memory (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

memory palace
As Frances A. Yates explains below, classical orators created memory palaces filled with imaginary objects that served as reminders of different parts of a speech or narrative. (Aleksandar Vrzalsk/Getty Images)


In classical rhetoric, memory is the fourth of the traditional five parts or canons of rhetoric--that which considers methods and devices (including figures of speech) to aid and improve an orator's ability to remember a speech. Also called memoria.

In ancient Greece, memory was personified as Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses. Memory was known as mneme in Greek, memoria in Latin.

See Examples and Observations below.

Also see:

From the Latin, "mindful"

Examples and Observations

  • "In general, Roman writers on rhetoric (and, according to them their Hellenistic predecessors) avoided deciding whether memory was a natural ability or a learned skill by dividing it into two kinds. There was what was called the natural memory, which was simply an individual's aptitude for recalling things. This natural memory could be supplemented by the techniques of artificial memory, a set of practices that enabled their user to remember more clearly, more completely, more systematically, or simply more than his natural memory would allow."
    (William West, "Memory" in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O. Sloane. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • The Mnemonic Place System
    "It is not difficult to get hold of the general principles of the mnemonic. The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places. The commonest, though not the only, type of mnemonic place system used was the architectural type. The clearest description of the place is that given by Quintilian [in Institutio Oratoria]. In order to form a series of places in memory, he says, a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible . . .. The images by which the speech is to be remembered . . . are then placed in imagination on the places which have been memorized in the building. . . . We have to think of the ancient orator as moving in imagination through his memory building whilst he is making his speech, drawing from the memorized places the images he has placed on them. The method ensures that the points are remembered in the right order."
    (Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966)
  • Oral Memory and the Art of Memory: Orality and Literacy
    "Some distinctions between oral memory and the art of memory (the fourth canon in classical rhetoric) should be articulated in future studies on memory. Whereas oral memory is a conception for cultural oral traditions and, specifically, for oral epic traditions, the art of memory is a reconceived view of memory that was articulated by rhetoricians and was clearly influenced by the increased acceptance and use of literacy in Greek culture. Thus, Frances Yates's seminal work, The Art of Memory, begins with a rhetorical, not a poetic, tradition. The very notion of memory as 'inner writing' shows the early influence of literacy on the rhetorical tradition of memory. . . . The evolving art of memory shows orality and literacy working together."
    (Joyce Irene Middleton, "Oral Memory and the Teaching of Literacy." Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication, ed. by John Frederick Reynolds. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993)
  • Memory as a Creative Force
    "In rhetoric, memory craft is a stage in composing a work; presupposed is the axiom that recollection is an act of investigation and recreation in the service of conscious artifice. Its practitioners would not have been surprised to learn what was to them already obvious: that recollection is a kind of composition, and by its very nature is selective and formal."
    (Mary Jean Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • Kairos and Memory
    "It seems paradoxical, but kairos and memory were partnered in several ways. First, both require a kind of 'attunement' in that the rhetor who is gathering items for reserve in the memory must be thinking simultaneously about what's available now that might be useful later. Secondly, memory requires an attunement during the moment of speaking or composing, a recognition of the right time for recalling an illustrative example, an argument, and so on. . . . It is also of crucial importance to be aware of what events or knowledge might dominate the memories of a particular audience. . . . All of these aspects of memory , we believe, connect to kairos, the ancient notion of timing and attunement."
    (Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Modern Students, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2004)
  • The Suppression of Memory in Composition Studies
    "It is crucial to an understanding of Western literacy at this millennium to recognize that the disappearance of memory and delivery is not a benign removal; rather, it is part of a larger movement in the United States to pablumize the humanities in general, and to vitiate writing in particular by behaving as if it were a mere skill, craft, or useful tool. . . .

    "Many issues of culture, ideology, society, and the construction of public and private lives reside in the functions of memory and delivery; public and private realms are routinely and tacitly regarded not as construction, but as palpably, 'obviously' separate entities. The elimination of memory and delivery in the majority of student writing textbooks constitutes the removal of student-written language from the larger public arena. The removal reinforces the common, dualistic idea that students live outside ideology if they choose to do so, just as they are outside language if they choose to be."
    (Kathleen E. Welch, "The Suppression of Memory, Delivery, and Ideology." Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication, ed. by John Frederick Reynolds. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993)

    Pronunciation: MEM-eh-ree