Yates on the Art of Memory: From Rhetoric to Ethics through Darkness

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << A rough timeline first)

The flame of Prudence.

Darkness and the light of Prudence.
(“Light In The Darkness“, by Elentari86 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Derivative work)

Darkness came to the Art of Memory and distorted it. Surprisingly enough, however, it was for the better.

Since the “beginning”, Plato linked rhetoric (or at least true rhetoric) and memory to the knowledge of our divine souls. But in general, these arts concerned human affairs down on Earth. Men used rhetoric to persuade men. And they studied the Art of Memory to improve their persuasion skills. It was a path to social status. Life was “social”. But now barbarian hordes have invaded Europe. The old Roman Empire has fallen. The Dark Ages have come. It is not safe to be outside. There are no more public assemblies where people can speak their thoughts and engage in arguments. Rhetoric is of no use anymore, because it can’t be practiced. The Art of Memory as an aid to rhetoric was to be forgotten. But it was also to be reborn as the path to salvation.

The beginning of Chapter III of Francis Yates’ “The Art of Memory” made my mind spin a bit. I am the (paradoxical) kind of man that thinks that 20 years ago seem like ages in the past while still acknowledging they flew by in a second. However, leaping from Augustine at around 400 A.D. to Aquinas at around 1,200 A.D. in little more than seven pages was quite a ride. I guess the Dark Ages were really dark.

Anyway, what seems to matter most to our protagonist “the Art” is that the Ad Herennium is now the sole extant treatise on memory — Cicero‘s De oratore and Quintilian‘s Institutio oratore are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, the Ad Herennium is still (and will continue to be so until the Renaissance) considered to be Cicero’s work (his Second Rhetoric) which, by definition, is strictly linked to De inventione (his First Rhetoric). This association will be paramount to the persistence of the Art of Memory throughout the Middle Ages and, most importantly, to its transformation.

De inventione focused on the inventions or things one would need to remember for rhetoric purposes, which in turn were strictly associated to human virtues. De inventione was therefore fundamental in the definition and classification of virtues; therefore of Prudence as one of the cardinal virtues; and therefore of Memory as the first part of Prudence. Ad Herennium in turn showed the precepts based on which one could better remember. It could be used to memorise speeches, but De inventione talked much about virtues and vices. The pious Middle Ages, with their empty assemblies and their fearful souls, wanted not to make speeches — they wanted to be saved. The First Rhetoric provided the “what” to remember; the Second provided the “how”; both together put Cicero once again in the centre of the plot and provided the basis for what Yates calls “the medieval transformation of a classical art”. The medieval scholastics, looking at the Art of Memory through the distorted lenses of this new dark world, saw not the underpinning for rhetoric, but for ethics.

Francis Yates argues that Scholasticism might also have built upon previous moralistic interpretations of memory during the earlier Middle Ages. She is particularly impressed by the writings of Boncompagno da Signa, although she acknowledges that he might not be “entirely representative of his time”. The Ars rhetorica had become the Ars dictaminis — an art of prose writing, more specifically of letters — of which Boncompagno was an exponent. In his 1,235 A.D. treatise Rhetorica Novissima, he assigns a rather supernatural status to rhetoric and memory but, most importantly, makes explicit connections between memory and Hell and Paradise through the necessity of remembering the virtues and vices. Yates attaches great importance to this aspect of Boncompagno’s work, which seems to represent the Bolognese school of dictamen as a whole. The strict relationship between such school and the Dominican Order of friars would influence Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas (notable members of the Order) so as to “take for granted that ‘artificial memory’ is concerned with remembering Paradise and Hell and with virtues and vices as ‘memorial notes’.” The Art of Memory, as part of Prudence, has nothing to do with persuading men anymore — it is a tool to be used to reach the Heavens (and hopefully avoid Hell in the process).

So, two great new actors appear in our story of this elusive art: Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. I suspect I will have to delve individually into these fascinating characters in due time, so, for now, I will bind them together as much as I can for the sake of brevity.

