) journey towards a city whose builder and maker is God. (I am at work on an essay developing these connections.)
Thanks for those connections, both new to me!
Thanks David and it was a joy to see and hear you on video yesterday as part of the CSA conference day. This piece is a great reminder not to think we have finished our work but to keep re-working it. Thanks!
David, I wonder whether Comenius himself had the unravelling shroud in mind when he talked about the cultivation of a garden of delights. I have argued for the best metaphor for a school leader (against the Harvard Business Review typology of heads as architects, soldiers, philosophers, accountants or surgeons) is that of a farmer: there is a cyclical sense, determined by seasons and the success or otherwise of earlier crops in particular locations and conditions, and the givenness of the land (slope, fertility, rainfall, prior use, etc), that is not that different to the unpicking and rethreading engaged in by Penelope. There are years when farmers wonder whether anything was worth it, so marginal are their economic lives, usually, and then that brings us back to concepts of faithfulness (such as Penelope was driven by) – to God, to the land, to the memory of earlier generations who farmed here, to the generations to come, to the animals being husbanded, etc. This applies certainly to a teacher. The concept of it applying to scholarship is, as you say, startling, but far more realistic than the constant progress agenda we are urged to live within.
Huw, thanks for the thoughts. Some cautions: (i) the shroud image is drawn from his last work; the garden imagery starts much earlier, and I can’t think of instances of him using the shroud imagery earlier or in connection with gardens. (ii) The garden imagery in Comenius is, I believe, heavily influenced by biblical usage as well as post-biblical tradition, and the garden is not necessarily primarily a working with nature image. The garden is an intrusion of disciplined culture into the wilderness of nature – compare the garden/wilderness contrast in, say, Isaiah 5 or Isaiah 58 (where becoming a garden means restoring buildings), and the garden of delight is the well-formed community that is attending to justice and the well being of all. (iii) Comenius typically mentions gardeners rather than farmers. So I hesitate to draw that connection the way you suggest in Comenius. But I share your dislike of the limited options in the HBR list; that list lacks, for instance, an option that focuses on nurture or on moral leadership or on relationship. And there is indeed a tension between the cyclical and progress that is shared by Penelope’s shroud and the seasons.
Classicist Wendy Hellemans investigated in the 1990s the long ancient tradition of using Penelope as a personification of philosophy. In 2001 I was so taken by the image that I used it to describe what I called the “nightshift” of philosophical endeavour, that (self-)criticism that was not ashamed to unravel the mixture of good and evil that had gotten tangled together in the thought of an age or in one’s own mind and heart. By 2016 I had allied that task to an ethos of metanoia, not as a matter of grim shamefaced obedience but in the gratitude and joy of being liberated from one or another impediment to flourishing (obviously the aspirational impulse of spiritual exercise here). So happy to hear that Comenius was way ahead of me. The more I hear about him through you the more impressed I am, with him, but also with you and your way of reading (and writing) things. Keep up the good work David.
Thank you, Bob, for the characteristic combination of gracious, encouraging and informative! (As ever, I would be not at all surprised if some of your own thoughts are leaving a trace in my own trudge toward awareness…)