Around the time that the Sage, Mencius, lived, a great stirring was occurring in the hearts of humankind. German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) referred to this time as the Axial Age, where axial means pivotal. Masters of wisdom appeared in India and Greece, as well as his home land, China. It was the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, the Indian writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and Isaiah of the Old Testament, among others. It was also the time of Confucius and his disciples, the writers of the Chinese Classics, The Four Books. Civilization was flowering. Some of the world’s greatest thinking emerged on the nature of the ultimate realities, all contributing to the liberation of the human spirit.

A central contribution of Mencius to this understanding was his notion of heart. But Mencius was not alone in this conception. When we explore the writings of other cultures, we discover an amazing fact. The symbol of the heart spans the globe. It has been of monumental significance since man could contemplate the ineffable and the existence of the immaterial in virtually every culture, religion and philosophy. From the beginning of conscious man recording his experiences, beliefs, thoughts and feelings in a sophisticated and organized way, he has attempted to convey something essential about himself and the cosmos through the metaphor of the heart. Its appearance in the writings of the wise began at least 4000 years ago. We can surmise that this symbolic image emerged with the dawn of thought.

Before reviewing the teachings of our Sage, his forbears and his disciples on the heart, we will illuminate the meaning of this symbol through the use of wisdom texts from this world-history of heart-ideas.

Definitions of the Heart

From earliest times, humankind has located soul, spirit, Self, conscience, thought, feeling, compassion, passion, the eternal and God within this place called the heart.

Though we no longer live in a heart-centered world, the heart remains a numinous symbol that pervades our world and still contains many of the meanings that Mencius and other ancient wise ones gave to it. In our exploration of the history of the symbol of the heart, let us begin with some of the contemporary definitions we find in our dictionaries. In Webster’s Revised Unabridged, some of the meanings include:

“The nearest the middle or center; the part most hidden and within; the inmost or most essential part of any body or system; the source of life and motion in any organization; the chief or vital portion; the center of activity, or of energetic or efficient action; as, the heart of a country, of a tree, etc.”

“Vital part; secret meaning; real intention.”

“The seat of the affections or sensibilities, collectively or separately, as love, hate, joy, grief, courage, and the like; rarely, the seat of the understanding or will; -- usually in a good sense, when no epithet is expressed; the better or lovelier part of our nature; the spring of all our actions and purposes; the seat of moral life and character; the moral affections and character itself; the individual disposition and character; as, a good, tender, loving, bad, hard, or selfish heart.”

The Concise Oxford Thesaurus includes:

“EMOTIONS, feelings, sentiments; soul, mind, bosom, breast; love, affection, passion.
“COMPASSION, sympathy, humanity, feeling(s), fellow feeling, brotherly love, tenderness, empathy, understanding; kindness, goodwill.
“ENTHUSIASM, keenness, eagerness, spirit, determination, resolve, purpose, courage, nerve, will power, fortitude; informal guts, spunk;
“CENTRE, middle, hub, core, nucleus, eye, bosom.
“ESSENCE, crux, core, nub, root, gist, meat, marrow, pith, substance, kernel; informal nitty-gritty.
“COURAGE, cojones, dauntlessness, guts, mettle, moxie, pluck, resolution, spirit, spunk, chutzpah.”

The Heart in Ancient Civilizations

Historically, the heart was the singular metaphor for what was essential about being human. Besides its physical purposes, it was thought of as the "vital center of being, (the) seat of understanding, memory, and the passions, a sort of microcosm of the self."

Whether we look to ancient Egypt, Babylon or Greece, we find that the heart was a sacred symbol. In Egypt it was associated with the god, Horus. In Babylon it was associated with the god, Bel, and in Greece with Bacchus.

Long before Mencius wrote his immortal words, the ancient Egyptians considered the heart to be the core of the soul and the seat of emotion, mind, thought and psyche. When a person died, their heart was weighed in the scales against the feather of maat, the principle of truth and justice. If the heart was found to be free of wrongdoing, the person would continue to exist for all time. The heart was then returned to the body. It was the only part of the viscera left by the Egyptians in the mummy, since it was regarded as the indispensible part of the body in eternity.

