Monday, January 20, 2014


Memory is a strange word for a strange concept. What does it mean to remember? Our English word memory is not helpful, conjuring images of a faculty of remembering, as if drawing water from a well. The clunky memorize has its connotation of firing synapses, but tells us how, not why is memory. Latin's tenere in memoria is an improvement, suggesting as it does the activity of holding in memory, as does its recordare, the holding of something in one's cor (stem cord-) or heart, living spirit. We retain something of this understanding in the phrase, "learn by heart," which alas seems to be ebbing away.

As we often do, though, we turn to the Greeks, and not just to their pair of λήθη and μνήμη, forgetfulness and memory, but to the famous discussion of memory which concludes Plato's Phaedrus. This passage is often quoted by proud memorizers who revel in recollections of their favorite poems, and while it's all well and good to wag a finger at the philistine who can't quote a line of any significance, it doesn't answer much to say tritely that reading print simply weakens the memory. It even elucidates little to say that the written word is not knowledge, as pretty as the thought may be.

Plato's insight, though, comes soon after the oft-quoted and there he idealizes not the tender of letters who sows words in the garden of letters for recollection, but the dialectician who plants words in souls, not perfected but alive, potent to propagate. This claim sounds incredible, for how can an idea differ simply by its location? This is surely some ploy to lay secret knowledge in the hands of the few. Our lack of imagination often fails philosophers, but especially Plato who might jest about our mental infecundity. Here, imagine a word in a book: it does nothing. If one asks it a question, as Plato said, it responds nothing. Yet the word in the mind partakes in our activities, observes them and changes them, even perchance changing itself. It is only passed on if by, or through, a memory.

There is something of this thinking, quite unexpectedly, in Aristotle's causality wherein man, the lover of understanding, seeks that "why" of things which is both question and answer, and in understanding fulfills his nature and the promise of worldly intelligibility. Understanding, then, is a reconciliation of self and other, and to remember Plato and Bach and Horace as much as mathematics and astronomy is as much to know oneself as to know them as to know the world. To hear the words of the mass not as spoken text but as an awakening of the words within you, an awakening of words shared, transferred through time and transfigured through the sacrifice, is the reconciliation of all things.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
–Little Gidding

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