The canon of memory must include more than simple memorization, and it ought to serve the purpose of helping the student develop and truly understand what he or she believes, i.e. the speech on his or her soul. In her comprehensive work, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Mary Carruthers explains that when we think of what constitutes a brilliant mind, we typically think of intellect, creativity, imagination, and intuition. In contrast, when
we think of memory, we typically consider it as a mental capacity that does not necessarily include authentic thought and learning. That is, we think of it as simple memorization and do not associate it with any of the components of brilliance. The medieval people did not share our understanding of memory.
The difference is that whereas now geniuses are said to have creative imagination which they express in intricate reasoning and original discovery, in earlier times they were said to have richly retentive memories, which they expressed in intricate reasoning and original discovery.
Memory is more than memorization. In Book X of his Confessions, St. Augustine gives a full description of the kinds of activities involved with the memory, including learning, which happens by gathering together ideas contained in the memory. He explains that there is a relation between gathering and knowing, as their Latin roots, cogo and cogito, respectively, demonstrate. The act of gathering, or collecting, cannot be separated from the act of learning and knowing. True understanding, including understanding of God and oneself, is an activity of the memory. Hugh of St. Victor turns this descriptive, philosophical notion of “gathering” into prescriptive, practical advice. “Now every exposition has some principle upon which the entire truth of the matter and the force of its thought rest, and to this principle everything else is traced back. To look for and consider this principle is to ‘gather.’” The student should collect and become familiar with the overarching principles upon which his or her argument rests. Once these are committed to memory, are truly understood by the student, the sub-points that are contained within the larger ones will flow from them, freeing the student to contour the argument to fit any particular audience and time. This is a different process from rote memorization, and the canon of memory should be understood within this fuller context. Far from being a tool for memorizing wri en speech and privileging it over spoken speech, the fourth canon reinforces the first three, utilizing writing as a means of supporting and sharpening the speech on one’s soul. It is through memory that rhetoric is transformed from formulae to faculty, becoming a true skill within the soul of the student.
There are some practical ways for the teacher of rhetoric to promote the canon of memory properly. First, teach your students the difference between written speech and oral speech. Talk about the difference often, as it is counter to what they are usually taught. Use the words “written speech” and “speech on your soul,” but avoid the phrase “presenting your paper” when describing what the student will be delivering. Second, have the student practice standing up in front of the class, delivering the heart of his or her argument (statement of facts, division and proof) with no notes and then give immediate peer and teacher feedback. This gives the student a “feel” for the argument as well as practice and helps the student decide what he or she really believes and the best way to present it. Third, do not have the student’s written speech in front of you as he or she delivers the oral speech; they are different and should be treated differently. The oral speech matters more, in that context, and you want to assess the student based solely on the ability to exhibit his or her rhetorical faculty in that particular moment and place. The written paper is simply a tool for facilitating the development of the skill. The presented speech is different and should not be exactly the same as his written paper. Finally, students who write very well, especially creatively and stylistically, will struggle with this. They will want to memorize their well-written speech word for word. Or, they will want to actually present the written speech by reading it to the audience. Do not let them “hide” behind their writing. Even though it is quite good, the skill of writing well is different from the skill of speaking well.
Understanding that memory is more than memorization, the teacher must not reduce oral speech to written speech. Rather, the teacher must instruct the student to give priority to the former. What matters most is that which he or she truly understands and can explain in different ways using different words, according to the context at hand. This is what Plato refers to as the speech on the soul, and this is what the student must be able to deliver.