Tag Archives: Boethius

Memory and Writing

Memory, Cell Phones, and the Invention of Writing

There’s an old story about memory that’s valid in today’s age of cell phones and other devices that make the memory superfluous. At least superfluous until the device breaks down. I remember the story, but not where it’s from. Maybe Plato? That would suit him since memory plays a large role in his philosophy, which he claims is hard wired into the brain: one simply has to remember how it works. It would be easy enough to look up where it’s from, but that would be cheating! It goes something like this: in the old day before there was writing, people simply remembered things. It was an oral tradition. Travelling rhapsodes could remember the whole of the Iliad and recite from memory. In case you’re wondering how impressive that is, well, it’s LONG as the Iliad itself is long. Hence the popular expressions ‘an Iliad of trouble’ means a LOT of trouble. Maybe its one of those popular expressions that no one knows… At any rate, people in general had very good memories. Even dates involved remembering who won the Olympiad, since they didn’t say ‘in 450 BC’ but rather ‘in the second year after so and so won the Olympiad’.

But anyway, one day Thoth invented writing. He was showing off his new invention to Ptah or one of the other gods claiming that writing is the best thing since they invented sliced bread. ‘Look, you can write it all down now!’, he would say. Ptah replies, ‘What will happen to people’s memory?’, and walks away, unimpressed. I could just imagine his reaction to the iPhone.

Memory and Writing

It occurred to me while working on Paying Melpomene’s Price today how crucial memory is. I’m currently working on the section juxtaposing tragedy with history. One of the tasks is to note how tragedy downplays the importance of history and vice-versa. Well, in one of Goethe’s tragedies one character attacks another by telling him ‘he should be a historian’. But I was having a hard time finding a history writer who belittled tragedy or tragedians. The best was Tacitus’ A Dialogue on Oratory where the orator Maternus gives up the bar to to become a tragedian. His fellow orators question the use of tragedy, glorifying the importance of the lawyer life in the public eye. The example wasn’t a good fit to my thesis. But since I couldn’t remember anything else, I stretched it into the Procrustean bed of the argument. It wasn’t pretty. First of all, although Tacitus is a historian, he’s really talking about tragedy versus oratory, not tragedy versus history. And it’s almost as though he takes Maternus’ side in the debate. Aper, the fellow he argues against, is a bit of an unlikable hothead. Anyway, I argued that although it was oratory versus tragedy, orator stood in for history since it was active in a sense. After all, a lot of histories are just one speech after another speech, or, in other words, oratory. It wasn’t a pretty argument.

But hey, in another post I argued that when a writer gets stuck, the best thing to do is to keep going: you’ll find a solution down the road. It turns out this time the advice works. So today I was reviewing Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire and what do you know: there’s a passage that begins, ‘the task of the historian is the exact opposite as that of a tragedian’. Bingo! So I excised the paragraph on A Dialogue on Oratory from the text and inserted Polybius. But the funny thing is that in my edition of Polybius, many years ago I had marked up that section! Not only had I marked in up, I had written little notes in the margins. Well, I had completely forgot! If I had remembered, it would have saved a considerable amount of time. And that’s what got me thinking on how important memory is to writers. I mean I could make a rolodex or some kind of spreadsheet of where everything is, but it’s hard to know ten years in advance what sort of information you’ll need in the future! Can you plan ten years in advance? So memory remains important: you can carry it around until its required.

Writers Who are Masterminds at Memory

Boethius is the first name that comes to mind. In the 6th century, the Emperor Theodoric threw the philosopher in jail on possibly trumped up charges of treason. Without his books, Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy to comfort himself. In the book, Lady Philosophy visits Boethius in jail, and helps him find consolation by recalling the philosophical precepts which he had forgotten (since he had been gallivanting around town with the poetical Muses, of course).

In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius quotes Plato (he’s a neo-Platonist), Homer, Herodotus, Cicero, etc., And not just little quotes: there’s some substantial block quotes thrown in there. That’s just the sort of memory a writer needs.

I used to think writing was an art. Something based on inspiration. Still do. But it sure helps to have a good memory. If you can’t remember, you can’t be inspired. But if you happen to remember at the right time, the world’s your oyster. That’s probably why so many writers recommend walks. Walks stimulate the memory into remembering old patterns. Nietzsche said that ‘any thought not originating from a healthy walk is not worth a dime’ (or something like that). Nietzsche liked the ‘superman’ type of walk: there was a certain mountain he would go up and down each day. That’s sort of surprising given his poor health. Goethe was also a big walker. So was Beethoven, who loved his woodland hikes. Think of the famous bird call played on a flute in the Pastoral Symphony. Showers work in the same way. Elon Musk of Tesla Motor and Space X fame has spoken of the virtues of the tub.

Memory Techniques (or Mnemonic Techniques)

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Poetry used to be a good way to work out the memory. The mind must be sort of like a muscle (though it’s not). But like a muscle in that if you work it out it pumps it up. And, considering the mind is the most complicated thing in the universe, it seems a shame not to use it to the maximum. I’ve been thinking of committing parts of the Iliad to memory. Once, on an exchange trip to Germany, there were all of us young kids and one retired doctor. I can’t even remember his name but I can see his face. When I told him I studied Classics, he started reciting the beginning of the Iliad. In Greek. When he was a lad in grade school, they still taught Greek and encouraged students to memorize large portions of the texts. Memory might have even been its own subject back then. But much more than it is now. He could still remember the lines. And he spoke it with such feeling that it was amazing to hear.

