The Tao or the Wow: How Ancient Texts Rehumanize the Heart

The tension in many a good story centers on a hero’s struggle, as opposition mounts, to remember his identity or to recall her mission.

Succumbing to Sirens and Circes is perilous and treasure greater than victory awaits the unwavering.

In Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, for instance, Meg Murry’s mission is to rescue her father and (with her brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin O’Keeffe), save the universe from the encroaching darkness of The Black Thing.

In the course of the conflict Meg must battle IT, an evil entity seeking to enslave her by controlling her mind. Meg steels herself against IT’s seductive reasoning by an act of memory, reviewing the periodic table of elements and the square roots she’d memorized in school.

Her tenacious recall of stored fact becomes a barrier shielding Meg’s mind from IT’s attack. The periodic table grounds Meg in reality and reminds her who she is.

The perils of failed memory are made plain in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In the aftermath of Manor Farm’s animal revolt, Napoleon–a shrewd, power-hungry pig–assumes ever greater control over his fellow animals, manipulating their memory to serve his own purposes.

The conquest is complete when Napoleon amends the farm’s primary precept, “All animals are equal” to read All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The animals’ memory has atrophied so much by the gradual revision of their story they don’t even notice the final blow.

The pigs, now indistinguishable from men whose cruelty had inspired the original revolt, are able to seize power without protest.

The struggle to remember and the perils of forgetting (think, too, of Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) are effective in fiction because they represent a fundamental aspect of the human struggle. Left to our own, we abandon the highest good with remarkable regularity, cutting truth’s corners with petty justifications.

But we can also be controlled without realizing what has happened when others manipulate our memory for the sake of power and privilege.

Reminders are essential for any human task, and sometimes our very humanity depends on them.

This truth returned to me unexpectedly when I decided to stop reading about Homer and read Homer himself.

I began to want more Homer in my life when I took up Dante’s Divine Comedy two summers ago. Following a recommendation in How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom in the World’s Greatest Poem, I listened to The Great Courses lecture series as a companion to my first read.

Rod Dreher has been rereading the Divine Comedy for years and offers a profound testimony to the healing power of sustained attention to one great book.

Dante richly rewarded me of course, but so did allowing Great Courses professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Hertzman guide me. They’ve taught the Commedia in prisons and monasteries as well as universities, and their lectures filled many gaps in my ever-incomplete education, especially when it came to Homer.

It’s not that I didn’t recognize any of Dante’s Homeric allusions; it’s just that the poet revealed my poverty and ignited a desire to continue the journey on my own.

Even though my undergraduate degree is in English and I love how great books stretch me, I’m a procrastinator like most everybody I know. Digital distraction is stunting our ability to sustain our attention. Great works of literature frustrate those of us who want them to reveal all their treasures in one quick read.

We may want the prideful pleasure of ticking a title off our list more than we desire to stretch our souls.

At least I do, and I have to fight the temptation. But back to Homer.

As with Dante, I needed guides. I listened to the Great Courses lectures to support my understanding of The Iliad. But another, more unexpected treasure awaited me: a podcast so rich I started from Season 1 even though I may never catch up.

It’s the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network’s A Perpetual Feast, where classical educators Andrew Kern and Wes Callihan “discuss Homer and all of the things that Homer makes them think about.”

Listening to these humble, humorous Homer-lovers range about the world of books and beauty, faith and philosophy calms my spirit, jangled as it often is by emotion-driven culture clamor. Their conversations feed my soul with sustenance more nourishing than mere facts on a greatly-loved poem.

And then I arrived at A Perpetual Feast #10: Why Memory Matters.

While discussing much loftier works, Kern and Callihan reminded me of the urgency behind Meg Murry’s victory and and the conquest of Animal Farm.

Kern begins this episode by describing a Chinese classical education organization whose students read 100 words from the Analects of Confucius or Lao-Tzu’s The Tao 100 times to seal them in the memory and sink them in the soul.

Kern and Callihan go on to remind us of schools in the traditions of Islam and Judaism who similarly weave their great texts into students’ hearts, and how the Christian psalter, monastic prayer traditions and daily Scriptures do the same for devout Christians (I recommend this series of reverent conversations on the Liturgy of the Hours as another example).

In Greek and Roman times, Callihan notes, it wasn’t uncommon for schoolboys to have the entire Iliad, Odyssey and other sections of great poetry memorized. Repetition, which young minds love when well supported, helps the text take hold of the heart.

Adults who reread great books and commit passages to memory benefit their hearts and minds all their lives.