Both Albertus and Aquinas wrote quite extensively about the Art of Memory in their respective treatises, De Bono and Summa Theologiae, and both also wrote commentaries on Aristotle‘s De memoria et reminiscentia. What they were trying to do was to reconcile the philosopher’s teachings with the doctrine of the Church in an attempt to make it stronger and, therefore, more resilient to the heretic’s arguments. Not only they re-examined Cicero’s framework for the virtues (laid down in De Inventione) in the light of Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics, but they also re-examined the precepts of the Art of Memory (laid down in Ad herennium) in the light of Aristotle’s works on psychology and memory. In fact, memory was part of the virtues through Prudence, so all this effort was in essence a single whole.

The scholars initially faced the basic question “Is Memory indeed a part of Prudence?”. The arguments against state that memory (i) is not of the rational part of the soul, (ii) is not acquired through habit and (iii) concerns the past. Prudence in turn is rational, is a moral habit and concerns the future. While Albertus’ and Aquinas’ solutions differ slightly, they all hover around facts that both Prudence and Memory have in common. Both are from the sensitive and the intellectual parts of the soul — memory as reminiscence, a conscious act of the mind; Prudence because it applies universal knowledge to particulars, which are derived from sense. Both are acquired through diligent practice, being natural memory improved by artificial memory through the precepts disposed by Cicero. And both are also moral when memory is used to remember past lessons towards improving future conduct.

They also revise the precepts of “Cicero” on the Art of Memory and, surprisingly enough, confirm all the rules! I can’t help but imagine what our anonymous teacher would feel when realising his writings were still standing unscathed after such a dialectical artillery shot at them by two of the most brilliant minds of the Middle Ages. And that after more than twelve centuries of existence. Even the nonbeliever Francis Yates seems to surrender to the power of the art and uses a beautiful mnemonic to represent it’s triumph:

…it [the Art of Memory] rides with Prudence in a chariot of which Tullius is the driver, whipping up his two horses of the First and Second Rhetorics. And if we can see Prudence as a striking and unusual corporeal image—as a lady with three eyes, for example, to remind of her view of things past, present, and future—this will be in accordance with the rules of the artificial memory which recommends the metaphorica for remembering the propria.

Two confirmations of the art are particularly interesting:

First, that mnemonic images used as metaphors (metaphorica) are easier to remember than the actual facts (propria). Yates explains that such an acceptance of metaphor and the extravagant and grotesque imagines agentes, which the art makes so extensive use, is diametrically opposed to the scholastic puritanism of the time, which had banned metaphor and poetry as belonging to the lower imaginative level of the soul. They use Aristotle’s De memoria et reminiscentia to agree that men cannot think or understand without mental images. And if these images are conjured using Cicero’s precepts and made gross and sensible, they are more easily remembered. 

Second, they provide a rational basis for the use of loci advocated by “Cicero” in the Ad Herennium by invoking once more Aristotle on De memoria et reminiscentia and his rules of order and association. Places are the starting point for reminiscence or recollection, the conscious act of the intellect that hunts after the desired memory by “jumping” to and fro “mnemonic movements” following their order of distribution and the mind’s innate ability of association.

What we see here is a magnificent victory of the Art of Memory that emerges from the Dark Ages much more powerful than it once was. It has been conflated with Aristotle’s teachings by the great scholastics of the time, turned into an essential part of the virtue of Prudence and advocated as an inherent (and necessary) moral habit to be daily practiced in search for Paradise. Moreover, the man of the Middle Ages is being exhorted to fill his mind with extraordinary imagines agentes of vivid colours and striking actions which, no doubt, will influence how he perceives the world and convert it into visual art. The conflation that has happened in the Middle Ages was not only one between Aristotle and Cicero or memory and the virtues, but one between the Art of Memory and art proper. And I believe that’s exactly what we will see in the next chapter of the book — and in the next post.

(You might be interested in Look with the eyes of memory >>)


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