The Art of Memory

by: Francis A. Yates


A t a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but included a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Then, Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum previously agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem.


A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could not find either of them. However, during his absence the entire roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the quests to death beneath the massive ruins; The corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them.


But, Simonides remembered the exact places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux. had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the fatal crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is still said to be the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to successfully identify the bodies, he realized that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.


         He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty

         (of memory) must select places and form mental images

         of the things they wish to remember and store those

         images in the places, so that order of the places will

         preserve the order of the things, and the images of the

         things will denote the things themselves, and we shall

         employ the places and images respectively as a wax

         writing-tablet and the letters written on it.


The vivid story of how Simonides invented the art of memory is told by Cicero in his De oratore when he is discussing memory as one of the five parts of rhetoric; the story introduces a brief description of the mnemonic of places and images (loci and imagines) which was used by the Roman rhetors.


The first basic fact which the student of the history of the classical art of memory must remember it that the rt belonged to rhetoric as a technique by which the orator could improve his memory, which would then enable him to deliver very long speeches from memory with unfailing accuracy.

And it was as a part of the art of rhetoric that the art of memory traveled down through the European tradition in which it was never forgotten, or not forgotten until comparatively modern times, that those infallible guides in all human activities, the ancients, had laid down rules and precepts for improving the memory. ( pgs. 1 and 2.)


It is not difficult to get hold of the general principles of the mnemonic. The first step was to imprint on the memory a series................

There is no doubt that this method will work for anyone who is prepared to labor seriously at these mnemonic gymnastics.


I have never attempted to do so myself but I have been told of a professor who used to amuse students at college parties by asking each student present to name a an object; one of them duly noted down all the objects in the order in which they were named. Later in the evening, when the mood struck the group, they remembered to call upon the professor to quote the list back to them. To their general amazement he would repeat the list of submitted objects in the exact order given him, regardless of the length. He had never heard of the classic mnemonic but had discovered his technique quite independently. With this technique he managed to deliver all his lectures from memory. (pg. 3)


The perplexed students of the art of memory are grateful to Quimtilian.

Had it not been for his clear directions about how we are to go through he rooms of a house, or a public building, or along the streets of a city memorizing our places, we might never have understood what ‘rules for places’ were really about. He gives an absolute rational reason as to why the places may help memory, because we know from experience that a place does call up associations in memory. And the system which he describes, using signs like an anchor or a weapon for the ‘things’, or calling up one word only by such a sign through which the whole sentence would come to mind, seems quite possible and is within the range of our understanding. It is in fact what we should call mnemotechnics. There was then, in antiquity, a practice of which that word can be used in the sense in which we use it. (pg. 23)


The Simonides story, with its gruesome evocation of the faces of the people siting in their places at the banquet just before their awful end, may suggest that the human images were an integral part of the art of memory which Greece transmitted to Rome. According to Quintilian, there were several versions of the story extant in Greece sources, and one may perhaps conjecture that it formed the normal introduction to the section on artificial memory in a text-book on rhetoric.


Simonides of Ceos (circa 556 to 468 B.C.) Belongs to the pre-Socratic age. Pythagoras might still have been alive in his youth. One of the most admired lyric poets of Greece (very little of his poetry has survived) he was called ‘the honey-tongued’, Latinised as Simonides Melicus, and he particularly excelled in the use of beautiful imagery. Various new departures were credited to this evidently brilliantly gifted and original man. He is said to have been the very first to demand some payment for his poems; the canny side of Simonides comes into the story of his invention of the art of memory which hinges on a contract for an ode. Still, another novelty is attributed to Simonides by Plutarch who seems to think that he was also the very first to equate the methods of poetry with those of painting, the theory later succinctly summed up by Horace in his famous phrase ut pictura poesis. ‘Simonides’, says Plutarch, ‘calling painting silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks; for the actions which painters depict as they are being performed, words describe after they are done.’


It is significant that the comparison of poetry with painting is fathered on Simonides, for this has a common denominator with the invention of the art of memory. According to Cicero, the latter invention rested on Simonides’ discovery of the superiority of the sense of sight over the other senses. The theory of the equation of poetry and painting also rests on the superiority of the visual sense; the poet and the painter both think in visual images which the one expresses in poetry and the other in pictures.


One must believe, I think, that Simonides really did take some notable step about mnemonics, teaching or publishing rules which, though they probably derived from an earlier oral tradition, had the appearance when exposed in writing of a new presentation of the subject. (pgs. 27 - 28.)


Alaric sacked Rome in 410, and the Vandals conquered North Africa in 429. Augustine dies in 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. At some time during this terrible era of collapse, Martianus Capella wrote his De nuptis Philologiae et Merrcurii, a work which preserved for the Middle Ages the outline of the ancient educational system based on the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, antonymy). In his account of the parts of rhetoric, Martianus gives under memory a brief description of the artificial memory. He thus handed on the art to the Middle Ages firmly lodged in its correct niche in the scheme of the liberal arts.


Reviewing in order the five parts of rhetoric, Martianus comes in due course to its fourth part, which is memoria, about which he speaks:

         Now order bring in the precepts for memory which

         is certainly a natural (gift) but there is no doubt that

         it can be assisted by art. This art is based on only a

         few rules, but, it requires a great deal of exercise. Its

         advantage is that it enables words and things to be

         grasped in comprehension quickly and firmly......... (pgs. 50 - 51)



 ........; it contains a chapter on memory in which Thomas Aquinas is mentioned as a matter of course among the famous teachers of memory.

.........Passing on to the early seventeenth century we find a book, the English translation of the Latin title of which would be ‘The Foundations of Artificial Memory from Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas.” (pg. 83)


For the period with which the last two chapters have been concerned the actual material on the artificial memory is real scanty. For the period on which we are now entering, (chapter V) the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the contrary is definitely the case. The material becomes too abundant and selection has to be made constantly from the great mass of the memory treatises if our story is not to be overwhelmed in too much detail. (pg. 105)


The great wooden public theatres which could hold thousands of people and which had housed the drama of the English Renaissance were still standing in Fludd’s time and still is in use. The original Globe Theatre, erected on the Bankside in 1599, which was the home of the Lord Chamberlain’s company of actors to which Shakespeare belonged and for which he wrote his plays, had been burned down in 1613. The Globe was at once rebuilt on the same foundation and on the same lines as its predecessor though more magnificent. This new playhouse was said to be ‘the fairest that ever was in England’. James I contributed a considerable amount towards the cost of the rebuilding. Of course, this was to be expected since he had taken the Lord Chasmberlain’s company under his protection and they were now known as the King’s Men. The King would naturally take an active interest in the rebuilding of the theatre of his own company of players.


Editor’s note:

A book could be, should be, and probably has been written about the Old Globe Theatre here in San Diego, California. (It even was destroyed like the original and rebuilt; without the King’s help), but

starting with Chapter XVI, FLUDD’S MEMORY THEATRE AND THE GLOBE THEATRE, ( page 342 through page 367 ) you will see what this theatre and the art of memory really demonstrates. It just happens to be one of the most interesting chapters of the book to read and makes this entire art form really come to life. ( This is true even if you have never been in La Jolla, California )


 

Source: The Art of Memory by: Frances A. Yates

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. 60637

                Copyright @ 1966 by Frances A. Yates

 









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