The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart

THE WIT AND WISDOM OF COMENIUS, also his frustration and his deep spirituality, are seen most clearly in the book he wrote in 1623, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. He wrote it while in hiding, in the wake of the Battle of White Mountain. The Brethren weren’t welcome in Bohemia anymore. Comenius was a stranger in his own land.

His anguish took refuge in allegory. He wrote of a young man trying to find his way in the world—but what a strange world it was. The Labyrinth strikes one as a cross between John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Ecclesiastes. Of course, Comenius wrote five years before Bunyan was born. His work is more of a social commentary than Bunyan’s, with a cynical edge to it. Comenius’s pilgrim finds that all in this world is vanity, until . . . Well, we’re getting ahead of the story.

We quote some excerpts from The Labyrinth on succeeding pages, but we were so struck by the cleverness of this allegory that we wanted to give you a plot summary as well. Perhaps, if you’re interested, we’ll publish a modern version of this classic work, but for now sit back and enjoy this condensed travelogue of Comenius’s adventures in a strange world.

The Labyrinth of the World strikes the reader as a mixture of Pilgrim’s Progress and Ecclesiastes. The narrator is a pilgrim, wandering through an allegorical world, and he sees only futility. Tie—ins to Comenius’s own life are evident—he wrote this in hiding, after the death of his first wife and their children, as the Hapsburg forces were beginning to run the Protestants out of Bohemia and Moravia.

As a young man, the narrator wonders what to do with his life. He decides to test out all occupations before choosing. With two guides, Searchall and Delusion, he comes upon a walled city, surrounded by a great abyss. This is the earth. Its citizens pass each other in the marketplace, wearing masks, which often make it difficult to see where they are going. There is much stumbling, much arguing. Death, with its sharp scythe, stalks the city, felling some with arrows. Some shriek or weep a bit, but soon life continues as before. At one gate of the city, a continuing stream of people crawl in from the abyss—the children who repopulate the city.

There are six major streets to the city. The first is home to domestic folks. Since people can only enter in pairs, there are large scales at the gate to match men with women. The pilgrim wonders how this scrawny man can balance out with that healthy girl, and is told that the man must have a fat pocketbook “or a hat before which other hats are doffed.” Once paired up, the couples are handcuffed together. Much misery follows, as they continually pull in opposite directions and sometimes children are handcuffed to them as well. But when Death strikes one partner, the other is free. This is what happens to the pilgrim, and he proceeds to the second street.

This is where the laborers live and work. The pilgrim sees no job he likes: “Every human occupation is but labor and weariness.” Men toil only to feed their mouths; money is earned to be spent, only “it was spent easier than it had been earned.” Everywhere he sees envy, ill will, dishonesty, and fraud—and no concern for the soul.

The third street houses the learned class. “Candidates” enter through a gate called Discipline. To be accepted, they must have heads of steel, brains of quicksilver, backs of lead, skin of iron, and purses of gold. Once inside the gate they are-sometimes painfully— reformed to conform with the others. The pilgrim goes through this process.

In the square are shelves and shelves of “boxes,” though some call them books. People go to the shelves, pull off a box and bite into it. Some gorge themselves, others savor slowly, still others just collect the boxes and never taste. Always there are new boxes being prepared, though some preparers just steal the stuff out of other boxes. And the people always argue over whose boxes are best.

As the pilgrim wanders the rooms of this street, he encounters different disciplines. In one, the people are coloring words to make them more pleasing; in another, he is offered eyeglasses and tries several pairs, but each makes things look different; in another, mathematicians are sorting through a heap of ciphers; in another, geometricians are drawing lines; in another, astronomers climb ladders and catch stars; in another, historians walk around with telescopes that look back over their shoulders. He finds doctors so interested in the patient’s anatomy that the patient dies. He finds lawyers studying pictures of fences and devising new ways to take someone else’s property.

The pilgrim moves on to the fourth street, where the clergy reside. After brief stops in a synagogue and mosque, he comes upon a Christian church, where a congregation sits before a picture of the son of God. Some have little pictures of their own, which they wrap up and eat. The pilgrim is pleased at first, but then realizes the people do not live righteously. Worse, the priests don’t either.

He moves to another room where there is a large touchstone in the center (the Bible?), but people are disputing what color it is. In fact, they have divided into two or three adjoining chapels according to their views. There is some fighting here and the pilgrim wants, for a moment, to follow a small, tattered group without a chapel as it flees behind a curtain, but he is already being whisked away by his guides.

The fifth street is the seat of government. The judges bear names like Lovegold, Takebribe, Hearsayjudge, and Atheist. A woman, named Sincerity is hauled in for slander—she called a tippler a drunkard. The prosecutor, Adversary, bribes his way to a victory.

The pilgrim also sees kings. One has a tube to his ear, through which he remotely listens to the complaints of his people. Another is controlled by his advisors, and can’t move without their say—so. Another basks in luxury, and is violently overthrown. Caught up in this, pilgrim supports the new ruler, and must flee when the old one returns to power.

