Czech Republic, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

1. Early period

Philosophy in the Czech Republic is connected to national history in a manner unlike any other European ‘philosophical’ country. It has sometimes had to disregard academic problems and interests to join the social battles of the era, and so it has played a major ideological role. Often it has had to reach beyond itself to develop ideas in other spheres of spiritual life, from the literary and historical to the natural sciences. The beginnings of philosophy in Bohemia go back as far as the thirteenth century to the Prague Cathedral School, which had contact with other European centres of philosophy. The founding of Prague University in 1348 was a positive stage in the development of philosophical scholarship, and important philosophical trends were evident at the University from the beginning. With time, however, realism in opposition to nominalism prevailed, based on the Platonic traditions of European thinking (see Nominalism). The chief representative was Vojtěch Raňkuv of Ježov (Adalbert Rankonis) (d. 1388), a Rector of the Sorbonne who introduced the writings of John Wyclif to Prague University. Others include Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (d. 1374), a severe critic of both secular and Church power who influenced later Hussite thinkers with his chiliastic image of the coming doomsday and the ‘era of justice’; Matěj (Mathias) of Janova (d. circa 1394), who denounced the institution of the church and demanded the creation of a communio sanctorum (community of saints) modelled on the first Christians; and Tomáš of Štítný (d. circa 1405), the first scholar to write his critical essays in Czech and the founder of Czech philosophical terminology.

This movement culminated in the early fifteenth century with Jan Hus, whose philosophy built on the achievements of Wyclif to reach humanistic and rationally critical conclusions. Hus believed that every Christian has the right to use their reason to judge the laws of the secular world as well as Church powers, as well as the right to refuse to obey if they find any discrepancies between these and God’s law (understood as a Platonic Idea). The truth wins only when a man is willing to sacrifice his own life for it. Hus attempted to defend his ideas before the Church Council in Konstanz, but failed and was burnt at the stake. After his death, his ideas became an ideological starting point for the Hussite Revolution (1419–34) and the Reformation that followed. His influence was widespread: Jakoubek of Stříbro’ (Jacobellus of Mies) (d. 1429), an ideologist of the mild wing of the Hussite Revolution, introduced Holy Communion from the chalice as a symbol of Christian equality for all believers; Mikuláš Biskupec (d. circa 1460) represented the radical wing and preached the ‘liberal law of the Lord’ which was based on the spiritual and social emancipation of human beings; Martin Húska (d. 1421), an extreme left-wing Hussite ideologist, refused to accept any notion of transcendence and denied theist dogmas – for him, God lives in human beings and the Eucharist is a real material feast, all people are equal and sexual life should be free; Petr Chelčický (d. 1460), a social reformer, believed the feudal division of society to be unjust and claimed equal rights for everyone, calling for universal love and condemning all violence (his ideas later influenced L.N. Tolstoi).

The Hussite Revolution inspired the Czech Reformation, the first victorious reformation in Europe, and in 1457 a new Church was founded in Bohemia. Known as Jednota bratrská (Unity of Brethren), this new Church, was based on the teachings of Chelčický. Later it became an important centre of spiritual and cultural life in Czech society. (Many of its members emigrated in the seventeenth century before the violent anti-reformation broke out, and one of its branches still exists in the USA as the Moravian Brethren.) The ‘Unity’ proclaimed the idea of religious tolerance and, combined with other Reformation ideas, contributed to the forming of the ‘Czech confession’ (1575) which demanded freedom of belief for all – including serfs, thereby going against the feudal principle that they follow the beliefs of their ruler (‘cuius regio, eius religio’). Among the representatives of the Unity was Jan Blahoslav (d. 1571), an outstanding bishop who wrote many theological and pedagogical essays, as well as the first Czech book on aesthetics and musical theory.

In Bohemia as elsewhere, the Reformation was followed by a surge in Renaissance humanism, both existing simultaneously and having mutual influence. In fact, representatives of both sides aimed to bring the two movements together. Viktorin Kornel of Všehrdy (d. circa 1520), a founder of the first Czech law school, worked on the philosophy of natural law, which reflected the self-awareness of the new class of citizens. He was also the creator of a philosophy of Czech history that overemphasized the importance of the Hussite period. Řehoř Hrubý of Jelení (Gelenius) (d.1514), a translator of Cicero, Petrarch and Erasmus of Rotterdam, was influenced by Stoicism and united his patriotism with the idea of Universal Goodness into a universally understood world view. Jan Jessenius (d.1621), a rector of Prague University who was executed for his part in the anti-Habsburg uprising, was a physician and a follower of Renaissance natural philosophy (inspired by Franciscus Patritius). He also supported Heliocentrists, as did the outstanding mathematician and astronomer Tadeáš Hájek (d.1600), whose work was used by Tycho de Brahe, Kepler and Galileo.

Prague at this time was also an important centre of Jewish culture. Its most important representative was Jehuda ben Becalel Liva (d.1609), the legendary Rabbi Löw who, in his chief philosophical and theological document Be’er ha-gola (1600) expresses his understanding of a free man opening himself to the outside world through his activity. Rabbi Löw also wanted the Jewish community to engage other nations in dialogue on equal terms.

Czech Reformation thinking, which was enriched by many elements from the Renaissance, culminates in the synthetic work of Jan Amos Comenius, the last bishop of the Unity. In his major work, De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica, he created a philosophical system dominated by the idea of amelioration and the harmonious arrangement of human relations, based on rational enlightenment and general education. He believed in human nature as an active force capable of constant improvement. Didacticism and pedagogy were to serve as an instrument to reach this aim. At he deepest layer of this conception there is an ontology based on a modified Neoplatonist scheme, whose highest degree is the harmonious development of all beings into a new human reality.

The movement in Czech philosophical thinking which culminated in the work of Comenius was interrupted after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. The Czech State ceased to exist and a forced re-Catholicization of the country followed. The elite of Protestant intellectuals, including Comenius, had to leave the country and their place was taken by Catholic priests, mostly of foreign origin, who brought with them other intellectual traditions. Some of them contributed to the history of seventeenth-century philosophical thinking, including Roderigo Arriaga, a follower of the neoscholastics, who tried to find a compromise between the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham in a spirit of mild realism; Jan Caramuel of Lobkowicz, considered a father of modern logic of relations; and Valerianus Magni, a Franciscan who developed the Scotistic tradition, opposed neoscholasticism and was close to Descartes’ rationalism (see Descartes, R.; Duns Scotus, J.; Rationalism). Jan Marcus Marci of Kronland was a different type of thinker, a natural scientist rooted in Platonism and Neoplatonism who preached the analogical construction of microcosm and macrocosm – through studying the activity of nerves he arrived at ideas anticipating later associative psychology (see Neoplatonism; Platonism, Renaissance). Hieronymus Hirnheim belonged to the anti-Jesuit opposition. He stressed the ethical ideas of original Christianity, the primacy of life-praxis over speculative scholasticism and the importance of subjective belief oriented to a philosophy close to Jansenism.

Citing this article:
Zumr, Josef. Early period. Czech Republic, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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