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American Philological Association

Mnemosyne in Oral Literature

Author(s): James A. Notopoulos
Source: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 69 (1938),
pp. 465-493
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 465
XVI.-Mnemosyne in Oral Literature
The work of the late Milman Parry, on Homer, has con-
tributed much to an understanding of the differences in litera-
tures created by the spoken rather than the written word.
Approaching the Homeric poems as oral poetry he proceeded
on the principle of Aristarchus of getting the solution from
the text, TX sK ris MewS XVUL. Using form as the clue to func-
tion, and style as establishing the character of thought, he
reconstructed the oral basis of the Homeric poems. In a
series of brilliant papers
' he has laid a new foundation for
the study of Homer. It is time now to apply the results of
his work to certain problems which are implicit in the oral
literature of the Greeks. Among these is the importance of
When Greek oral literature was committed to writing we
find embedded in it the mention of Mnemosyne, which is the
personification of an important and vital force in oral com-
position. Its importance is evident in the prominent place
it occupies in early Greek theology. Hesiod tells us that
Earth lay with Heaven, and from this primaeval union were
born Theia, Rhea, Themis, and Mnemosyne.2 These Titans,
says Rose, "are very ancient figures, little worshipped any-
where in historical Greece, and belonging to a past so remote
that the earliest Greeks of whose opinions we have any certain
knowledge saw them surrounded with a haze of extreme
The inclusion of Mnemosyne as one of the most
For a bibliography cf. H. Levin,
Portrait of a Homeric
Journal xxxii (1937), 266.
Theogony 45f.
3 H. J. Rose, Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York, E. P.
Dutton, 1929),
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466 James A. Notopoulos [1938
ancient deities is evidence of the importance in which this
function was held by the earliest Greeks. But the inclusion
of Mnemosyne among the Titans is puzzling.
" Mnemosyne,"
says Rose, "is a pure abstraction, Memory personified, and
clearly has no business among the Titans proper."
It is
evident, however, that this legend preserves the primaeval
importance of memory among pre-literate Greeks, and, rightly
or wrongly, she is included among the Titans, the first gen-
eration of the theogony of Earth and Heaven. Hesiod, stand-
ing at the threshold of the post-heroic age, has preserved for
us a legend which reveals the importance of Memory among
oral peoples. Folk-memory has preserved in this legend the
once supreme importance of a divinity who sank into a minor
with the advent of written literature.
Supplementing Hesiod on the question of the importance of
memory in the oral literature of the early Greeks is the evi-
dence of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, dated not later than
the seventh century.6 When Hermes discovered the lyre, he
sang the story of the immortal gods, and in his song he honored
Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, first among the gods,
for, says the poem significantly, "the son of Maia was of her
Then follow the rest of the gods in the order
of their age, thus revealing the first rank that Mnemosyne
occupied as a goddess in the theology of oral peoples. The
further we go into the development
of written literature, the
less important Mnemosyne becomes as the written word tri-
umphed over memory and the spoken word. But even so,
the written literature from the sixth century on reflects the
part that memory once played
in oral poetry,
now no longer
a living force but a convention which poets invoke as a prelude.
In Solon's time Memory and the Muses were crystallized
Op. cit. (see note 3), 21.
Cf. I.G. II.2 4692; Schol. Oedipus Col. 100.
6 T. W. Allen, W. R. Halliday, E. E. Sikes, The Homeric Hymns2 (Oxford,
Clarendon Press, 1936), 276.
Hymn to Hermes 429; cf. Pap. Lond. 46.115.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 467
an elegiac formula:
'OXvpArtov a'yXaa rf4Kva
KXVIre iot
Terpander echoes it in a different metrical form:
-rats Mva,uas
iratauv Mct,uats 9.
The poet in the fifth and fourth centuries still kept up the
convention. Euripides in Hercules Furens has the poet sing
of Memory:
En rot yEpwv ao-
8os KEXALae Mva,uoavvav 10
alluding to the old oral poet, the
of Homeric poetry,
who exercised his craft by means of -memory. This asso-
ciation of the poet with Memory had already in the fourth
century become a commonplace, as Plato's remark reveals:
Ka6a7rEp ot
irottral, 8o/IaL apxolievos ri7s b7y aews Movaas
Mvrniooiavnv eVriTKaXeZOat."11
All these references to Mnemosyne in the written literature
of Greece are echoes of a once significant force in an oral
literature. Memory in written literature is essentially based
on the written word, whereas for the oral poet it was entirely
associated with the spoken word. The Iliad and the Odyssey,
unlike the Aeneid, are not products of written literature, but
of an age in which the spoken word was the basis of creation.
Man in primitive Greek society was, as Marcel Jousse points
out in his penetrating book on Le Style Oral, a "mnemo-
technician." The dactylic hexameter is the product of oral
Solon 13 (Poetae lyrici Graeci,4 ed. T. Bergk [Leipzig, Teubner, 18821);
cf. G. Kaibel, Epigrammata Graeca (Berlin, G. Reimer, 1878), 789; A. Plassart,
" Inscriptions de Thespies," Bulletin de Correspondance Hellenique L (1926),
Terpander No. 3 (Bergk).
Hercules Furens 679.
Euthydemus 275 d; cf. Pindar 01. vIII.74.
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468 James A. Notopoulos [1938
literature; it is a mnemotechnique made by "l'utilisation
consciente et rationnelle des lois automatiques et profondes
de la memoire. . . . pour aider la memoire du Recitateur." 12
Differing entirely from literature which was first composed
with the written word and then recited, oral literature is
based on a spontaneous and natural creation in which the
poet composed orally by means of formulas and fixed patterns,
all of which were based on memory.
To understand properly the nature and function of Mnemos-
yne in the technique of oral poetry we must, at the outset,
differentiate the various uses which memory might have in
oral poetry. From the oral poet, as we see him in Homer, we
learn that one of the functions of the oral poet was to per-
petuate in memory the KiAka av8pJ.v 13; it was the poet's task
to conserve living experiences and transmit them to posterity.
This might be called the use of memory as an end and is
illustrated in the picture of Demodocus.14 In the case of
oral poetry the only way to perpetuate the Kicea avbpcwv was
song, which could not be attached to a permanent record like
writing, but could only achieve its object by constant repeti-
tion. It is in this sense that immortality in oral poetry de-
pended upon constant repetition. Plato could admirably be
used to illustrate this point in epic poetry when he discusses
the part memory plays in immortality:
yap eirtaT'
IIXEET?7 Be' 7rcaXLv EpLlrroLoUa avTL T?7S ablrObUfls jVfl/v?JV OC@EL Tr?V
If we substitute recitation by the oral poet, in
the place of /eEXETfl, we have an insight
into the relation of
memory to immortality in epic poetry.
The use of memory as an end is furthermore connected
with utility as well as immortality. This accounts for the
fact that oral literature took as its subject so much other
Marcel Jousse, Le Style Oral rythmique et mnemotechnique chez les Verbo-
moteurs (Paris, G. Beauchesne, 1925), 191.
