Culture, Meaning, and The Metaphysics of Ancient Memory

Ancient peoples regarded memory as divine or supernatural.  Memory is thoroughly bound up in Antiquity with the Cult of the Dead, whose constituency cries out for commemoration.  In ten-thousand-year-old Çatal Hüyük in Central Anatolia the dwellers lived in apartments built over the sepulchers of their ancestors.  The past – in the form of the dead – was physically ever-present to those living people.  At mealtimes, the dead ate around the hearth with the living, receiving blandishments of food and drink, as the documented custom elsewhere permits one to infer.  


For the archaic Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC), memory was not personal, but self-evidently transcendent and godlike.  The Muses, who taught Hesiod about the generations and order of the gods, were the daughters of a personified Mnemosyne (“Memory”), their mother, and the chief Olympian deity Zeus, their father.  In the Invocation of the Theogony, Hesiod, whose name translates as “the poet,” writes, “From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.”

Hesiod’s image suggests that memory concerns itself primarily, if not exclusively, with what is beautiful; that memory associates itself with purification (bathing in the spring); and with the movement of stately performance, namely the dance.  Hesiod links the Muses to expression – or articulation – in another way: “They arise,” Hesiod tells his audience, “and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis-holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals.”  The sentence continues through several clauses, naming many of the “deathless ones.”  The singing of the Muses connotes the kinship of religious veneration with remembrance.  Singing is remembrance; it rescues from posterity and immortalizes what it sings.  The song that Zeus’ dancing daughters memorialize in their choral aria beautifies and humanizes its object of address.  As F. M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray, Walter Burkert, and other classicists have remarked, the prehistoric Greeks appear often to have worshipped their deities in banal non-anthropomorphic guises, as a tree-trunk, a stone block, or an animal.  Hesiod’s anthropomorphism promotes the remembrance of the gods in their specific guises and offices by rendering them like us, and as such readily recognizable, as it were.

Hesiod’s name serves, as previously noted, less for a personal moniker than for a professional designation. The initial he derives from the definite article hos and the following diphthong- consonant combination from aiodos, a “singer of songs.”  English has borrowed its ode, meaning a poem of high seriousness, from the same root that gives rise to aiodos.  For the archaic Greeks, the issue of memory loomed so importantly that its function fell to professionals, who trained to channel the ethereal incantation of the divine daughters by translating it into an audible vulgate.  The poet’s obligation, as Hesiod says, consists in reminding men, who tend to forgetfulness, of the Justice of Zeus and the Order of the Cosmos or Being.  The Muses “sing the laws of all and the goodly way of the immortals.”  An essential image of that “goodly way” is how Zeus, after defeating the Titans, “distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges.”  Remembrance of that beautiful gesture lifts up the dejected: “For though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all.”

Hesiod’s two major poems, Theogony and Works and Days, are among the four earliest extant texts of Greece’s alphabetic revolution, but although they found their way to the status of written documents they have their roots in an oral tradition going back to the Bronze Age.  In the contemporary world, as the printed page gives way to the electronic screen with its possibility of calling up information at will, modern people forget the fragility of knowledge.  Before the invention of writing the only way to codify and transmit experience-based knowledge beyond the limits of the individual person or the single living generation – that is to say, to immortalize it – was by the rigorous exercise of memory.  The professional rememberer, the poet or bard, is perhaps in this way the earliest of specialists.  Elements of an oral tradition are easy to spot in Hesiod’s formulas.  The place is not merely the mount of Helicon; it is “the great and holy mount of Helicon.”  It is not merely, Hera of Argos; it is “Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals.”  It is not merely Permessus; it is “the deep blue spring” where the daughters of Mnemosyne have “washed their tender bodies.”

As the great scholar of orality and literacy Walter J. Ong Jr. has pointed out, an oral mnemonics depends on picturesque qualification and fixed epithet so as to establish the ground against which the figure might most starkly appear.  The image must sufficiently dominate consciousness that it remains lodged there, obtrusive and recallable, its ground pointing always to its figure.  Memorable knowledge in a purely oral context is thus never prosaic; prose is the invention of a people already alphabetically literate for a number of generations for whom memory has to a degree become external and objective.  Memory turns out to be one of the elements of reality which undergoes what Voegelin calls symbolization.  Mnemosyne and her daughters, the Muses, stand externally, as images, for the internal faculty; their stately roundelay in air connotes the intuition of pre-literate people that memory transcends mortality, endowing its benefit on mere forgetful human beings as though it was a gracious divinity.  A slight paradox supervenes.  These marks of a pre-literate notion of memory occur in a literary text, where they are already subject to the psychic alterations effectuated by writing and especially by the alphabetic writing invented by the Greeks.  However, the movement of Hellas from mythic symbols to philosophic symbols, from oral culture to literate culture, never disestablishes memory from its heavenly ensconcement; rather, it refines the concept while affirming its superhuman, quasi-divine status.

