“For those early writers, a trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information; it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. A trained memory was the key to cultivating “judgment, citizenship, and piety.””
Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
We help our younger children memorize math facts, Latin charts, and a timeline. We are training our brains to retain. But the fourth canon of rhetoric opens up for us more than grammar pegs, as I discovered when I decided to memorize a good chunk of an essay about Napoleon. I discovered the Method of Loci.
The Method of Loci is another tool taken from the workshop of the sagacious Greeks. It is a way to remember by filing information into our spatial memory. The name derives from Latin locus, loci (place). A student of the Method of Loci populates a mental path with images which carry messages. The phrase “in the first place” probably came from this practice.
Can you remember from your childhood the route from your house to the grocery store? Sure you can. No matter how far back it was, you have crisp memories of childhood journeys. Such a path as this you could use to remember a poem, a speech, a grocery list. Or better yet, a house you know well can become a “memory palace,” a mind-storehouse with rooms enough for countless images. Imagine yourself at the door of your current home. Walk inside. What is to your right? To your left? How much detail can you call to mind of the journey from the entryway to the dining room? With practice, anyone can plant vivid images along a route in order to capture key words or ideas.
Exactly what does this look like? That was my question when I first read about it. A description will help here. I recently explored this technique in order to memorize the essay, “Viva Cristo Rey” (Henle, Latin: Second Year, p. 269), for the afternoon session of a 3-Day Parent Practicum. I invite you to come into the inner recesses of my mind—scary thought—and allow me to share the work I did to prepare this piece about Napoleon.
“Napoleon regarded this as precisely the most striking proof of the divinity of Jesus—
namely, his power over men’s hearts.”
To begin, you need to know something about my father. He is an excellent mimic. At many a supper time he acted out his high school French professor’s dramatic entrance into class each day. He would intone, “Le professeur entre dans la salle de classe.” (The professor enters the classroom.) Then he would shade his eyes and continue, “Il regarde les étudiants.” (He sees the students.) Stop right there. I pulled that hand motion to cue me for “…regarded…” So my first image is Napoleon, standing out on the dirt road at the mouth of our driveway, shading his eyes to peer down the lane. Next to him on the road, seated at a kitchen table, is a chef who is slicing an onion. This cues me for “…precisely…” (-cise, slice—works for me!). Actually, he does three things in quick succession: he slices, he bats a bowl of pudding off the table, and he sets down a plate of the confection divinity, each piece bearing an image of Jesus. Because I know “the proof is in the pudding,” the bowl represents “…the most striking proof…” and the Jesus divinities are a natural choice for “…of the divinity of Jesus…” It’s tacky, but memorable. Last, Jesus is holding a power cord, the other end of which is wrapped around a shiny red Valentine heart. This finishes the sentence with “…—namely, his power over men’s hearts.”
“The once well-nigh all-powerful Corsican, in the solitude of his last days, called up before his imagination all the heroic figures and master minds of the world, and measured them by his own gigantic greatness.”
In my mind I walk toward my neighbor’s driveway, where stands a man-sized image of the island of Corsica, sporting powerful arms curled into the victor’s pose (“The once well-nigh all powerful Corsican…”). Next, a few steps down the driveway is a coffin and hovering over it is the sun, whose Latin name is Sol (“…in the SOLitude of his last days…”). After this, Napoleon stands holding a telephone and just beyond him is a large screen showing images of many nations (“…called up before his imagination…”). On the porch beyond lies my game of Mastermind, a Spiderman action toy planted on top, followed by a globe (“…all the heroic figures and master minds of the world…”). Snaking along the porch from the globe to a vastly rotund Napoleon is a measuring tape, which reminds me that he “…measured them by his own gigantic greatness.”
You get the idea. My images stretch the half mile from my house to the old dump at the bend in the road. A few practice runs gave me facility with it and very soon the words came glibly, freeing me to attend to delivery, the fifth canon of rhetoric. The comic nature of my images did not color my interpretation of the material. I discovered that the stronger and more ludicrous the image, the better, and whenever I stumbled in playback I adjusted the image to make it more memorable. It is a creative process of making fantastic connections and it begets creativity—a bonus!
Those who are familiar with the Lost Tools of Writing program know the first three of the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, and style. Memory and delivery comprise the fourth and fifth. The Method of Loci falls under memory. This canon covers not only technique for memorization, but also involves laying down a vast store of memorized poetry and literature. Out of these, the speaker draws apt proofs and illustrations to strengthen his argument. Remember Paul on Mars Hill? He did this very thing when he quoted a Greek poet (Acts 17:28). And because we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, when we internalize the great ideas of great thinkers, greatness of character comes from it. Is there a place for the Method of Loci in your life?
The Classical Conversations bookstore carries the book How to Develop a Brilliant Memory. Ruth looks forward to working through it, as soon as she can remember where she put it.