Homer Iliad Ix.524f.
Cf. Pindar Nem. i.12, and Herodotus i.1 for a similar reflection in written
'r Symposium 208a.
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Vol. lxixl Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 469
non-poetic material like genealogies, chronologies, laws, etc.'6
The association of utility and memory in oral literature is
well illustrated in the study that Prof. J. L. Myres has made
of Folk-memory.'7 With consummate skill he has shown the
coherent and trustworthy foundation of genealogies preserved
in folk-memory, and illustrated it with examples from Ice-
andic and Maori history. This organic relation of utility
with memory is observed by Plutarch in The Oracles at Delphi:
"there is nothing in poetry more serviceable to speech than
that the ideas communicated, by being bound up and inter-
woven with verse, are better remembered and kept firmly in
mind. Men in those days had to have a memory for many
things." 18 The oral poet as a mnemotechnician preserved
the useful by binding it in verse, by forging a metrical pattern
which facilitated and guarded against mistake the information
to be preserved.'9 Memory therefore is equally important in
conserving the useful as well as perpetuating the immortal in
oral literature; the poet is the incarnate book of oral peoples,
a fact which not only explains the existence of what from our
modern point of view seems non-poetic in their work, but also
accounts in part for the paratactic nature of the poetic form
of oral poetry and literature.20
But of far greater importance in oral poetry is the use of
memory as a means in the process of creation. The part that
memory plays in the creative process of oral literature shows
memory to be of two kinds, static and creative.2' An example
16M. Jousse, op. cit. (see note 12), 126-131; Aristotle, Problems xix.28;
Plato Laws 793a; Apollodorus XPOPLK&, Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker,
ed. F. Jacoby (Berlin, Weidmann, 1929), Part 2. B. 1025-1044.
17J. L. Myres, Who Were the Greeks? (Berkeley, University of California,
1936), 291-366; cf. J. L. Myres,
Folk-Memory,"Folk-Lorexxxvii (1926), 12-34.
Plutarch Moralia 407F (in Loeb Cl. Lib.).
Cf. M. Jousse, op. cit. (see note 12), 191.
Cf. B. A. Van Groningen, Paratactische compositie in de ondste Grieksche
literatur (Amsterdam, Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers-Maatschappij, 1937); cf.
the review by J. Tate in Cl. Rev. LI (1937), 174-5.
Cf. Bergson's distinction between memory which imagines and memory
which repeats. H. Bergson, Matter and Memory (London, S. Sonnenschein
& Co., 1911).
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470 James A. Notopoulos [1938
of memory as a static factor in oral poetry is given by Parry:
"an oral poetry practiced by guilds of singers with masters
and apprentices would tend to a more faithful keeping of
poems which had won fame, and that one singer might win
such a name that his disciples would find their profit in keep-
ing his poetry as nearly without change as they could; but
then they are no longer singers but rhapsodes, their task is
not of creation." 22 If, for example, Homer were the best
oral poet, the guild of the Homeridae would memorize his
version of the poems and perpetuate them by constant repeti-
tion. They would be rhapsodes, and an example in later
written literature is the rhapsode in the Ion of Plato, who
memorized Homer by heart from a written text. In the
period of oral poetry, however, the rhapsode would memorize
it from an oral version which was to be found only in the rirea
irrepoevra of the singers.
This use of memory, however, is retentive rather than
creative. The study of the composition of oral poetry,23 as
it survives today in Jugoslavia, has thrown considerable light
on the problems of Homeric composition of oral poetry and
the part that memory plays in it. The work of Krauss,
Murko, and Parry on this problem has shown that the creative
r6le that memory plays in oral composition is integrally
nected with the formula of the traditional diction of oral
poetry; this Parry studied in detail in Homer, both as to its
form and function.
Oral poetry of all nations, it has been shown,24 is essentially
M. Parry, "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making," II,
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology XLIII (1932), 16, 17.
F. S. Krauss, Slavische Volkforschungen (Leipzig, W. Heims, 1908); M.
Murko, La poesie populaire epique en Yugoslavie au debut du XX6 siecle (Paris,
Champion, 1929); H. M. and N. K. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cam-
bridge, At the University Press, 1936), ii.299-456.
Cf. Jousse, op. cit. (see note 12), 113; Parry,
Studies in the Epic Tech-
nique of Oral Verse-Making," i, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology
(1930), 77, 78; H. M. and N. K. Chadwick, op. cit. (see note 23), i.22, 44, 62,
564; T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York, Doubleday, Doran
& Co., 1935), 125, 278-9.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 471
composed of fixed, stereotyped cliches or
formulas, ranging
all the way from phrases of fixed epithet to whole lines and
even whole passages. The outstanding feature of the formula
in epic poetry is its repetition, the cause of which was little
understood until recently when its importance in Homeric
oral composition was shown by Parry. Unlike the poet of
written literature who composes with pen and paper, and is
not bound by the necessity of time required in the composi-
tion, the oral poet must compose with the spoken word, must
do so spontaneously and consecutively. He has therefore
certain problems arising in oral composition which do not
arise in written composition. Most pressing of these is the
need of "word-groups all made to fit his verse and tell what
he has to tell. In composing he will do no more than put
together for his needs phrases which he has often heard or
used himself, and which, grouping themselves in accordance
with a fixed pattern of thought, come naturally to make the
sentence and the verse." 25 By means of these ready-made
and traditional word-groups he is able to compose orally,
filling in a verse or part of a verse with one of these formulas
which leave him time to think of the next verse. Their re-
currence is necessary if oral composition is to take place, for
without them the oral poet would falter in the midst of his
composition; his creation, unlike that of the poet of written
literature, involves not the creation of new phrases but rather
the use of traditional phrases.
The frequency and number of these formulas illustrate -the
creative function of memory in oral composition. One can
readily see the amount of memory required before one could
create orally, if he multiplies the case of the single formula, as
Parry says, "by all these which are to be found in the two
poems, and which require the 250 pages of Schmidt's Parallel-
Homer for their listing." 26
Parry computes 25,000 or 26,000
Parry, op. cit. (see note 24), I.77. For
examples of how the
use of these word-groups in oral
composition cf. pp.
26 Parry, ibid.,
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472 James A. Notopoulos [1938
repetitions in Homer's 27,853 or so verses.27 Such a survey
shows that the poet could not exercise his craft without
memory. The verse is created on the basis of a vast complex
system of formulas which the poet had to memorize as part
of his craft. Before he could compose he had to memorize
a vast number of word-groups which would serve as the basis
of his improvisation. Without keeping in memory all these
formulas, which are the oral diction out of which his poetry
is made, no oral poetry could be possible. Memory is the
means by which the poet creates orally. It is a creative
factor in the very process of oral creation; it is an inherent
part of it and without it no poet could create. As may be
seen there is no place for passive memory in this technique,
for the formulas vary in length and are fused together in the
very heat of oral recitation; like the notes of the scale they are
constantly used in new context. It is in this sense that
Mnemosyne is at the basis of oral composition; without mem-
ory the poet could not retain the vast and complex formulas,
groups, and systems which he needed to formulate his verses.
