WE have at length traveled through the three great divisions of rhetoric, which, according to the distribution of Aristotle and others of the Grecian masters, comprehend the whole science; invention, disposition, and elocution. The two remaining branches, memory and pronunciation, which have been superadded by more recent teachers, always anxious to add something of their own to the discoveries of real genius, will require no very elaborate investigation; and a single lecture, devoted to each of them, will suffice for the completion of our course.
The subject for our present consideration is memory; and the order, in which the observations I have to make concerning it may be arranged, will naturally lead from the inquiry, what it is, to that of its peculiar importance to the public speaker, which has raised it to this distinction, as one of the constituent parts of the science; and thence to the means, by which its aid may be most effectually secured to the purposes of oratory.
A difficulty occurs at the threshold, which has hitherto proved utterly insuperable to human exertion, and which like others I must leave, as I find it. If, as philosophical inquirers, you were to call upon me to tell you what memory is, my answer could be only the confession of my ignorance. It is an operation of the mind, which has never yet been explained. It has however been much observed and investigated by the poets and philosophers of ancient Greece; and by their successors in modern days. Let us hear what they have said of it; and first for the poets.
Memory, say the poets of the Grecian mythology, is a goddess. Her name is Mnemosyne. She is the daughter of heaven and of earth; and, impregnated by Jupiter, she was the mother of all the muses.
This fable, like almost all the others of the Grecian theogony, is philosophical. Memory was the daughter of heaven and of earth. the faculty, which is personified by this allegorical being, is a special privilege, partaking of the celestial nature. But it is enjoyed by man, and in an inferior degree by some of the brute creation. Mnemosyne therefore is descended on one part from heaven, and on the other from Earth.
Mnemosyne was the mother of all the muses. These were the patronesses of all the arts and sciences, the inspirers of human genius, and the guardians of learning. They were begotten by Jupiter, the best and greatest of the gods, the emblem of productive power and energy. They were born on the Pierian mountain, the region of fruitfulness; as is indicated by the etymology of the name. The active energy of the intellect must generate, but memory must bear the faculties, which adorn and dignify the human character. Such were the imaginations of the poets. They were justly honorary to the merits of memory; but they did not suppose her mother to the muse of eloquence alone.
And now for the philosophers. Let us take the doctrine of Aristotle in the words of learned Harris, from the third book of his Hermes.
“Besides,” says he, “the distinguishing of sensation from imagination, there are two other faculties of the soul, which, from the nearer alliance, ought carefully to be distinguished from it; and these are ΜΝΗΜΗ and ΑΝΑΜΝΗΣΙΣ; memory and recollection.
“When we view some such relict of sensation, reposed within us, without thinking of its rise, or referring it to any sensible object, this is fancy or imagination.
“When we view some such relict, and refer it withal to that sensible object, which in time past was its clause and original, this is memory.
“Lastly the road, which leads to memory through a series of ideas, however connected, whether rationally or casually, this is recollection.
“When we contemplate a portrait, without thinking of whom it is the portrait, such contemplation is analogous to fancy. When we view it with reference to the original, whom it represents, such contemplation is analogous to memory.”
Quinctilian seems afraid to meet the question, what memory is; but adopts this theory of Aristotle.
“I do not think it necessary,” says he, “to stay and inquire what constitutes memory; but most people are of opinion, that certain vestiges are imprinted upon our minds, which are preserved like the impression of seals upon wax.”
The same relict of sensation, the same impression upon wax is all, that the searching probe of Locke’s understanding could discover to explain the essential character of memory. In speaking of the memory and its infirmities, even Locke himself abandons the grave and simple style of metaphysical inquiry; and hides his ignorance under a blaze of resplendent imagery.
“The memory of some it is true,” says he, “is very tenacious, even to a miracle; but yet there seems to be a constant decay of all our ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in minds the most retentive; so that, if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated exercise of the senses, or reflection on those kinds of objects, which at first occasion them, the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen. Thus the ideas, as well as children of our youth, often die before us; and our minds represent to us those tombs, to which we are approaching; where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders [sic] away. The pictures drawn in our minds are laid in fading colors; and, if not sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. How much the constitution of our bodies and the make of our animal spirits are concerned in this, and whether the temper of the brain makes this difference, that in some it retains the characters drawn on it like marble, in others like free-stone, and in others little better than sand, I shall not here inquire; though it may seem probable, that the constitution of the body does sometimes influence the memory; since we oftentimes find a disease quite strip the mind of all its ideas, and the flames of a fever in a few days calcine all those images to dust and confusion, which seemed to be as lasting, as if graved in marble.”
