Yates on the Art of Memory: Things, words and the forgotten rhetoric

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << The nonbeliever first)


The maladies of Rhetoric.
(“Hitler“, by jairoagua / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Derivative work)

Of course linguists, philosophers, writers and politicians know what rhetoric is, even if they don’t practice it as much as they should. But I can guarantee that the vast majority of the living population doesn’t — specially the young. Those who know might remember hearing something about rhetorical questions and nothing more. If you ask instead about the Liberal Arts, you are sure to receive a blank stare. And I am not talking solely about the “average Joe” who doesn’t have leisure enough to read about that stuff. I am talking about lawyers, engineers, scientists, people with degrees and a decent amount of money and, well, leisure.

I am talking about me.

I shall try to understand the reasons why the “educated” man of today has altogether forgotten about the Liberal Arts in future posts. Now, instead, I must focus on the question that is most certainly occupying my occasional reader’s mind: why the heck am I talking about rhetoric? Because that’s how the Art of Memory established itself as a discipline of study in Ancient Europe — as an essential part of the Art of Rhetoric. And, of course, that’s the theme of Chapter I of Yates’ “The Art of Memory“.

Rhetoric my be defined as the art of discourse, the skill of conveying information, of persuading and driving the mood of an audience to fit one’s purposes. It is equally important for the speaker and for the writer, but it is as a practice of the former that rhetoric assumed a central role in ancient times. In a very different world from today, where civic and political matters were settled by heated debate in public assemblies and courts, to know what and how to speak was invaluable. Perhaps, it was this need that took the sophists to prominence as teachers of how to “make the worse argument the stronger”. This was the central theme in Aristophanes‘ comedy The Clouds, in which Socrates (quite unjustly) appears as the greatest of sophists; it is also one of the main accusations that brought him to trial and eventually to death, as we learn in Plato’s Apology. Plato vehemently criticised the sophists because they would use rhetoric to prove any point, being it right or wrong (ultimately condemning his teacher to death), whereas he himself thought that only the true rhetoric mattered.  The rhetorician, he says in another of his Socratic dialogues entitled Gorgias, “need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know”.  Aristotle, Plato’s student, was probably the most influential in providing a definition for rhetoric and considered it to be “the counterpart of dialectic“. Through dialectic we establish or learn the truth by reasoned debates, while through rhetoric, we convey what was learned by “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”. Maybe the best definition should be instead, as I. A. Richards puts it in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies”, but this is not the right occasion to delve into such controversy (I intend to inquire at length about the lack of communication nowadays and the “curse of abstract reasoning through language”, but not now). Rhetoric is thus an art of great utility, albeit a controversial one.

Although originally alluded to in Aristotle’s Ars Rhetorica, it was an anonymous teacher and the famous Roman orator Cicero who established the five canons of rhetoric as we know them today — inventio (invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory) and  pronuntiatio (delivery) — and thus carved in stone the association between rhetoric and memory. The first chapter of Yates’ book is therefore dedicated to introduce us to three ancient rhetorical treatises which contain the oldest extant passages on the Art of Memory.

The Ad Herennium is the most influential of all and probably the only one that can be considered a true treatise on the Ars memorativa, although the memory section is only around ten pages long (in contrast to its full length of more than 200 pages). It was composed by an anonymous rhetoric teacher around 86-82 B.C. and addressed to his student Gaius Herennius (a virtual unknown), hence the mysterious title. In fact, some consider the correct title to be De ratione dicendi, but even that is a mystery, so the reader is referred to H. Caplan’s Introduction in the Loeb edition for an extended discussion on the matter. Around thirty years later, Cicero composed his De oratore, where probably the most known account of Simonides‘ “invention” of the art is given. He also briefly summarises the precepts of the Art of Memory in a clear reference to what had already been expounded in Ad Herennium. The third source for the Art of Memory in antiquity is Quintilian‘s Institutio oratoria, written almost a century after De oratore. There the rhetorician gives simpler and more rational explanations for some of the precepts of the Art of Memory.

Frances Yates makes a good job in Chapter I explaining the differences among these texts and their relative importances, but I couldn’t help to ignore most of what was said about the latter two. They all repeat in one way or another what is said in Ad Herennium“There is a memory for things and a memory for words”, we learn in Ad Herennium. And then we learn it again in De oratore. And again in the Institutio. Since no one knows who wrote the Ad Herennium, its influence is made even more impressive. Yates explains that it was, in fact, regarded until recently as the “second rhetoric” of Cicero — the “first rhetoric” being his earlier De inventione, of great importance to the Middle Ages. That probably explains the Ad Herennium‘s pervasive influence in the medieval times, in scholastic studies and also throughout the Renaissance. Not even, we learn, the almost magical works of Camillo and Giordano Bruno (which I am so eager to read about) could hide the fact that they were all based on the Ad Herennium. It’s probably very far-fetched to consider Cicero to be the first thieve of intellectual property in history, but in any case it was for the best — our auctor incertus would hardly be as successful as him in promoting the Art of Memory.

But what does Ad Herennium tell us about the Art of Memory?

First of all, while memory is only the fourth canon of rhetoric, our teacher regards it as “the treasure-house of the ideas supplied by Invention”, “the guardian of all the parts of rhetoric”. It is clearly a natural ability of man, but one that can be improved through art — there is thus an artificial memory that can be trained through diligent work and discipline. The art itself is based on placing images representing the objects we wish to remember in definite backgrounds — memorable scenes that will allow us to “discover” the images (memories) when we so desire.