For the poet of the hexameter, thought was synonymous with
memory, for he could only think out his lines on the basis of
memorized formulas. The very elasticity of memory essential
to the expression of thought by the poet is witness to its
creative character. For thought and memory are so close
in the process of composition that etymologically Movaat is
connected with Mnemosyne,28 Movaat, i.e. *
Movaat, the Re-
27 Parry, ibid., 90.
Memory not only extends to word-groups, but also to entire scenes.
Walter Arend in his book Die Typischen Scenen bei Homer (Berlin, Weidmann,
1933) has analyzed the 'Homeric poems and shown that certain actions are
repeated with the same details and words. Instances of such typical scenes
are arrival, sacrifice, journey by land or sea, arming, dressing, etc. Though
Arend does not recognize the implications of his analysis, Parry has pointed
out that these type schemes show the schematization of Homer's composition.
As in the formula the poet in his apprenticeship to the older singer retained in
his memory ways to develop action, so that memory is at the basis of the oral
technique ranging from noun-epithet formulas to manner of developing action.
Cf. Parry's review, Class. Phil. xxxi (1936), 357-60.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 473
minders.29 It is not unreasonable then to think that though
inspiration came from the Muses, behind inspiration stood
Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, who was intimately
connected with oral creation.
The oral poet in the absence of the written text learned his
craft and material through the EbrEa r-Ep6Evra. The amazing
memory of a Jugoslav guslar throws light on the ability of an
oral poet to recite a poem of the length of the Iliad or Odyssey.
Krauss in studying the mnemonic faculty of the Jugoslav
guslars reports that a guslar named Milovan could recite
40,000 lines in a row, and that he was only ordinary; popular
opinion credits the good guslar with knowing from memory
30,000 to even 100,000verses.30 Inviewof this modern parallel
in an oral society it is not impossible to assign the Iliad or the
Odyssey to a single oral poet. For memory was the peculiar
faculty and province of the oral poet; he could no more do
without memory than we, the children of the written word,
can do without books. By memorizing the vast and com-
plicated systems of formulaic diction the poet could call upon
his memory not only for the exact phrase to fill out a particular
verse, but also for the creation of the general pattern of the
poem. Memory was not only the end for which the poet
strove, but was also the creative factor of the means in his
inspiration. Without her, oral composition was impossible.
As the foundation of the technique of oral poetry, Mnemosyne
was rightly invoked as "mother of the Muses." 31
Cf. G. Curtius, Principles of Greek Etymology5, trans. by Wilkins and
England (London, Murray, 1886), I.377; Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,
Glaube der Hellenen (Berlin, Weidmann, 1931), i.251.
30Jousse, op. cit. (see note 12), 113, 114.
Evidence in written literature of the importance of memory as a creative
factor in oral literature is preserved in a tradition recorded by Pausanias
(ix.29.2) which states that the Heliconian muses are three in number: MeX&T1,
'AOLB'. This religious tradition throws light on the relation of Memory
as a force in poetry (cf. Homer's technique of personification of a force without
that force necessarily being a regular god in theology, KvuotAo6s,
Iliad xviii.
535). In this tradition memory is personification of a factor in oral poetry; she
is here identified directly with the poetic process. Though different from the
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474 James A. Notopoulos [1938
The Homeric poems were not essentially changed in char-
acter with their commitment to writing. Though several
centuries may have elapsed from the date of their oral com-
position to that of their commitment to writing, the intimate
connection of memory with oral composition conserved the
poems through this period with little change in their essential
oral features.32 Their form still betrays the characteristics
of oral literature. With the change of the method of com-
position from a spontaneous natural oral style to a written
composition Mnemosyne lost her function. Written litera-
ture preserves her in an inherited theology; poets at the
threshold of the transition still begin their poetry with an
invocation to Mnemosyne as once the oral poet did, but now
it is a mere convention. Thucydides, however, gives evidence
that folk-memory was still a force in his day; he mentions an
oral tradition still alive among the Peloponnesians: Xi&yovL
ot r'a aa4E'arara IIEXoirovvr7pIcv
66ypEvot. . .. ~Here we have an echo of the strong roots
of folk-memory even at an advanced literary age. The accu-
racy of such folk-memory with regard to genealogies,
Myres has proven, merits the judgment of caac/4Trara by the
Hesiodic tradition it reflects essentially the same emphasis which oral
placed on memory. The theological expression of a vital force in the life
the oral peoples is consonant with the personification processes
of the primitive
mind. The non-metaphorical expression of this important force is found in the
Homeric vocabulary where besides the retentive connotation of the verb
we have an echo of its creative force in the
imperative ,ueI,V-00o
means to take thought for something, to consider, think, where an active mental
process is evolved. When Circe tells Odysseus Av,1o-Et be aE Kac 06es acoT6s
xII.38), we have an echo of the oral invocation of the poet to the muses for in-
spiration, which in his case involved the proper functioning
of the
respect to formulas.
Pausanias vii.26.6; cf. J. L. Myres, op. cit. (see note 17), 100; Parry,
op. cit. (see note 24), i.144f. For the tendency
to push
the introduction of
letters to Greece after 1000 B.C. see Rhys Carpenter, "The Antiquity
of the
Greek Alphabet," A.J.A. xxxvii (1933), 8-29.
Thucydides I.9; cf. the officials called
in M. Tod, Greek Historical
Inscriptions (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1933), No. 25, who seem to be a sur-
vival from the oral tradition.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature
historian. Though folk-memory persisted,
the introduction
of letters entirely changed the method of composition and
with this change Mnemosyne lost her vitality as a force in
literature. The written word, as it became supreme, nar-
cotized memory.
The transition, however, from oral to written literature did
not come about without a struggle. A pr1rpa of Lycurgus
forbade the putting of the laws into writing.34 In Caesar's
De Bello Gallico we have a glimpse of the struggle which must
have been waged against the encroachment of the written
word upon the spoken word. The Druids, he reports, "learn
by heart a great number of verses, . . . and they do not think
it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in
almost all other accounts they make use of Greek letters. I
believe they have adopted the practice for two reasons-
that they do not wish the rule to become common property,
nor those who learn the rule to rely on writing and so neglect
the cultivation of the memory, and, in fact, it does usually
happen that the assistance of writing tends to relax the
diligence of the student and the action of the memory."
This commentary of Caesar on the Druid opposition to letters
and Lycurgus' law forbidding the commitment of his laws
into writing reflect the persistence of the oral tradition and
the premium an oral society puts on memory. The dislike
for the written word, it is to be noted, is accounted for in part
by the weakening effect it had upon memory which was
prized highly among oral peoples.6
Plutarch Life of Lycurgus XIII; for the oral character of laws cf. S. H.