We find the heart mentioned in the writings of the Egyptian, Ptahhotep, the wise vizier who counseled the Pharaoh over 4000 years ago:

“He who listens is beloved of god,
He who does not listen is hated by god.
It is the heart which makes of its owner
A listener or a non-listener.”

Here we see the intimate relationship of listening and heart. What we will see in our exploration of how to find the heart, and related to the method of yantric hermeneutics utilized in this and future works, is that in order to find the heart, we need to listen within, listen to the words of the great explorers of self, listen to nature, listen to the divine, and listen in relationship to others.

The heart appeared in the Hindu classics, The Rig Veda, written as early as 3700 years ago and The Upanishads and The Bhagavad-Gita which herald mostly from the great awakening of 2500 years ago. These are the classic wisdom texts of India from which its great spiritual understandings flow. They, too, saw the importance of listening as a means of reaching the heart, which is our source of happiness. “When a man has heard and has understood and, finding the essence, reaches the Inmost, there he finds joy in the Source of joy.”

To these writers, the heart is the unknowable place where the universe is realized in the Self:

“In the centre of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower, and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know him. And if anyone asks, 'Who is he who dwells in a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower in the centre of the castle of Brahman? Whom should we want to find and to know' we can answer: The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not: for the whole universe is in Him and He dwells within our heart.”

The symbol of the heart appeared across the world in Greece in the writings of the immortal Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who lived from 384BC- 322BC. He said that the soul was located in the heart, which was the “acropolis of the body,” the center from which everything flowed. He saw the heart as "the locus of spiritual refinement of the vital spirits, as well as the place where the imagination makes its impression available to the intellectual faculty."

In other words, our central human capacity for imagination, which is the well spring of our ability for symbolization, dialectics and moral thinking, is attributed to the heart.

Though Mencius, a contemporary of Aristotle, was the great Chinese philosopher of the heart, or hsin, it was widely considered to be the seat of the intelligence and emotions throughout Asia and is one of the Buddha's Eight Precious Organs.

For the Buddhists, whose doctrines also became popular in the period following the great awakening, the heart was the origin of all: “All things are the result of the heart.”

Kundalini Yoga, the ancient Indian science that aims for the development of higher consciousness, conceives that there are a number of centers of archetypal being and potential located within the person called chakras. The fourth chakra, or anahata, is the chakra of the heart. The heart was believed to be the seat in the body of buddhic, spiritual consciousness. It is the guiding, and most important, part of the body. Its cultivation leads to spiritual realization and unity. Found in the anahata is the divine self, called the purusa. Jung says that here you find the self beyond ego, the source of individuation.

A classic meditation mantra, which is a phrase that is repeated over and over again by the disciple in order to bring about a shift in consciousness, shows the centrality of the heart in this philosophy, where the meaning of the mantra is that the sacred is made manifest in us through our center, our heart. As the contemporary spiritual teacher, Baba Ram Dass (b. 1931) explained it in his inimitable style,

“One of the ways of understanding (the meaning of om mani padme hum) is that Om means, like Brahma, that which is behind it all, the unmanifest. Mani means jewel or crystal. Padme means lotus and hum means heart. So, on one level what it means is the entire universe is just like a pure jewel or crystal right in the heart or the center of the lotus flower, which is me, and it is manifest, it comes forth in light, in manifest light, in my own heart. That's one way of interpreting it. You start to say OM mani padme hum and you're thinking "God in unmanifest form is like a jewel in the middle of the lotus, manifest in my heart." You go through that and feel it in your heart - that's one trip.”

