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by William H. Benson

May 20, 2004

     So much of what we know and do depends upon our memories.  We are so accustomed to having at our fingertips the extraordinary power of memory that without it our lives as humans would not be livable as they are.  Augustine, the fourth century Bishop in North Africa, devoted the tenth book of his Confessions to memory, suggesting that to be a human in large part means having the ability to remember.

     He described our memory as a gigantic storehouse with myriads of details filed away.  He wrote,  “All these doth that great harbour of the memory receive in her numberless secret and inexpressible windings, to be forthcoming and brought out at need; each entering in by its own gate, and there laid up. . . .  For these things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.”

     He suggested that that process of remembering is like a person stepping into that storehouse and trying to find the proper file.  Augustine wrote, “When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; other rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as who should say, ‘Is it perchance I?’”

     Yes, Augustine argued, we can receive information through our senses, and we can then recollect it, but with memory’s help we can learn and intuit things not immediately presented through our senses.  In other words we can experience things without actually sensing them.

     Augustine said, “Yea, I discern the breath of lilies from violets, though smelling nothing; and I prefer honey to sweet wine, smooth before rugged, at the time neither tasting nor handling, but remembering only.”

     He then pointed out certain paradoxes associated with memory.  We can remember the ugly sensation of feeling pain without actually feeling that pain.  We can remember those things which we had once forgotten, and about that he wonders what it really means to remember that we have forgotten something, calling it a paradox.  Then, we can lose objects and then suddenly find them and remember that we once had them.

     Most human beings are trying to better themselves by searching for happiness, and Augustine, understanding that human want, thought that happiness is something we might already have, lying within our memories.  We could not search for happiness unless, to some degree, we know what it is, and by extension it therefore must be a function of memory.  He poses the question: “Does the life of happiness exist, therefore, only in memory?”  And he does not provide a clear answer.

     With the help of memory, people and events can mean more to us than without.  We can feel them deeper and appreciate them better than we did at the outset, at the point they happened or we met them.

     Augustine wonders about memory’s ability to consider itself.  “Therefore is the mind too strait to contain itself.  And where should that be, which it containeth not of itself.  Is it without it, and not within?  How then doth it comprehend itself?”  Once again no clear answer.

     Memorial Day—the one day each year dedicated to remembering, a day when we dig deep into that rag bag of collected memories and think about people who we once knew and who once lived.  We remember that that person made us smile.  She made me sad.  He made me angry.  That situation was so funny.  That deal was the worst.  And we drag each thought out, lay it down for a while, examine it, and then put it back into that bag where it will reside until next year.


     “Great is this force of memory, excessive great; a large and boundless chamber!  Who ever sounded the bottom thereof?”