Textualization of Experience

Studies on Ancient Greek Literature

by Paweł Majewski (Author)
Monographs 238 Pages

Table Of Content


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About the editors

The Author
Paweł Majewski, professor at the University of Warsaw. His books concern the influence of means of communication on the formation of cultural systems (Writing, Text, Literature, Warsaw 2013; The Speaking Lion, Warsaw 2018; The Feast of the Language, Warsaw 2019) and the works of Stanisław Lem (Between an Animal and a Machine. Technological Utopia of Stanisław Lem, Peter Lang 2018).

About the book

Paweł Majewski

Textualization of Experience

The book is an analysis of Greek Hellenistic literature with the help of conceptual tools of cultural studies and media theory. Its main aim is to describe the cultural process during which Greek authors in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. made the “textualization of experience”, that is, transferred phenomenalistically understood qualities of human sensory experience to the categories characteristic for textual description – as far as possible for them. This process is shown by examples from the works of Xenophon, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Philitas of Kos and Archimedes. The author also tries to show some of the consequences that the phenomenon of the Hellenistic textualization of experience had for the later epochs of European culture.

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In the second book of his treatise On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero criticizes the views of the Greek atomists from the school of Epicurus:

At this point must I not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that there are certain solid and indivisible particles of matter borne along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this elaborate and beautiful world? I cannot understand why he who considers it possible for this to have occurred should not also think that, if a countless number of copies of the one-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, made of gold or what you will, were thrown together into some receptacle and then shaken out on to the ground, it would be possible that they should produce the Annals of Ennius, all ready for the reader. I doubt whether chance could possibly succeed in producing even a single verse! (De natura deorum II, 37, 93)1

Citing this passage of Cicero in a study on the ancient ideas concerning the notion of “element” (stoicheion), Hermann Diels emphasizes its similitude to the shape of fonts in the printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg, and points to the Democritean analogy between the atoms and the letters of the alphabet, enumerating other passages from ancient Greek and Latin texts, whose authors are using this representation too. But for Democritus or Lucretius, the comparison of the elements of matter to the letters of alphabet was nothing more than a visual illustration of their ontological and sometimes ethical views – and for Cicero such a comparison would be intolerable, since it is tantamount to a refutation of meaningfulness and purposefulness of the human world. It is very significant that Cicero mentions The Annals of Ennius – the most significant Roman historical epic before Virgil, of which he was also personally and intellectually fond – as an example of improbable coincidence which would be a random composition of scattered letters into just that poem. The vision of the world as a space of stochastic natural actions was utterly unacceptable for Cicero. In his terms, for the human mind desiring an order of things the world structured by ←9 | 10→chance from atoms and at the same time equipped with internal meaning is unbearable – equally as a text structured from aleatory letters and nevertheless equipped with internal meaning – because isolated atoms and isolated letters are equally nonsensical and meaningless. Through many centuries, in every culture of alphabetic writing, the users of this writing will look for sense and meaning in their world and in their texts, taking for granted – more or less consciously – that on some level of organization of the world and, respectively, of the text, the fundamental configuration of their components somehow obtains its internal cohesion, and that the discovery that cohesion is a crucial task of the human intellect. And when Marshall McLuhan in the middle of the twentieth century will stubbornly repeat that the alphabetic writing creates the modern man in a particular way because it consists of meaningless signs representing meaningless sounds – and at the same time, in its innumerable combinations, creates a canon of cultural texts defining the identity and self-consciousness of its users (who are also the users of culture) – he will also involuntarily repeat the idea of Cicero, though in an approbative context, like Lucretius in Roman antiquity.


This book is a separate intellectual enterprise, but it is also, to some extent, a continuation of my previous book, Writing, text, literature. The writing practices of ancient Greeks and the matrix of European cultural memory (Warszawa 2013), where, using achievements of diverse schools of the modern humanities, I try to sketch a scenario of the development of ancient Greek literacy to show how the mutual influences of the two main media of cultural communication, speaking and writing (in its alphabetical form), shaped the evolution of European culture. I was interested particularly in such influence that exists beyond intentional attitudes of creators and participants of cultural circulations of symbolic representations and nevertheless is not apprehended under the categories of “structure” and “system.” In that book, I considered various cultural phenomena, from Presocratic gnomas to the philological works of Alexandrians. But I omitted great number of textual phenomena, whose presence in ancient times may still contribute to the better understanding our present culture.

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Here, I would like to partially fulfil this gap by showing how the people from Greek antiquity have been undertaking the task of the textualization of experience.

The notion of “experience” becomes now very popular after a long time of oblivion in the epoch when anti-subjective modes of thinking about human world prevailed in the humanities. It is a very problematic and multifaceted term, a term which has – just in its scope affirmed today – a long history dating from David Hume or even Francis Bacon. In this book, I understand “experience” as a resource of sensual data reaching to the consciousness of a human being by his or her sensorium based on the biological apparatus of perception and further subjected to volitional, emotional, and reflexive categorization in his or her mind. The data processed in such a way are connecting with sets of symbolic representations and resources of cultural memory, from which every human being draws his or her knowledge of lifeworld and to which he or she can add his or her own particle of data as a member of a community that is endowed with history, tradition, and identity – and all that finally becomes the content of “experience”. It is not hard to see that this account diverges far from the division between naturalist and culturalist methods of anthropological thinking. Indeed, this divergence is fully intentional. As a matter of research, the most important stuff for me are the forms of cultural communication and its media: above all, the alphabetic writing, mainly in its social and cultural dimension of writing practices, and the text, mainly as product of these practices functioning between senders and recipients of messages. To some extent, also speech is a subject of my interest – but only insofar as its momentality allows any research about its practices – because the speech is always actually correlated with writing practices in literate cultures.