The heart held a central importance in the Hebraic tradition, found primarily through the Old Testament of the Bible where it is named over a thousand times. It was defined as being the home of “. . . the innermost self, including conscience, memory and volition." In a quote from Deuteronomy which is at least 2700 years old, God says to the Israelites: “these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart." In a passage from Jeremiah which was written about 600 BCE, God puts the law in his people’s hearts by writing it there: "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts. . ." In this sense, the heart is the internal home of the law.

In Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the Biblical heart is described as “the centre not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life.” The heart is the "home of the personal life," and hence a man is designated, according to his heart, “wise (1 Kings 3:12, etc.), pure (Ps. 24:4; Matt. 5:8, etc.), upright and righteous (Gen. 20:5, 6; Ps. 11:2; 78:72), pious and good (Luke 8:15), etc. The heart is also the seat of the conscience (Rom. 2:15).” Easton makes a point to distinguish the heart in these senses, from the soul.

Significantly, the heart, from the beginning of these Biblical texts, is considered “naturally wicked (Gen. 8:21), and hence it contaminates the whole life and character (Matt. 12:34; 15:18; comp. Eccl. 8:11; Ps. 73:7). Hence the heart must be changed, regenerated (Ezek. 36:26; 11:19; Ps. 51:10-14), before a man can willingly obey God. The process of salvation begins in the heart by the believing reception of the testimony of God, while the rejection of that testimony hardens the heart (Ps. 95:8; Prov. 28:14; 2 Chr. 36:13).”

This is in contrast to the Mencian, humanistic, view that promulgates that humans are intrinsically good. From this perspective, the finding of the heart is a return to a natural way of being. In this view, people do not need to be changed, they need, instead to “become” what they in actuality “are.” In addition, no external intercession by a divine authority is necessary.

As many perspectives can be interpreted in the Bible, this negative view is somewhat contradicted elsewhere in Deuteronomy, where it was stated that it was possible to know and follow the commandments of God because the law was not something that came from outside of us, but was intimately connected to who we were. It was as close as the heart:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

In the classical Latin world, the word heart was cor, where we find the etymology of heart as core. In this world the word was a symbol for thought, memory, mind, soul, and spirit, as well as for the seat of intelligence, volition, character, and the emotions. These meanings passed into the Christian world and the romance languages.

We find the metaphor of the heart as the center of humanness in the writings of the early Christian, Paul. He saw the heart as the home of a person’s thinking, feeling and acting being.

Paul suggests an awareness of interiority, a sense of some whole, inmost self. In other words, for there to be an inmost self, there needs to be a concept of a human ‘inside,’ and a dimensionality to this insideness, where there is an ultimate location at the center of the center. This is the heart. The heart becomes a symbol, the unlocatable location of the ideal, as we naturally are able to conceive of it, and this is in relation to our personal experience which falls short of this ideal.

When Paul says, "I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart." This relates to the Mencian notion of heart as the place where human nature and universal law, where heaven and earth, find their point of meeting.

For Paul, the inner law is exemplified or known through conscience. For Mencius, the universal law that is known through the heart is the exquisite suffering of knowing the suffering of others, or empathy. We can see here the difference in the Paulist Christian view (which is in variance with the teachings of Jesus himself, whose message was unconditional love) which is built on guilt, versus the Mencian humanism, which is built on humaneness, or love.

As Paul connects heart to sin, the main difference between his Christian conception and the Mencian one is the same difference between Mencius and his opponent, Hsun Tzu, who believed that humans are essentially bad. For Paul, we sin, erasing the knowledge of universal good, or God, and we need to have the heart cleansed. For Mencius, we are good and we lose contact with this original nature as a result of poor cultivation. Mencius believes in an ontological goodness and that our behavior is not a reflection of our essence. For Paul, the opposite is the case and leads to concepts such as badness, conscience, shame and sin.

The Gnostics, a diverse group of religious sects that thrived around 2000 years ago, believed that salvation would come if they found gnosis kardia, knowledge of the heart, a state of conscious insight whereby one knows deep in one's heart, that one is "in the world, but not of this world."

