The Flame of Memory for the Life of the World
By Heidi White
I am Aeneas, duty-bound.
I carry aboard my ships the gods of house and home...
I seek my homeland—Italy.
The Aeneid has never been my favorite epic: I prefer my heroes more flawed and fierce, but a new reading has illuminated something flawed in me. I see myself and my fellow classical educators in the defeated Trojans, cast from a burning city, longing to return. Lonely, we feel exiled from a world that is rumored to have once delighted in truth for its own sake. We identify ourselves as keepers of the flame of memory in the wasteland. Like Aeneas, with his household gods, we shield the rich relics of the past from those who want to burn them to ashes. Yet what do we do with the cultural memory we carry? Two characters from the Aeneid embody divergent reactions to the ancient dilemma: Aeneas, duty-bound to build a kingdom, and Andromache, erecting a citadel for ghosts.
Raging at the sack of Troy, Aeneas desires to die defending his doomed city, but the ghost of fallen Hector declares his destiny:
Troy is toppling from her heights…
Now into your hands
She entrusts her holy things, her household gods.
Take them with you as comrades in your fortunes,
Seek a city for them, once you have roved the seas,
Erect great walls at last to house the gods of Troy.
Thus duty-bound Aeneas begins his fated quest. He removes the burning household gods from their shrine, “filled with [Vesta’s] power, her everlasting fire,” and bears them away. Troy blazes while Aeneas salvages the flame of memory, the sacred artifacts of his culture, for his new homeland.
We too are watching our culture destroy itself from within. Like Troy, we open our own gates to the horse that houses our enemies. From the belly of the gift-beast emerge the hordes that engulf the city. Today’s destroying hordes do not carry torches, but delusions of deconstruction. They strip our rich culture of transcendence, burning virtue to the ground with materialist ideology. We relate to Aeneas as he weeps and rages, fights until fate redirects him, then carries his family and the flame of memory out of the wreckage to build something new.
But Andromache, Hector’s widow, chooses a different path. Like Aeneas, she builds a city, but unlike Aeneas, her city is not for the future. She builds her city to serve dead memories. After leaving Troy to its fate, Aeneas and his weary men dock on Chaonia to rest. They discover that Helenus, half-brother of Hector himself, has married Andromache. Aeneas finds her pouring libations to the dead and weeping for her fallen husband. When Helenus greets the Trojan guests, he invites them to a banquet.
And as I walk, I recognize a little Troy
A miniature, mimicking our great Trojan towers,
And a dried-up brook that they called the River Xanthus.
Andromache and Helenus build the new city as a puny replica of the old one, next to a “dried-up brook.” As I read the Aeneid, I wonder with a chill if we are more like Andromache than Aeneas. If the West is indeed going up in flames, are we hastily constructing inferior versions of classical models, or are we building something vibrant that honors the divine image we carry?
Those of us who are active in the classical education movement understand the irreplaceable value of the burning heart of cultural memory. We build our vocation upon it. We do not want the richness of Western culture to erupt in flames kindled by hollow men, so we offer a vision for the rising generations: Wisdom and virtue for God’s image bearers through rich abundance of knowledge and action anchored in incarnational theology. Yet we must remember that our mission is not to the dead, but to the living.
If we want to keep the flame of memory alive, we must build something vitally robust that engages with the world as it is, not as it was. The flame of memory illuminates the past, yet it also ignites a spark that propels us to build the future. We are not Andromache invoking Hector’s ghost to appear. We are Aeneas, who knows that his destiny requires imagination, skill, and craft alongside memory.
I urge them to cherish
Their hearth and homes, erect a citadel strong
to shield them well.
Our ships were no sooner hauled
onto dry land, our young crewman busy with weddings,
plowing the fresh soil while I was drafting laws
and assigning homes.
Aeneas was an executive leader as well as a conquering hero. He oriented his quest to active response to divine will, not dire hand-wringing over what was lost.
If classical educators are keepers of cultural memory, our mission is to engage our students to translate the memories of the past into redemptive action now. Some of our students will become academics who delight in scholarship for its own sake, but that is not our only success. Kingdoms require craftsmen as well as scholars. Students become entrepreneurs, builders, soldiers, parents, engineers. They do the work of a living world, not a dead one. This requires us to educate them accordingly. The flame of memory enables us to create as well as to remember.
If cultural memory is a flame, it either destroys or ignites. Memory’s blaze consumes Andromache’s future because her spirit is not strong enough to build again. But duty-bound Aeneas carries his household gods, smoldering with divine fire, through the triumphs and sorrows of his quest. Our Lord entrusts us to pass the flame of memory to the next generation, so let us bind ourselves to our quest with steady resolve. We are not Andromache who desires to raise ghosts, but Aeneas, duty-bound to build a divine kingdom for the life of the world.