The Fall As a Failure of Memory

Posted 5/26/2016

For the mind, stupefied by bodily sensations and enticed out of itself by sensuous forms, has forgotten what it was, and, because it does not remember that it was anything different, believes that it is nothing except what is seen. –Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalion, I. i

The first several chapters of Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion, while not themselves dealing directly with the art of memory, present the medieval process of education and thought with equisite clarity. This process is at the heart of how a mnemonic method – the method of recollection through imaginative figures and loci – could be for the medieval student not only a technique for remembering ideas, but also a means of shaping the very ideas he remembers. Hugh begins his first chapter by presenting what he–standing in the Augustinian tradition–saw as the principle problem of philosophy. Philosophy, as he says later on (I. iv), can be defined as the “discipline which investigates comprehensively (plene) the ideas of all things, human and divine (omnium rerum humanarum atque divinarum rationes).” Or more simply put, as he says at the beginning, the “love and pursuit of Wisdom.” What is the point of this pursuit? “Wisdom illuminates man so that he may recognize himself (seipsum agnoscat),” he says (I. i). Echoing Plato, Hugh says that the task of philosophy–indeed, of theology, as we notice Hugh’s identification of wisdom (sapientia) with the second person of the Trinity–is one of recollection. When man fell into sin, he forgot his origin, his supernatural identity, a part of his ratio. On the other hand, the proper recollection of man’s identity is at the heart of the remedy for man’s defect. But in his process of recollection, far from presenting a simple means of remembering or learning, Hugh brings together the physical and metaphysical. The universe is made up, Hugh says quoting the Timaeus, by the mixture of the “same” and the “diverse” (itemque eadem et diversa). The human mind is a microcosm of the universe in that it is fitted together out of “every substance and nature” (ex omni substantia atque natura). What does it mean for an idea to be contained in the mind? Or, what is essentially the same, to remember an idea? The soul consists of “all natures,” not, of course, physically (secundem compositionem), but analogously, or according to the ideas and patterns reflected in the physical forms (secundem compositionis rationem). The mind is imprinted with the “likenesses” of all things (rerum omnium similitudine), and by such likenesses contains the very things themselves, potentially (potentialiter). The similarity with the figures and imagines of the ars memoriae is instantly obvious. This ability to contain the forms of things, and to organize and reason about such recollection, is what makes man unique. Hugh says that animals can retain images of sense-perceived forms, but in a “confused and unclear manner” (I. iii) and unlike man, “having once forgotten them, they are unable to recollect or re-evoke them.” Man can also remember the forms of things, likenesses of sense-perceived things impressed into the mind, but unlike the animals man can “not only take in sense impressions which are perfect and well founded, but by a complete act of the understanding (plenu actu intelligentiae), explain and confirm what imagination has only suggested.” For Hugh, then, sin is a failure of memory, a failure to remember the way the world really is, who humans really are in their nature. Recollection has a theological purpose, for in remembering we do not merely recall facts into our head for further thought, but we experience the real, living, forms of things which we have impressed into our minds. It is not hard to see what biblical admonishments to tie scriptures “about your neck,” and “bind them continually upon thine heart” would mean in such a context. To recollect, to experience “all natures and substances” which are contained in the human soul, is a part of prayer and worship, and vice versa. With this understanding, we can see what the “pursuit of wisdom” meant for Hugh. The pursuit of wisdom, the process of recollection, is the means by which man is restored. “We are restored through instruction (reparamur autem per doctrinam), so that we may recognize our nature and learn not to seek outside ourselves what we can find within.” In the highest theological sense, if man is made in the image of God, then in the recollection of man’s true nature we meet in some sense a part of God’s nature, in the same manner that the soul contains “all natures” secundem compositionis rationem. “The highest curative in life,” Hugh says at the end of his first chapter, “is the pursuit of wisdom (studium sapientiae): he who finds it is happy, and he who possesses it, blessed.”