It has been remarked of a very distinguished literary character of France, D'Alembert, that there was too much poetry in his mathematics, and too much of mathematics in his poetry. Of this political and philosophical explanation of memory something similar might perhaps be said. The one is just as figurative as the other. I have brought them here together to show you how much they are alike. For in sober truth you may just as well believe, that memory is the daughter of heaven and earth; that she had an intrigue with Jupiter, and bore him nine daughters in so many days; as you may credit, that memory is the impression of a seal upon wax; or the inscriptions of figures upon marble; or the painting of colors upon a canvas; or that the flames of a fever can calcine its images.
The difficulty consists in this, that memory is a faculty of the mind; and that its operations, like the other processes of the pure intellect, can only be exhibited in speech by the means of figurative language; by images derived from the senses, and addressed to them. From this difficulty I shall not attempt to escape; but, after noticing this impossibility of saying precisely what memory is, must content myself with admitting and adopting the similitudes, by which it is likened to objects that are known.
Memory then is that faculty of the human mind, by which we are enabled to call up at pleasure ideas, which have been before lodged in it. It is the key to the hoarded treasures of the understanding.
Memory, like all the other faculties which we possess, is frail and imperfect. It is itself the characteristic of an imperfect being; since it is the child of change. Perfection is not susceptible of change; and to the omnipresent mind there can be no succession of ideas. We are always present, there is nothing past to recal [sic].
But as all the ideas, of which the human mind is capable, are in their nature transient, the power of calling some of them back was indispensable to the constitution of a rational being. To the perfection of this power it would be necessary that all the ideas, which ever passed through the mind, should go to the common deposit; and should remain their subject to the absolute control of the will. That all should be ready to appear when commanded; and that none should presume to intrude itself, without being called.
These, as Mr. Locke conjectures, may be the capacities of beings superior to the race of man. The powers, which we possess, are but remote approximations to this. Of the ideas, which constitute the sum of our earthly existence, a very small proportion are ever admitted to the receptacles of memory. Of those, which are committed to its trust, numbers are continually perishing, uncalled for; and of those, which she preserves, many are in every point rebellious to the will.
Some, like Owen Glendower’s spirits in the vasty deep, will not come, when they are called; and others, like unwelcome visitors, force themselves upon our company, when we should be most anxious to exclude them.
As the value of memory to a human being must depend upon its subserviency to the will, so perhaps all the varieties of genius among mankind little more, than varieties in the degrees of this subserviency. Vain is every endeavour [sic] to store the understanding with ideas, if the mind possess not the faculty of retention. And equally vain is that magazine, which, however stored with accumulated materials, holds them in darkness and confusion, so that they cannot be recovered without loss of time and laborious search.
In this regard it is, that memory has been so peculiarly connected with rhetoric. She is the mother of all the muses; but with this one she must forever dwell. The poet, the historian, or the astronomer, though relying perhaps equally upon the funds of memory, can indulge her caprices, and compromise with her stubbornness; but the orator must have her not only in subjection, but at all times ready and alert to his service. For him she must perform at the same instant a double task; she must furnish him at the moment, when they are wanted, not only the idea, but the expression with which it is clothed. She must bring him at one and the same time things and words. Nor can he broke a minute of delay. If at the precise point of time, when they are needed, the thought or its vehicle refuses their office, the opportunity is lost, never to be retrieved.
A memory, completely under the control of the will, is a thing unexampled among men. It is said of Themistocles, that he was so much oppressed with the burthen [sic] of a memory too retentive, and too liberal, that he longed for an art of oblivion, instead of a more ready remembrance. We are not precisely told what was the motive, which made him side for relief from his own reflections; but whatever it might be, at least the anecdote ascertains, that his memory was not obsequious to his will. Mr. Locke mentions, that it was reported “of that wonderful genius, Pascal, that, until the decay of his health had impaired his memory, he forgot nothing of what he had done, read, or thought, in any part of his rational age.” Upon which I shall here only remark, that, like some other stories told of that infamous Jansenist, this report was more marvellous than true. Pascal was beyond all doubt a genius of the highest order; and his memory was perhaps the most extraordinary of his faculties; but that he should have forgotten, for a series of years, nothing of what he had done, read, or thought, must be received with great qualification to the meaning of the term nothing, or its belief must rely upon its impossibility.
The dominion of the will over the memory may be strengthened and extended in various ways by our own exertions. The art, for which Themistocles sighed, the art of forgetting, is often very successfully pursued; and sometimes it may be the most effectual means of promoting the wisdom and the virtue of individuals. But it may be more advantageous to the moralist, than to the orator. The improvement of the faculty, for the purposes of public speaking, consists in its enlargement, and not its contraction; in manuring its fertility, rather than in eradicating its luxuriance.
The means, by which a public speaker is enabled to improve his memory, are of three kinds; first, care to preserve himself from the causes, by which it is impaired; secondly, the discipline of persevering application, exercise, and method; and thirdly, certain contrivances, which have been invented and practised [sic] with so much success, as to obtain the denomination of artificial memories.