The knights live in the sixth street, always devising new ways to kill people. They are rewarded for how many people they have slain. This too seems like foolishness to the young pilgrim.

He is then taken to the castle of Fortune. People are lined up outside, but Dame Fortune sends her blind servant Chance to select only a few. Her castle has three levels: one for the rich, a dungeon where they count the links on their chains and boast about whose is heaviest; one full of delicacies—leisure, food, recreation, sex—and bored residents; and one for the famous, who sit on high chairs and receive bows from passersby—but the chairs are easily toppled.

Finally the pilgrim is taken to the court of the Queen—she calls herself Wisdom. To the young man’s pleasant surprise, Solomon comes to sit in on the proceedings. The Queen receives complaints that the world isn’t working right, that the culprits are Drunkenness, Greed, Usury, Lust, Pride, and others. She immediately banishes all these characters, but the problem persists, so she appoints a committee to investigate. The committee reports that the culprits have indeed left, that there is one who looks like Drunkenness, but his name is Joviality, one who looks like Greed, but his name is Thrift, etc. The Queen accepts the report, but Solomon whispers that only the names have been changed. The Queen hears a number of other grievances, but her decisions always support the status quo, or make it worse. Finally Solomon rips the veil from the Queen’s face—it isn’t Wisdom at all, but Vanity—and storms out. She sends three handmaidens, Affability, Craftiness, and Delight, to seduce him. Unfortunately, their seduction succeeds. Discouraged, the pilgrim goes to the realm of death and sees only blackness, at the edge of the abyss.

But a voice calls him to “Return!” He retreats to a room inside himself and there he meets Christ, in dazzling light. All else is meaningless, but in Christ there is truth. He is ushered back to the tattered folks who disappeared behind the curtain. There he finds things working as they should, free from pride, greed, and lust—a community committed to its Lord. This is the Paradise of the heart.

A scene from the dramatization of The Labyrinth of the World from the film Jan Amos Comenius

Selection from Laybrinth of the World: The Marketplace of the World

And my guide said to me: “Since you have to see everything, let us first go to the marketplace.” And he led me there. And behold, I saw countless multitudes. like a mist. For there were people there from the whole world, of every language and nation, of every age, size, sex, estate, class, and profession. As I first gazed at them, I saw how strangely they swayed to and fro, like the swarming of bees, but far more wondrous.

For some walked, some ran, some rode, some stood, some sat, some got up, some reclined, some turned in various directions; some were alone, others in larger or smaller groups. They varied greatly in dress and appearance. Some were stark naked, and made strange gestures as they talked. When someone met someone else, there was various juggling of the hands, mouth, knees, etc.— saluting, bowing, and other foolish things. And my guide said to me: “Here you have that noble human race, that delightful creation, which has been granted sense and immortality. See how it bears upon it the image of the infinite God, and His likeness, which you will recognize by the variety of their creations. As in a looking—glass, you will see the worth of this, your human race.”

I then looked at them more carefully, and saw immediately that everyone in the crowd, when walking among the others, wore a mask on his face; but when he went away, alone or among his peers, he pulled it off. Yet when he had to go among the crowds, he fastened it on again. I asked what this meant.

The guide answered: “That, my dear son, is worldly prudence, so that each man may not show to all what he is. Alone in his home a man may be as he is, but before others it is better to appear affable, and thus he assumes a certain mien.”

Then the desire befell me to watch more carefully and see how these people appeared without their dissembling covering. As I looked attentively, I saw that both in their faces and in their bodies all were deformed in various ways . . . .

Therefore I decided to be silent and rather quietly behold these fine things of which I had seen the beginning. I gazed again, and I saw how artfully some handled these masks, quickly removing them and putting them back on, so that they were able to give themselves a different mien, whenever they saw that this was to their advantage. I was already beginning to understand somewhat the course of the world, but I kept silent.

I also observed and heard that they talked among themselves in various languages, so that they mostly did not understand or answer each other, or they gave an answer inappropriate to what had been asked, each one differently. Whenever a large crowd gathered, almost everyone spoke, each one listening to himself and none to the others, although they often grabbed one another to attract attention. Even that didn’t work: instead it caused much brawling and scuffling.

I exclaimed: “In the name of God, are we then in Babel? Here each one sings his own song. Could there be any greater confusion?”

Hardly anyone there was idle; all were employed in some kind of work. But these works—and this I never would have believed—were nothing but childish games, or at most useless exertion. Some indeed, collected sweepings and divided them among themselves. Some hurried here and there with timber and stones, or hoisted them up with pulleys and then dropped them. Some dug up earth, and conveyed or carried it from place to place. The others occupied themselves with little bells, mirrors, bellows, rattles, and other playthings. Others also played with their own shadow, measuring it and pursuing it, and catching at it—and all this so vigorously that many were groaning and sweating and some, in fact, even injured themselves. And almost everywhere there were certain officers who ordered and measured out these labors with great heartiness, and with no less heartiness the others obeyed them. Wondering, I said, “Alas! Why does man exist, if he employs the sharpness of his heavenly talents for such vain and evil endeavors?”

