ἀρχὴ παιδεύσεως ἡ τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐπίσκεψις
principium eruditionis vocabulorum consideratio estEpictetus
I certainly spent a lot of time on Comenius the preceding decade, extolling his usefulness for Latin and Greek vocabulary acquisition and making YouTube videos to that end. I mean a lot of time — my wife got to calling it Comania! Here I want to look back on that activity and point out what I think is still useful about it all.
To learn about who the heck John Amos Comenius was, go to my blog post linked to above. I want to make one thing clear. I spilled a lot of ink formulating a possible Comenius curriculum ranging beyond his Janua Linguarum Reserata and Orbis Sensualium Pictus. I did this out of personal interest, but I knew in my heart of hearts and still know that it is a very rare individual indeed who will have any interest beyond the Janua and Orbis. I was personally absorbed in the history and in his rather sad wanderings about Europe as a seventeenth-century Protestant refugee during the Thirty Years’ War, but nobody today is going to care about Comenius’s “Lissa [Poland] period,” his “Elbing [aka Swedish] period”, his “Sarospatak [Hungary] period.” (Comenius’s curriculum begins with the Vestibulum, which can serve as a short introduction to Latin vocabulary. I personally find it of negligible value, but some people have transcribed and recorded it.)
I also spilled a lot of ink — and time in my introductory video — updating people on my and Felipe Vogel’s and Stephen Hill’s progress transcribing the Janua and Orbis. That is a moot point now. We each got as far as we got before moving on with our lives, and I have put our final albeit incomplete versions on Dropbox.
The purpose of my YouTube video project was to:
- combine the material of the Janua and the Orbis
- combine the Latin and the Greek
- make the presentation graphically and intellectually interesting, in short, make a twenty first-century version of the material
I enjoyed doing this. I liked designing the individual slides in PowerPoint. I had fun searching the internet for interesting images (I even paid for some of them!). I gladly accepted the challenge of learning the recording technology (Camtasia, Audacity) and of managing a YouTube channel.
I organized the material into albums, represented by playlists on YouTube. My private goal was to complete, after the Introduction and following the order of topics in Comenius, the chain of being from the Beginnings (the Cosmos) to the classical four Elements to the earth’s inanimate Stones & Minerals & Metals to Plants and to Animals up to Man, and then take stock. I got as far as potherbs.
Lost in the Weeds
In Comenius’s conception, human knowledge begins by observing nature with our senses and naming the things in it. The Janua and Orbis do that for elementary school-age children. They learn the names of these things in their native language and then in the lingua franca of Latin. My problem is that I am not a puer (παῖς), not even, in the Orbis‘s Septem Aetates Hominis (αἱ ἐπτὰ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἡλικίαι), a vir (ἀνήρ), but a senex (γέρων). I have adult interests and an old man’s sense of my time left. This is a problem Comenius would have understood, because for him learning was a lifelong process, but done differently in the different stages of human development.
So in working on the video presentations, I would get interested in and distracted by a thirst for scientia rerum ipsarum. This resulted in two primary divergences:
- In working on Plants, I became very interested in botany. To capture my research, I created a Praefatio playlist to Comenius’s chapters on plants. The Praefatio was intended to be a mini-course in the history of botany, with a focus on Greek and Latin sources (and hence, I reasoned, Greek and Latin plant vocabulary). The history was to cover the three most important writers on plants in antiquity, Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, then the great pioneering botanical authors from the Renaissance and Reformation eras (most of whom wrote in Latin), and finally Linnaeus and the establishment of the Botanical Latin nomenclature we use today. The playlist contains my material on Theophrastus. I got as far as draft PowerPoints for the other authors, but never to the stage of recording them.
- Independently of my Comania, I developed an interest in ancient medicine and I did some extensive study of Hippocrates. I was reminded, though, that Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, Places, a neat piece of science that connects our health to our environment, can serve as an intermediate Greek reader , and the bizarre notion occurred to me that my hypothetical Comenian student might celebrate her hard-earned acquisition of nature vocabulary by taking a time out from Comenius and reading this treatise (the entire Hippocratic Corpus was translated into Latin). Obviously that hypothetical Comenian student was me. This divergence branched out to associated interests and other recordings too, for example, the apparent mutual influence between “Hippocrates” (i.e., the anonymous early medical writers) and the Presocratic philosophers, and two other fascinating examples of secular medicine from the Hippocratic Corpus, viz., On Ancient Medicine and On the Sacred Disease. I lamely tried to incorporate these recordings into my Comenius curriculum, but now I have simply separated them out as independent playlists, though per the original plan they contain some references to Comenius (here and here).
So, as I said, I never got past potherbs. For the record, what remains to be done for Plants — and it almost certainly won’t be me doing them — are Comenius’s chapters on “corns” (fruges, σῖτοι), flowers (flores, ἄνθη) and medicinal plants (herbae medicinales, πόαι θεραπευτικαί — with a tie in to Dioscorides), and shrubs (frutices, θάμνοι).
I regret not having found the time to work up presentations on animals. I would have had crazy fun image hunting for birds (amusing barnyard fowls, delightful singing birds, birds of the fields and woods, scary rapacious birds, aquatic birds), crawling and flying insects, domesticated quadrupeds and “herd cattle” (pecora) and beasts of burden (iumenta) and wild cattle (ferae pecudes) and beasts (ferae bestiae), serpents and reptiles, amphibians, and fish of the rivers, ponds, and sea.
Of course I know what would have happened. I would have gotten lost in Aristotle’s History of Animals and in Linnaeus’s Animal Kingdom (in the Systema Naturae). And then quite likely …
I would have gotten lost in Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, which anatomy I would have compared to the human anatomies of the Hippocratic Corpus and the Imperial Age writers Celsus (De medicina) and Galen, and from there to Vesalius and to Gray’s Anatomy and to molecular biology, all by way of supplementing the quite adequate — from a poor struggling student’s vocabulary perspective — anatomies in Comenius.
Finally, having dissected Man’s body, my Comania may have stopped, because for those beefing up their vocabulary for purposes of reading ancient texts, I believe the remaining chapters in the Janua and the Orbis have diminishing returns.
Anyway, it has been a fun ride.