1. We learn from universal experience, that the control of the memory depends in a great measure upon the state of the brain. Memory is a faculty altogether acquired; it is not, like the senses, enjoyed from the moment of birth. It is gradually formed; and by a process of years. The ideas of earliest infancy are obliterated, beyond all possibility of redemption, from every human mind. Our earliest recollections are indistinct and confused. The idea of succession in time is itself one of those latest acquired; and hence of the particular incidents, which first leave durable impressions upon the mind, we are unable to remember the order of time, in which they occurred.
The memory is the first of the intellectual faculties, which follows the decays of the body. This experience is general, but not so universal, as the absence of memory in childhood. It is a law of nature, which admits of exceptions; and these indulgences are most usually acquired by a life of temperance and of virtue.
The memory is impaired by all the diseases, which the vices of men bring upon them; and by some, which are merely the visitations of heaven. It is occasionally suspended for a time by sensual excesses, and particularly by intoxication. It is gradually corroded and consumed by long continued habits of intemperance. All the violent passions, for the time while they exercise their dominion over the mind, encroach upon the memory. Grief, anger, and fear, sometimes obtain such uncontrolled ascendancy over the mind as to terminate in madness or in idiocy. Prejudice and superstition are unfriendly to the memory, as they close the understanding against the admission or retention of any ideas, which do not precisely suit them. A firm and conscientious regard to truth is a quality very material to the memory; and hence the deficiencies of that power in persons, whose veracity is feeble, has in all ages been proverbial.
The first and most important rule then for the preservation and improvement of this inestimable gift of Providence belong rather to the moralist, than to the rhetorician. They teach us temperance, self-government, and a sacred and inviolable regard to truth.
The practice of these virtues, and the constant caution of avoiding all those causes by which this energy of the mind is weakened, are however only means for preserving and keeping in repair an instrument, the use of which in its utmost perfection can be acquired only by application, exercise, and method.
To the active command of the memory a certain application of the mind to the object of remembrance is indispensable. Human existence consists of a succession of ideas; and there are from day to day thousands of impressions upon the senses, which are fleeting as the moment which brings them, and with it vanish, never more to be perceived. There are others, upon which the mind fastens; and, by grappling them to itself, gives them a more permanent being. This application is sometimes spontaneous, and attended with delight; at others involuntary and ungrateful; but oftentimes dependent altogether upon our own will. In either of the former cases, when the object has either attractions to recommend itself, or a force to crowd itself, however unwelcome, upon the mind, we are able by the effort of the will, and a certain degree to improve or to counteract this impulse of feeling; in the last we direct our own attention without control. When in Shakspeare [sic], Macbeth inquires of the doctor,
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased;
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow;
Raze out the written troubles of the brain;
And with some sweet, oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff,
Which ways upon the heart?
the physician answers him, “therein the patient must minister unto himself.”
But the orator in a peculiar degree must be in the constant use of his judgment, in selecting the objects, to which he should devote the application of his mind. There is perhaps as much failure of excellence, arising from the misapplication of this faculty to frivolous or irrational objects, as from its utter neglect. No mistake is more dangerous, and at the same time more common, than that of following our inclinations in the distribution of this labor of the intellect. The bias of the mind is sometimes so strong towards a particular course of study, that nothing better can be done, than to indulge it; but in general it should be our endeavour [sic] to obtain and to strengthen the empire of the will over the direction of our pursuits; and the strength or weakness of individual understanding may perhaps be accurately measured by the degree of command, which it possesses over its own application.
“But,” says Quinctilian, “if any man ask me what is the greatest, nay the only art of memory; my answer is, exercise; labor; much learning by heart; much meditation; and, if possible, daily repeated; this is worth all the rest. Nothing thrives so much upon industry; nothing perishes so much upon neglect. Let then the practice be taught and made frequent in childhood; and whoever, at any period of life, would cultivate his memory, must submit to the disgust of going over and over again what he has written, and already many times read. The habit of learning by heart, when acquired in early youth, gives ever after a readiness, which disdains paltry indulgences. No prompter, no looking at the paper then should be endured, for it encourages negligence; and, when we have no fear of being left in a lurch, we shall always be too confident of our own remembrance. Hence the course of delivery will be interrupted; a hesitating, stammering, hobbling mode of speech will be formed; and all the grace of the most elegant writing will be lost in the continual confession of the performer, that, instead of speaking, he is reading a written composition.”
In these sentiments of Quinctilian you will recognise [sic] a doctrine, which your own experience will invariably confirm. It is not indeed a very palatable precept; and its observance to men, who are engaged in much active business, must undoubtedly be qualified by the scantiness of time. But the public speaker, who shall devote some of his time to this tedious toil, will not find it wasted without reward; in the injunction is the more peremptory, as this species of exercise is entirely under the control of the will.