Butcher, "The Written and the Spoken Word," Some Aspects of the Greek
Genius3 (London, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1904), 183-187.
35 Caesar De Bello Gallico vi.14 (in Loeb Cl. Lib.); cf. Quint. Inst. xi.2.9, cited
by W. H. Thompson in his edition of Phaedrus of Plato (London, Whittaker &
Co., 1868), 136. For oral literature in the sacred literature of India cf. Chad-
wick, op. cit. (see note 23), II.603-625.
J. L. Myres, "Folk-Memory," Folk-Lore
(1926), 234:
In mediaeval
and modern history, this kind of folk-memory for events does not count for
much, all the principal occurrences being established by contemporary docu-
ments, official and otherwise. . . . This, however, while testifying to the
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476 James A. Notopoulos [1938
The existence of this prejudice against the encroachment of
the written word is furthermore reflected in the legend of the
'culture hero' Prometheus, who brought benefits to mankind
and was punished by Zeus. Among the gifts which he gave to
mankind were: "the combining of letters, creative mother of
the Muses' arts, wherewith to hold all things in memory "
luovaoli',rop' p-ya'v?7v).37
Prometheus' gift of letters
wherewith to hold all things in memory is a radical and rather
opposite view to that of the conservative members of oral
society. Here we see the clash between the two views of
early peoples on letters, the conservative element of the oral
society maintaining that it destroys memory, while the pro-
gressive element maintained that it would conserve rather
than destroy memory. This clash is echoed furthermore in
the story of Theuth and Thamus in Plato's Phaedrus. Those
who do not understand the background of oral literature look
upon the story as an invention of Plato, but it is evident that
it is in its essence a genuine tale preserved in folk-memory,
harking back to a time in oral society when the issue of the
written word vs. the spoken word was as real and living as it
was at the time of Lycurgus and among the Druids in the
first century B.C. Theuth is a culture hero like Prometheus;
he discovers number, reckoning, geometry, and letters. Upon
his discovery of letters he submitted them to King Thamus
saying: "This invention, 0 king, will make the Egyptians
wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of
memory and wisdom that I have discovered"
superior efficiency of written records, illustrates also their disastrous
from the folklore point of view-in superseding the practice of oral
as well as the data which it may conserve. In particular, the popular
use of
calendars and diaries, and of consecutive numeration of the years,
instead of
reckoning by reigns, priesthoods, or the generations
of family history,
all this kind of folk-memory from what may be described as its natural content
or background to an artificial and mechanical scheme." For the naturalness
of oral poetry cf. M. Parry, "Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and South-
slavic Heroic Song," T.A.P.A. LXIV (1933),
37 Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 461 (in Loeb. Cl. Lib.).
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 477
KaL oTo4Las 4'appaKov bVpf0?7).38
This story represents the same
view as Prometheus. In the 'culture heroes', like Prometheus
and Theuth, we have the dramatic representation of a
in early peoples who saw in writing an aid to memory; in Zeus
and Thamus, on the other hand, we have the dramatic expres-
sion of the conservative, traditional group of oral society
which, like the Druids, believed that letters might cause the
weakening of memory which was of momentous importance
to oral peoples. In the tale of the Egyptian Theuth
have another echo of an important struggle that was carried
on, analogous to our modern struggle of the hand made vs.
machine made. This echo is preserved in the form of a legend
which Plato dramatized and adapted to his philosophic pur-
poses. The opposition to letters is rationalized by King
Thamus as follows: "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the
ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their useful-
ness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and
now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your
affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which
they really possess. For this invention will produce forget-
fulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they
will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, pro-
duced by external characters which are no part of themselves,
will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
You have invented an elixir (4xap,aKov) not of memory, but of
reminding (v7roV
Phaedrus 274c (in Loeb Cl. Lib.); cf. Philebus 18a; Euripides Palamedes
frg. 582 (Nauck): X7Ois 4&p/taK'; H. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker3 (Berlin,
Weidmann, 1912), II, Dialex. 9 (648, 14 f): Ae'ywtov Krogat K&XXLaTOV
uvAalsa Kat is rivra
xproiAov; cf. A. E.
Taylor, Varia Socratica
(Oxford, J. Parker
& Co., 1911), 127.
For the historicity and place of Theuth cf. G. Maspero, Popular Stories
of Ancient Egypt (London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915), LI (Int.), 20, 31, 129, 150.
40 Phaedrus 274e-275a (in Loeb Cl. Lib.). Note the aptness of the word
to distinguish memory through letters from the memory of oral lit-
erature; cf. S. H. Butcher, op. cit. (see note 34), 188, n. 2. For Plato's aware-
ness of the oral tradition in prehistoric times cf. Timaeus 23c and Laws 886c,
and for the natural association of memory with childhood cf. Timaeus 26b.
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478 James A. Notopoulos
These echoes of the struggle that took place in the transition
period between oral and written literature, as preserved
Plato's dramatic form, are the only context in which we can
hope to understand the opposition of the spoken vs. the written
word in Plato's philosophy. It will be seen that Plato's oppo-
sition to books and his championing of the spoken word, which
is integrally connected with memory in oral literature, is not
a new element but is the reappearance in Plato's philosophy
of the old struggle between memory and letters. The memory
which Plato advocates, it will be seen, is not the memory of
the written word, which is simply a static and retentive mem-
ory, but the creative memory of the oral literature which is
vital and synonymous with thinking itself. Plato's opposition
to the written word is a philosophic analysis of the primitive
dislike of the written word, which was a lifeless thing compared
to the spoken word, as exemplified in the natural, spontaneous
and vivid tonality of oral composition. Plato's thought, it
will be shown, is based on the context of oral literature,
he shares the belief with all oral peoples that the spoken
is closer to the heart of philosophy than lifeless books which
are removed from reality by their mechanical and symbolic
nature. To Plato, who ever seeks to grasp the original, philos-
ophy can only be practiced in an oral context where the dialec-
tician like the oral poet composes with the aid of memory
Plato's belief that the written word is only an image of the
living and breathing word of the philosopher
41 is, as in oral
literature, inevitably
In the context
of oral literature memory is equally a creative factor in
lectic. Memory which plays such a great part in
is a reappearance
in philosophy
of the vital
it once had in the creation of oral epic poetry. Plato recog-
nizes that memory and the spoken word are interrelated.
his association of memory and the spoken
in the Phaedrus is bound up with his conviction that philosophy
should be based upon those forces which make for vitality,
Phaedrus 276a.
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Vol. lxixl Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 479
naturalness and spontaneitv in human expression. The writ-
ten word is, like the rhapsodists' use of
memory, simply
retentive of what was created. The oral poet and philosopher
make use of memory as a creative factor.
That Plato is not creating something new in his use of
memory and his emphasis on the spoken word is evident from
the study of the part memory plays in Greek philosophy.
With the introduction of writing memory becomes a mere con-
vention in literature; it was kept most alive in
religion,42 and philosophy where it continued to keep its vi-
tality. It first appears in our evidence in Pythagoreanism.
