The Art of Memory Reconceived

Written by Patrick H. Hutton

Frances Yates and the History of the Art of Memory

For an understanding of what the art of memory was in the distant past, the work of the English historian Frances Yates (1899-1981) is an essential point of departure. Yates was a student of the intellectual underground of the Renaissance and her study of mnemonics was an offshoot other inquiry into the thought of Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher whose fascination with systems of memory had roots in the ancient hermetic tradition of gnostic thought. Yates was intrigued with the Renaissance revival of the art of memory at a time when one might suppose the advent of printing would have rendered it obsolete. In the course other investigations she traced mnemonics as a system of artificial memory to its origins in Greece in the fifth century b.c. From its simple beginnings in the rhetoric of sophistry to its sophisticated refinement in the hermetic cosmology of the Renaissance, Yates explains, the art of memory was employed in the service of diverse philosophies. In Greco-Roman times it enhanced the rhetorician's eloquence. During the High Middle Ages it was used to classify an increasingly complex scheme of ethics. By the Renaissance it had become intertwined with Neo-platonic metaphysics. Yet through all of these cultural transformations, Yates stresses, the techniques of the art of memory remained essentially the same. Indeed, across these 2,000 years a sense of a classical mnemonic tradition developed, as each restatement of the art alluded to earlier formulations, notably the Rhetorica ad Herennium, an anonymous Roman tract written about 82 B.C., and even to that of its legendary Greek founder, the poet Simonides.

The technique of artificial memory that Yates identifies with the classical tradition of mnemonics consisted of arrangements of places and images. The places provided an architectonic design in which the knowledge to be remembered was to be situated. These were places deeply embedded in the mind of the mnemonist that could not be forgotten. The architecture of place, often conceived as a palace or a theater, might be likened to a sacred space with which the mnemonist possessed intuitive familiarity. This deep structure of memory, in turn, was given its particular character by the images with which it was adorned. A good memory was a function of a resilient imagination, and images were chosen for their aesthetic appeal. Vivid pictorial imagery that inspired awe was judged to be the most effective."

If the techniques of the art of memory remained essentially the same, change was visible in the purposes for which the art was used. Yates explains that these oscillated between two theories of knowledge, one derived from Aristotle and the other from Plato. In the Aristotelian tradition, the art of memory was merely instrumental. Aristotle taught that knowledge is derived from sense experience and that a mnemonic system is to be judged by its practical capacity to fix knowledge in images that heighten sense perception. Whether mnemonic images possessed any correspondence of meaning to the ideas to be conveyed was irrelevant. This conception was especially popular during the High Middle Ages, when scholastic philosophers valued memory systems for their utility in communicating moral lessons, yet held them in suspicion because of their derivation from the pagan learning of classical civilization. Mnemonics was a profane art, always subordinate to the sacred message it carried. In the Platonic tradition, however, the powers of memory were judged to be more substantive. Plato taught that mnemic images were directly expressive of a transcendental reality. For the mnemonist who shared these views, the value of a mnemic image was directly tied to the ideal reality that it was empowered to represent. The art of memory, therefore, was a way of establishing correspondences between the microcosm of the mind's images and the macrocosm of the ideal universe, which were believed to be congruent structures. In such a conception, the role of the mnemonist took on added importance. Not only did he practice a skill but he also assumed a priestly status as an interpreter of the nature of reality.

This Platonic conception of the art of memory, Yates explains, received its fullest expression during the Italian Renaissance of the sixteenth century. In that era, Neoplatonic philosophers employed the art of memory in an ambitious quest for a unified paradigm of knowledge. Among many ingenious designs, Yates singles out for special attention the mnemonic systems of Giulio Camillo and of Giordano Bruno, both of whom were in search of the key to the hidden structure of the universe in the hermetic teachings of the ancient Egyptian divine, Hermes Trismegistus. Camillo designed a memory theater in which the drama of all human experience was played out on an imaginary stage. Bruno's model was more intricate still. Devising a memory wheel that incorporated geometrical designs borrowed from the most inventive mnemonic systems of the day, he conceived of himself as the architect of a synthetic paradigm of the universe that would provide its practitioners with insight into the deep structural unity of all knowledge of heaven and earth.

It is not surprising that these Neoplatonic paradigms were presented in images of wheels, palaces, theaters, and other geometrical configurations. The structure of knowledge envisioned by the Neoplatonic philosophers was spatial. It was based on an unchanging reality, as all of these mnemonic images implied. Journeys into the memory moved along fixed trajectories to be traveled again and again. The wheel, the palace, and the theater were mementos of repetition. Working from a conception of a timeless cosmos, the Neoplatonic mnemonists possessed no sense of development. They were in search of knowledge that was eternal yet presently hidden. Discovered by the gnostic philosophers of antiquity yet forgotten in the intervening millennium, this hermetic knowledge was waiting to be revealed once more. As the purveyors of secrets at once ancient and powerful, the mnemonists viewed themselves as magi, dealing in an esoteric knowledge that made them privy to the workings of the universe, with all of the powers that such omniscience implied.

As a paradigmatic expression of the worldview of the idealist philosophers of the Renaissance, Yates contends, mnemonics survived into the seventeenth century because it served a line of intellectual inquiry that continued to display vitality. Mnemonics would begin to lose its honored status only as Neoplatonic idealism was successfully challenged by scientific empiricism in the course of that century. The new science, she suggests, would continue to employ the art of memory but in a less exalted role. In a world in which reliable knowledge was identified with a systematic understanding of sense experience, mnemonics was destined to return to an Aristotelian formulation. Herein lies the importance of the English philosopher Francis Bacon. Rejecting the notion of magical correspondences between mnemic images and the powers governing the heavens, Bacon spurned the prideful role of magus for the more modest one of scientific investigator. Having contributed to the rise of science in its stress on systematic classification, Yates concludes, mnemonics lost this distinguishing characteristic as the scientific method acquired an autonomous identity.'" Having outlived its usefulness, the art of memory as a recognizable intellectual tradition came to an end.


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