Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 11 - Chapter 2

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Of the memory; necessity of cultivating it, § 1-3. Its nature, and remarkable powers, 4-10. Simonides was the first that taught an art of memory, 11-16. What method of assisting the memory has been tried by orators, 17-23. Its insufficiency for fixing a written or premeditated speech in the mind, 24-26. A more simple method recommended, 27-39. The greatest of all aids to the memory is exercise, 40-43. Whether an orator should write his speeches, and learn them by heart word for word, 44-49. Remarkable examples of power of memory, 50, 51.

1. SOME have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us. It is the power of memory that brings before us those multitudes of precedents, laws, judgments, sayings, and facts of which an orator should always have an abundance and which he should always be ready to produce. Accordingly, memory is called, not without reason, the treasury of eloquence.

2. But for those who are to plead, it is necessary not only to retain multitudes of particulars firmly in the memory, but also to have a quick conception of them, not only to remember what they have written after repeated perusals, but to observe the order of thoughts and words even in what they have merely meditated, and to recollect the statements of the adverse party, not necessarily with a view to refute them in the order in which they have been advanced, but to notice each of them in the most suitable place. 3. The ability of speaking extempore seems to me to depend on no other faculty of the mind than this, for while we are uttering one thought, we have to consider what we are to say next, and thus, while the mind is constantly looking forward beyond its immediate object, whatever it finds in the meantime it deposits in the keeping, as it were, of the memory, which, receiving it from the conception, transmits it, as an instrument of intercommunication, to the delivery.

4. I do not think that I need to dwell on consideration of what it is that constitutes memory. Most, however, are of opinion that certain impressions are stamped on the mind, as the signets of rings are marked on wax. But I shall not be so credulous as to believe that the memory may be rendered duller or more retentive by the condition of the body. 5. I would rather content myself with expressing my admiration of its powers as they affect the mind, so that by its influence, old ideas, revived after a long interval of forgetfulness, suddenly start up and present themselves to us, not only when we endeavor to recall them, but even of their own accord, not only when we are awake, but even when we are sunk in sleep. 6. This peculiarity is the more wonderful, as even the inferior animals that are thought to lack understanding, remember and recognize things, and however far they may be taken from their usual abodes, they still return to them again. Is it not a surprising inconsistency that what is recent should escape the memory and what is old should retain its place in it? That we should forget what happened yesterday, and yet remember the acts of our childhood? 7. That things should conceal themselves when sought and occur to us unexpectedly? That memory should not always remain with us, but sometimes return after having been lost? Yet its full power, its entire divine efficacy, would never have been known had it not exalted eloquence to its present luster. 8. For it supplies the orator with the order, not only of things, but of words, not connecting together a few only, but extending a series almost to infinity so that in very long pleadings, the patience of the hearer fails sooner than the memory of the speaker. 9. This may be an argument that art has some influence on memory and that nature is aided by method, since persons, when instructed, can do that which, when without instruction or practice, they could not do. Yet I find it said indeed by Plato that the use of letters is a detriment to memory, because, as he intimates, what we have committed to writing we cease, in some degree, to guard, and lose it through mere neglect. 10. Doubtless, attention of the mind is of great influence in this respect, like that of the sight of the eye with regard to objects, when not diverted from anything on which it has been fixed. Hence it happens, that the memory firmly embraces the whole of what we have been writing for several days, with a view to learning it by heart.

11. The first to teach an Art of Memory is said to have been Simonides, of whom a well-known story is related: That when, for a stipulated sum, he had written in honor of a pugilist who had won the crown, an ode of the kind usually composed for conquerors in the games, half of the money was refused him because, according to a practice very common with poets, he had made a digression in praise of Castor and Pollux, for which reason he was told to apply for the other half to the deities whose praises be had chosen to celebrate. 12. The deities, according to the story, paid it. During a splendid entertainment in honor of that victory, Simonides, being invited to the banquet, was called away from it by a message that two young men, mounted on horses, earnestly requested to see him. 13. When he went out, he found nobody, but he discovered, from what followed, that the deities were not ungrateful to him, for he had scarcely passed the threshold when the banquet room fell down upon the guests and crushed them so horribly that those who went to look for the bodies of the dead, in order to bury them, were unable to recognize, by any mark, not only their faces, but even their limbs. Simonides, by the aid of his memory, is said to have pointed out the bodies to their friends in the exact order in which they had sat. 14. But it is by no means agreed among authors whether this ode was written for Glaucus of Carystus or Leocrates, or Agatharcus, or Scopas, and whether the house was at Pharsalus, as Simonides himself seems somewhere to intimate and as Apollodorus, Eratosthenes, Euphorion, and Eurypylus of Larissa have stated, or at Cranon, as asserted by Apollas Callimachus, whom Cicero has followed, giving wide circulation to his account of the story. 15. It is generally believed that Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, was killed at that banquet; his sister's son is said to have perished with him, and some think that most of the family of another and older Scopas was killed at the same time. 16. However, that part of the story relating to Castor and Pollux appears to me to be utterly fabulous, as the poet himself has nowhere alluded to the occurrence, and he assuredly would not have been silent about an incident so much to his honor.

