“To think is to reflect on images.”
In the seventeenth century, the extraordinary mnemonic technique, “the art of memory,” which straddles both analogical thinking and conceptual thought, did not enjoy quite the popularity and efflorescence it had, paradoxically, among those who know how to read and write in Antiquity, as well as during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
In Antiquity, under the impetus of the first treatises of the Ad Herenium and of Cicero, this art was mainly envisioned for the use of orators. As David Stevenson says in The Origins of Freemasonry, “The art of memory was a technique for improving the capacity of one’s memory which developed in ancient Greece but is mainly known through Roman writers. It was held to be of particular value to orators and lawyers in memorizing long speeches, but was also seen as being of much wider application in the ages before printing, and indeed before widespread and cheap availability of a medium on which to write; a capacious and well-organized memory was regarded as central to education and culture. The Greek mnemonic technique was based on a building. The student of the art was instructed to study some large and complex building, memorizing its rooms and layout, and particular features of places in it. In doing this he should establish a specific order in which he visited the individual rooms and places. When memorizing a speech, he should then imagine himself to be walking through this building on his set route, and in each of the loci or places he had memorized he should establish imagines or images which were to be attached to each argument or point in his speech.”
During the Latin influenced Middle Ages, it often continued to serve as an aid for making speeches, but under the pressure of the finest minds and greatest figures of the time, it was naturally integrated into the Christian doctrine and its cardinal virtues. After Charlemagne, we find the prestigious names of Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas associated with it while the Dominican Order was spreading a domesticated use of it for the purposes of apologetics, conversion, and inquisition. Peter of Ravenna promoted a secular adaptation of this memory technique.
During the Renaissance while we certainly come across the presence of Erasmus, it is the major figures of Llull, Giullo Camillo, and Giordano Bruno in particular that diverted this art into the mystical, hermetic direction that would become the major philosophy of that era, while an entire section of the art, primarily dedicated to mnemonic techniques and procedures remained vital. Frances Yates provides a summary of this under the generic term of the “classical art of memory.”
The intellectual and spiritual situation of the art of memory evolved again during the seventeenth century. On the one hand, the importance of the art in accordance with Ramon Llull’s definition began to dwindle: eventually all that remained of it with any potency was the search for THE method. At this same time the upholders of the magical, hermetic notion of this art had taken possession of the forefront of the stage of ideas--in any case at least since the “revelation” of the writings of Hermes Trismegistus by Isaac Casaubon in 1614. On the other hand, the art was associated with different modes of representing things and ideas, primarily in the development at this time of emblemata. These continue to be very poorly understood today despite the publication of André Alciat’s seminal book in Augsburg in 1531.
Seeing the fantastic proliferation of the written and printed word to the detriment of the speech memorized by heart and the oral tradition, the Western man of 1700 could have said to himself like Victor Hugo: “This will kill that.” Wouldn’t it therefore be likely that under these conditions the still forming Masonic symbolism would become the storage, preservation, and transmission site for a particular form of the art of memory? This was an essentially oral form that was in the midst of being dethroned and swept aside by writing. This is what the historical developments and transformations of the Art would seem to suggest, in part.
Far from an elsewhere and nowhere of utopia according to Campanella, wouldn’t the future operative and non-operative Freemasons of 1600-era Scotland, engaged on an extra-professional quest for method but remaining immersed nevertheless in the here and now of spiritually conflictive societies, be in the process of discovering the Masonic symbol beneath the memorized image?
If we accept the fact that Masonic symbols were created by their inventors as elements of language and communication intended to transmit moral and spiritual values capable of being made universal, just how did these inventors go about the task they set for themselves?
Their first step was to select the terrain and the domain on and in which to situate their analogies and metaphors. This would be the domain of the builder in which the “graft” comes into play, because it naturally combines the master builder (the Great Architect of the Universe), the conceiver of the edifice (the architect), and the worker (the mason on the construction site) in its implementation. The ultimate aim implied by the practices on the field of activity selected this way is well known: in the image of the original Temple, the Temple of Solomon, intended to welcome the divine presence among human beings and fix it to one location (the Schekina). It would consist of building and constructing every edifice naturally capable of permitting the individual to be protected, to live, and to shelter his family, while at the same time building his own self. This spiritual building will thereby ensure the liaison and dialogue between the “little world” that this individual embodies, and the organized “large world” in which he dwells, aware of the favor and good fortune that the Great Organizer will arrange to be his lot in return for his labor, his irreproachable conduct, and his loyalty toward Duty.