Both application and exercise will be facilitated, and derive great aids to their efficacy, from systematical arrangement and method. Verse is more easily committed to memory than prose. And even of prose the acquisition is found easiest, when the divisions of the subject are clear and the composition correct. The time for tasking the memory may be judiciously selected. The close of the day and the return of morning present the hours, when the mind is most exempted from the intrusion of interfering ideas, and most vigorous for the employment of its powers. Aurora, the friend of the muses, will be found equally propitious to their common parent.
As a succession of ideas can be retained in the memory, subject to the control of the will, only by the means of method, it is not possible perhaps to limit the extent of that control, which method can enable us to acquire. The systems of artificial memory, which have been invented and recommended, both in ancient and modern times, have been only experiments of methodical arrangement.
The most celebrated artificial memory of the ancient orators is that, said to have been invented by the poet, Simonides, of the island of Ceos, between five and six hundred years before christ [sic]. The story, which they tell in connextion [sic] with it, if it have no other recommendation, has at least enough of the marvellous.
Simonides, like other poets of that age and of all ages, was poor; and made his talent a profession for subsistence. He wrote panegyrical odes for hire; and sung them at the banquets of the great men, who were willing to pay for renown. Simonides had agreed with one Scopas, a rich Thessalian, to write and recite at his house one of these odes in his honor. But the genius of the poet revolted from the task of incensing stupidity, and lavishing adulation upon meanness. He wrote and recited his ode; in which, after exhausting all the materials afforded him by his subject, he had indulged his own feelings by a digression in honor of Castor and Pollux. Scopas, determined to make a good bargain, took advantage of this incident, paid Simonides only half the stipulated price, and told him, that for the remainder he must look to Castor and Pollux. A few minutes after the poet was called out from table, and informed, that they were two young men waiting at the gate, who insisted upon seeing him, and would take no denial. He went out, found nobody there; but before he had time to return the roof of the hall fell in, and crushed to death every person at the table. The bodies were all so disfigured, that, after the removal of the rubbish, their friends were unable to distinguish one from another until they were ascertained by Simonides, from his recollection of the place, where each one of them had been seated at the table. This first suggested to him the idea of assisting the memory, by an assumed and artificial arrangement of places. The system of artificial memory, which he or his followers erected upon this foundation, was as clumsy and ill-contrived, as the fable, said to have occasioned it, was ingenious. The story is very gravely told both by Cicero and Quinctilian; but neither of them appears to have much confidence in the invention of Simonides, as explained and recommended by his followers.
The association of ideas between places and the persons seated in them, together with the divisions of a large space into small parcels, concur in the arrangement of guests at a table to furnish the greatest assistance to memory. But the plan of memory, attributed to Simonides, multiplied incumbrances [sic], instead of assistance. It consisted in assuming a large, imaginary space, like a public building, or a marketplace; dividing it into imaginary compartments; placing on each of these compartments an image of some animal or other object emblematical of the subject, which you wish to remember. This unwieldy process of remembrance, first of imaginary places, then of imaginary animals, and then of the real object, to which you would refer, was applied even to single words; and we are seriously taught, that we may remember a conjunction copulative by thinking of Vulcan and his forge; or a conjunction disjunctive by recollecting the graces, as they stand back to back.
A Mr. Grey has recently published in England a different system, under the title of Memoria Technica; the application of which he has confined to chronology, geography, and the ancient weights, measures, and coins. His plan consists in taking the first part of certain well known names of men, places, or coins; and, instead of their terminating letters, substituting another termination of letters, representing certain numbers. Thus the union of the half name with the numerical termination forms a barbarous word, by fixing which in the memory, we shall always retain not only the name, but any circumstance of numbers connected with it, which it may be material to possess. Thus instead of Alexander, Caesar, and Mahomet, we are to say Alexita, Caes, and Mahomoudd;The first letters being sufficient to remind us of the persons, and the closing letters intending to represent numbers, which marked the year before or after the christian [sic] era, when they died. A chronological succession of Roman emperors or English kings may be composed of such associated letters, informed into six, eight, or ten lines; which, being once learnt by heart, may fix upon the memory in the compass of half an hour the whole history of a nation.
Mr. Grey’s system, like the art of writing in shorthand, will be found useful to those, who will undergo the toil of making themselves masters of it. To those expedients a reflecting mind will always be able to add others of its own. The power of association is susceptible of numberless modifications; and its effects upon the understanding are as great, as in the following lines of a living poet they are said to be upon the affections.
Lull’d in the countless chambers of the brain,
Our thoughts are linked by many a hidden chain.
Awake but one, and lo, what myriads rise!
Each stamps its image, as the other flies.
Each, as the varied avenues of sense
Delight or sorrow of the soul dispense,
Brightens or fades; yet all, with magic art,
Control the latent fibres of the heart.
PLEAS. MEM. I. 170.1.