Remembering how to remember

A 2nd-century AD papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus containing Plato’s Phaedrus, discussed below.

Information is useless if it can’t be stored. It’s even more useless if it can’t be retrieved. Without memory and memorialisation, we’d live in a perpetual present – and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be great. So I’m thankful for memory, but even as I express my gratitude, I acknowledge our debt to memory, for even this sentence wouldn’t be possible without having first held the antecedent statement up in my memory before drawing a consequent from it.

Like all other vital individual and cultural assets, memory became a topic of reflection almost as early as we can remember, which in cultural terms means as early as the earliest written records, themselves facilitators of human memory. The Homeric epics are witnesses of the human struggle against forgetfulness and the fleetingness of the past, the furious desire to remember, to create a memorybank for the deeds of yesteryear. The Iliad’s almost anxiogenic catalogue of the ships, the fervid repetition of epithets and expressions demonstrate the poet(s)’s struggle against time and appetite for immortality. Or at least immortalisation.

Fast-forward to Plato. From the safety of a consolidated written culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the relentless philosophus could afford to push back against the externalisation of human memory, its outsourcing in writing. With words on loan from Socrates, he reported the Egyptian myth of the invention of writing, underlining the threat writing posed to human memory:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Plato, Phaedrus 275a-b

Socrates’ anxiety around the effects of writing as memory-making didn’t end with Plato. The ancient and medieval world confessed to the precarity of writing and the importance of committing everything to memory. It wasn’t so much the threat writing posed to human flourishing, but how human and artificial memory could best work together to produce the best results and push knowledge and wisdom forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: