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COMEDY—COMET

pure phlogiston. On this theory, all substances which could be burnt were composed of phlogiston and some other substance, and the operation of burning was simply equivalent to the liberation of the phlogiston. The Stahlian theory, originally a theory of combustion, came to be a general theory of chemical reactions, since it provided simple explanations of the ordinary chemical processes (when regarded qualitatively) and permitted generalizations which largely stimulated its acceptance. Its inherent defect—that the products of combustion were invariably heavier than the original substance instead of less as the theory demanded—was ignored, and until late in the 18th century it dominated chemical thought. Its overthrow was effected by Lavoisier, who showed that combustion was simply an oxidation, the oxygen of the atmosphere (which was isolated at about this time by K. W. Scheele and J. Priestley) combining with the substance burnt.


COMEDY, the general term applied to a type of drama the chief object of which, according to modern notions, is to amuse. It is contrasted on the one hand with tragedy and on the other with farce, burlesque, &c. As compared with tragedy it is distinguished by having a happy ending (this being considered for a long time the essential difference), by quaint situations, and by lightness of dialogue and character-drawing. As compared with farce it abstains from crude and boisterous jesting, and is marked by some subtlety of dialogue and plot. It is, however, difficult to draw a hard and fast line of demarcation, there being a distinct tendency to combine the characteristics of farce with those of true comedy. This is perhaps more especially the case in the so-called “musical comedy,” which became popular in Great Britain and America in the later 19th century, where true comedy is frequently subservient to broad farce and spectacular effects.

The word “comedy” is derived from the Gr. κωμῳδία, which is a compound either of κῶμος (revel) and ἀοιδός (singer; ἀείδειν, ᾄδειν, to sing), or of κώμη (village) and ἀοιδός: it is possible that κῶμος itself is derived from κώμη, and originally meant a village revel. The word comes into modern usage through the Lat. comoedia and Ital. commedia. It has passed through various shades of meaning. In the middle ages it meant simply a story with a happy ending. Thus some of Chaucer’s Tales are called comedies, and in this sense Dante used the term in the title of his poem, La Commedia (cf. his Epistola X., in which he speaks of the comic style as “loquutio vulgaris, in qua et mulierculae communicant”; again “comoedia vero remisse et humiliter”; “differt a tragoedia per hoc, quod t. in principio est admirabilis et quieta, in fine sive exitu est foetida et horribilis”). Subsequently the term is applied to mystery plays with a happy ending. The modern usage combines this sense with that in which Renaissance scholars applied it to the ancient comedies.

The adjective “comic” (Gr. κωμικός), which strictly means that which relates to comedy, is in modern usage generally confined to the sense of “laughter-provoking”: it is distinguished from “humorous” or “witty” inasmuch as it is applied to an incident or remark which provokes spontaneous laughter without a special mental effort. The phenomena connected with laughter and that which provokes it, the comic, have been carefully investigated by psychologists, in contrast with other phenomena connected with the emotions. It is very generally agreed that the predominating characteristics are incongruity or contrast in the object, and shock or emotional seizure on the part of the subject. It has also been held that the feeling of superiority is an essential, if not the essential, factor: thus Hobbes speaks of laughter as a “sudden glory.” Physiological explanations have been given by Kant, Spencer and Darwin. Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, babies being watched from infancy and the date of their first smile being carefully recorded. For an admirable analysis and account of the theories see James Sully, On Laughter (1902), who deals generally with the development of the “play instinct” and its emotional expression.

See Drama; also Humour; Caricature; Play, &c.


COMENIUS (or Komensky), JOHANN AMOS (1592–1671), a famous writer on education, and the last bishop of the old church of the Moravian and Bohemian Brethren, was born at Comna, or, according to another account, at Niwnitz, in Moravia, of poor parents belonging to the sect of the Moravian Brethren. Having studied at Herborn and Heidelberg, and travelled in Holland and England, he became rector of a school at Prerau, and after that pastor and rector of a school at Fulnek. In 1621 the Spanish invasion and persecution of the Protestants robbed him of all he possessed, and drove him into Poland. Soon after he was made bishop of the church of the Brethren. He supported himself by teaching Latin at Lissa, and it was here that he published his Pansophiae prodromus (1630), a work on education, and his Janua linguarum reserata (1631), the latter of which gained for him a widespread reputation, being produced in twelve European languages, and also in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. He subsequently published several other works of a similar kind, as the Eruditionis scholasticae janua and the Janua linguarum trilinguis. His method of teaching languages, which he seems to have been the first to adopt, consisted in giving, in parallel columns, sentences conveying useful information, in the vernacular and the languages intended to be taught (i.e. in Comenius’s works, Latin and sometimes Greek). In some of his books, as the Orbis sensualium pictus (1658), pictures are added; this work is, indeed, the first children’s picture-book. In 1638 Comenius was requested by the government of Sweden to draw up a scheme for the management of the schools of that country; and a few years after he was invited to join the commission that the English parliament then intended to appoint, in order to reform the system of education. He visited England in 1641, but the disturbed state of politics prevented the appointment of the commission, and Comenius passed over to Sweden in August 1642. The great Swedish minister, Oxenstjerna, obtained for him a pension, and a commission to furnish a plan for regulating the Swedish schools according to his own method. Devoting himself to the elaboration of his scheme, Comenius settled first at Elbing, and then at Lissa; but, at the burning of the latter city by the Poles, he lost nearly all his manuscripts, and he finally removed to Amsterdam, where he died in 1671.

As an educationist, Comenius holds a prominent place in history. He was disgusted at the pedantic teaching of his own day, and he insisted that the teaching of words and things must go together. Languages should be taught, like the mother tongue, by conversation on ordinary topics; pictures, object lessons, should be used; teaching should go hand in hand with a happy life. In his course he included singing, economy, politics, world-history, geography, and the arts and handicrafts. He was one of the first to advocate teaching science in schools.

As a theologian, Comenius was greatly influenced by Boehme. In his Synopsis physicae ad lumen divinum reformatae he gives a physical theory of his own, said to be taken from the book of Genesis. He was also famous for his prophecies and the support he gave to visionaries. In his Lux in tenebris he published the visions of Kotterus, Dabricius and Christina Poniatovia. Attempting to interpret the book of Revelation, he promised the millennium in 1672, and guaranteed miraculous assistance to those who would undertake the destruction of the Pope and the house of Austria, even venturing to prophesy that Cromwell, Gustavus Adolphus, and Rakoczy, prince of Transylvania, would perform the task. He also wrote to Louis XIV., informing him that the empire of the world should be his reward if he would overthrow the enemies of God.

Comenius also wrote against the Socinians, and published three historical works—Ratio disciplinae ordinisque in unitate fratrum Bohemorum, which was republished with remarks by Buddaeus, Historia persecutionum ecclesiae Bohemicae (1648), and Martyrologium Bohemicum. See Raumer’s Geschichte der Pädogogik, and Carpzov’s Religionsuntersuchung der böhmischen und mährischen Brüder.


COMET (Gr. κομήτης, long-haired), in astronomy, one of a class of seemingly nebulous bodies, moving under the influence of the sun’s attraction in very eccentric orbits. A comet is visible only in a small arc of its orbit near perihelion, differing but slightly