“Why vain?” said the interpreter. “Can you not see here, as in a looking—glass, how men use their talents to accomplish everything? One does this, another that.”

“But all,” I said, “work at such useless things, which are unworthy of their glorious eminence.”

“Do not cavil too much,” he said. “They are not yet in heaven, and in the world they must employ themselves with worldly matters. Notice the orderly fashion in which everything is done.”

But as I looked again, I saw that nothing more disorderly could have been imagined: for when one worked at something, exerting himself, another approached and meddled with the matter. Thus there were quarrels, scuffles, fights. Then they reconciled themselves, but after a while they fought again . . . .

I also perceived other disorder, blindness, and folly. The whole marketplace was—as were the streets later—full of holes, pits, and ravines. Timber, stones, and other things lay about in every direction. No one, however, put anything away, repaired it, or put it in the proper order. On the contraty, they walked on unawares, so that first one, then another, knocked against something, fell, and was either killed or knocked down. My heart quivered as I saw this. But among them, no one took notice of this: when anyone fell they laughed at him. Then when I saw a branch, or the trunk of a tree, or a hole into which someone was blindly blundering, I began to caution them, but nobody listened. Some laughed at me, others reviled me, others wanted to beat me.

Some fell and did not get back up. Others got up, only to fall head over heels again. Everyone had plenty of welts and bruises, but no one seemed to care. I had to wonder at their dullness—which counted their own falls and wounds for so little, but if anyone else hurt them, they would immediately rise up in arms and fight.

I also perceived among men great delight in novelties and changes with regard to clothing, building, speech, gait, and other matters. Some, I saw, did nothing but change their attire, wearing sometimes this, sometimes that fashion. Others invented new styles of building, and after a while destroyed it. They would try this kind of work, then that, and then quit—they seemed fickle. If one died because of the burden under which he labored or if he abandoned it, then immediately others would appear and argue, squabble, and fight over it to an incredible degree. No one could ever speak, or do something, or erect an edifice, without others laughing at it, misrepresenting it, destroying it. One fashioned a thing with vast labor and expense, finding in it great pleasure-then someone else, approaching him, overturned, destroyed, and injured it. Nowhere in the world did I see a man make anything without another ruining it. Some, indeed, did not wait for others; they themselves destroyed their own works, so that I wondered at their fickleness and their vain endeavors.

I also saw that many walked on highsoled shoes: others made themselves stilts (so that, raised above everything, they could view it all from above), and thus did they strut about. But the higher one was, the more easily he was toppled, for others (from jealousy, I presume) tripped up his feet. This happened to many, who became the laughing—stock of others. Of such instances I saw many.

Finally I saw Death stalking everywhere among them, and she carried a sharp scythe, with a bow and arrows. With a loud voice she exhorted all to remember that they were mortal: but none listened to her call. Each one remained just as intent on his folly and his misdeeds. Then, taking her arrows, she shot them at the people in every direction, and struck down this or that one from among them—young or old, poor or rich, learned or unlearned, without distinction—they all fell down.

When someone was stuck down, he screamed, shrieked, and roared: those who were walking nearby ran a little farther off, but soon took no more notice. Some came near and gazed at the wounded man, who was rattling in the throat, and when he contracted his feet and ceased breathing, they called each other together, sang around him, ate, drank, and shouted—although some others mocked this somewhat. Then they seized the dead man and threw him over the boundaries into that gloomy pit which surrounds the world, and when they returned they revelled some more. But no one escaped Death, though they diligently tried not to heed her, even when she brushed closely against them.

Selection from Paradise of the Heart: The Inward Christians

(God’s Laws are brief.)

Free, indeed, the Lord God wishes His children to be, but not willful. Therefore has He hedged them in by certain regulations in a fashion better and more perfect than anything that I had ever beheld in the world. There, everything was full of disorder, partly because they had no certain rules, partly because, as I saw, even when they had rules they did not heed them. But those who dwelt behind the curtain had most noble rules, and also obeyed them. They have, indeed, laws given by God Himself that are full of justice, and by which it is decreed: 1. That everyone who is devoted to God should acknowledge and know Him as the only God. 2. That he should serve Him in the spirit and in the truth without vainly imagining corporal things. 3. He should use his tongue, not for the purpose of offense, but for the glorification of God’s holy name. 4. The times and hours that are ordained for God’s service he shall employ for nothing but His inward and outward service. 5. He shall obey his parents and others whom God has placed over him. 6. He shall not injure the life of his fellow—men. 7. He shall preserve the purity of his body. 8. He shall not seize the property of others. 9. He shall beware of falsehood and deceit. 10. And lastly, he shall maintain his mind within barriers and the ordained boundaries.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #13 in 1987]

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