Classical Rhetoric 101: The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory

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Welcome back to ourseries on Classical Rhetoric. Today we're continuing our five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. So far we've covered the canons ofinvention,arrangement, and style. Today we’ll be covering the canon of memory.

The Three Elements of the Canon of Memory

1. Memorizing one’s speech.

Anciently, almost all rhetorical communication was done orally in the public forum. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets. Note taking as a way to remember things was often looked down upon in many ancient cultures. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates announcing that reliance on writing weakened memory:

If men learn this, [the art of writing] it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they willcease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things toremembrance no longer from within themselves.

So if you were an ancient Greek and busted out some speech notes in the Assembly, you’d probably be laughed at and mocked as weak-minded. The canon of memory then was in many ways a tool to increase an orator’s ethos, or authority with his audience.

In modern times, we still lend more credence to speakers who give their speeches (or at least appear to) from memory. You just need to look at the guff President Obama caught a few years ago when it was revealed that he almost never speaks without the help of a teleprompter. He relies on it whether giving a long speech or a short one, at a campaign event or a rodeo. And when the teleprompter malfunctions, he often flounders. This reliance on an oratorical safety net potentially hurts Obama’s ethos in two ways. First, whether fairly or not, when people know that a speaker needs a “crutch” for their speeches, it weakens their credibility and the confidence the audience has in the speaker’s authenticity. And second, notes put distance between the speaker and the audience. As a television crewman who also covered Clinton and Bush put it in reference to Obama’s use of the teleprompter: u201CHe uses them to death. The problem is, he never looks at you. He's looking left, right, left, right – not at the camera. It's almost like he's not making eye contact with the American people.u201D

This truth isn’t just limited to the POTUS. Think back to the speakers you’ve heard personally. Which ones seemed more dynamic and engaging? The man with his nose buried in his notes, reading them verbatim from behind the lectern…or the one who seemed like he was giving his speech from the heart and who engaged the audience visually with eye contact and natural body language? I’m pretty sure it was the second type of speaker. It pays to memorize your speech.

2. Making one’s speech memorable.

For ancient orators, the rhetorical canon of memory wasn’t just about the importance of giving speeches extemporaneously. The second element of this canon entailed organizing your oration and using certain figures of speech to help youraudience remember what you said. What good is spending hours memorizing a persuasive speech if your listeners forget what you said as soon as they walk out the door?

3. Keeping a treasury of rhetorical fodder.

A third facet of the canon of memory involved storing up quotations, facts, and anecdotes that could be used at any time for future speeches or even an impromptu speech. A master orator always has a treasury of rhetorical fodder in his mind and close at hand. Roman rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian didn’t subscribe to the Greek prejudice against note taking and encouraged their students to carry small journals to collect quotes and ideas for future speeches. Renaissance rhetoricians continued and expanded on this tradition with their use of the “commonplace book.”

Below we’ll take a look at some of the methods classical rhetoricians used to implement the three different aspects of the canon of memory in more detail.

Memorizing Long Speeches

Because the orations of ancient rhetoricians could last several hours, they had to develop mnemonic devices (techniques that aid memory) to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The most famous and popular of these mnemonic devices was the “method of loci” technique.

The method of loci memory technique was first described in written form in a Roman treatise on rhetoric called ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It’s an extremely effective mnemonic device and is still used by memory champions like Joshua Foer, author of the recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein.

To use the method of loci, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. So, for example, let’s say the first part of your speech is about the history of the Third Punic War. You can imagineHannibal and Scipio Africanusduking it out in your living room. You could get more specific and put different parts of the battles of the Third Punic War into different rooms. The method of loci memory technique is powerful because it’s so flexible.

When you deliver your speech, you mentally walk through your “memory house” in order to retrieve the information you’re supposed to deliver. Some wordsmiths believe that the common English phrase “in the first place” came from the method of loci technique. A speaker using the technique might say, “In the first place,” in reference to the fact that the first part of his speech was in the first place or loci in his memory house.Fascinating, isn’t it?

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