Artificial Memory

I’m reading the book The Art of Memory by Frances Yates.

Memory is something we don’t think much about in contemporary society, but historically it was of paramount importance.

Artificial memory, or utilizing images within the mind’s spatiotemporal framework, was foundational for the development of civilization, and I dare say consciousness.

What’s interesting, is that buildings were constructed as a direct reflection of memory palaces, specifically temples and institutional buildings.

There was a methodological framework for constructing a good memory palace, which included proper dimensions, and “notae” or markers which signify loci for referencing memories, as well as the “imagines agentes” or striking symbolic images that represent “things” or “words”.

The pre-Socratics knew of these memory methods, but historians believe that these were derived from Egyptian formulations, but they were formalized by the Greeks and later the Romans, and revitalized in the Medieval period by the scholastics followed by the renaissance thinkers, but the disciplines of artificial memory methods seem to disappear soon thereafter, likely due to the advent of the printing press and the proliferation of text.

When architects of past built cathedrals or temples or government buildings, they deliberately constructed them as a reflection of an internal memory palace, and the values contained within.

This is a fascinating thought.

Physical Buildings were reflections of internal memory palaces, and the living memory of the enduring cultural values they sought to preserve.

Their dimensions, their sculptures, their ornamentations, all referenced the importance of retaining memory.

I think of modern architecture…. and how god ugly and plain and utilitarian they are, devoid of humanistic values, and what a pitiful example of a memory palace they are.

Moreover, from a linguistic development perspective, written script started out as iconography, literal images which the mind’s eye could place within a memory palace.

Images, and the symbolic power they possessed as a memory tool, were the foundations of thought, and sophisticated culture more generally.

What’s Important to note, is that for intellectuals of past who prized the role of memory, they made a strong distinction between memory and recollection.

With all the written information infused throughout our daily lives, Memory is an art that’s rarely practiced. Rarely emphasized in education. Rarely prized for its merits.

But until very recently, memory quite literally was a key ingredient to invention and discovery.

The trinity of man was: memory, understanding, and will.

Cicero’s books on rhetoric which contain the best remnants of the ancient art of memory were named “De Inventione”, and Aristotle wrote at length about the role of memory for creation.

A common definition of memory was “a thesaurus of inventions and of all parts of rhetoric”. The Latin root of thesaurus is “treasury” or “storehouse”. Memory is a storehouse for ideas, for images, of value.

I find this all fascinating.

Additionally, Platonists placed the most importance on memory. The idea of a memory palace and the utilization of images situated at loci within reveals their commitment to “forms” which reveal the highest truth.

Believing in the transmigration of the soul, they believed the life was a process of “remembering” universal truths which were forgotten at birth. These platonic forms are like Jungian archetypes, which reveal themselves through meditation.

The process of creating memories, of constructing internal worlds and memory palaces, is literally a meditative one. It is the process of quieting the mind, freeing oneself from extraneous distraction, and concentrating to affix vital truths and the images representing them within the interior palaces of the mind.

This tradition was manifested most plainly in monasteries and by monks.

I wish I could relay all the idiosyncratic details supporting all this, but you should read the book.

The discipline and art of memory is an almost spiritual enterprise, in that it deals with the formation of consciousness, of expanding internal worlds.

Learning, knowledge, wisdom…. these are impossible without a robust memory. And there is an explicit art of memory that’s existed since the dawn of civilization… and which I fear is losing its power.

Memory via internal palaces and images requires responsibility and self possession, a result of self discipline and mastery.

External images require none of this, and leave man dispossessed, and open to persuasion and influence.

Anyway. It’s all very interesting.

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