Yates on the Art of Memory: A rough timeline

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

In Chapter I of Yates’ book “The Art of Memory“, she focus on the three most important texts on the art, which happen to be all related to Rhetoric. In Chapter II, in turn, she seems to want to fill in the blanks of the history of the art, so as to prepare us for the dramatic change inflicted by the approaching Dark Ages. The problem is that she does so in a rather clumsy way. For the sake of her argumentation, she introduces new “actors” in the plot without much order and I found myself constantly consulting Wikipedia to get a hold of the time frame being considered. Therefore, this post is an attempt to present a kind of timeline that, hopefully, also does a decent job in outlining Chapter II.

So, here it goes:

  1. Simonides of Ceos (circa 556 to 468 B.C): We are talking about pre-Socratic times. Pythagoras might also have been alive during Simonides’ youth. It makes no sense to inquire here about pre-Simonides art of memory, but it is probable that he was tacitly chosen as the inventor of an art that must have been derived from earlier oral traditions. His “invention”, however, has been attested by many and also by an inscription called The Parian Chronicle, from about 264 B.C.. Also of great importance was his “discovery” of the superiority of the visual sense, which is intrinsically linked to the core precepts of the art, as described in the Ad Herennium. Simonides, a great lyric poet, was known to consider “painting silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks”.

  2. Dialexeis (circa 400 B.C.): This fragment contains a tiny section on memory with a rough outline of the rules of the art. “A great and beautiful invention is memory, always useful both for learning and for life”, “…what you hear, place on what you know” and “So much for names. For things (do) thus:”. Memory for things and words (names), therefore, is already existent in written form some 300 years before Ad Herennium, suggesting that it has probably been based on a variety of sources on the art that, nevertheless, are not extant today. It is believed that the Dialexeis represents sophist teaching and that its memory section may refer to the mnemonics of the sophist Hippias of Elis. In spite of Plato’s criticisms, it seems possible that the sophists made extensive use of the art, thus, being of considerable importance to it’s development.

  3. Plato (427 – 347 B.C.): As far as I understand, Plato was the first to propose the “wax model” of memory. He does so in his dialogue Theatetus, through his main character of always, Socrates. “Imagine the mind as a wax block”, Socrates asks Theaetetus, “on which we stamp what we perceive or conceive. Whatever is impressed upon the wax we remember and know, so long as the image remains in the wax; whatever is obliterated or cannot be impressed, we forget and do not know”. In another of his dialogues, Phaedrus, which is a rhetoric treatise, he expounds his view that rhetoric should aim to persuade men to true knowledge. His theory is that knowledge of the truth and of the soul is attained through remembering, through recollecting the Ideas once seen by the soul of men in “the other world”. These Ideas are moulded in the latent block of wax in our souls and true knowledge consists in fitting what we perceive from the senses on to the imprints of the Ideas to which the objects of sense correspond. It is not easy for most souls to recollect the things of the other world; they are ignorant because there is no light of the “higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them”. I am fascinated by the link Plato creates among true knowledge, the soul and memory! Unfortunately, I have to wait, for it seems Plato will be of great influence to the Art of Memory, but only in the Renaissance — during the Middle Ages, it is Aristotle who rules the scene.

  4. Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.): Plato’s most outstanding student makes four clear allusions to the Art of Memory, but without actually treating the subject per se.
    1. Topics“For just as in a person with a trained memory, a memory of things themselves is immediately caused by the mere mention of their places, so these habits too will make a man readier in reasoning, because he has his premisses classified before his mind’s eye, each under its number.” Francis Yates considers obvious the association between Aristotle’s places or topos, with the mnemonic loci and I am not the one to challenge that conclusion. However, when he talks about each premise being “under its number”, I can’t help but think of the mnemonic peg method, instead of loci. The peg method hasn’t appeared yet in the story, so I’ll leave it be for now, but this is not the only time I think it is alluded to, so I intend to discuss these ideas in a later post.
    2. De insomnisAristotle says that some people have dreams in which they “seem to be arranging the objects before them in accordance with their mnemonic system”.
    3. De anima: “It is possible to put things before our eyes just as those do who invent mnemonics and construct images”.
    4. De memoria et reminiscentia: This work will be of great influence to the Art of Memory in the Middle Ages, specially because Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas will use it as philosophical and psychological justifications for the precepts established in Cicero‘s Second Rhetoric (Ad Herennium, though we now know it is not of his authorship). “The soul never thinks without a mental picture”, he postulates. Aristotle considers that what we receive as sense perceptions we first turn into mnemonic images, which are then, and only then, worked upon by our rational “higher processes of thought”. These images make imprints in our “block of wax” (memories) and can be recollected through a conscious effort based on associations — “Beginning from something similar, or contrary, or closely connected with what we are seeking we shall come upon it”. Yates shows a passage that again refers to places and again I am in doubt about what Aristotle actually meant. She considers it again to be loci, but now I think he is using the linking method: “For this reason some use places for the purposes of recollecting. The reason for this is that men pass rapidly from one step to the next; for instance from milk to white, from white to air, from air to damp; after which one recollects autumn, supposing that one is trying to recollect that season”. To me, this is clearly not the method of loci — he is using links! But nothing has been said about that either in the book up to this point, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

