The Art of Memory

Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory.

Dame France Yates’ treatise starts off innocently enough: “Orderly arrangement is essential for good memory” (Yates 17). So the ancients thought. The ars memoria by itself is neutral. Yates advances the thesis that Renaissance thinkers used it as a vehicle for the Hermetic tradition. While the medieval tradition did little to develop the art of memory, it did set the stage for Renaissance Neoplatonism, which transformed the art of memory into a hermetic and occultic doctrine (134).

The memory system is a system of memory places and those images “are those of the planetary gods” (148). Renaissance thinkers were quick to say that “memory is organically geared to the universe” (149). As the old hermetic dictum said, “As above, so below.” Renaissance man saw man as quasi-divine and “having the powers of the star rulers” (151). Indeed, he is part “demon,” in fact a “star-demon” (Camillo, Asclepius). In short, thinkers like Camillo and Ficino turned classical memory “into an occult art” (155).

How does Renaissance man “tap into this power?” We have already noted a connection between man and the stars, but what is the “middle man,” so to speak? Yates suggests a “talisman” of sorts. A talisman is any imprinted with perceived powers. Yates suggests that the talismans in this case were planetary images, perhaps the new instantiation of the imagines agentes (159).

The goal of the Hermetic art of memory was the formation of the Magus (161).

Raymond Lull is pivotal because he represents a medium in which Renaissance Neo-Platonists chose a medieval figure for their occultic research. Lull based his structure off of Augustinie’s trinitarian analogies. Lull also introduces the movement of ascending and descending in the Memory Art (181).

Lull is a Christian form of Cabbalism, in which letters stand for divine names which (per some doctrines of simplicity), were the same thing as God (189).

Giordano Bruno and the Shadows

At this point in the narrative the earlier Art of Memory has become a definitive occultic art (200). For some reason Bruno was obsessed with the number 30. In many ways Bruno fine-tunes earlier mnemonic images along a more Neo-Platonic and ontological framework. The stars are now intermediaries (or rather, the spirits behind the stars). The magus will manipulate these images to unlock higher realities. As Yates notes, “the star-images are the ‘shadows of ideas,’ shadows of reality which are nearer in reality than the physical shadows of the lower world” (Yates 213).

Several Hermetic Assumptions in Bruno:
(1) Man’s mind is in some sense divine and connected to the “star governors” of the world (221).
(2) A golden chain connects higher and lower things.

Sub-conclusion: the classical art of memory has been transformed to a “vehicle for the formation of the psyche of a Hermetic mystic and magus” (225). He moves back to a “darker magic,” seeking not a Trinity but a One.


Yates’ work is both exciting and scholarly. She does assume some familiarity, if not with her earlier works, then at least with Renaissance occultism (in the academic sense). Some of the sections towards the end of the work do not always tie in neatly with her thesis, but they are informative nonetheless.


About Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism
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