Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Francis Yates The Art(s) of Memory

The arts of memory in Ancient greece

The story of Simonides at the palace of Scopas. Simonides of Ceos, The "inventor" of memory systems, more likekly the first person to give explicit for to a system.

The three classical sources

Yates' book introduces us to the three sources of the ancient Greek and Latin arts of memory.
  • Ad Herrenium c. 86-82 B.C., anonymnous source for the rules for Memory systems
  • Cicero's De Oratore, 55 B.C. includes memoria as one of the five principles of Rhetoric (inventio, dispositio, memoria, elocutio, pronuntiato)
  • Quintillian's Institutio Oratorio 1st century A.D.

Classical Learning: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic

The ancient distribution requirements were as follows:

Grammar: the science of words and sentences, the proper construction of meaningful statements, alphabets, syllables, verb forms, tense, etc.

Logic: the proper form of argument using grammar. Sentences and syllogisms, precedents, consequents, predicates and statements. All the good stuff philosophers still argue about.

Rhetoric: The art (as in "technique") of using logic and grammar in public to speak to masses of people and to evoke images, to win arguments, and to cause emotion. "Persuasive speech" is what we call it now. Rhetoric had five parts

  • inventio
  • dispositio
  • elocutio
  • pronuntiato
  • memoria

Obviously, it is "memoria" that interests us here.

The Technique.

Two parts:

  • loci - places
  • imagines - images

Use an architectural space, place the images corresponding to what you must remember in particular well defined places, so that at a later date, you may wander through this space and retrieve these images at will and in any order.

Now, obviously, this means that the visual memory for buildings needs to be at least as strong as the memory for words. This is what Cicero realized: visual impressions are often the strongest.

The Rhetorica Ad Herrenium gives us the following advice.

  • a locus can be any visual space, but must be in a series, such that we can walk through it. Here's an example you should know. You can also use your own body or an imaginary place.
  • An image can be any form, mark or "simulacra". They should of course be memorable: an imagines agentes.

Rules for Loci:

  • Take care in forming the loci, as they are the most important part.
  • We will need a large number of places if we intend to remember many things.
  • Give each fifth locus a distinguishing mark, so that we don't get confused.
  • Pick a deserted uncrowded place so that it is stable.
  • Don't pick things too much like each other, such as twenty columns in a row, since that will be too confusing.
  • Not too big, not too small.
  • not too brightly or too darlkly lit.
  • not too close or too far apart.


  • There are two kinds: res and verba.
  • "Things" are objects of thought-- not always material things, but concepts as well. Whereas words are pointers to these things.
  • Memoria Rerum v. Memoria Verborum: of these the former is more important and the latter harder.
  • Two examples: remembering the case vs. remembering the poetry: The file cabinet vs. the speech. see pg. 12
Bush remembers

George Bush using his memory system











Bush's memory
	      system overloads (note blurring of images)

George Bush's memory system overloads (note blurring of images to right)

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 09:09:56 CDT 2003