17. From what Simonides did on that occasion, it appears to have been remarked that the memory is assisted by localities impressed on the mind, and everyone seems able to attest the truth of the observation from his own experience, for when we return to places, after an absence of some time, we not only recognize them, but recollect also what we did in them. Persons whom we saw there, and sometimes even thoughts that passed within our minds, recur to our memory. Hence, in this case, as in many others, art has had its origin in experiment. 18. People fix in their minds places of the greatest possible extent, diversified by considerable variety, such as a large house, for example, divided into many apartments. Whatever is remarkable in it is carefully impressed on the mind, so that the thought may run over every part of it without hesitation or delay. Indeed, it is of the first importance to be at no loss in recurring to any part, for ideas which are meant to excite other ideas ought to be in the highest degree certain. 19. They then distinguish what they have written, or treasured in their mind, by some symbol by which they may be reminded of it, a symbol which may either have reference to the subject in general, as navigation or warfare, or to some particular word, for if they forget, they may, by a hint from a single word, find their recollection revived. It may be a symbol, however, of navigation, as an anchor, or of war, as some particular weapon. 20. These symbols they then dispose in the following manner: they place, as it were, their first thought under its symbol, in the vestibule, and the second in the hall, and then proceed round the courts, locating thoughts in due order, not only in chambers and porticoes, but on statues and other like objects. This being done, when the memory is to be tried, they begin to pass in review all these places from the commencement, demanding from each what they have confided to it, according as they are reminded by the symbol. Thus, however numerous are the particulars which they have to remember, they can, as they are connected each to each like a company of dancers hand to hand, make no mistake in joining the following to the preceding, if they only take due trouble to fix the whole in their minds. 21. What I have specified as being done with regard to a dwelling house may also be done with regard to public buildings, or a long road, or the walls of a city, or pictures, or we may even conceive imaginary places for ourselves.

However, we must have places, either fancied or selected, and images or symbols which we may invent at pleasure. These symbols are marks by which we distinguish the particulars which we have to get by heart, so that, as Cicero says, we use places as waxen tablets and symbols as letters. 22. But it will be best to cite what he adds, in his exact words: "We must fancy many plain and distinct places, at moderate distances; and such symbols as are expressive, striking, and well-marked, which may present themselves to the mind and act upon it at once." I am therefore the more surprised that Metrodorus should have made 360 places in the twelve signs through which the sun passes. This was doubtless vanity and boastfulness in a man priding himself on his memory as the result of art rather than as the gift of nature. 23.

For myself, I do not deny that this method may be of use in some cases, for instance, if the names of several things, after being heard in a certain order, are to be repeated without deviation from it, for those who would do so locate the things in the places which they have previously conceived—the table, for example, in the vestibule, the couch in the hall, and other things in the same way—and then going over the places again, they find the things where they deposited them. 24. Perhaps this method assisted those who, at the close of an auction, could specify what had been sold to each buyer, in conformity with the books of the cashiers. They say that Hortensius often gave such a proof of memory .

But this mode will be of much less efficacy for learning by heart the parts that constitute a continuous speech, for thoughts have not their peculiar images like things, the image, in this case, being a mere fiction of the imagination. Indeed the place will suggest to us either a fictitious or a real image, but how will the connection of the words of a speech be retained in mind by the aid of such a method? 25. I do not dwell on the circumstance that some things cannot be signified by any images, as for example, conjunctions. We may have, it is true, like shorthand writers, certain marks for every word and an infinite number of places, as it were, in which all the words contained in the live books of the second pleading against Verres may be arranged, so that we may remember all just as we have supposed them to be deposited. But must not the course of the orator's speech, as he pronounces the words, be impeded by the double effort necessary to the memory? 26. How can his words flow on in a continuous current if he has to refer for every word to its particular image? Let Charmadas, therefore, and Metrodorus of Scepsis, whom I mentioned a little above, both of whom Cicero asserts to have used this method, keep their art to themselves, and let me propose one of a simpler nature.

