Art of Memory

The Art of Memory and a related Shakespearean Course.

Mnemosyne, mythological personification of memory and mother of the nine musesMy interest in the Art of Memory followed, after a few years, the sparkle that led to the production of the reasoned dictionary “Your Daily Shakespeare,” (in itself a 15-year long effort).

Why this new interest? Simple. Befitting quotations are a powerful and elegant oratorical device, already known and practiced by the Greeks. But there is an obvious problem, “the time of life is short!” and memory is limited. And the limitation applies to quotations and any other concepts, ideas or words worth remembering.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the point of view), if there is a buck there is a way. In the instance, the self-help industry came in to fill the vacuum and supply the demand. Nothing wrong in principle but, as I soon discovered, peddling ‘mnemotechnics’ as a tool to learn the art of memory, equates to saying that a glass of Chateau Latour is the same as CocaCola, because both are liquid.

To make matters worse, mnemotechnics have been promoted as a means to get rich quickly. Which, besides being an obvious fib, lowers the art of memory to the level of tabloid front-page ads, “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days,” “30 days to a beautiful Bottom,” etc.

Or to the level of the televised promotions of creams that promise to restore the bloom of fifteen to ladies of fifty.

In the midst of my disappointment, I recalled that, at the high school I attended in Europe, a professor of philosophy had invented what he called “philosophic painting,” a technique that enabled him to convert abstract philosophical concepts into coherent artistic representations.

The end “product” had two distinctive objectives, the creation of art in its own right (he held a number of exhibitions of his works in Europe) – and a new method to ease the students’ understanding and absorption of philosophic reasoning, irksome to young minds, more attuned to concrete than abstract concepts.

And so it came about that I began my virtual travels into the books and the world of the “art memorandi,” as it was called by the Latins – an art discarded as a wilted flower and deemed irrelevant by the powers-that-be, who make the good and bad weather in the realm of education.

In my view, discovering the history of the “Art of Memory” corresponds to discovering the history of Rome, Greece and Egypt. With a remarkable difference. Most people know that ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt existed. But I found few, even among educators, who knew that the Art of Memory, for centuries, was a fundamental component of the syllabus, in the schools and universities of Europe.

The first symptoms leading to the disappearance of the Art of Memory, as a separate subject, came about during the times of Leibnitz (1646-1716).

There were two reasons for this. For one, in the preceding two centuries, the art of memory had become laden and burdened with metaphysical ramifications and complicated, almost alchemic speculations – transforming it into a discipline for the “chosen and the elect,” as opposed to a subject of interest and benefit to all.

Secondly, the reputation of memory, as an intellectual asset and worthy of consideration for its own merits, lost ground first with the creation of dictionaries (notably in the 1700), followed by encyclopedias, lists, timetables and classifications. All this also facilitated by the greater abundance of paper, for until then paper was a costly commodity.

Today with computers, the art of memory is considered a waste of time. Furthermore, being perceived as something “artificial,” memory and the practice of it as an art, has fallen from indifference into contempt.

Especially in the second part of the XXth century, intellectuals and educators created a contraposition between memory and culture – establishing as deleterious, detrimental and pernicious any form of mnemonic apprehension. Hence, the art of memory has become an intellectual fossil, of no use and of no interest, except to a restricted sect of academics and scholars.

One further reason is the gradual devaluing of history (and so called ‘humanistic ‘subjects) in the curriculum – as compared to ‘scientific’ subjects.

In science, the last accepted theory, the last technical innovation, automatically sweep away any previous theories or innovations, relegating them to the archives of the useless. For it would be impossible and unproductive to learn the history and evolution of every theory and every innovation.

Caught in the massive sweeping is also the Art of Memory, which, however, unlike scientific theories and technical innovations, has kept its ground for 2500 years.

Not only, but the new technology and software have made the key tools of the art incredibly simple to use. Therefore what were mind-boggling mnemonic feats, only a few decades ago, have now almost acquired the flavor of an artistic, amusing and entertaining hobby.

Nevertheless, the issue, or my idea, is NOT to re-introduce the Art of Memory as a separate subject in the school curricula, but RATHER to incorporate the Art of Memory and its principles, when applicable, into the subjects encompassed by the various courses.

The Philosophic Paintings by the philosophy professor of my Lyceum, contained in embryo, the principle of the Mnemonic Frames, which is central to the Art of Memory and to the use of quotes. But it also implied another equally important principle. Namely, that teaching a subject should include the art and methods to learn it – including those methods, extracted from the Art of Memory, which facilitate the act of reminiscence that, in the context of the art, is separate from the notion of memory.

This brings me to the Course I put together, titled “Shakespeare and the Art of Memory,” the outlines of which are given in the video connected to this page.

I have chosen Shakespeare, because of my decades-long related experience. But also because his works, as we know, have literally forged and shaped the English language. He is universally accepted as the touchstone of clear and forceful verbal expression. Therefore, memorization of his language also acts as a leaven for clearer, forceful and motivating self-expression.

The course, (10 sessions), includes the examination of 10 Shakespeare plays, from a contemporary perspective. Concurrently, the student will learn to create a personal Mnemonic Frames portfolio, based on his individual psychological bent. Mnemonic Frames which, apart from their inherent aesthetic appeal, will enable him to easily memorize, recall, and use as many quotations as he had made Mnemonic Frames for. Shakespearean quotations in this course, but the principle and acquired skill can be apply to any other poet and writer. Or, with suitable adjustments, to any case where the understanding must be accompanied by a conscious mnemonic effort to ensure that the understanding is thorough and complete.

A Latin adage from Aesop, says, “Hic Rhodus, hic salta.” In the fable, a boastful athlete brags that he once achieved a stupendous long jump while competing on the island of Rhodes. A bystander challenges him to dispense with the reports of the witnesses and simply repeat his accomplishment on the spot. (Here is Rhodes, here jump), meaning that he who claims an ability, or the value of a method, should be able to demonstrate it, not just teach it.

Therefore…. before developing the Mnemonic Frames method I remembered, with difficulty, about 20-30 Shakespearean quotes. Now I have memorized more than 500, plus about 200 from Dante’s Divine Comedy and several dozens from other miscellaneous poets and writers. And I regularly add to the collection.

Watch the 28 minute introductory video at

And email me at the following address, for questions and details.

Jimmie Moglia