If We Lose Our Memory, We Lose Our Religion

A civilization without a memory is an orphan civilization.

Cemetery (photo: fietzfotos / Pixabay / CC0)

In a famous passage from the Phaedrus, Plato recounts a warning that the invention of writing will impair our memories because we won’t take the time to remember things if we know we can just refer to our writing. “If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” If that was his attitude towards writing, I wonder what words he would employ if he saw my students holding up their phones to snap a picture of the board instead of taking notes.

In education there is a heavy emphasis on critical thinking. At times this emphasis has been expressed as if in opposition to memorization and information collection. However, the accumulation of facts is not mutually exclusive to critical thinking. Quite the opposite. Facts and information are helpful, and even necessary, for critical thinking, because we can’t think critically if we don’t have anything in our heads to think critically about. We can’t synthesize ideas if we don’t have any ideas in the first place. Even a computer can’t compute without stored input. Critical thinking isn’t really possible if all we have are contemporary slogans, headlines and mainstream rhetoric.

The cultivation of memory in all its aspects is part of the cultivation of the human person. All of our ideas and the whole way we look at the world are formed from the memories of our experiences, conscious and unconscious. A person without memory is less of a person. It is in the very nature of a person to remember things, to learn from our memories, to enjoy them and to pass them on. Our souls are imbued either with remembrance or forgetfulness. Our memories are a part of ourselves.

The importance of memory is also important for civilization, the arts and religion. A civilization without a memory is an orphan civilization, and its citizens are less anchored than those from a society with a rich history. The memory of a people is what helps give an identity to its people and structure to its life. 

Unfortunately, we live in a society that has not only forgotten its foundations and history (who needs to know it when we can “look it up?”) but has even come to reject and condemn it in the name of being “woke.” In the eyes of many, our history (good and bad alike) is an oppressive system. As a result, we are left looking to “find ourselves” and look for our identity elsewhere. A forgetful culture breeds forgetful people.

Intellectually, there can be no progress in any field without a mastery of one’s predecessors. Philosophy devolved into ruins when philosophers in the so-called Renaissance stopped learning well the philosophy of Aristotle, Plato and Aquinas. Descartes, Hume, Locke and Kant seem to lack a solid understanding of Ancient and Medieval wisdom.

Even Isaac Newton acknowledged the importance of this intellectual memory. He wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” 

When it comes to art, the deeper the memory, the greater source of inspiration. Just as an individual cannot think critically without something in the mind to think critically about, so artists express nothing but expression without meaningful and moving subjects. Christianity is the greatest story ever told, and that is why it was the source of more art than any other belief system in history. Of Bach’s music, Leonard Bernstein wrote, “For Bach, nothing could exceed in pity, terror, or exultation the simple story of Christ and the wonder of man’s relation to him.  And it is here in the drama of Christianity that Bach’s dramatic genius burns most brightly.”

It was no mistake or random chance that the Ancient Greeks thought Memory was the mother of the muses. C. S. Lewis wrote that ancient mythology was like gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on jungles of filth and imbecility. This insight to the relationship between memory and art was certainly a gleam of celestial beauty.

As for religion, it must be made clear that our faith is based on the historical fact that the Son was “incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” If we lose our memory, we lose our religion.

The memory is vital (literally, life-giving) to the human soul, to civilization, to the arts and to our faith. It must be cultivated, or else we will wither. The great danger is in the ignorance that does not know its own ignorance.