One of the more unusual relics of intellectual history is an Ancient Greek mnemonic technique called the method of loci. This archaic practice was conceived as a mental instrument for the amelioration of memory. It activated a mnemonic ability in practitioners that allowed them to store vast amounts of information in their minds and to retrieve this data almost instantaneously. The ancient thinkers who made use of this cognitive technology possessed cavernous memories which could retain any category of knowledge.
No one is certain where, or precisely from whom, this technique originated. As was often the case in such situations, lost and unknowable origins – obscured by nebulous time – were replaced with something more tangible; more often than not, legend and fable. The method of loci was no different: thus we find the mythological genesis of ars memoriae – the art of memory – in a story recounted by Cicero in his De Oratore.
At some point in the fifth century B.C., so the tale goes, Poseidon – the god of the sea, storms, and earthquakes – emitted a malevolent tremor that collapsed an assembly hall in Thessaly. The structure came down upon the heads of a party of banqueters who had gathered in honour of a nobleman named Scopas. Death was inescapable and all but one of the men met their end.
Several fortuitous moments earlier, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos had been summoned away from the feast, and the building’s impending collapse, by two timely messengers. He returned in astonishment to find the disappearance of the hall and the unrecognizable bodies of the revellers, mutilated and entombed as they were by the falling stonework. No one could tell who was who in the wreckage; chaos and confusion prevailed.
And then something extraordinary happened that would change the way we think about memory forever. Simonides, standing in front of the devastation, withdrew into his imagination and reversed time in his mind. The ruined marble pillars reassembled themselves into their cylindrical wholes and the shattered pieces of frieze levitated back into their proper place in the air above the long banquet table. Scopas and his friends came back to life in all their ill-fated revelry, laughing and talking to each other heedlessly. Simonides, somewhat miraculously, found that he could remember exactly who all the attendants were as he visualized them sitting around the table in the great hall. Resurfacing from his meditations, he was immediately able to identify each mangled corpse.
It was at this moment, according to the legend, that Simonides discovered the fundamental principles behind the art of memory. He perceptively noted that he had been able to remember who was who in the wreckage in large part because of his effortless recollection of the banqueting hall’s space (the lay-out of which he had not deliberately studied) and, more importantly, the positions of the guests within that space. This precipitated a sudden realization that the key to faultless remembrance lies in the organization of memories. One way of doing this is by placing memories, as individual entities, in an imagined architectural space – analogous to the way the Thessalonians were distributed around the great hall. This structures and stores information in a systematic way, much like a cerebral filing cabinet. Whereas unorganized memories float freely around the brain and are susceptible to being forgotten, the memory that is affixed to an appointed location will be, if maintained correctly, unforgettable.
Could Simonides not, he reckoned, use the hall and the positions around the table as depository places for a chronological lineage of Greek philosophers? Or the words to one of his poems? Or the tasks he needed to complete that day? The possibilities were endless. Just about anything that could be imagined, he reasoned, could be permanently implanted in one’s mind simply by leveraging one’s exquisite spatial memory. Everything here revolves around our inherent ability, as humans, to be keenly aware of our surroundings. An explanation for this can be found in evolutionary biology: aeons of natural selection have hardwired the human brain to be hyper-sensitive to spatiality. This was a trait of existential importance to our early ancestors: hunter-gatherers needed to be in no doubt about the location of fertile hunting grounds, where dangerous predators were likely to roam, how to return to campsites, and so on. What Simonides essentially discovered was that our heightened locational awareness can be used advantageously in memorization.
The story of Simonides and the banqueting hall, however, is in all likelihood a fabricated ruse, a parable designed to communicate hitherto unknown truths about memory. While we know that Simonides existed, we cannot be sure that he was the source of these revelations. And yet the fact remains that some ancient magus inadvertently stumbled upon a mnemonic technique whose magnitude would shape the intellectual climate of the centuries that followed. Although it seems almost apocryphal now, the method of loci, as the technique eventually became known, was a cornerstone of the Western pedagogical tradition for many years.
This Greek system was inherited, and further refined, by the Latin world. Romans like Cicero and Quintilian codified its rudiments into a set of rules – contained in instruction manuals – that guided aspiring practitioners. It was taught as part of a civilised Roman’s curriculum, falling under the rubric of a rhetorical education. Would-be orators were instructed to use the technique to help memorise speeches.
The method did not then evaporate, like so much else, with the disintegration of the Roman Empire, but instead flourished in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. After the Visigoths and Vandals had sacked Rome, the mantle of this intellectual art was passed to the scholars and monks of Christianity. They employed the technique to commit entire religious texts to memory and as a means of preserving their most important teachings in a hostile and barbarized world. It is interesting to note here that Augustine of Hippo, in The Confessions, speaks of the technique almost as a kind of mental sanctuary, or a panacea to the ills of reality: “And I come to fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images….” By the time of the Renaissance, almost a thousand years after St Augustine, the method had become organically tied, more or less as a mystical art, to the occult and esoteric Hermetic traditions.