Pythagoras, as Burnet has shown,43 preferred the spoken word
and did not commit his thought to writing. "It was not,"
he says, "till Alexandrian times that any one ventured to
forge books in his name. The writings ascribed to the first
Pythagoreans were also forgeries of the same period." Ven-
eration for the spoken word of the Master, abro's 'E4a, and the
story of Hippasus' death for revealing secrets point to a strong
oral tradition in Pythagoreanism. Among the followers of
Pythagoras the exercise of memory
44 was an
important duty. The importance of memory in the Pytha-
gorean thought and way of life is preserved in Iamblichus' Life
of Pythagoras,45 where we are told that the Pythagoreans called
their philosophy 'AKOVaHafara, or 71 r-Lv aKova,uaI-LKoV LtXoUooLa, thus
showing the importance in which the spoken word was held
by the school. Transmission was oral, as in the case of the
Druids, and this was not because of the absence of letters but
rather because of their profound conviction of the superiority
of the spoken over the written word. So deep was their
veneration for the spoken word and its handmaiden memory,
that Pythagorean teachings, as Burnet has shown,46 were not
Cf. Plutarch Moralia 397c, 402d; Tacitus Annales ii.54.
43 J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy4 (London, A. & C. Black, Ltd., 1930),
Diogenes Laertius vIII.22.
45 Iambl. V. P. 82, in Diels, op. cit. (see note 38), ii.280.4, p. 358.
46 J. Burnet, op. cit. (see note 43), 277-284.
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480 James A. Notopoulos [1938
committed to writing till later. This non-existence of written
Pythagorean literature which gave rise in later ages to the
fiction of Pythagorean silence,47 reveals the extent to which
the oral tradition survived even as late as the fifth century.
Behind this phenomenon we see how important the practice
of memory was in this oral society. Iamblichus preserves a
picture of the ritual of mnemonics which reminds us of the
monastic ideals of the Middle Ages: 4ovro U &6V KaTEXECV
btao-q?ELv EV
lriravT TaLa WL6aKo,Eva TE Kai
TOVTOV avaKEva?EaOaL Tas TE /aOr/flEftLs KaLL Ta's aKpOxELS, IUEXPC
X, 6EL 7LVCcTWKELV Kac Ev &'
ETircvv 'yoiv cor4apa Tiv
Kai wroXXIv abTils iroLtovvTo
TE Kai
HuGaay6paos av)p o1v lrp6rEpov 'K Trjs KOLTflS avitoTaTo 1j Ta
. . . o0vEv 'yap /,6EOV 7rpoS
4p6v v rov 'vvaovac
The importance in which
memory was held is shown not only in their oral transmission
and training but also in their philosophy. Memory was repre-
sented by the number Ten which was considered the most
perfect number,49 and the music of the spheres revolving in
unison was called
The importance of Memory in Pythagoreanism
is to be
connected with the Orphic religious background of its thought.
The Orphics, like the Druids of whom Caesar speaks, pre-
served the secrets and doctrines of the sect orally.5"
cardinal doctrine of Orphism and Pythagoreanism,
the trans-
migration of souls, was intimately bound up
with memory
which was the link between this world and'the life after death.
Pythagoras is said to have remembered having been Euphorbus
47A. E. Taylor, Aristotle and His Predecessors (Chicago, The Open Court
Publishing Co., 1927), 39, n. 1; cf. Olympiodorus in Platonis Phaedonem
Commentaria A i.13; Isocrates Bousiris 28.
Iambl. V. P. 164-6 in Diels, op. cit. (see note 38), ii.282, p. 361-2.
Diels, op. cit., i.236.13, p. 305; 235.33, p. 303.
50 Porphyry Vita Pythagorae 131.
A6-yot; 0. Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta (Berlin, Weidmann,
1923), 140f.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature
in the Trojan war, as well as other
and his soul
said to have received from Hermes the
gift of
all the plants and animals in which it had resided.52 On the
thin gold plates which were discovered at Thurii were found
Orphic verses which though of late date refer back to the fifth
century or earlier.53 In these verses we get a picture of the
halls of Hades wherein is a divine fountain of Memory from
which any one may drink who says he is the child of Heaven
and Earth.54 In the oracle of Trophonius in Lebadeia,55
Mnemosyne was the name of one of the two springs in the
cavern of Trophonius, the other being called Lethe. The
symbolic significance of the fountain of Lethe of which one
drank in order to forget all other matters, and the fountain
of Mnemosyne of which one drank in order to remember what
was revealed by the oracle, shows the extent to which the
oral tradition with its stress on memory survived not only in
philosophy but in religion as well.
Oral literature persisted in both Pythagoreanism and Or-
phism, and in their doctrines Memory was enshrined as a god-
dess of great importance. The emphasis on the spoken word
and the vitality of memory in these systems show that there
is no distinct break in the fortleben of oral literature in Greece.
The oral tradition though overshadowed by written literature
in the sixth and fifth centuries continues to be a vital force in
Orphism and Pythagoreanism. Mnemosyne and the spoken
word survived in the a'Kwvouara and mnemonics of the latter
and in the use of oral tradition in oracles and the Mysteries.
It is from these that Plato received as a heritage the signifi-
cance and importance of the spoken word and memory. And
as he did in the case of much that he received from tradition
Plato made the spoken word and memory alive and vital
again, adding new significance and depth to their meaning.
Diels, op. cit., I.24.20, p. 30.
63 W. C. K. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion (London, Methuen &
1935), 172.
54 Kern, op. cit. (see note 51), 32a, p. 105; cf. 297c 2, p. 310.
66 Pausanias ix.39.8, 13; cf. Pindar Isth. vi.75.
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482 James A. Notopoulos [1938
The place that memory occupies in Plato's thought can
only be fully understood by setting it in the context of oral
literature and the recognized superiority of the spoken over
the written word. The conflict between Thamus and Theuth
is another phase of the conflict between memory in the oral
tradition and memory in the written tradition. We have in
Theuth the dramatic expression of a new order in which
memory is made to rely on external symbols for its preserva-
tion. On the other hand King Thamus represents the pres-
ervation of memory in its pristine vitality as illustrated in
the oral tradition of poetry. He objects to Theuth's invention
because it would impair the creative character of memory.
Plato in his explanation of the story decides against Theuth
and sides with Thamus because the function of memory in
philosophy, whose dialectic is oral in character,5" is to give
life, vitality, and naturalness, which are the attributes of the
spoken word. It is the creative use of memory, which is
movement of thought, rather than a fixed formalized retention
of it in the written word, that Plato advocates.