The heart held a central meaning throughout the tradition of esoteric belief systems. In these systems, the heart is the “divinity behind and above and within the physical vehicle . . .” To quote from A Dictionary of Symbols by Juan Eduardo Cirlot and translated by Jack Sage,

“For the alchemists, the heart was the image of the sun within man, just as gold was the image of the sun on earth. The importance of love in the mystic doctrine of unity explains how it is that love-symbolism came to be closely linked with heart-symbolism, for to love is only to experience a force which urges the lover towards a given centre. In emblems, then, the heart signifies love as the centre of illumination and happiness, and this why it is surmounted by flames, or a cross, or a fleur-de-lis, or a crown.”

The heart had its place in the Muslim world, as well. The heart appears hundreds of times in The Qu’ran, the central religious text of Islam. The heart is most often referred to as covered, hardened, or diseased and needing to be healed, in the sense of coming to believe in Allah. The central symbol for the Sufis, a mystic order of Islam which began to emerge around the year 700 CE, is a heart with wings. Hazrat Inayat Khan, the sect’s great leader said,

“If anybody asks you, "What is Sufism? What religion is it?" you may answer: "Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the most important thing is to seek God in the heart of mankind."”

The Christian and Medieval Heart

The heart as a metaphor had a tremendous presence and meaning throughout Christian and European Medieval history. In this iteration, there was a strong relationship between the heart and the book. The heart was the source of exegesis, or the hermeneutic discovery of meaning hidden in depth. This takes us back to the notion that the hermeneutic method of this work is intrinsically related to its theme of heart, and to the realization of the self in the finding of the heart. Here there is no separation: the heart is the book of the self that needs to be read phenomenologically and interpreted hermeneutically. It is an experiencing of the heart that leads to its self-revelation. This offers us a renewed definition of the psychotherapeutic process, where an individual brings their life and inscrutable behaviors to us as a book, for us to enter, resonantly experience and symbolically reflect.

The heart was thought of by early Christians as the repository of our ingrained habits and our acts. The experience of conscience measured the distance between our acts and God’s law. This history of conscience held in the heart is meant to be examined and known as the way to become closer to God’s will. This travels all the way back to the Egyptian concept of the heart’s cleanliness from sin being its means for achieving eternal existence.

The early Christian sage, Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE), said that, "Our heart shall be made known to all rational creatures, and all hidden things revealed. . . The books (of our deeds and our conscience about them) are rolled up and hidden in the heart.”

The process of a complete reorientation of personality known as religious conversion required not only an examination of the heart and its historical contents, but an erasing of the previous way of being and a rewriting of the story of the self.

Ambrose (339-397) treated the heart as a secret, hidden place that held the concealed quality of the "inner man." This parallels Mencius’s notion that the heart can be lost, and that without a process of searching, the essence remains out of our grasp.

Of all the early Christians, the most important in our history of the heart was St. Augustine, who “transformed the entire consciousness of the Western world.” The heart was central in his works and a flaming heart is his attribute.

He believed that God himself was within the heart, the place where “truth is loved.” He named the heart as the location of one’s essential being, saying, “My heart is where I am whatever I am.” He also intuited the lost heart, and the need to find it again as a means of reuniting with the divine:

“Behold where he is: it is wherever truth is known. He is within our very hearts, but our hearts have strayed far from him. Return, you transgressors, to the heart, and cling to him who made you.”

If Paul was an early Christian explorer of interiority, Augustine was its greatest exemplar. As Eric Jager, the author of The Book of the Heart, put it, “For Augustine, the inner person and interior life were centered in the "heart," understood in its biblical sense as the moral and spiritual core of the human being.” Augustine agreed with the other great explorers of the heart who saw it as the center of thinking, feeling, action, imagination and love. He called it, "the indivisible, authentic center of human life" and "the place of interiority and religious experience, which defines individuality. . ."