For Heraclitus (Late Sixth to Early Fifth Centuries BC), consciousness and memory refuse dissociation.  Unconsciousness for Heraclitus resembles sleep and the unconscious person a sleepwalker who enjoys no continuity of awareness but whose life is so many separate moments never coalescing into a genuine now emerging from the past and opening itself to the future.  A conscious person by contrast is one who has come into communion with the Logos, that guiding intelligence or “wisdom” of the cosmos that both does and does not want to be called by the name of Zeus.  I repeat a passage verbatim from my previous essay, “The Structure of Reality is the Structure of Revelation”: In Voegelin’s view, Heraclitus’ subordination of cosmology to ontology adds up to a towering achievement.  Heraclitus, writes Voegelin, “speaks of the Logos, meaning his discourse; but this Logos is at the same time a sense or meaning, existing from eternity, whether proclaimed by the… literary Logos or not.”  The Logos is fully transcendent, not of, but beyond the physical cosmos and in some way a cause of it.  Being a cause, even the  cause, and being eternal, the Logos can claim antecedence over the cosmos such that communion with it resembles both the commemoration, due to the gods, and memory, as the facility of recall, which overcomes the oblivion of time and throws into obviousness the principle of causality.

Like memory the Logos exercises the power of unifying mere longitudinal iteration into a meaningful synchronic pattern, in which endeavor, once again, memory works miraculously against time.  The Logos might be said to organize forwards; whereas it is the office of memory to recognize such organization backwards.  Certainly this Heraclitean power of memory finds its type in Hesiod’s idea that articulation in “golden words” immortalizes a topic.  “Gods and men honour those who are slain in battle,” Heraclitus asserts (Burnet, Fragment 24).  The assertion is a definition: First, only a creature that remembers – one who possesses self-consciousness – qualifies as human; second, the mnemonic capacity is that human trait in which the self-conscious being most nearly approaches the divine.  It is by memory indeed, for Heraclitus, through communion with the Logos, that the intellect makes sense of the flux of existence.  The river into which one steps might flow on so that it is impossible for the intrepid foot to test the same water twice; but by close observation the flux resolves itself into long-term patterns which, as it were, excuse themselves from the rule of fluctuation – hence what one calls a river.  How otherwise might anything be known?

The Logos-Philosophy of Heraclitus foreshadows the Platonic metaphysics of the Socratic Dialogues.  In Plato’s representation of Socrates, the philosopher’s essential intellectual achievement is anamnesis, usually translated as “unforgetting.”  The Platonic passage, from forgetting to remembering, parallels and recalls the Heraclitean passage from sleeping to waking.  In the Platonic imagery that stands for memory, moreover, there are reminiscences not only of the Heraclitean Logos but also of Hesiodic Ballet of the Muses.  Plato, in composing his text, actively remembers these things.  Memory provides one of the explicit topics in the Phaedrus, named after Socrates’ youthful interlocutor on the occasion.  A human being, Socrates tells Phaedrus, consists in one part of a mortal body and in another of an immortal soul.  Before its incarnation, the soul dwelt in the celestial realm with the gods, where it enjoyed the privilege to gaze upon “the heaven which is above the heavens… the place of true knowledge.”  Having beheld “justice, temperance, and knowledge absolute,” the soul descends from heaven to enter the dull cycle of earthly existence.  When, in that existence, the soul confronts the mortal reflections of the super-celestial hence immortal forms, “a shudder runs through him,” in which, banishing his dullness, “recollection of those things [that he] saw when in company with God” suddenly befalls him.

In the last three decades, the Phaedrus has attracted much obfuscatory commentary for a passage near the end that makes way for the closure of the dialogue – the discourse on the inimical relation of writing to memory.  According to the Socratic parable, the god Theuth (Hermes) offers his invention of writing to the Egyptian king Thamus, claiming that it will make Egyptians wiser than they currently are.  Thamus demurs, telling Theuth that script, far from honing mental acumen, will blunt thinking.  The new technique, Thamus, says, “Will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls.”  Supposing that writing might have appeared to a high oral culture as mute and lifeless, and therefore also as a danger to the inspired art of public remembering, the remark is understandable.  Nevertheless, Plato, the celebrant of unforgetting, wrote.  Living in a society that had been producing manuscripts already for two or three centuries and having in all likelihood consulted old, carefully conserved papyri, Plato himself must have understood that manuscript creates a new type of memory: The textual archive.  A remark in the Timaeus connecting the civilized continuum with the institution of literacy bears out this speculation.  It remains true, however, as Western Civilization’s imbroglio with cinema, radio, television, and the Internet attests, that techne often stands in considerable tension with the intact psyche and is often corrosive of it.  The rise of these so-called media correlates with the increasing severity of a general cultural and historical amnesia.