It follows that the story of mnemonic systems such as the method of loci is a small, but important, part of Western intellectual history. It is odd that these methods are not more widely acknowledged beyond the cloistered air of academia – there is no denying that they irrevocably shaped the way the world was seen from the time of antiquity through the Middle Ages and on to the Renaissance.
And after that? They all but vanished. The leading part that memory played in intellectual life was dampened by the momentous technological advance of the printing press in fifteenth-century Germany. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gutenberg’s invention marked a new, poorer era for mnemonic systems. With readily abundant books, advanced memorization techniques became obsolete as the printed page began to perform the arduous tasks of remembrance in their place.. Why would scholars squander time memorizing something that could easily be referenced in their growing libraries?
The thinkers of the deep past were not afforded this luxury. In an ancient world where a heavy premium was placed on parchment, memory was considered an indispensable boon. The intellectual giants of their day all possessed immaculate recall – a fact that is continuously reiterated by the innumerable anecdotes on supernormal memory in our source material. In Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, for instance, we are told that King Cyrus – the founder of the Achaemenid Empire – could remember the name of every single soldier in his sprawling army. Pliny goes on to tell us that the Skeptic philosopher Charmadas could recite “the contents of any volume in libraries that anyone asked him to quote, just as if he were reading them.” Seneca the Elder reputedly had such a phenomenal memory that it allowed him to parrot back two thousand names in the order they’d just been given to him. St Augustine, in De Natura et Origine Animae, marvels at the ability of his school friend Simplicus who, we are breathlessly informed, could recite Virgil word-for-word backwards.
In classical antiquity, the method of loci was passed down from generation to generation as part of a citizen’s education in the liberal arts. It was conceived as a sort of useful cognitive technology, not to be taught for its own sake, but rather, to complement other disciplines. Our extant evidence for the method is embedded within treatises concerned with rhetoric, a subject that constitutes one third of the Trivium (along with grammar and logic). The Trivium was itself a centrepiece of classical education and the lower division of the seven liberal arts. In the Rhetorica ad Herennium – an anonymously-authored first century B.C. pamphlet and one of oldest surviving Latin texts on memory – it is made clear that memorization techniques were an integral part of the Roman orator’s intellectual armoury. They endowed him with an accurate and nimble recall which facilitated elegant, and seemingly effortless, speech. Invaluable, for example, to the time-pressed senator who had to frequently deliver addresses in front of the Senate.
The voices of these orators fell silent with the onset of the Dark Ages, by which time the art of memory was safely and secretly harboured in the ark of Christian thought. It had, at this point, been transformed from a tool of rhetoric into an instrument of pious meditation, and was conceptualized as such by medieval scholastic philosophers. Memory, in this new context, was seen as a cardinal virtue – necessary not just to regurgitate important points of doctrine, or the finer nuances of a sermon, but as a means to internalize information of a sacred nature. Only through memorizing, the logic went, could ideology truly be absorbed into one’s psyche. With this immersion, the acolyte would gain values and ideals that would strengthen their personal ethics. It is revealing that one of the universal themes in the lives of saints – apart from their impossible virtue – is their extraordinary recall. The cavernous memories of these Christians did not contain inconsequential data or ideas, but meaningful knowledge that served a spiritual function. Foundational texts like the Bible were mnemonically engraved onto a devotee’s heart and soul. This is a notion neatly summarized by the eighteenth century Dutch poet Jan Luyken: “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”
In our attention-deficient modern age, the method of loci – or the memory palace technique, as it has become more colloquially known – may seem hard to fathom. Common sense would suggest that this bygone practice has no place in the world today. Why trouble ourselves with rigorous memorization when unlimited information hums at our fingertips? Why expend energy on mastering a technique that appears to be hopelessly anachronistic? The simple answer is that we are beginning to suffer from a collective amnesia that has been brought about by the internet’s omniscience, and the resulting sea of information that floods through our daily lives. In spite of this unprecedented availability of data, we retain but meagre drops of meaningful knowledge. In short, we have forgotten how to properly remember. As T.S. Eliot, ever prophetic, observed: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Insofar as we are the culmination of our experiences, it is axiomatic to state that memory is pivotal to the human condition, our knowledge of the world, and our personal past – it permeates everything we do as people. The method of loci, as part of the intellectual inheritance of the Western tradition, reminds us that the cultivation of this most fundamental of human faculties is something never to be neglected. The ancients, those infallible guides to the human condition, remind us that mastery of one’s memory is mastery of one’s self.
Archie graduated from Oxford in 2020 with an MPhil in Oriental Studies (Sanskrit and Buddhist Philosophy).