The codex, the original hand written books that first appeared in the western world in late antiquity and were the source of exegetic meditation for those of Augustine’s time on, were also seen symbolically as related to the heart. As a container having an interior and an exterior and as an enclosure that could be opened and closed, the codex embodied notions of the heart’s "visible" and "invisible" parts, its "exterior" and "interior."

Augustine’s greatest work, his Confessions, describes the story of the finding of his lost heart. This culminates in the discovery of the hermeneutic process of self-cultivation which is the core descriptor of the method of this work. It begins with the resonance to a yantric symbol, which he finds in a Biblical quote. Through this revelatory reading he recognizes that this truth exists within him, in his heart. This then becomes the impetus for him to explore truth in exegesis of the works of past explorers of the heart, which for him exist in Scripture. Finally this leads him to go into his own heart and express his own version of the truth of the heart.

Augustine’s penetrating psychological story also shows us the struggle that emerges from the divided and conflicted aspects of the self. To summarize, Augustine knows that his behavior is wrong, and he cognitively understands what good behavior is. However, he knows that if he behaved in the good way, it would be hypocritical, because the behavior would extend from an external understanding, and not from the central location of his heart. He could do the right thing, but his “heart wouldn’t be in it.” He struggled until he found a way for his behavior to come from his authentic being, and therefore without struggle.
Augustine’s final stage of unifying the aspects of his being is in his telling of his story, the third part of his hermeneutical process. This is a process of “recording.” In this remembering, retelling, and making manifest, we see within the word a process of returning (re) to heart (cor). To re-cord is to find the lost heart.

This retrospective self-exploration model is central to the therapeutic one, and was not only followed throughout western history but is found concretized in the 12 steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous process. We use our own life as the text for interpretation and for contributing to a bildung, a cultural legacy of universal development.

This tradition was carried on throughout the monastic and scholastic writings of Christianity in the dark ages. They too, saw the heart as hidden. Central to a process of spiritual development was introspection, which implies a going into an interior self. We see this in the work of Alcuin of York (732-804) who spoke of “the secret chamber of your heart.”

Like the Indians of the Upanishads, Peter of Blois (1135-1212) understood that the heart is ultimately unknowable when he said, “Deep and unsearchable is the heart of man, and how can one know it?”

The saints often had visions that included the heart and Christian sects manifested symbolic imagery that included the heart. St Teresa of Avila experienced a vision of an angel piercing her heart with a flaming arrow. A heart with a crown of thorns is the emblem of the Jesuits and their founder, Ignatius of Loyola. The 'sacred heart' has widely been an object of devotion from the 17th century, when it became represented by a heart pierced by the nails of the cross and encircled with the crown of thorns.

In contemporary usage, one of the primary symbolic meanings of heart is ardor, either religious and spiritual or profane and sexual. This second aspect emerged in European medieval times when the heart began to be thought of not only as a place of spiritual discovery, but as the place of erotic, romantic, idealized, secular love. This marked a return to classic themes, from the times of the Romans. Ovid, a pagan writing 2000 years ago in his Amores, wrote of the heart as the suffering place of passion.

“That’s it: a slender arrow sticks fast in my heart,
And cruel Love lives there, in my conquered breast.”

This expansion of the concept of heart was begun with Andreas Cappelanus (d. 1188). This led to a great explosion in the works of the troubadours and medieval poets. These poets used the heart as a metaphor for the sexual parts of the body, as the heart embodied one’s romantic love and sexuality.

The medieval notion of the romantic heart, as it was first promoted by the troubadours in the 1200’s, is the place of our greatest emotional sensitivity, our compassion transformed into the reverential devotion to another human being taken as the sacred on earth. As such, the beloved is worthy of the highest treatment. That exquisite emotional quality is the expression of the heart. As the Poet, Sordello, (1200-1270) wrote,

“Love engraved
Your features in an image
Cut deeply into my heart,
And so I’ve handed myself over,
To do whatever pleases you,
Finely and firmly throughout my life.”