Memory in the oral context is associated in Plato with the
original, and in a written context with the use of images. If
we are to understand Plato's rejection of memory in the
written context and his defense of memory in the oral tradition
we must relate it to his theory of original vs. image. Memory
in the written tradition relies on external symbols and, like
the mathematician who relies on external symbols, is inferior
to memory in the oral tradition. Memory in the oral tradi-
tion, like the dialectic in Plato's "Divided Line", proceeds
unencumbered by symbolism. Oral memory is important
thought because it is direct and free from symbolism; memory
in its written context is, like the book, a lifeless lcbwov.
written word, however, like the image may be a stepping stone
to the original, but the memory of the philosopher must in
its creative apprehension be similar to dialectic. Without
memory, knowledge could not be possible
for the
Cf. the etymology of
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lxixl Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 483
for knowledge is not learning from a written book but a
creative recollection of innate values. For the
as for the oral poet, memory is not a mechanical retention of
something learned from a book 57 but the creative apprehension
of thought or poetry in the soul.
The contrast between memory in the written context and
memory in the oral context is further contrasted in terms of
ELrto,lu. Thamus tells Theuth that letters will give
to students o-ooaS as cav rather than 6XrjGELav; they will become
5Oo0O4OL instead of ooo4oL.5' Memory in its relation to
is creative, i.e. memory is at the basis of the soul's recollection
of the world of ideas. Such a memory is intimately connected
with dialectic which, like the literary form of the dialogue of
Plato's dialogues, reveals its oral basis and its preoccupation
solely with the spoken word. Furthermore this memory
shares in the creative task of dialectic, in its movement upward,
in its vital oral task of 'a,vvauoaL . . .
Memory in
the written context, on the other hand, is unable to proceed
without the images and their imperfect and illusory nature
which characterizes
it is
its written X6yos. is
bandied about (KVXLv3ELTcLr) like an object of
60 among those
who understand and those who have no interest in it; the
written X6oyos always needs its father, the oral X06yos, to help it,
for it has no power to protect itself. The absence of life and
which is the quality of Being,6' relegates "written
memory" into the realm of
the image, the lifeless, the
derivative. The presence of the living power of reason in
oral memory renders thought able to defend itself in argu-
ment, and makes reason the natural handmaiden of dialectic;
the oral nature of reason keeps philosophy from becoming set
as a 'dogma'; any fixed form is likely to hinder and delay
living insight; reason keeps philosophy as a living process,
This faculty is
cf. Phaedrus 275a.
Phaedrus 275b.
*59 Ibid. 275e.
60 Ibid. 2 75e.
Sophist 247e.
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484 James A. Notopoulos [1938
in need of constant exercise to perpetuate itself; reason is
creative, seeking immortality through continual oral discus-
sion.62 Thus this association of memory in the written and
oral context with the opposites 5o'a
reveals the depth
of memory's roots in Plato's philosophy. Memory is not
but without it there can be no dialectic. Behind the
oral tradition is memory, and philosophy is essentially an oral
expression of thought. As Mnemosyne is the mother of
poetry so is she the mother of philosophy. The E"rEa 1rTEpoEvTa
Xo-yov baboavaL are correlative expressions of memory. In
oral poetry the poet creates through memory; in philosophy
the dialectician proceeds bv recollecting the knowledge of the
deas which the soul knows but has forgotten in this world.
The philosopher must depend on his memory of truth and its
oral expression in order to apprehend the truth in the horizon
of the Good. Both oral poetry and oral dialectic found their
true being in Mnemosyne.
Memory in philosophy, says Plato, is a b&-pov . .ris Tc2v
MvflMoorbvfls.63 Here we see definitely Plato's
awareness of the roots of his use of memory in the epic oral
tradition where Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses.
Plato, o
4LXos,64 recognizes the relation of memory
in philosophy to the goddess of oral poetry, and is aware of
the single nature of their source. In the midst of the written
tradition of the fourth century,65 Plato resurrects the impor-
62 Symposium 208a.
Theaetetus 191d.
Athenaeus 5.216b.
Another advocate of the oral tradition and the superiority of the spoken
word over the written word is to be found in Alcidamas who in his Iepl T'^ r robs
,ypacr,ros Xo6yous ypao46vrwv sets forth the advantages of extempore speech.
Alcidamas' statements VOI4Itw be KaL T riv Aa@ro TCZv
ypparrCov Xo6ywv XaXertV
/AV?V ErlrQVOV Kal T7- Xv iv
ev roZs &yaCno ylyveoOa (18), and
65' oiU6 Xoyovs 6tKacov et-va KaceXocOac rov's yeypa/l/.evovS,
a&XX' 'o-rep ea&oXa
Xo6ywv (27) reflect Plato's influence. A study of
Alcidamas' oration which is to be found in Antiphon, ed. F. Blass (Leipzig,
Teubner, 1892), 193-205, shows the conscious attempt to reinvigorate the
oral tradition in the fourth century in other fields besides philosophy.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 485
tance of the oral tradition and its
emphasis on the
word and memory. Through the tale of Theuth and Thamus
he reminds us of the long struggle of memory between remain-
ing purely oral or becoming derivative and symbolic
in its
nature. He reflects this very same struggle in his own philoso-
phy. In the struggle between the written and
spoken word
he sides with Thamus, and in doing so he is
hearkening back
to the oral tradition in which Mnemosyne was one of the
oldest and most important of the deities. In
reminding us of
memory, as being the gift of Mnemosyne, he also reminds us
that he is enthroning her once again as the mother of the
Muses, but this time as the mother of the
Out of this study of the
important and unique survival of
the oral tradition in a period when the written word had sup-
planted oral literature, several problems arise, the answers
to which at best are hypothetical and admit of no proof. In
view of the strongly rooted oral tradition of philosophy in the
school of Pythagoras with its emphasis on the cultivation of
memory and the transmission of the doctrines of the founder
by word of mouth until as late as the fourth century, is there
any connection between Socrates' oral method of teaching and
his abstinence from committing to writing his teaching or
thoughts? We know that Socrates throughout his entire life
taught solely by means of the spoken word, and though he
read the works of other philosophers, like Anaxagoras,66 he
abstained from writing. Burnet and Taylor have shown the
profound influence of Pythagoreanism and Orphism on Socra-
tes' thought, how he was influenced by Pythagoreanism in his
views on the nature of the soul, how he had among his students
members of the Pythagorean school of philosophy who were
with him even on his last day. In view of the influence of
Pythagoreanism on almost every essential phase of his thought,
can his refusal to commit anything to writing and his pre-
Phaedo 97c, f.
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486 James A. Notopoulos [1938
occupation entirely with the oral style be similarly considered
a heritage or influence of Pythagoreanism? We know that
all other schools of philosophy and philosophers committed
their teaching to writing with the exception of the Pythago-
reans and Socrates, who abstained from the written word
because it was inferior to the spoken word. Their abstinence
from writing and the emphasis on the spoken word in their
teaching are too striking to be treated as a mere accident.