27. If a long speech is to be retained in the memory, it will be of advantage to learn it in parts, for the memory sinks under a vast burden laid on it at once. At the same time, the portions should not be extremely short, for they will then distract and harass the memory. I cannot, however, prescribe any certain length, since this must be suited, as much as possible, to the different divisions of the subject, unless a division, perchance, be of such magnitude that it requires to be subdivided. 28. But certain limits must assuredly be fixed that frequent meditation may connect the series of words in each, which is attended with great difficulty, and that a repetition of the parts in their order may unite them into a whole. As to those which are least easily remembered, it will be of advantage to associate with them certain marks, the recollection of which may refresh and excite the memory. 29. Scarcely any man has so unhappy a memory as not to remember what symbol he designed for any particular part. But if he is so unfortunately dull, that they may stimulate him will be a reason for him to adopt the remedy of marks. For in this method, it is of no small service to affix signs to those thoughts which are likely, we think, to escape us—an anchor, as I remarked above, if we have to speak of a ship; a spear, if we have to think of a battle—since signs are of great efficacy, and one idea arises from another, as when a ring shifted from one finger to another, or tied with a thread, reminds us why we shifted or tied it.

30. Those contrivances which lead the mind from some similar object to that which we have to remember have the greatest effect in fixing things in the memory. For instance, in regard to names, if Fabius is to be kept in our memory, we may think of the famous Cunctator, who will surely not escape us, or of one of our friends who is named Fabius. 31. This is still easier in respect to such names as Aper, Ursus, Naso, or Crispus, since we can fix in our minds the things to which they allude. A reference to the origin of derivative names is sometimes even a still better means of remembering them, as in those of Cicero, Verrius, Aurelius.

32. What will be of service, however, to everyone is to learn by heart from the same tablets on which he has written, for he will pursue the remembrance of what he has composed by certain traces and will look, as it were, with the eye of his mind, not only on the pages, but on almost every individual line, resembling, while he speaks, a person reading. If, moreover, any erasure, addition, or alteration has been made, they will be as so many marks, and while we attend to them, we shall not go astray. 33. This method, though not wholly unlike the system of which I spoke at first, is yet more expeditious and efficacious, if experience has taught me anything.

To learn by heart in silence (for it is a question whether we should do so or not) would be best if other thoughts did not intrude on the mind at rest, for which reason it requires stimulation by the voice, so that memory may be excited by the double duty of speaking and hearing. But the tone of voice ought to be low and rather a kind of murmur. 34. As to him who learns from another person who reads to him, he is in some degree retarded, as the sense of seeing is quicker than that of hearing, but he may, on the other hand, be in some degree benefited, as, after he has heard a passage once or twice, he may immediately begin to try his memory and attempt to rival the reader. Indeed, for other reasons, we should make it our great care to test the memory from time to time, since continuous reading passes with equal celerity over that which takes less and that which takes more hold of the mind. In testing whether we retain what we have heard, not only a greater degree of attention is applied, but no time is unoccupied or lost in repeating that which we already know, as, in this way, only the parts that have escaped us are gone over again, that they may be fixed in the memory by frequent repetition, though generally, indeed, these very parts are more securely stored in the memory than others for the very reason that they escaped it at first.

35. Learning by heart and composition have in common that good health, excellent digestion, and a mind free from other subjects of care contribute to success in both.

36. But division and arrangement are the most efficacious and almost the only means (except for exercise, which is the most powerful of all) for fixing in the memory what we have written and for retaining in it what we meditate. He who makes a judicious division of his subject will never err in the order of particulars, 37. for if we but speak as we ought, there will be certain points, as well in the treatment as in the distribution of the different questions in our speech, that will naturally be first, second, and so on, and the whole concatenation of the parts will be so manifestly coherent that nothing can be omitted or inserted in it without being at once perceived. 38. Scaevola, after losing a game of the twelve lines despite having been the first to move, went over the whole process of the game in his mind as he was travelling into the country, recalled at what move he had made a mistake, and returned to his opponent, who acknowledged that it was as he said. Shall order have less effect in a speech, where it is settled wholly at our own pleasure, than it has in a game, where it depends partly on the will of another? 39. All parts that have been well put together, too, will guide the memory by their sequence, for as we learn verse by heart more easily than prose, so we learn compact prose better than such as is ill-connected. Thus it happens that passages in a speech, which seemed to have been poured forth extempore, are heard repeated word for word, and such repetition was possible even to the moderate power of my own memory, whenever, as I was declaiming, the entrance of any persons, who merited such attention, induced me to repeat a portion of my declamation. I have no opportunity of saying what is untrue, as there are people living who were present when I did so.