The heart became interchangeable with the image of the beloved. One possible interpretation of this image is as a representation of the Jungian archetype of anima, the numinous contrasexual archetype that exists within all men. The erotic object, the loved one, is a projected spiritualized ideal that "resides" inwardly in the heart and gets projected onto the other. The inward possession of idealized love and the outward manifestation in the other are mirror images of the realization of the heart, what we are meant to be.

Contemporary marriage theorist and counselor, Harville Hendrix returns to this romantic ideal. In his view, our own healing comes through a devotion to the needs of our marriage partner. In his innovation, this is a mutual commitment between the partners. When both partners live from their hearts in this sense, both get their needs met, and both grow maximally spiritually. This presumably new kind of spirituality harkens back to this age of courtly love, when there was a secular religion of romantic love. The heart was inscribed with the devotion to the beloved for all the days of one's life.

This notion of the love of the heart brings the sacred and secular together. The interchange between spiritual and erotic love has a long history that continues to this day. For us, the strains of sweet soul music emerged from the cadences of gospel. The love of God or a person is interchangeable in popular music. If we listen, for example, to the music of Prince, we see that God and sex have always been kinky bedfellows. Tantric practices, a school of yoga, unite the sexual and the sacred.

With this turn toward the romantic, as we find beginning in Ovid, the heart is a place of suffering. The heart is wounded, broken, lost. As we now see the heart as the home of our most precious aspects, we can understand the lost heart as the protected heart. We put our heart into hiding in order to protect these most elevated aspects of the self: the original, nobly loving, refined, giving, divine, innocent, foolish, aspects of the self, which risk destruction and loss in a lost-hearted world.

The Heart Since the Renaissance

Beginning with the 1400’s the practice of finding the heart spread from the monk, troubadour and saint to the common person. The folk were encouraged to look to their own hearts for their source of spirituality. All of this suggested a movement toward the humanistic, that is, a looking within oneself, rather than to an outside authority for the source of knowing. This suggests a motion toward an immanence theory, and awareness of a divine presence within all materiality.

As we entered the Renaissance, the humanistic project took hold in Europe. The meaning of heart advanced toward the Mencian concept. Men like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463 –1494) who was an Italian Renaissance philosopher and the writer of Oration on the Dignity of Man, known as the manifesto of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and Giordano Bruno (1548 –1600) who asserted that the sun was one of countless stars, were among the transcendental humanists who “were inspired by the idea of a participation in the creative process of the universe. In these men enthusiasm and rationality were united.” The goal of these men became the realization of our infinite potentials. Finding commonality with the Confucians, people were seen as,

“. . . the microcosm, in whom all cosmic forces are potentially present, and who participates in all spheres and strata of the universe. Through him the universe continues the creative process which first has produced him as the aim and the center of the creation. Now man has to shape his world and himself, according to the productive powers given to him. In him nature comes to its fulfillment. . .”

The doctrine of the individual as the microcosmic participant in the creative process of the macrocosm presented these philosophers with the possibility of this synthesis. This place where the individual and universal merged is represented by the heart.

The philosopher Spinoza, who lived in the 17th century, furthered our understanding of heart without naming it as such. He saw that the essence of a thing was its conatus, or striving toward being that which it is. To put it another way, the striving is the thing itself, for when it goes, so does the thing.

This thing that strives to be what it is, the heart, is the home of entelechy. It is where the blueprint is written and it is the motor for pushing toward realization of one's essence.

For Mencius, our commonality was found in the "taste" of the heart for goodness. This common receptivity to the quality of goodness leads to a universal capacity for compassion, which, when cultivated to its ultimate manifestation, gave one a natural inclination to the right. In the Enlightenment, it was believed that commonality would be found in rationality. Scientific education would bring us to our common source that would lead to the greatest good. Such marked the beginning of the end for the symbolic power of the heart and its method of self-actualization. The passion for self-creation as the manifestation of the universal will waned.

This European world of the 17th century saw the ascendancy of empiricism. With the advent of the philosophers Locke and Hume the home of thinking and the center of our being was moved to head, brain, mind. With Hobbes, we not only moved out of heart-centeredness, but we moved to a grim view of humanity.

