Forgetting the Art of Memory
Published in First Things.
AI tools like ChatGPT launched less than a year ago, but they’re already taking over the workplace. They can generate quick, clean (if uninspiring) copy in seconds; plan your weekly schedule; and take meeting minutes without you even having to listen to what is being said. I recently learnt that a colleague of mine was taking advantage of just this, using a bot to transcribe the contents of our weekly Zoom calls.
On the surface, this all seems relatively innocuous: Tasks such as note-taking are, after all, menial ones, and use up time that could be spent on more creative pursuits. Yet, the long-term consequences of outsourcing them to the external prostheses of AI—to the point where our own cognitive faculties are made virtually redundant—could prove more sinister. When it comes to technologies that obviate the need to manually remember and recollect information, we risk neglecting a tradition that was once considered essential to culture: namely, the art of memory.
“The art of memory” is the name of a book by the historian Frances Yates that explores the tradition of mnemonics in Western philosophy and how, for centuries, the practice of remembering information was seen to serve a crucial intellectual—and ultimately spiritual—purpose. Within both Platonic and Christian thought (and their convergence in the European Renaissance), memorization was valued as a means of building an internal repository of terms, patterns, and concepts—all of which, it was believed, were a necessary precursor to divine knowledge. Fascinatingly, this tradition also warned of what can happen when we substitute inhuman technologies for human memory, making it all the more pertinent to the rise of AI.
The theory behind the mnemonic techniques described by Yates in her book—which, she tells us, would aid the memorization of everything from poems to the order of the planets—goes back to Plato, for whom memory played a vital role in guiding the soul to wisdom. In Plato’s theory of knowledge, ascending to truth entails moving up the scale (that is, the “divided line” he presents in the Republic) from visible things to invisible ideas. Memory, being the faculty that allows us to internalize sense impressions and form abstract associations between them, is what makes this transition possible.
In the Theaetetus, Plato likens memory to a “block of wax” onto which the objects we perceive are impressed. The stronger our wax, the more distinct the imprints, which can subsequently be “quickly assigned to their several stamps—the ‘real things’ as they are called.” In other words, those with strong memories are able to arrive at the knowledge of true forms. Those whose wax is soft, on the other hand, are forgetful; not only in the literal sense of struggling to retain impressions, but also in the spiritual sense of failing to realize the true nature of things. The pursuit of wisdom, then, requires us to strengthen our wax, and it was this that the mnemonic exercises described by Yates sought to achieve.
The art of memory, however, was not only Platonic: It was also deeply Christian. The imperfect knowledge of mankind, according to one interpretation of Scripture, is a consequence of Original Sin, with our ability to perceive truth having been corrupted by the Fall. Forgetfulness is an aspect of postlapsarian nature, which must be overcome for us to grow closer to God. In such a view, memory—since it enables us to regain our knowledge of creation and ultimately the Creator—has a redemptive quality, being for this reason praised by St. Augustine in the Confessions as a vessel of grace. In Christianity as in Platonism, then, the improvement of memory serves the spiritual purpose of redeeming us from our fallen state of forgetfulness.
It follows that anything that weakens or disables human memory ought to be avoided, for this only worsens our ignorance. The earliest innovation of this kind, famously denounced by Plato, was writing. In the Phaedrus, Plato recounts an ancient Egyptian myth in which Theuth, the deity said to have invented mathematics, presents Thamus, the king, with this new art that he believes will improve people’s memory and wisdom. However, Thamus declares that it will in fact have the opposite effect, saying: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external remarks . . . it is not true wisdom you offer your disciples, only semblance.”
For Plato, writing removes the need for us to absorb information into our souls and so inhibits our ability to realize higher truths. Knowledge, no longer integrated into our own being, becomes exteriorized to a non-living entity, therefore removing the human mediation that turns information into genuine wisdom. Any technology that remembers or indeed thinks on our behalf, Plato warns, stifles our ascent to truth.
What is the relevance of this to AI? By its very artificial nature, AI replicates—and intensifies—the dangers of writing. Like writing, it outsources information to inhuman prostheses, removing the need to remember things from within ourselves, be it a shopping list or the minutes from last week’s team meeting. What’s more, it means we no longer have to internalize their impressions in the first place: In the case of transcription bots, we do not even need to log information into our minds to begin with, let alone recollect it. As a result, AI terminally weakens that faculty upon which our acquisition of knowledge depends. The more that memory is made redundant, the softer our wax becomes, leaving us not only intellectually lazy but incapable of relating our experiences to “real,” immaterial ideas.
This is arguably not the intention of those driving the AI revolution. Indeed, many of them would, like Theuth, claim that automation encourages wisdom because it liberates us from the menial tasks that distract us from creative and intellectual pursuits. But, as Plato and the purveyors of the memory arts described by Yates knew well, even mystical knowledge must begin in the waxen imprints of memory, being realized through the organic human processes that lead us to true wisdom. That AI undermines the importance of this basic faculty ought to concern us, for it will only implant forgetfulness in our souls and worsen our fallen state.