The Cultivation of Memory: Muses and the Mind Palace

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As a classical philologist, whenever an article on the subject of Latin, like William McGurn’s “Black Men Speaking Latin” (Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2017) or Nina Sovich’s “Carpe Diem” (Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2017), appears in a major newspaper, I usually receive three or four emails from friends or students notifying me. Maybe they know that I use my email too much and Facebook not at all. Usually these articles say the same positive things we’ve heard before: higher SAT scores (not just verbal, but math, too); a better grasp of English grammar; the correlation to programming and engineering, law, medicine, etc. But what are the negative criticisms of studying Latin?

Usually the biggest one is the attack on memorization. A Rosetta Stone commercial that I have heard on the radio dozens of times promises “no useless memorization,” and that you can learn a language the way you learned your first one — and don’t you know that one well and wasn’t it painless! Well, was it? And…do you? Let’s see: after six years of studying English the natural way, you had a six-year-old’s grasp of English. Project it as far as you like; in the absence of the analytical method, you see the same disappointing result. And if you think I’m picking on six-year-olds, consider that my grandmother, the saintly Agnes, lived in Akron, Ohio, for 55 years, and until the day she died, spoke Polish better than English. The goal, however, is not mere language. The greatest and most widely applicable skill acquired through the analytical method of studying language is, in fact, that of memory.

The most revolutionary technology in history, if we consider it very broadly, is writing. From the earliest uses of the most permanent words on stone to keep accounts of property, to the gradual development of inexpensive but more transient plant-based media, to the sudden explosion of use brought on by the invention of movable type — I attribute nothing less than the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment to this invention more than any other historical cause (a question to be pursued elsewhere) — to the most ephemeral media of all: email, the online chatroom, and the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the uses and goods of writing have always been patent. But even thousands of years ago, some of the greatest minds of all time were raising questions about the price of those goods. All of the thought of Plato must be understood, according to Plato himself (in his Seventh Letter and in his dialogue the Phaedrus), and according to some scholars of Plato (e.g., Thomas Szlezák), against his admonitory predictions about the dangers of writing. The principal one was that it eroded memory.

The eponymous hero of the recent BBC series Sherlock solved several cases by entering what he called his “mind palace.” While Benedict Cumberbatch convinced most of us that he was possessed of superhuman powers — made all the more admirable because they were of the same quality as ours, but vastly more developed, like a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt — many poets and orators in antiquity practiced this method, which they simply called memoria, or more specifically, ordo, in Latin.

Cicero tells the story in his De Oratore (2.351–4) of the Greek poet Simonides. The poet had been commissioned to write a victory ode for a boxer, and so naturally he compared the champion to the gods Castor and Pollux — brothers, boxers, horsemen, philanthropic heroes. Unfortunately, he praised them too much. At the victory party, the beneficiary declared that he would pay half the fee, and that Simonides could collect the other half from the divine twins he loved so much. Just then, Cicero tells us, it was announced that two young men were calling for him outside the house. When he went outside, he found no one there, and as he turned to go back in, the whole house collapsed, crushing everyone within. There were no survivors, and indeed the dead were so crushed that their remains could not be identified.

How could these people be given proper burial? Fortunately, Simonides was a good poet (the intermediate step on training to become an orator was the memorization of thousands of lines of poetry, hence the connection to Cicero), and had memorized the floor plan of the house automatically, along with the persons in each room. He thus identified the remains of all the victims, and discovered, says Cicero, the principle of the ordo locorum (the order of places): “that we should use places as notebooks, images as letters.”

I urge my own students to employ this method, which is simply described. First, you memorize the floor plan of a Roman house (I find the Medieval monastery more delightful). Give each room a distinct character: blacksmith, library, cellarer’s quarters, sheep stall, etc. Some suggest merely giving the rooms a letter of the alphabet, or a number. Then associate new names (the Latin word nomen—name—also means “noun”) with rooms.

The connection can be as bizarre as you like, and for some, the more bizarre the better. Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and the Declaration of Independence, for example, are all in 1776 in the sheep stall. Now when I learn the word ovis—sheep—it goes there, too, along with -ba-, the two letters that signify the imperfect tense in Latin, because sheep say, “Baa,” and they need a shepherd, like all who are “imperfect.”

Must we justify the importance of memory? In a time and place where 60 megabytes of hard drive space — the size of cutting edge video games when I was a teenager — represents a mere 0.05% of the “memory” of the computer I use to write this sentence, memory is cheap. Why do I need to learn a phone number if my phone remembers it? Why do I need to remember my grocery list if the computer is always handy? Fair enough; but what about theoretical knowledge? Contrasted from practical knowledge, whose end lies beyond itself, theoretical knowledge is that knowledge whose proper end is to be known. When it has been acquired and is held in my own memory, the mere holding of it makes me happy. If this is true — and let us grant that many of us do not believe it — then when I expand my capacity for memory, I expand my capacity for happiness. And what happiness! Here I am talking not about that happiness which is triggered by external circumstances, but that which is the fruit of a cultivated memory, which is the joy of the Muses: Lyric, Epic, Dancing, Music, History, Tragedy, Comedy, Hymns, Astronomy — the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess whose name is Memory. This is happiness that travels.

Lionel Yaceczko

About the author:

Lionel Yaceczko


Dr. Yaceczko has taught regular and online courses to all ages at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, as well as summer programs for inner city boys in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Lionel’s research is focused on Late Antiquity (ca AD 180-800), with a doctoral dissertation on education in the later Roman Empire. His articles have been published in Studies in Late Antiquity, The Medieval Review, Crisis Magazine, HeightsForum.org, and Cavalcade. He has also worked in academic publishing. Lionel lives in Laurel with his wife Janet (another Latinist) and children Stanislaus, Sarah, Thom, Lio and Diego.