I once played with the idea that I would not only read the Great Books of the Western World, but memorize them all. Of course, I was indulging myself in impossible dreams, but that has led me to a whole universe of thought (literally) that I had never dreamed existed: the Art of Memory.
The Great Books are not meant just to be consulted or looked up when in doubt or in want for advice. They were not meant either to be memorized by rote, to be regurgitated as informed conversation in a party. Much less do they exist only to be appreciated by philosophers or scholars in general.
They are meant to be the very fabric of men — that’s where they came from anyway — to be the raw material upon which we’ll build not only innovative solutions for new problems, but also, and perhaps most importantly, common-sense solutions for everyday problems. Because everyday problems can be utterly disastrous to one’s life and common-sense is much harder to possess than its name implies. These books are the ones to be “chewed and digested”, as Francis Bacon speaks of, and as such they are meant to be part of our very beings, so much as our hands, our heart and our thoughts are. They are meant to be the building blocks of that bulwark which will forever safeguard us — that elusive and rare quality named character.
My fantastic solution was to remember it all.
The Art of Memory, also known as mnemonics or mnemotechnics, is now widely used in memory championships where “mental athletes” arrive at simply absurd deeds such as memorizing a deck of cards in 14 seconds (suit and rank) or more than 3,000 digits in an hour. But “the Art”, as I like to call it, is rarely used to remember what really matters: knowledge. It was with this hope that I embarked on a great journey, but which (by my own fault) has been less fruitful than I expected .
“The Art of Memory“, as I like to call it, allegedly began with the greek poet Simonides of Ceos (556 – 468 B.C). As the story goes, he was performing a recital in a large banquet, when he was suddenly summoned to go outside to meet someone. Just after he left, the entire hall collapsed, crushing and disfiguring the guests beyond recognition. But Simonides, probably to his own astonishment, was able to remember where each guest had been sitting at the large table and, thanks to him, they could be properly buried. His feat hinted on the idea that to better memorize something, one should conjure images and mentally place them on actual spatial locations. Thus, the Art was born.
This is a nice story, whether true or not. But what really matters is that these techniques work and they have been crafted, analyzed and promoted throughout the millennia by great exponents such as Cicero, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Leibniz, Francis Bacon and Descartes. Beginning with its most pragmatic role by saving lives — even if legendary ones — and evolving into detailed techniques for remembering and learning, the Art of Memory has long reached its status of a true art. And, as such, it has been paramount in fostering men’s character.
In the current society of external digital memories, where that which people think of you is largely more important than what you really are, both the Art and the growth of character are forgotten ambitions of men. However, I can not imagine a time where both are more needed.