Yates and the Art of Memory: Method in madness

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


Memory based on the Names of God, letters and revolving wheels.
(“Ramon Llull” and his “Ars Magna” / CC0 1.0)

Frances Yates admits that trying to describe Lullism is “attempting the impossible”, yet she does her best to at least reach “some sketch” of it. Therefore, I am not so ashamed to admit that my understanding after reading Chapter 8 of The Art of Memory is, at best, sketchy (and, at worst, nonexistent). However, as in Yates’ case, it is important that I try my best, otherwise, the next chapters will be even more abstruse. Trust me; I have peeked at them and I have returned in horror.

The chapter on Ramon Lull, who flourished from 1235 to 1316, was rather anachronistically placed by Yates after the one on Camillo’s theatre (and after all the medieval Art of Memory, for that matter) because of the unique character of his Art. Although being a close contemporary to Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, i.e., in a time when the medieval form of the Art of Memory was at its peak, his Art was not based on images. In turn, it was based on letters of the alphabet and on geometric shapes. Moreover, Lull was not a product of scholastic Aristotelian thought, but of Augustinian Platonism, reinforced my Neoplatonism, basing his philosophy in “first causes” or “reals”, the Platonic Ideas. Therefore, he was much more Renaissance than Middle Ages, which explains part of Yates’ anachronism.

But more than that, his Art bears some resemblance with the much later Camillo’s theatre because it is not just an art of memory — it is an esoteric philosophic tradition in search for enlightenment, for some kind of vision of the Truth. And it is even closer to more recent traditions, centuries apart from the medieval, because it was the first to introduce movement to the Art of Memory. While Camillo’s Art was static, based on fixed loci in his memory theatre, resembling the ancient, Lull’s Art was dynamic, ever-changing due to the rotation of a set of concentric wheels forming a combinatoric device. Lull does not use images to excite memory; he instead uses an abstract letter notation engraved on the wheels and standing for concepts, intended to represent all knowledge. By rotating his wheels of concentric circles, he obtains new combinations of concepts, in a system much closer to an algebraic or scientific computational approach than the more artistic classic Art of Memory. Much later, as we’ll see, a similar (albeit highly magnified) approach will be largely utilised by the occult art of Giordano Bruno.

Lull had a missionary character and as such, he encompassed religious aspects of Catholics, Jews and Muslims in his Art, as well as all the scientific knowledge about nature of that time. In spite of the predominance of the Dominican art, Lull’s Art saw rapid diffusion for it was also associated to an order of preaching friars, that of the FranciscansLull’s Art is based on the names or attributes of God, concepts he calls the “Dignities of God” and to which he attributes the letters “BCDEFGHIK”. There is also a deep influence of the four elements in the cosmologic structure of the Art, influencing also the kind of geometrical logic he uses. His Art works in all levels of creation — the “ladder of being” — and his letter notations change meaning according to which level is being used (any similarity with the logic behind Camillo’s theatre is not mere coincidence). By merging the geometry of the elemental structure of the world with the Divine names, he creates an universal Art and a “natural” logic based on reality and, thus, superior to scholastic logic.

Lull’s ars combinatoria is best exemplified by his combinatory figure (see Yates’ The Art of Memory, page 183), a set of three concentric wheels, each of which is inscribed with the letters B to K. As they revolve, all combinations are possible. Lull’s ars memorativa, in turn, was the memorising of the procedures of his very Art. Since his Art was also an art for investigating the truth of things, of answering questions, memory is thus being used for logical investigations — it is becoming a method. And it is a method operated on abstractions — even the names of God become letters — combining symbols and geometric forms as if, as Yates put it, attempting “a mystical and cosmological geometry and algebra”. The profound effects of Lull’s Art though, will only be realised well into the Renaissance, when it is assimilated into the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition. He was clearly a visionary.

Ramon Lull invented a form of logic embedded in a machine that would reduce all knowledge to its own constituent principles, being equally infallible when applied to any subject. While extremely esoteric and naively optimistic, his mechanistic approach will enable Lull to be considered by some as one of the pioneers in computational theory, specially for his influence on Gottfried Leibniz.

Tree of nature and logic.

Lull’s tree of nature and logic, the first “mechanical aid to reasoning” (Sowa, 2000 ).

Lull’s “tree of nature and logic” features in the cover of the great computer scientist John F. Sowa‘s book on knowledge representation for being, as he put it, “the first attempt to develop mechanical aids to reasoning”. The main trunk would represent a Porphyrian tree, supposedly illustrating some of Aristotle’s praedicamenta, or his Categories, his notion of all the kinds of things in the World. The ten leaves on the right would represent ten types of questions, and the ten leaves on the left correspond to the letters present in his combinatory wheels (the figure seems to show his usual set of nine letters plus a repeated “K”).

Unfortunately, however, we are not about to see Lullism develop into a computational approach for combining such logic devices with the imagines agentes of the classical Art of Memory. I would be really interested in such a rational universal mnemonic system for representing all knowledge — but I am not so lucky. We are indeed about to see images and combinatory wheels merge into an universal system, but it is going to be anything but a rational one.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this post, what we are about to see is the emergence of an extremely complex and abstruse memory system — one based on pure blatant magic.



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