Some mention must be made of the Symposium, the famous dialogue about Eros or Love.  Plato casts the entire compositon as an exercise in active recollection, making memory the structural theme.  In the dialogue’s opening, an unnamed friend accosts Apollodorus, inquiring about the much-bruited occasion when Socrates and the others gave speeches about Love at Agathon’s house.  The friend believes that the festivity occurred quite recently, but Apollodorus must correct him, saying that it occurred long ago.  The drinking party actually took place in Apollodorus’ boyhood hence he did not attend; but Apollodorus happens to have learned about it from Phoenix, who heard about it from Aristodemus, who was present, a guest of Socrates, on that exalted day.  Apollodorus has checked with Socrates concerning the details, which enables him to rehearse the story in full confidence for the unnamed friend.  During the course of the recollected speeches, Socrates (Apollodorus reporting) remembers for his fellow symposiasts his youthful exchange with his teacher, Diotima of Mantinea, which he duly recounts for them.  The Symposium thus has the Russian-doll structure of a remembered dialogue within a remembered dialogue.  Moreover, Plato introduces the figures of the Philosopher’s Ladder and the Absolute Beauty – the latter the fore-figure, so to speak, of the Republic’s Ideas – only during the deepest descent into memory (Diotima’s Lesson).  By this gesture, the descent into memory becomes the ascent towards transcendence.

The massively literate Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) lived almost three quarters of a millennium after Plato, in the writing-intensive intellectual milieu of Late Antiquity under the Roman Empire.  In the Confessions, the autobiographer links the philosophical illumination that on his testimony prepared the way for his spiritual conversion to his reading in the Neo-Platonic literature.  In Book VII addressing God Augustine writes, “Thou didst procure for me… certain books of the Platonists, translated from the Greek into Latin” in which he discovered the Primacy of “The Word.”  The Platonic treatises provoked Augustine, as he describes the event, “to return into myself,” whereupon, in his narration, “with the eye of my soul… [I] saw above my mind the Immutable Light” which is identical with God’s verbal self-emblem “I am that I am.”  Augustine’s psychic itinerary replicates the pattern in the Symposium, where the way below turns out to be the way above.  May one not also see in “the Immutable Light” a distant refinement of Hesiod’s bardic revelation on the Mount of Helicon, where the Muses footed airily their floating sarabande?  Again if the Augustinian Verbum were the same as the Heraclitean Logos, might one not see in the recorded event the classic anamnesis of an impersonal First Cause?  Religion absolutely requires recollection.  There is no way to worship Zeus or to worship God or His incarnation as Christ without remembering Him.  And so it is with every institution – the upholder must regularly remember something – because culture is inveterate collective rememoration.

The reigning modernity, for all its promotion of so-called culture, has largely forgotten how mightily the faculty of memory stood out in the regard of the ancients and the medievals and how importantly it figured as an institution in the societies of those past centuries.  Modernity fails to remember memory.  For the ancients and the medievals the Order of Memory thoroughly informed the Order of Being.  The Confessions offer a developed theory of memory, to which Augustine devotes the entirety of his longish Book X.  For Augustine, memory resembles a museum or library of innumerable ramifying vaults and corridors.  “I enter,” Augustine writes, “the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses.”  According to Augustine, memory not only records sensory impression, but it also preserves “what we cogitate.”  Augustine deploys his verb carefully: Thinking requires the co-agitation of one thing with another; thinking is possible only because the memory curates the fleeting phenomena of sense-experience gathered along the axis of time making it possible for the thinker to set them synchronically side by side for consideration.  There is no thought without memory.