  5. Metrodorus (145 – 70 B.C.): He was a Greek man of letters still living in the time of Cicero. It seems probable that the lost works of Metrodorus have been consulted by our anonymous teacher in Ad Herennium and also by Cicero and Quintilian. Quintilian talks about Metrodorus’ method of using astrological images as places, but here again I wonder if the idea was really to use the stars of the Zodiac as places or as pegs. The stars (signs) don’t look like loci, but they provide a natural enumeration, so it seems that their use should be more like in a peg system. This suspicion is emphasised when Yates wonders about the explanation of one of the images mentioned in Ad Herennium — the author uses testicles of a ram in the first locus to remember witnesses of a trial (testes in Latin). She doesn’t understand the reason of using specifically a ram  and suggests that it might be because Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac. The ram would help emphasise the order of the images. I believe that, even if we are not talking about pegs here, the use of links in the context of loci is suggested. It is almost a rule in mnemonic practices today to use links between an image and its corresponding locus to strengthen the association, but there is no mention of links anywhere up to this point in the book. It is as if simply placing images in the loci is enough. It is my experience (no doubt, extremely meagre), however,  that it is not. I am curious to see if links associated to loci is a modern invention or if we’ll see them being used in the middle Ages or the Renaissance.

  6.  Tusculan Disputations (45 B.C.): In this series of philosophical books, Cicero is astonished by the prodigious powers of the soul in memory. He not only enumerates a number of men famous for their memory feats, but also the discoveries and inventions of men, which represent a history of human civilization and attest the powers of the soul. He popularises Plato’s view of rhetoric and even goes beyond, transposing memoria and inventio from being simple divisions of rhetoric into the very means through which the divinity of the soul is proved. The orator’s memory, rigidly trained for his practical purposes, becomes now the Platonic philosopher’s memory in which he finds his evidence of the divinity and immortality of the soul. In doing so, it seems, Cicero will greatly influence the work of Saint Augustine hundreds of years later. 

  7. Apollonius (15 – 100 A.D.): Apollonius was a sage, adept of Neopythagoreanism, who was famous for his memory. Yates introduces him here because of his association to the Ars Notoria — which she considers “a bastard descendant” of the Art of Memory — but I suspect she does so just as a teaser for the more “magical stuff” that will come with the Renaissance. The Ars Notoria was a practice based on figures and diagram called “notae” which would convey knowledge and memory through magical recitings. It was considered “black magic” by Thomas Aquinas.

  8. Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.): In his Confessions, Saint Augustine appears to be a trained mnemonist: “I come to the fields and spacious palaces of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses”. He sees in his memory all that comes from sense impressions, but also the affections of the mind and even the whole of the Liberal Arts. He goes even deeper and searches for God in memory for, as a Christian Platonist, he believes that knowledge of the divine is innate in memory. Clear similarities exist between Augustine on memory and Cicero’s Tuscullan DisputationsAugustine considered Memory to be one of the three features of the soul, together with Understanding and Will, which are the image of the Trinity in man. 


After Saint Augustine comes the Dark Ages when, we will learn, the Art of memory vanishes. Until this moment, we’ve seen the art intrinsically connected to the Art of Rhetoric. Plato and his followers concede a higher character to the art — or, at least, to memory itself — as a means to reach the truth of our souls and thus God. But it is as a part of rhetoric that memory is placed on most of what is written about it. Now, after the Dark Ages filter out most of what is known about the art, what remains throughout the Middle Ages is viewed through different lenses. The Art of Memory will now be used to teach men how to avoid damnation and to reach Paradise — it will concern itself with ethics and the cardinal virtues.

So much for images and places.

(You might be interested in From Rhetoric to Ethics >>)



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