Another mnemonic technique is ‘the house’. I learned this one from Professor Charles Fornara. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to encounter genius. In my life there’s maybe two people whom I have met that might have fit that word. He was the first one. Anyway, in class one day he told us the ancient technique. If you have something to remember, make a house in your head. It helps if you’re familiar with the house. Start somewhere: a hallway or a room. Say you start with a hallway. Next time you have something to remember, stick it somewhere in the room: on the wall, behind the painting, under the matt. You pick. And each time you have something else to remember, put it somewhere else. Do it until the room is full. Then move on to the next room. Keep going.

The technique is interesting since it seems to be in accord with how the mind works. It’s almost like a computer files, which are set up along the same lines. You might not remember what’s in a spreadsheet, but you can remember the path of folders and subfolders to get there. Professor Fornara did this technique for years, but eventually abandoned it after it got too big: the housekeeping was enormous and it was ‘getting up to be the size of the universe’, as he said. I tried it too. For a few months. It works. They cool thing after a few months is that you can start wandering through the house, finding things as you go. Yes, sometimes you have to do some light dusting to refresh the memory about what is where. Try it out and let me know! It might make you a better writer!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work in the muggy summer heat.

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Boethius Cover Art Controversy

As far as Penguin covers go, the reproduction from the cover illustration of a thirteenth-century edition of Boethius’ Consolation in the Philosophical Library of New York has to be one of the most confusing:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

This is from the groovy 1969 edition translated by Watts. Okay, I can see Lady Philosophy. But what.s up with Boethius? I can see his hands, he.s holding in the left hand a manuscript and a quill in the right, but something weird is going on with his head. They.ve done something to give the image a sense of depth, but it obscures all the details. Trying to read the letters is impossible. Maybe you need 3D glasses to make things out? In a later 1986 reprint, someone made the right call:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Ah!–so Boethius has his head at a weird angle! I wonder if these old school illustrations with the words written in banners is a precursor to comic book art. And it.s nice to see someone has sewn back together Lady Philosophy.s dress: in the Consolation it had been torn to tatters from all the different philosophical schools each tearing off a square of the ‘true’ philosophy.

Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Tragedy

So I.ve started reading philosophical works since I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. In the rest of the book, tragedy.s been defined by what it is: structure, audience reception, typology, and so on. In the last chapter I want to do something different. I want to define tragedy by what it is not. It is not history. It is not comedy. And it is not philosophy. One thing I.ve noticed reading all these genres is that they are not very fond of one another. Take Boethius’ Consolation. It starts off with Boethius communing with the Muses of tragedy. He is sad because he has been imprisoned on trumped up charges. They are lamenting together. In comes Lady Philosophy. She calls the tragic Muses harlots (yes, she uses those terms: scaenicae meretriculae!) and tells them to scram. She then proceeds to comfort Boethius with the ‘proper’ consolation of philosophy. But if you look in a work of tragedy, philosophy doesn.t come out looking so well: for example Faust calls philosophy ‘odious and obscure’. The ancient quarrel between the genres of philosophy, tragedy, history, and comedy suggest that tragedy can be defined by the generic boundaries that separated each of these disciplines. In the case of Boethius, how Boethius understood philosophy was that it was based on logic and reason. Defined negatively, the logic and reason of philosophy is not the lamenting of tragedy. So that is what I mean by defining something by what it is not. More on this in a later post as I gather up my thoughts.

Etymology of Tragedy (translating Boethius)

But for now, an interesting thing has come up while reading Boethius. Here.s Watts translation of a passage:

But even if you do not know the stories of the foreign philosophers, how Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, how Socrates was put to death by poisoning, and how Zeno was tortured, you do know of Romans like Canius, Seneca and Soranus, whose memory is still fresh and celebrated. The sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teaching had instilled in them.

I was interested to see where the word tragic came from. Here.s the Latin:

quodsi nec Anaxagorae fugam nec Socratis uenenum nec Zenonis tormenta, quoniam sunt peregrina, nouisti, at Canios, at Senecas, at Soranos, quorum nec peruetusta nec incelebris memoria est, scire potuisti. quos nihil aliud in cladem detraxit nisi quod nostris moribus instituti studiis improborum dissimillimi uidebantur.

Interesting! Although Latin has the word for words for tragedy (tragoedia, tragicus, and tragoedus) the term Boethius uses is clades which Watts translates into tragedy.

Strange. So I looked up other things in the ancient world that could be understood to be tragedies in the lay sense of the term. The Fire of Rome (the one Nero reputedly started which raged uncontrolled for a week). Or Hannibal.s victories at Lake Trasimene or Cannae (which gave him control of pretty much the whole of Italy). Suetonius and Livy refer to these events as clades as well. They are not tragicus or ‘like a tragoedia’.


Both the Latin and the English terms go back to ancient Greek of course. So there.s where I turned next. What things would we consider to be ‘tragic’ to them? Perhaps the Sicilian Expedition (which put a permanent end to Athens’ hegemony) or The Battle of Salamis (from a Persian standpoint). Again, Aeschylus and Plutarch do not call these events tragoidia but rather sumphora.

So it would appear that the modern sense of the word ‘tragedy’ as in ‘the AIDS tragedy’ or ‘the Challenger tragedy’ or ‘the Chernobyl tragedy’ is completely modern. The ancients had a term for ‘tragedy’ but it could only refer to the art form of tragedy, never to tragedy in terms of a disaster or heartbreaking loss.

Did you know that?–well now you do!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and these are the things that fascinate me on my journey of Doing Melpomene’s Work.