Socrates impresses the judgment of his readers as a man who
was likely to follow the consequences of his teachings; if he
thought that books were lifeless and that the spoken word is
nearer to the true expression of philosophy it is not improb-
able that he shared the Pythagorean point of view with regard
to the oral transmission of thought. The exclusive feature of
oral literature in both Pythagoreans and Socrates, and the
absence of such in other contemporary philosophers, lead the
student, who ventures into the realm of probabilities, in the
absence of any positive proof to the contrary, to think that
Socrates was likewise influenced by the Pythagorean view that
oral style was the only proper expression of the philosophical
Another question that arises out of this same context is the
problem of the authorship of the view of the Phaedrus on the
question of the superiority of the spoken word and its intimate
relation to memory. Is this the view of the historical Soc-
rates or is it Plato's own view expressed in the person
Socrates in the dialogue?
If we believe with Burnet and
Taylor in ascribing to Socrates the essential points that he
in the dialogues where he is the central figure,
may consider the doctrine Socratic. The answer to this ques-
tion, however, depends
part upon
the first. If we believe
that Socrates was following
oral tradition
and its refusal to commit doctrines to writing, we certainly
can regard
the doctrine of the Phaedrus as Socratic.67
For references to the Socratic or Platonic origin of this belief, cf. Paul
Shorey, What Plato Said (Chicago,
The University
Chicago Press, 1933),
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature
Perhaps the most startling phase of the
problem of
literature in Plato is the influence of this oral tradition
in works of Plato, like the
Letters, which,
they are
genuine, express his own conviction and belief. Plato
in respect to the problem of the written vs. the oral word in
philosophy one of the most
surprising contradictions;
but this
need not surprise anyone who is aware of the existence of
many contradictions in Plato's work. Plato as the author of
the dialogues is perhaps the most
gifted child of written
literature; he is the product of the written
style and in the
dialogues he is, if we stop to
reflect, the
very opposite of his
master with respect to written expression of thought. Wish-
ing to preserve the
memory of his master he launched on the
composition of the
dialogues, like the oral poet in aim but
unlike him in the means of
expression. He used the written
word to preserve the K?0os of his master.
He did not, however, if the above hypothesis is probable,
escape the teaching of his master that philosophy is best ex-
pressed and its purpose most fulfilled by the practice of oral
style. It is on this basis alone that a certain strain in Plato
can be explained or understood. Plato never committed his
esoteric teaching to writing, but it was communicated and
preserved in the Academy orally. In this aspect we see a
certain deliberate connection with his expression in the Letters.
The eschewal of Plato from committing the esoteric doctrines
of his thought, of which we have echoes in Aristotle, is to be
associated with echoes of the Phaedrus doctrine in the letters
of Plato himself. In the important Seventh Epistle of Plato
we get certain intellectual, biographical revelations on the
relation of philosophy to written expression: "One statement
at any rate," he writes,
I can make in regard to all who have
written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the
subjects to which I devote myself-no matter how they pre-
tend to have acquired it, whether from my instruction or from
others or by their own discovery. Such writers can in my
opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I cer-
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488 James A. Notopoulos [1938
tainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever
do so in future; for there is no way of putting it in words like
other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after
a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself
and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze
kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at
once becomes self-sustaining. . . . If I thought it possible to
deal adequately with the subject in a treatise or a lecture for
the general public, what finer achievement would there have
been in my life than to write a work of great benefit to man-
kind and to bring the nature of things to light for all men?" 68
In these remarks of Plato we get the same conclusion as the
Phaedrus, stated however without the philosophic explana-
tion; it is the personal conviction of an artist who has reached
the same conclusion as Pythagoras and Socrates after con-
siderable years of apprenticeship to literary craft. This senti-
ment can best be understood as a chapter in the history of
oral literature surviving as the best medium of expression in
philosophy. It is the realization of Plato that the doctrine
expressed in the Phaedrus is a sincere conviction of his own
as well, and in this light it is possible, though it cannot be
proven, that Plato's refusal to communicate his real philosophy
to writing is the result of a conviction which Pythagoras and
Plato and in fact many great teachers in the history of thought
have shared: the living word is the most satisfactory language
of the soul in its search of the highest, and attending this con-
viction is the importance of memory which is the natural
'receptacle' of the living word. And such a memory as we
have seen is not merely retentive but is a creative medium
through which the soul enters into communication with the
divine nature of the soul and the ideas which require memory
for any proper apprehension
of them.
Epistle vii.341c-e (translation of L. Post, Thirteen Epistles of Plato
[Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1935]); cf. 344c and Epistle ii.314c;
cf. also the
anecdote (cited by Thompson, op. cit. [see note 35], p. 136) of a disciple
of Plato
related by Hermeias: ra4vra ra Xe-yo6eva 7rap' abToi
KaL Pavacyiq
7rept7reo-lv raVTa O&rwXeo-e, Kau 67re&rTpeIe 7rpo's TIv &6oICaXov,
lrecpa6els o6t ou' B6e ev ,(3Lt,3XoLS ATrotOeoOat T'a
&XX' ev rT
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature
The fortleben of Mnemosyne in the oral context of philoso-
phy in the fifth and fourth centuries, at the
threshold of
the vigorous written tradition, is such as to cause us to wonder
at its vitality. It is only in this context that certain
of our evidence about
Pythagoreans, Socrates and Plato can
be understood. The relation of the Homeric oral literature to
the oral tradition and the importance of
is real and illuminating, and it is only by the association of
the two that we can understand the origins and the nature of
the spoken word in oral composition whether it be in
or philosophy. For men like Socrates and Plato are not to be
understood in vacuo but only as we realize the roots of their
thought which extend to times and practices of which written
literature preserves only echoes.
An inevitable consequence of this is the warning lest we in
our modern criticism, we, the children of the written word,
should apply to the criticism of literature which is oral in
character the concepts or the qualities that we associate with
written literature. In his studies of epic oral literature Parry
has shown the error of such a method which leads to obscurity
of the nature of epic oral creation. In philosophy likewise
we must approach Platonic criticism with standards that are
consonant with the nature and background of oral style in
philosophy. Such an approach to Platonic criticism will show
that we may be called upon to revise certain conceptions or
the basis of certain probabilities.
One of these is the problem of the relation of memory and
the 'historicity' of Socrates in Plato's pages. The problem
of the 'historicity' has been abstracted from the part that
memory may have played in it. In the case of oral poetry
scholars and the spade have shown the trustworthy basis of
folk-memory in Greek legends. Myres maintains that folk-
memory is so intimate and detailed it must not be mistaken
for poetic invention; "the Iliad and Odyssey," he says, "what-
ever their date in the form in which we have them now, rest
on a coherent and trustworthy foundation of folk-memory,
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490 James A. Notopoulos [1938
and give vivid and copious illustrations of a historical Achaean
world." 69 This aspect of memory is the retentive rather than
the creative aspect of it in oral composition. It will be ob-
served that this retentive character of folk-memory is likewise
applicable to dramatic creation in the great age of Attic
drama. The material of tragedy was not invention but data
of folk-memory, for however the tragedians treated the themes
they did not invent them in our sense of the word. The
tragedians like the oral poets are true to folk-memory.