There’s so much more to the conversation in this episode, which touches on why the classics of the Western canon (including Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton) and their common ground with the great spiritual and philosophical classics of all cultures (what C.S. Lewis called the Tao in The Abolition of Man) are so important.

A post-Enlightenment educational shift away from the heart or the soul toward purely empirical, rational pursuits puts us at risk of forgetting something critical about what it means to be human and what gives life meaning in the first place.

Callihan asserts that we’ve been so infected by this change we really don’t notice how deeply different we’ve become from our forebears and how much more fulfilling our lives can be when we attend to the heart the way the ancients did:

Both the early pagans–Romans and Greeks–and early Christians shared an attitude about anthropology and human nature and how we learn and how we know and how we apprehend…both the visible and the invisible worlds…a traditional way of understanding of human nature. We see it in other ancient cultures too, the Chinese, the Indian and ancient Near East.

Memorization and exposing oneself to the great texts of the ancient past is one way of retuning our senses and recovering our souls.

“We need to do some really deep exploring and have some courageous school leadership who aren’t content to do school the way it’s done in our culture if we want to see really transformative…learning based on human nature,” Kern urges.

I’ve seen plenty of change along these lines during my years in both higher education and in K-12 schools, and I concur.

Adults can take on greater responsibility to attend to our own lack as well. Souls shrivel when they aren’t fed, and we can’t pass on what we do not possess.

“Memory is stored so that you can contemplate what you have put in it,” says Kern. If you have nothing stored, you have nothing to think about, nothing to lead you into contemplation.

No matter, some would say. We’re seldom still and silent enough to let our own contemplation rise from within. We have instant access to information and entertainment and we have Google for anything we don’t already know.

Here’s the problem: when our minds are over-focused on the cycle of news, advertising and must-see entertainment, we may never notice the moment when our heart shifts from the Tao to the next “wow.”

The point when “All animals are equal” becomes “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” will pass us by because our only reality will be the mantra of the moment.

There is an innoculation against this, however, a preventative measure we can procure. Read The Tao, Kern urges. Read Homer. Read The Abolition of Man.

Prioritize these texts and rehumanize your heart.

Read and reread the Psalms and the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul.

You will never fully understand them, but don’t let that stop you. As long as your heart remains open to receive their beauty you will be gradually transformed. If you rereread the same texts, they will sink more deeply into your soul. If you go further and commit some of their passages to memory, you’ll have wisdom to contemplate in moments of silence.

Fight for moments of silence.

Clamor captivates and click-bait is forever dangling. Our hearts are strengthed by the Tao and they’re weakend by the wow.

The “still, small voice” cannot be heard unless we listen.

Now more than ever, memory matters, calling us to set sail with “the clean sea-breeze of the centuries” gently blowing us toward islands where our hearts can be rehumanized.

What are your favorite old books? Please share below or send me an email!

Sparrowfare reviewed the luminous CiRCEThe Daily Poem podcast here.

Close Reads, CiRCE’s flagship podcast, will be discussing this translation of The Odyssey in just a few weeks. I can’t recommend this podcast more highly, and if, like me, you’ve been wanting to read Homer but you don’t want to go it alone, you couldn’t ask for a better time to start.

“Some of the animals remembered–or thought they remembered–that the Sixth Commandment decreed, ‘No animal shall kill any other animal.’ And though no one cared to mention it in the hearing of the pigs or the dogs, it was felt that the killings which had taken place did not square with this.” Animal Farm has much to show us about how memory erodes if not protected. It’s only a three-hour listen on Audible.

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Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “The Tao or the Wow: How Ancient Texts Rehumanize the Heart

  1. Agreed, although I’m one of those folks who haven’t read Homer – and didn’t get all the way through Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s not an “old” book, by comparison, but I have read and re-read Tolkien’s ‘Ring’ trilogy several times; once within the last few years.

    Where ancient literature is in play, my preference is for the shorter works. The action-thriller in Genesis 18 and 19, for example; that starts with Abraham haggling the Almighty down to 10 righteous citizens in a futile attempt to save cities where is kinsman Lot lived.

    Maybe that, and others like it, aren’t exactly Homeric 😉 – – – but I figure there’s a reason why descendants of Abraham kept telling and re-telling the stories – – – and gentiles like me followed their example. And that’s another topic or two.

    1. Oh yes! The Old Testament hands down. Gideon, Esther, David, Daniel! Can’t argue with you there, and I love LOTR on repeated reads as well. I find myself wanting to re-read more books which means less time for newer ones. C.S. Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books” rings truer every year.

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