The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 22, 2017

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Last Things: On Memory
James V. Schall, S.J. - 09/03/08

Last Things is the regular column of Father James Schall, S. J.

Two of the most beautiful passages in the Psalms read: “By the rivers of Babylon / there we sat and wept, / remembering Zion” (137), and in Psalm 143, “I remember the days that are past.” We remember the days past; we weep; we remember Zion.

A friend of mine coined the phrase: “Tell me what you remember and I will tell you what you are.” With similar force, I suppose, we could add: “Tell me what you have forgotten and I will tell you what you are.” The only problem with that latter exercise is that I have evidently forgotten what it is that we want to know about me, namely, what I have forgotten.

But still, the point remains. Forgotten things were evidently not important enough to remember, though they did happen. With the right stimulus, they may be recalled. One’s father may have fought in bloody battles of World War II or Vietnam, but he never uttered a word of it to his children, who have no memory of his ever speaking to them about it. Then, one day, decades later, an old army friend comes by. The two reminisce out loud about their wartime experiences. The children are amazed. What was not spoken was not in fact forgotten.

One of the useful things about having brothers, sisters, and cousins is that they remember odd, but symbolic, things of our youth that we have conveniently forgotten. At the right moment at a family picnic, they do not hesitate to tell everyone about it, much to everyone’s amusement, including our own. Some forgotten things are well to remember. Revelation exists in part that our sins, once forgiven, be forgotten without really forgetting that they happened. This we remember.

I have been reading Aristotle’s little treatise “On Memory and Recollection.” I am surprised at how good it is. Why Schall should be surprised that Aristotle is good, I have no idea! Never is Aristotle not good. Still, that anything at all is good is the biggest surprise of all. How we account for such surprise of the good is what our lives are about. I have often tried to imagine a world in which no surprises are found. That would be a world in which Schall already knew everything. It does not take much imagination to realize what a dull world that would be.

Memory can only be of things past, not of those present or future. The present we witness there before us, the future we estimate, guess, prophesy, but we do not remember it, unless perchance we be philosophers who think that all that happened in the now is but a repetition of what went before.

Aristotle says that a difference exists between memory, which simply means that we now attend to something that we read or that happened before in time, and recollection, which means that we deliberately and systematically try to recall something that we once knew—the score of a game, the name of a high school friend, the population of Greenland, or the name of the pope who preceded Leo XIII. We can remember not only people and things, but ideas and proofs.

“When one has scientific knowledge, or perception, apart from the actualization of the faculty concerned,” Aristotle explains,

he thus “remembers [that the angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles]”; as to the former that he learned it, or thought it out for himself, as to the latter, that he heard, or saw, it, or had some such sensible experience of it. For whenever one exercises the faculty of remembering, he must say within himself “I formerly heard (or otherwise perceived) this,” or “I formerly had this thought” (449b18–24).

Memory is thus not imagination, though, on the same principles, we can “remember” what we imagined or dreamed. I imagined that I took a trip to the South Pole. I didn’t, but I remember that I imagined doing so.

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