The Mother of Learning

The choice to train one’s memory or not, for the ancients and medievals, was not a choice dictated by convenience: it was a matter of ethics.

Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory

The reminder of the powers of memory might be the signal contribution of the contemporary classical renewal to the world of education. For a century, educators have followed the pragmatist impulse to deride “rote memory” as unpleasant and (therefore?) unprofitable.

How different is the attitude toward memory held by people who believe in a knowable truth and a trainable intellect.

The cultivation of the memory is as ethical as is the cultivation of the ability to read or write or to speak or listen. Why? Let me list a few reasons that come to mind:

  1. The memory is a God-given human faculty. Therefore it is good. Therefore it should be cultivated.
  2. We cannot learn without remembering. While to say that “to learn is to remember” would over simplify, it is true that you cannot understand any complex issue if you cannot remember the basic information that makes up the matter of that complex issue.
  3. Memory is the result of attentiveness, and attentiveness is an act of the will. What you pay attention to, you choose to pay attention to. What you pay attention to, you remember (or at least you remember it better). Therefore, what you remember is rooted in your will.
  4. You cannot become good at anything without remembering the elements of what you want to become good at.
  5. Truth (eternal) consists of facts (particular). To perceive the truth, we must contemplate facts. We cannot contemplate what we cannot remember.
  6. Memory (Mnemonsyne) is the mother of learning (the muses).
  7. Memory is the foundation of creative work.

Dante wrote, in the Paradiso:

Much worse than uselessly he leaves the shore
(more full of error than he was before)
Who fishes for the truth but lacks the arts.

One of the essential arts of fishing for the truth is the art of remembering. Therefore, having begun a good thing by renewing the emphasis on memory, we classical educators need to continue a good thing by perfecting the arts of memory, which, by the way, was considered an essential element of rhetoric and of reading!

A work is not truly read until one has made it part of oneself.

op cit, Carruthers, p. 11

A good place to start, for those of you who want to look deeply into the matter, is Mary Carruthers The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture.


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