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Memory in Ancient and Medieval Thought


In ancient and medieval thought, human memory was an object of consideration both as a phenomenon remarkable in itself and as an aid in education. The appreciation of it was expressed in discussion of the arts, of historical transmission, of education in the practice of rhetoric, and of psychology.

Role in Theory of Culture and the Arts. Memory was considered a basis of the poet's production, and as a measure of the public's capacity for adequate response to poetry. Mnemosyne, or Memory, was the daughter of Heaven and Earth, and as such was characterized as celestial permanence in transitory concreteness. She was mother of the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus, who were able to help men forget the sorrows of life (Hesiod, Theog. 53, 135). According to the rhapsodists, Memory preserved the hymns in which human experience was stored in school-trained minds and was thus the common mother of all the arts. She symbolized the individual and social traditions of ancient culture. Although Memory was thought to have had divine origin, she influenced terrestrial life. In the scientific discourse of Aristotle, memory was not personified; but reference was made to the fact that the plot of a tragedy, to be beautiful, must be limited in length and magnitude by the capacity of the hearer's memory (Poet. 1451a 56). In discussion of literary style the same law was applied to the length of the syntactical period (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.9.3; Quintilian9.4.125).

Role in Historical Continuity. The continuance of human personalities and institutions was owed to memory (μνήμη, memoria ), a fact recognized throughout the OT and in historiography. Moreover, memory was dependent on oral tradition, written documents, and the repetition of actions. Oral tradition perpetuated events in the minds of men in such societies as that of the Druids (Caesar, Gall. 6.14.3). It is not a perfect instrument since the content transmitted is subject to change in the process (Thucydides 2.54.3). Preservation in writing, in that regard at least, was found more effectual, but it had the baneful educational effect of allowing the living memory to deteriorate (Plato, Phaedrus 275A; Caesar, Gall. 6.14.4). The periodical repetition of actions and of feasts in a community, as exemplified by the Eucharistic celebration and the honoring of saints' days, aided remembrance of history.

Education in Rhetoric. The student in ancient schools of rhetoric, after inventing, composing and wording his oration, memorized it before presenting it. Unlike natural memory, artificial memorization helped the mind to retain mnemonic material by an affective intensification of the mental images (Aristotle, Anim. 427b 19). The student was taught to distribute the mnemonic matter in a fixed order of points or headings (Gr. τόποι, Lat. loci ) arranged in groups of five (Rhet. Her. 3.17.31) and taken, e.g., from geography (a landscape, a town) or architecture (peristyle, etc.). This conception of memory was based on an associative power in the soul (Aristotle, Memor. 452a 12). It influenced medieval mnemonics particularly among the Dominicans in the classrooms of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, of Peter of Ravenna and Giordano Bruno. The system of points or headings was extended to many fields for the purpose of arranging vast complexes of thought. It is suggested in the five-part structure of literary and other works, such as the drama and the rosary.

Psychology. Memory figures in different systems as one of two or three psychological categories. As a faculty, it is opposed to an act of recollection by Plato (Philebus 34B), Aristotle (Memor. 453a 6), and Aquinas (In lib. de memor. 8.398). For Plato, cognition is a recollection of the forms seen by the soul in its preexistence (Phaedo 72E, Meno 81D; criticized by Arnobius, Nat. 2.24, and Augustine, Trin. 12.15). Even without the assumption of the preexistence of the soul, some innate notions actualized by recollection, not only of the soul generally but especially of the memory are acknowledged by Nemesius, who gives as example the existence of God (De natura 13), and by Augustine (Conf. 10.11). Memory extends to objects perceptible to sensation and to intelligible objects, both reproduced by memory-images (Aristotle, Memor. 450a; Aquinas, In lib. de memor. 2.320). Augustine, however, excludes memory-images of intelligible objects, these being, according to his doctrine, really present in the memory (Conf. 10.9).

Aristotle establishes a scale beginning with sensation and leading first to memory and then to experience, which is the basis of art and science (Anal. post. 100a; also Plutarch, Moralia 11, De placitis 4.11). Nemesius (De natura 13) localizes sensation, intellect, and memory in different parts of the brain. In Aristotle memory corresponds to past or absent, sensation to present, and hope to future objects (Memor. 449b, Rhet. 1.11.612; Aquinas, In lib. de memor. 1.309). Cicero subdivides the cardinal virtue of prudence into three parts by attributing memory to the past, intellect to the present, providence to the future (Inv. 2.53.160). Augustine (Trin. 14.11), Albert the Great (De bono 4.2), and Aquinas (ST 2a2ae, 48) share this Ciceronian scheme. Augustine extends the function of memory to self-consciousness and substitutes will or love for providence (Anima 4.7). He explains (Trin. 14.12) this psychological triad of memory, intellect, and will (love) as a symbol of the Trinity in the human soul, when the soul focuses these three functions on God. The three faculties are later discussed by Aquinas (Summa theologiae 1a, 79.67) and used in the famous prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe Domine. By the medieval mystics, e.g., Bernard and the hymn Jesu dulcis memoria, memory is considered the ascetical means for obtaining the experience of Christ's mystical presence.

There are two classes of metaphor for memory. In one, memory is conceived as a wax tablet conserving impressions, which are interpreted as seals or letters (Plato, Theaet. 191C; Aristotle, Memor. 450a; Cicero, Tusc. 1.25.61). The conception of memory as a papyrus roll is analogous (Plutarch, De placitis 4.11). The metaphor of memory as space, on the other hand, appears under three forms. Memory is regarded as a storehouse of sensible perceptions and intelligible universals (Plato, Philebus 34A; Cicero, Ac. 2.10.30; Sextus Empiricus, Adv. math. 1.372; Aquinas, ST 1a, 79.7), as a landscape or room filled with the objects of memory distributed according to their places (Augustine, Conf. 10.8), or as a vessel (Cicero, Tusc. 1.25.61).

Etymologically, because of its connection with the root of the Greek verb μαίνεσθαι (to rage, to rave), memory can be extended to include the human disposition to give mimetic and cathartic representation, through mental images, of past but unmastered experiences.

Bibliography: s. eitrem, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 15.2:225758, 226569. e. wÜst, ibid. 15.2:226465. a. walde, Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, ed. j. hofmann, 3 v. (Heidelberg 193856) v.2. h. hajdu, Das mnemotechnische Schrifttum des Mittelalters (Vienna 1936). f. a. yates, "The Ciceronian Art of Memory," Medioevo e Rinascimento: Studi in onore di Bruno Nardi, ed. universatÀ di roma, istituto di filosofia, 2 v. (Florence 1955) v.2. d. l. clark, Rhetoric in Greco-Roman Education (New York 1957). h. lausberg, Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik, 2 v. (Munich 1960); Der Hymnus "Jesu dulcis memoria" (Munich 1965). j. guitton, Le Temps et l'éternité chez Plotin et saint Augustin (3d ed. Paris 1959). p. rossi, Clavis universalis: Arti mnemoniche e logica combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz (Milan 1960). g. kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton 1963). Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, v.9, ed. e. rothacker (Bonn 1964).

[h. lausberg]

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