Backgrounds — or in the original Latin, loci, as is commonly used today — are “very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery is like the reading”.  Therefore, mental images should be conjured to represent what we wish to remember and placed in a sequence of loci. By following the images with the mind’s eye, an orator could deliver his speeches without ever getting lost — he could even proceed from any chosen image he pleased and towards any given direction.  Such loci should be carefully selected and possess a number of well-defined characteristics. First, they should be committed to memory when devoid of people because the movement of passing people tend to weaken the outlines of the background in the mind. Loci should be distinct from each other and every fifth locus should be marked, lest one gets confused about which image is in which locus. Loci should be of moderate extent and separated from one another by moderate distances (around thirty feet), so that images don’t get too vaguely placed nor too far from the mind’s “sight” when moving from one place to the other. They should neither be too bright nor too dark, so that images are not altered by the ambient light. Loci could even be imaginary, or fictitious, so we may fashion them in any number and character we please (the interested reader who wants to fast-forward our studies on the art is advised to look into The Medieval Craft of Memory, by Marry Carruthers, for an amazing collection of imaginary “memory palaces” conceived throughout the Middle Ages). In sum, it is very important that loci are carefully selected and stored in memory, for while images may be ephemeral and efface with time, loci can be reused indefinitely.

And what about the images?

As briefly mentioned above, we learn there is a “memory for things and a memory for words” — memoria rerum and memoria verborum, respectively. A “thing” is the subject-matter, the central concept of a given passage we want to commit to memory. By remembering an image that represents the entire matter, even if in a general sense, we are able to call to mind all other related details — at least, in theory. A “word” is, well, a word; one image must be conjured for every word we want to remember. This is normally done through sound resemblance between the image and the word. But Memoria verborum is not practical for the orator, so our author regards its usefulness merely as “difficult training” for memoria rerum, which is of practical use.

In either case, to be memorable images should be anything but “everyday life things”. Just as we remember eclipses because they are rare and, therefore, marvellous, we forget sunrises because they are ordinary and common. Images should instead be “exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable”. Moreover, they should do something, they should act. So these images should be primarily based on people, preferably known people, doing striking things in striking situations — the imagines agentes.

Remembering, therefore, has little to do with repeating information until it sticks. Yes, we also learn in Ad Herennium that some repetition is necessary to refresh the images in their respective loci for long-term retention, but the way you first commit the images to your mind and then retrieve them is drastically different from what we normally do. Maybe Francis Yates is right when she talks about these images belonging to “a world which is either impossible for us to understand or which is not being really fully explained to us”. The images should indeed be other-worldly and grotesque — the more the better — but I don’t think they are impossible to understand. The little I’ve practiced tells me the art works and is easier than most of us think. What seems impossible to me is to realise how different the world of Antiquity was in relation to our world now (or to the one from 1966, the book’s publication date) and yet nothing much has changed.

In Antiquity, we are watching sister arts cooperating to arm a man with dialectical powers, so that he can find truth in arguments, meaning in language and justice in life. We are reading 2,100-year-old teachings on forgotten arts that helped shape the world we live in. But arguments, good or bad, were won and lost throughout the ages, cancelling each other out and giving rise to the mean result of a world shaped by war, irrespective of the winner. Today, wars and peace treaties are still being arranged and strife and death rage on. Global communication has done nothing to prevent it and probably emphasised it. After all the dust has settled, how much value have those two inseparable arts actually brought to society? Do we really need to learn how to remember so that we can persuade? Can we really hope to control any outcome whatsoever or is everything just as inexorable as war? While I am baffled by the internal workings of memory and rhetoric, I wonder if there is any real practical use in mastering them today —  or if it ever were.

In 1966, World War II was so recent that no one probably wanted to remember anything in the first place. The Cold War in turn provided such a distorted rhetorical display from both sides that Platonic truth was clearly unattainable and the sophist’s ability to “turn the worst argument the stronger” would probably be greatly welcome. Memory was better to be forgotten and rhetoric, at least of the truer kind, was virtually non-existant. Today, in turn, there is nothing to remember — the horror of the past never even existed in the current generation’s mind and the ongoing terror, instead of appalling, attracts millions to amuse themselves in online sadistic youtube videos. They look just like real life, but as in Hollywood movies — we don’t feel the stench of burned skin nor we have to wipe the blood out of our hands. We do our share of “armchair worrying” then we go look for something better to watch on Netflix. Or we just spend a few mindless minutes in Facebook; there we can probably find people worse than ourselves so that we can feel better. Rhetorical persuasion today is done through aggravating AdSense adds that keep flashing everywhere we go online. No more need to speak well to convince us of anything; just bombard us with useless junk and show famous people praising it that we buy in a feeding frenzy. Rhetoric is forever gone and forgotten; memory is externally digitalised and floating in the Cloud. We can finally indulge in blameless forgetfulness.

Maybe their oblivion was a sign of progress. We should now focus on different abilities, like social engineering, content creation or product design, modern and influential abilities current society cherishes and probably relies on. It scares me to think that we might have moved on and reached such a level of sophistication that rendered useless these arcane arts, relegated to mere curiosities of the past. But as I ponder about this elusive art and our modern times, I wonder if it would make any difference if that weren’t the case.

“There is a memory for things and a memory for words”. I got that. But if only we had a teacher — an anonymous one would be good enough — to show what things and what words to remember. Then we could go walk along our dirty streets looking for loci. They would probably never be deserted, always with some excessive neon light or dangerously dark, too loud with horns and sirens and full of undesirable smells. Our images would hardly be as grotesque as what we see everyday on the news or around the block, but we could try. If, at last, the art proved itself useless and our hyper-active anxious mind could not get a hold of the images, no problem. We could just upload them to our collective virtual conscience online and at least pretend we are doing it right this time. But I don’t see teachers around; at least, not of the living human type.

(You might be interested in A rough timeline >>)

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