A History of Memory

In Ars Memoria, The Reformed Humanist by Chris ThomasLeave a Comment

(A post on memory from an old site I started.)

In beginning any history on the techniques of memory, tradition requires the mention of the following story.  It is much like writing the “Hello World!” program in C.

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek lyric poet who is famous for being associated with mnemonics.  Mnemonics comes from the Ancient Greek word mnemonikos meaning “of memory” and is associated with the Greek goddess of memory Mnemosyne.  His association with the Art of Memory is found in the Latin writers of both Cicero and Quintilian. After a victory, a Thassalian nobleman, Scopas, commissioned Simonides to write a victory ode.  Upon hearing the ode, Scopas refused to pay in full because of too many references to the twins Castor & Pollux.  During the celebration of this victory, Simonides received word that two young men were waiting outside to see him.  He arose and left the banquet; but could not find the two young men.  While he was outside the banquet hall collapsed killing everyone.  Since the bodies were crushed beyond recognition identity of the fallen was impossible.  Or so it was thought until Simonides was able to identify each of the bodies based upon their position within the building.  And thus was born the method of loci.  Or so the story goes.  Quintilian believed it a fiction and it most likely was.

The Art of Memory as we know it today is generally traced back to 3 Latin sources.  They are:

  • Ad Herennium author unknown
  • De Oratore by Cicero
  • Inuitutio oratorio by Quintilian

These are not books written on the subject of improving memory such as those written by Harry Lorrayne or Dominic O’Brien.  But are instead books on the subject of rhetoric.  It is to rhetoric which the art of memory belonged in the ancient world.  Rhetoric in the ancient world was broken down into five parts:  inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, pronuntiatio.  Memoria is where we shall occupy our time in this series.

Cicero used the above story of Simonides in his discussion of rhetoric to introduce to us a brief description of the memory of places and images.  The general principles for improving the memory are quite simple.  The first step was to create a series of loci or places.  Most modern memory books suggest doing this with your house or work place.  The ancient Greek & Romans did this with their cities.  The bigger the series of places the more you could store.  You would then go through your loci and attach objects or people to each of these places.  To recall your objects or people you would walk through your series of loci and take from them whatever item you stored there.  If you were to use your house as your series of loci and you wished to remember something as simple as a grocery list, perhaps you would store eggs on the door.  Who egged my door?  You open the door and on the floor is another item on your shopping list.  The goal is to make the places as varied and as detailed as possible.  The more detailed the loci, the easier it is to remember their series.  You would then walk through your loci in your mind and demand of each one whatever item you have stored there.

Throughout this series on Ars Memoria we will focus upon improving the artificial memory.  But perhaps you think,  “Today we can write down long speeches and have no need to commit books to memory.”  After all we have pen and paper, not wax and stylus.  We have the printing press and not papyrus.  We have technology that we rely on instead of our memory.  I use a program called Evernote which has the tag line “Remember everything with Evernote.”  It’s a good program and one I would recommend.  You can even have it on your smart phone.  And with a smart phone you don’t have to remember much except how to search for something.

Why memorize scripture as our Christian forefathers did when we can pull it up on a smart phone Bible app?  For Christians that will be one of the most important uses of the artificial memory.  Well to put it simply, scripture commands it.  Yes, scripture commands us to memorize scripture.  And not just pieces and portions like the Bible Verse Memory programs suggest.  Scripture expects us to memorize ALL of it.  The following list will provide some verses and reasons for the memorization of scripture:

  1. How can we have scripture dwelling in our heart without first memorizing it?  “6And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:  7And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.  8And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. ” (Deut 6:6-8)18Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.  19And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”  (Deut 11:18-19)
  2. We cannot hide his word in our heart without memorization.   “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”  (Ps 119:11)  Not just a few verses, but his word.
  3. Our thoughts are to be guided by scripture and this is facilitated by its memorization.  “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8).
  4. When Satan tempted Christ, Christ used scripture against Satan.  How easy is it to do this without having it memorized?  (Matt 4 & Luke 4)
  5. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16).  It can only “dwell in” us through memorization.
  6. When you are without a Bible, you can still meditate upon the Scriptures because of memorization.

Many more scripture verses and reasons could be provided, but these should do for now.  The next post in this series will be an extensive quotation from Ad Herennium on the subject of memory.  Following that will be a series of posts on developing the artificial memory and applying it to Bible memorization, learning Greek & Latin, and creating a Mind Palace for information that pertains to Confessional Bibliology.

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