40. If anyone asks me, however, what is the only and great art of memory, I shall say that it is exercise and labor. To learn much by heart, to meditate much and, if possible, daily, are the most efficacious of all methods. Nothing is so much strengthened by practice or weakened by neglect as memory. 41. Let children, therefore, as I directed, learn as much as possible by heart at the earliest possible age, and let everyone, at whatever age, that applies himself to strengthen his memory by cultivation, get resolutely over the tedium of going through what has often been written and read, and of masticating repeatedly, as it were, the same food. Our labor may be rendered easier if we begin with learning a few things first, and such as do not create disgust in us, and we may then add to our task a verse or two every day, the addition of which will cause no sensible increase to our labor, but will lead, at length, to almost inconceivable results. We may first learn pieces of poetry, then passages from orators, and at last composition of a less studied kind and more remote from the style of oratory as that of writers on law. 42. For what is intended as an exercise ought to be of a rather difficult nature, in order that that for which it is intended as an exercise may be easier, just as athletes accustom their hands to leaden weights, though they must use them empty and unarmed in actual combats.

I must not omit to mention what is found to be true by daily experience, that in minds of a somewhat slow nature, the impression of what is recent on the memory is by no means exact. 43. It is astonishing how much strength the interval of a night gives it, and a reason for the fact cannot be easily discovered, whether it is from the effort, the fatigue of which was a hindrance to itself, being suspended during the time, or whether it is that reminiscence, which is the most efficient quality of the memory, is cherished or matured. It is certain that what could not be repeated at first is readily put together on the following day, and the very time which is generally thought to cause forgetfulness is found to strengthen the memory. 44. On the other hand, the extraordinarily quick memory soon allows what it has grasped to escape it, and as if, after discharging a present duty, it owed nothing further, it resigns its charge like a dismissed steward. Nor is it indeed surprising that what has been longest impressed upon the mind should adhere to it with the greatest tenacity.

From this difference in minds a question has arisen: whether those who are going to deliver a speech should learn it by heart word for word, or whether it be sufficient to master merely the substance and order of particulars. 45. This is a point on which certainly no general decision can be given. For my own part, if my memory is sufficiently strong and time is not wanting, I should wish not a single syllable to escape me, else it would be to no purpose to write. Such exactness we should acquire in childhood, and the memory should he brought to such a condition by exercise that we may never learn to excuse its failures. To be prompted, therefore, and to refer to one's writing is pernicious, as it grants indulgence to carelessness, nor will a speaker feel that he retains with sufficient security that which he is in no fear of losing. 46. Hence, too, proceed interruptions in the course of our speech and a mode of delivery halting and irregular, while the speaker, appearing like one who has learned a lesson, destroys the whole grace of what he had written with grace by making it evident that he did write it. 47. But a good memory gains us credit even for readiness of wit, as we appear not to have brought what we utter from home, but to have conceived it on the instant, an opinion which is of great service both to the speaker and to his cause, for a judge admires more and distrusts less that which he regards as not having been preconcerted to mislead him. We should therefore consider it as one of the most excellent artifices in pleading to deliver some parts of our speech, which we have extremely well connected, as it they had not been connected at all, and to appear, at times, like persons thinking and doubting, seeking what we have in reality brought with us. 48. What it is best for a speaker to do, then, in regard to memory, cannot escape the apprehension of anyone.

But even if a person's memory is naturally dull or if time is but short, it will be useless for him to tie himself down to a series of words when to forget any one of them may occasion either disagreeable hesitation or total silence. It will be far safer for him, after treasuring up his matter in his mind, to leave himself at liberty to deliver it as he pleases, for a speaker never loses a single word that he has chosen, without regret, and cannot easily put another in its place while he is trying to recollect the very one that he had written. 49. But not even such power of substitution is any remedy for a weak memory, unless in those who have acquired some ability in speaking extempore. If both resources are wanting to a speaker, I would advise him to renounce entirely all attempts at pleading and to apply himself, if he has any talent for composition, to writing. But such unfortunate weakness of memory is very rarely seen.

50. What strength the memory may attain when assisted by nature and art is exemplified by Themistocles, who, as is generally believed, learned to speak the Persian language accurately in less than a year; or by Mithridates, who is said to have known 22 languages, one for each of the nations over which he ruled; or by Crassus the rich, who, when he was praetor of Asia, was so well acquainted with the five dialects of the Greek tongue that in which ever of them a complainant sought justice from him, he pronounced in that very dialect a decision on his case; or by Cyrus, who is supposed to have known the names of every one of his soldiers. 51. Theodectes, also, is said to have been able to repeat instantly any number of verses after having once heard them. There were said to be persons, in my time, who could do so, but I never had the fortune to witness such a performance. The belief in its possibility may well, however, be cherished, if for no other reason than that he who thinks it practicable may hope to effect it.

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