When we come, however, to Plato, memory is omitted as
a factor in the trustworthy basis of his characters and their
utterances. Plato repeats again and again that a philosopher
must have a good memory,70 retentive as well as creative.
The Pythagoreans trained their memory religiously in order
to preserve with accuracy their master's teachings. Socrates
in turn exhibits no wild inventive turn of mind in so far as
the Pythagorean doctrines are concerned; he penetrates to
their meaning and adapts them to his purpose but he does not
invent them. When we come to Plato, however, who was in
the tradition of the spoken word and its association with
memory, who says that the philosopher must be endowed with
a good memory, who heard his master, why need we trans-
port to the problem of the historicity of Socrates or the dia-
logues, the fanciful, imaginative, and tradition-abstracting
tendencies of modern written literature? 71 In a society such
as fifth-century Athens, which was separated only by several
centuries from the oral tradition, such tales as those of Theuth
and Thamus are echoes of an oral era, like the legends of
folk-memory whose kernel of truth Myres so significantly
points out in his book on Who Were the Greeks? Similarly,
Plato's portraits of the contemporaries of Socrates are so
trustworthy that, as Burnet points out, we have in Plato an
essentially true picture of the intellectual background
of fifth-
Myres, op. cit. (see note 17), 313.
70 Republic 486d, 494b, 535c.
Cf. M. J. Austin, "Plato as a writer of imaginary conversations," Cl.
Jour. xvii (1922), 243-55.
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Vol. lxix] Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 491
century Athens; anachronisms are insignificant in this picture
which he drew with fidelity. Imaginative falsification is the
product of written literature rather than of the oral nature
of the interrelation of minds in the Socratic circle. When
Plato wrote about Socrates, the oral tradition of memory was
so vital, fresh and retentive, in contrast to our modern mem-
ory, that it was not a great feat of memory to remember
exactly the content of a conversation in the Socratic circle.
The oral mind is capable of memorizing with ease what seems
incredible to us, and to remember the exact and specific ideas
of a speaker was not unusual. In Plato we have several in-
stances which justify our confidence in the essential trust-
worthiness of reported conversations. It is not without
significance that Socrates is shown in the Menexenus 72 as
endowed with such a power of memory that he can repeat an
oration which he had heard Aspasia make. In the Timaeus
we have another instance of this power of retaining in memory
the substance of a conversation. Critias says:
I listened at
the time with childlike interest to the old man's narrative;
he was very ready to teach me, and I asked him again and
again to repeat his words, so that like an indelible picture
they were branded into my mind. As soon as the day broke,
I rehearsed them as he spoke them to my companions, that
they, as well as myself, might have something to say. And
now, Socrates, to make an end of my preface, I am ready to
tell you the whole." 73 In this we can see the pains Critias
takes so as to report the conversation accurately. Plato is
too great an artist to be endowing his dramatis personae
with powers which they do not possess. If in the fourth
century Niceratus could repeat from memory the entire Iliad
and Odyssey,74 the remembrance of the conversation between
Socrates and Parmenides does not seem "an impossible tour
Menexenus 236 b-c; cf. Hippias' remark that he could memorize fifty
names on hearing them only once, Hippias Major 285e.
Timaeus 26b-c (B. Jowett transl.); cf. Phaedrus 228a.
74 Xenophon Symposium iii.5, 6.
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492 James A. Notopoulos [1938
de force of memory." 76 In these instances Plato has shown
that the power of remembering conversations is not unusual
but is an illustration in the concrete of his statement
forgetful soul we must not list in the roll of competent lovers
of wisdom but we require a good memory". 76 Accuracy in
reporting conversations is thus integrally bound with the oral
practice of philosophy.
We have an actual analogy in the case of Thucydides who
says that he has endeavored in his speeches to give the general
purport of what was actually said; 77 though the style with
which Thucydides clothes all the speeches may lead us to
doubt his remark, as I have tried to show elsewhere,78 it is
the ideas which characterize the speakers that make for trust-
worthiness and fidelity to what was spoken on each occasion.
Thus, although the style in Archidamus' speech is the same
as the style of Pericles' speech, the individual characteriza-
tions of ideas are different. It is on the ideas of individual
characterization that both Plato and Thucydides base the
fidelity of their portraits and not on style. As Taylor has
shown in the case of the Socrates of Plato and that of Aeschines
of Sphettus,79 it is the style that is different, but the individual
characterization of Socrates is the same. The retentiveness
of the masters' ideas, expressed by the living word, is therefore
not an extraordinary thing for Plato, who, as we have seen,
was the child both of the oral and written word. His
of the ideas of a discussion even when he was not
present is
not extraordinary. For example,
if Simmias and Cebes were
present on the last day and heard the discussion of the master
76 Shorey, op. cit. (see note 67), 287.
Republic 486d (in Loeb Cl. Lib.).
J. A. Notopoulos, "Plato, Theaetetus 153, and Thucydides 6.18.6," The
Classical Weekly XXVII (1933), 60-61. For Thucydides' attribution to his
speakers of " ideas and arguments familiar at the time when he represents them
as speaking ", cf. J. H. Finley, Jr., "Euripides and Thucydides," Harvard
Studies in Classical Philology XLIX (1938), 22-68.
A. E. Taylor, "Aeschines of Sphettus," in Philosophical Studies (London,
Macmillan, 1934), 1-27.
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lxixl Mnemosyne in Oral Literature 493
on immortality, their
oral retentiveness was
likely to have imparted to
Plato, who was
accurate report of the conversation. For
an oral
in epic tradition retains the content through meter,
memory of the oral word preserves the ideas rather than the
words, as the speeches of
Thucydides and the
dialogues of
Plato show. And to an audience that received its
of Greek tragedy orally, memory was, as
have shown, a thing of sound rather than of print. To
tradition, or abstract from a
trustworthy context the ideas
of a speaker, is for Plato a practice that is not consonant with
the oral basis of literature or
philosophy. His veneration for
the master is not likely to turn false where it concerns the
living word of his master; for to remember the oral context of
philosophy is to remember truthfully, as the Pythagorean rigid
training of memory reveals.
A re-examination of
Plato, with the added
insight of the
importance of memory and oral tradition in
philosophy, is
essential if we are to get a clear view of the problems of
Platonic criticism. We will then have a sounder basis for
the judgment of such verdicts as: "there is no likelihood that
just such a speech as the Apology was ever delivered to an
Athenian jury."
No solutions of the Platonic problems can
be reached by departing from
Mfcos XVcts. A study
of the form and function of the oral style in philosophy is
therefore one of the ways to establish the character of Platonic
thought. Knowledge of that oral style reveals the originality
and naturalness of Platonic dialectic. By understanding that
its roots lie in the name and nature of Mnemosyne we will,
like the consultors of the oracle of Trophonius, drink of the
fountain of Lethe to forget our errors of criticism, and drink
of the fountain of Mnemosyne to remember what is revealed
to us by the oracle of Plato.
Phaedo 59b.
Shorey, op. cit.
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