However, in our dialectical world, the heart view continued to be asserted by an enlightened few. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), was an English politician, philosopher and writer who had a powerful influence on the 18th Century. Like the Confucians, he asserted that man’s goal and capability was to find harmony within himself and with the universe. He did not believe, like Hobbes, that we were merely a collection of selfish, egoistical, destructive appetites, but rather our desires were a good part of ourselves and could be in harmony with the whole. He also, like Mencius, believed in what his successors, Hutcheson and Hume, were to call the moral sense.

This moral sense was directly related to the heart by another explorer of the human condition from that time, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702 – 1782) who was a German theosopher. He promulgated the idea of the sensus communis, the sense of the good within us all, translated simply as "heart.”

Oetinger, in using an example parallel to Mencius’s examples of the natural feelings of empathy, said, "Fathers are moved without proof to care for their children; love does not demonstrate, but often against reason rends the heart at the beloved's approach."

This common sense, which is the proof in rhetoric, is the verdict of the heavenly mandate for the Chinese, and what is built through the great universal cultural project known as bildung, is our great democratic idea that together, through the great web of hearts united, we can find our way to fulfillment.

The common ring of what every heart shares is brought in full circle to the realization that not only do we all share a common heart, but that everything is held within the heart. As Oetinger went on to say, “The whole of life has its center in the heart, which by means of common sense grasps countless things all at the same time”

Oetinger’s vision of synthesis, unity and harmony was one that was intrinsic to Chinese thought and its heart-centered approach. However, it ran against the movement of analysis and separation that were the mode and ethos of the scientific method emerging at that time in Europe.
With the understanding of the circulation of the blood, discovered by William Harvey in 1628, the heart took another step toward losing its symbolic power. With the advent of science and technology our metaphors changed. The heart became literalized as the cardiac muscle. It was seen as a spring or pump.

Though we have come to a greater understanding of the material world, we have lost the heart, and so have lost what is central to who we are in the universe. The heart, once the noblest symbol of all that is best within us, was, by the 18th century, reduced to a cliché of romantic novels.

Through the world view of philosophers like Descartes and Kant, the elimination of the “middle” of the human being, which Plato called the thymoides, and what Mencius called heart, left man without a central core of being out of which his ethical self emerged. The dominance of intellect over heart eliminated the symbolic recognition of our possibility of unity which left us with meaninglessness. What was lost was the Chinese concept of jen or the Greek notion of arête. This term allowed us to imagine profound being, a bearer of the highest values and their realization.

The loss of heart that emerged from the dehumanization process of the advance of modernity was lamented by the romantics. The revered German author, Goethe, who lived from 1749-1832 foretold this longing for the heart in his most profound work, considered to be one of the peaks of western civilization, Faust. The main character speaks:

“When in our narrow cell the lamp
Once more sends out its friendly beams,
It grows brighter, here within the breast,
Within the heart that knows itself.
Reason once more begins to speak
And Hope once more begins to bloom.
We long, now, for the waters of life,
Ah, for the wellspring of our lives!”


“Who, far beyond things' mere appearance,
Strives only for their deepest essence.”

The heart is now not only lost due to our existential condition, our archetypal patterns and our personal historical conditionings, but is lost to us in the movement of history. The Romantic Movement attempted to correct for this overemphasis on thinking. This battle continues, with the last 30 years of Hobbesian Social Darwinism marking a precipitous decline for the avatars of heart. Nevertheless, seekers continue to intuit that something is missing, and continue to search. This work aims to bring us back to our great heritage, that is, it aims to find the lost heart.

The author is deeply indebted to the work of Eric Jager and Paul Tillich.

Author's Bio: 

Glenn Berger, PhD, LCSW is a psychotherapist, author, blogger and transformational thinker with a practice in New York City and Chappaqua, NY. To learn more, visit his blog at and his website,