The Ancient Art Of Memory
In ancient Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was revered as mother of the Muses of the arts and sciences. Ever since, students of memory have acknowledged memory's creative power to evoke the imaginative forms through which humankind represents the reality of its experience. The ancient idea of memory was grounded in the concept of mimesis, according to which memory and imagination are reverse sides of the creative act of "imitating nature." In the primarily oral culture of ancient Greece, the rhapsodes were renowned for their prodigious powers of memory, which allowed them to sing the Homeric epics, the repositories of the Greek heritage and the foundation of Greek cultural identity. But the use of memory in oral tradition was uncritical, and scholars have made much of the differences between the intuitive poetic storytelling of rhapsodes and the studied analytical use of memory among the literate rhetoricians of an incipient manuscript culture.
A changing conception of memory, therefore, is coeval with the passage from primary orality to manuscript literacy (beginning about the seventh century B.C.E.), which permitted a newfound critical perspective on memory's nature. By late antiquity, the idea of memory as remembered episode had come to be closely associated with the art of memory, a rhetorical technique of displacement for accurately recalling facts and stories worthy of remembrance. The art located data difficult to remember within easily remembered imaginary structures of places and images. The discovery of this method for associating the unfamiliar with the familiar is attributed to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (556–468 B.C.E.) and was developed especially by Roman rhetoricians. The Rhetorica ad Herennium (82 B.C.E.), attributed by some to Cicero, is the oldest such manual to have survived from antiquity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the art found expression in ever more complex mnemonic schemes, until it was marginalized by new encyclopedic reference books for storing knowledge in the emerging print culture of the Enlightenment.
The English historian Frances A. Yates (1899–1981) was the first modern scholar to analyze the history of the intellectual uses of mnemonic technique. She grounds this critical perspective in two seminal conceptions of memory derived from ancient Greek philosophy, one formulated by Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.), the other by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.). Plato emphasized the power of memory to open pathways to the archetypes of transcendental knowledge. Aristotle presented a down-to-earth analysis of memory's powers of recognition and recall and described mnemonics as a guarantor of the capacity of a well-ordered mind to hold fast to its learning. Yates was especially interested in the ambition the Neoplatonist rhetoricians of the Renaissance had to construct imaginary memory palaces whose architectural structures were purported to mirror those of an ideal universe and so to provide hermetic keys to correspondences between earthly and transcendental realities. But the rise of empirical science in the seventeenth century undercut the art of memory's idealist presuppositions, and while the art remained an elegant technique for the rhetorical display of erudition, it was soon acknowledged that its methods led only to a philosophical dead end.