The Fourth Canon of Rhetoric: More than Memorization

Andrew L Smith calls for careful consideration of rhetoric's most oversimplified canon.

Of the five canons of rhetoric, memory is treated by some of the most well-known modern rhetoric resources in underdeveloped and oversimplified ways, if it is considered at all. The insinuation given is that the fourth canon is simply about memorization, and the teacher of rhetoric may have little reason to investigate further or practice it any differently. Without deeper consideration of memory, though, the teacher may fail to make an important distinction between writing and speaking which will result in the students’ missing out on the fullness of the skill of rhetoric. Memory must be understood, taught, and practiced as something more than rote memorization.

Near the end of the Phaedrus, Socrates gives a mythological account of the genesis of writing. He tells of two Egyptian gods, Theuth, an inventor of arts, and Thamos, the king of Egypt. In displaying his arts to the king and making an appeal that they be given to all of the people, Theuth argued that written letters would be of particular benefit, acting as a “drug for memory and wisdom.” Convinced that Theuth was not being a proper judge of his own invention, Thamos responded:

You, being the father of written letters, have on account of goodwill said the opposite of what they can do. For this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through neglect of memory, seeing that, through trust in writing, they recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves. You have therefore found a drug not for memory, but for reminding. You are supplying the opinion of wisdom to the students, not truth. For you’ll see that, having become hearers of much without teaching, they will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they’ve become wise in their own opinion instead of wise.

Plato goes on to explain that the written speech is static, limited only to what is contained in it and, therefore, cannot defend itself or explain itself to those who would question it. The true speech, the speech on one’s soul, is different. It is “written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence towards those it ought.” At best, written speech is a copy of the speech on the soul, a static imitation of the dynamic reality. At worst, it is simply an assemblage of facts and ideas arranged in such a way as to give the appearance that its author has true understanding. However, the written speech itself cannot reveal the truth about its author; this can only be demonstrated through the oral speech, where one soul engages and moves the souls of others.

Obviously, writing is not a bad thing and written speech has been and will remain crucial to the classical pedagogy. The skills of rhetoric can be learned through and applied to writing in many of the same ways that they can be learned through and applied to speaking. However, there is a difference between the two, and rhetoric is rst and foremost about speaking, not writing. As Plato explains, rhetoric is the art of leading souls through words. If written speech is a static imitation of spoken speech, the speech on the soul, then which one is better suited to lead the souls of others? If rhetoric is, as Aristotle explains, the ability in any case to see the available means of persuasion, then how can written speech suffice when it is limited to the page and cannot adapt to the context of the moment or the audience? Perhaps it is clear that the art of rhetoric must give priority to spoken speech over written speech, but what has this to do with the canon of memory?

Without an understanding of the distinction between writing and speaking and, therefore, without being intentional with students about this distinction and its relationship to the canon of memory, we reduce memory to memorization. In so doing, we unknowingly teach them to prioritize the written speech over the speech on the soul. For instance, in a typical rhetoric course, the student will be required to deliver an original oration. In preparation for delivering the oration the student will first write the speech, for the purpose of developing his or her argument and also as a means of being held accountable by the teacher. Once the speech is written, checked by the teacher and (hopefully) re-written, it is ready to be delivered. All the student has to do now is commit the speech to memory and try not to get too nervous when standing up in front of the audience. What is it, though, that the student is supposed to be delivering? A paper or a speech? If the teacher has not been intentional about this point, both teacher and student will assume the former. At this point in the process, hours upon hours of class instruction and individual work have been poured into the writing of the paper. It has been the primary focus of attention. The paper contains the student’s argument and, therefore, the paper must be memorized and delivered. The student has been taught to prioritize the written, static speech over the dynamic speech that resides in the soul and moves souls.

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.

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