“Great is the power of memory, exceedingly great,” Augustine writes; it is “a large and boundless inner hall.”  Memory can internalize and taxonomize the image of the world with all its parts: “The heights of mountains and the huge waves of the sea, the vastness of the ocean, the sea, the broad flow of rivers, the orbits of the stars.”  In addition, memory can contain “all [which] one has learned of the liberal sciences,” by which assimilation it reabsorbs the externalized memory inherent in the text, which Plato’s Thamus believed would etiolate memory.  In Augustine’s metaphor, “images… are gathered [by memory] with a marvelous quickness and stored… in the most wonderful filing system, and are thence produced in a marvelous way by the act of remembering.”  One can remember remembering something.  One can even remember forgetting something.  No wonder then that Augustine sees in things remembered then forgotten and then re-remembered an intimation of the soul’s redemption in the next world.  The great trial of self-examination leading to repentance and atonement that the saintly autobiography witnesses, requires memory.  Indeed, it is a manual of the memorious art, of the recovery of the subject’s past through the rigorous concentration of mental resource.  For Augustine, the quest for God begins in memory only to transcend it: The way back is the way forward and upward.

What again of modernity?  Given modernity’s zeal to cut all ties with religion – however imperfectly this program might be carried out by its executives, as when modernists ally themselves with Muslims – it is self-consistent and therefore unsurprising that modernity has made and continues to make war on memory.  Religion, as the argument has offered, is the primary institution by which culture has extended itself temporally through the recall of essential events and knowledge.  Suppression of the rituals implies suppression of memorious continuity.  George Orwell’s “memory hole” is thus an indispensible topos in the discussion of the modern liberal regime – not to mention Islam.  A separate moral inquiry could be written on the notions of the “new edition,” the supposed necessity thereof, and of alleged out-of-date judgments obviated only a minute ago in the inexorable progress of the centuries toward enlightenment.  These notions parallel the Islamist gesture of “abrogation.”  The textual archive, and in particular the printed textual archive with its numberless copies, turns out to be inimical, not to memory, but to the zealots of utopia who regard knowledge of the past as an obstacle to the realization of the radiant future.  Zealots prefer the blank slate and organize education to propagate it as widely as possible.  Zealots describe people with active memories, personal and collective, as clingers and regularly pillory them in the daily newspaper columns and the nightly talking-head spectacles.

Of course if what memory remembered most essentially was the Order of Being gleaned from the millennia of collective experience, and if the drive to utopia were essentially a rebellion against the Order of Being, the animosity would have an obvious motivation – as in fact it does.  Archaic Greek civilization had professional rememberers.  The liberal-modern state has professional obliviators, many of whom it calls teachers.  

Fifty years ago and more, Richard M. Weaver remarked in Visions of order (1964) that in a world that styles itself “progressive,” the tendency is “to forget and live in the future,” or at least to claim to do so.  According to Weaver, “People evince in their very manner a pride in letting go of what has happened and jumping at anything new.”  He adds that “amnesia as a goal is a social emergent of unique significance.”  In a footnote Weaver cites Henry James Sr. on Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the father of the novelist accused of having, in his philosophy, reduced life to a meaningless current of perception gathering in its plotless course neither the eloquence of its own continuity nor the conscience that only appears through the introspection that is also retrospection.  Emerson prefigured the pervasive “presentism” of modernity.  Weaver defines “presentism” as “the belief that only existence in the present can give significance to a thing,” whereas in fact as a little cogitation will suggest, “the present actually has nothing to add to the verity of an idea.”  Even more poignantly, Weaver sees modern contra-memoriousness as stemming from “the specific resentment [that] arises from the fact that conscience and memory play the role of disciplinary officer” in the constitution of the mature person. Modern indignation will not have it!

To invoke a culture without memory is to ignore a patent contradiction in the terms.  A culture that jettisons – or attempts to jettison – its knowledge of itself, as an entity that has assumed a proper character over time, constituting itself on the basis of a history to be remembered, is not by definition a culture at all.  It is simply the stream, hardly even of consciousness, but rather of fluctuating sensory impression and vaporous fleeting experience, which cannot become collective and never adds up to anything, such as a cultus.  Such a condition, which despite the incompatibility of the terms is justly if not intentionally summed up in the insipid phrase “youth culture,” will be regression back to the primitive condition, as celebrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau under the childish but widely current image of the “Noble Savage.”  In the Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind  (1754), Rousseau, in laying the groundwork for his case against civilization, wrote: “If [nature] destined man to be healthy, I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal.”  But reflection, as the argument has indicated, is inseparable from memory, which alone supplies it with its material.  Rousseau claims that if men must choose reflection – that is, memory along with all those mental activities which memory informs – or equality, then they should reject reflection, and with it memory, because reflection stands in the way of equality, under the reign of which uniquely men have been and will again be happy.

It will be the equality of mindlessness, like that of the Eloi in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, whose bland gayety is precisely and disastrously that of unreflective “youth.”  It is forgetting, not remembering or reflecting, that is “depraved.”

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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