“Text” is a term ubiquitous in this book. Usually, it has no connection with any particular specimen of any concrete notation, but also it has no relations with semiotic and structural theories of the sign. “Text” is meant here as a historically determined medium of cultural communication, similarly to e.g. the phone in modern times. Because I am concerned mainly with the culture of ancient Greece, it is obvious that “text” almost always means here a chirographic notation, a manuscript written in a book in the shape of a roll. In many cases, however, its chirography and the form of its material medium play a minor role as it is not always possible nor desirable ←11 | 12→to have reasonable deliberations about the contribution of chirography in the epistemological and communicational functions of the text, which are the most important subject of my interest. I was trying not to hypostatize this term, not to make “The Text” from just “a text,” or turn it into some kind of interpretational fetish or a skeleton key in my inquiries. It is only a few times that I have decided to capitalize this word. And as for the difference between the text and writing, one may put it as follows: writing is a consequence of writing or sending practices, while the text is a consequence of the reading or receiving practices. In a purely material aspect, the text and writing are often, but not necessarily, the same thing.

In ancient Greece, these three media: speech, writing, and text – which, alongside image and performance, are the most fundamental media of communication in the human history hitherto – have determined, with their numerous mutual relations and influences, not only self-consciousness of man in his world of life, his understanding of his own existential position, but also the modes of articulation of that self-consciousness and understanding (together with experience as defined above, which is its crucial component) in symbolic messages that have informed subsequent phases of the development of the European culture. This statement is apparently self-evident, since it is hard to imagine any articulation of the human existential or symbolic data contained in a form other than verbal. In this case, there are only two possible alternatives: the image, a category which constitutes the second great field of symbolic communication, and the spectacle or performance which constitutes the third and last of these fields. It would be extremely difficult to indicate a phenomenon of any human culture in their historically recorded entirety, which in its intersubjective appearance and transmission would not be articulated in one of these fields or their various combinations – this is the only possible mode of making these data present in the reflective consciousness of human beings who participate in the system of culture. From my perspective, the most interesting issue is the evolutional and dynamical change of proportions between the “verbal” and “scribal” components in the process of transmission of experience between human beings. In this book, I have decided to analyze these ancient forms of this process (“ancient” means here also: primordial for our cultural circle, for our civilization), in which writing definitely prevailed over speech.

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Speech and writing report human experience for humans and toward humans. Here is another statement which seems to be trivial, but after a more detailed inspection becomes no less problematic than the antecedent one. For it quickly becomes clear that the word, spoken or written, communicates experience in a very ambiguous manner, and that is because – again, it is apparently trivial – neither the spoken nor written word is identical with the content and experiencing of real experience, unless it is experience of the word as such (the “power of the living word” or “intensely experienced lecture of a novel”), which, in turn, requires advanced reciprocal reflection concerning the medium of language or, on the contrary, a total lack of such a reflection, when the word and the thing designated by it are the same for the speaker and the listener (viz. the writer and the reader). The problems of mimesis, of reference of the signs of language or of relation “word-object,” and the historical and cultural motives such as “inexpressible,” “unnameable,” “the limits of language,” “Aleph” form Borges’ stories and its cabbalistic provenance, “zaumny yazik” (“zaum,” “the language beyond the mind”) of the Russian avant-garde, “universal language” as a goal of inquiries of whole cohorts of intellectuals and maniacs or “metalang” featured by Stanisław Lem in his Imaginary Magnitude – all these concepts and much more emerge from a fundamental, essential difference between experience as it is meant in this book and each possible expression of this experience regardless of the time, place, and mode of its articulation.

The textualization of the resource of immediate data of consciousness is a mean which enables their symbolical transmission toward the consciousness of others, who were beyond the scope of physical propagation of these data. To put it more simply, thanks to their writings and texts human beings are able to recount for other human beings their own sensual and existential experiences, observations, perceptions, and intellectual reflections derived from all this stuff. Furthermore, there is no need for personal interaction – as distinct from the use of living words, articulated with all riches of nonverbal means of communication. Conscious living, observation, and action – three great domains connecting and engaging the mental realm of the human being with his or her body, movements, and operations, which, taken as a whole, form the entire body of experience: in their verbal, reflective expressions, mediated by an apparatus of ←13 | 14→hierarchically structured notions and categories of language, they create what we are used to call “knowledge.”

In the European culture – and indeed all other human cultures, which accepted writing and its accompanying practices as the main medium for the transmission of cultural messages – the possibility of the transmission of experience (resulting from conscious living, observations and actions) at a distance, or the possibility of the creation of textual knowledge is so obvious that, for members of these cultures, it is extremely hard to imagine any alternative for such a state of human affairs. But, I repeat it once again, there is not a single element of this medial situation that would be obvious or self-evident; instead, all of these elements are the results of cultural processes which, at initial phases of their development, were only faintly made aware by human beings, while at more advanced phases were often just taken for granted by them – as phenomena which are natural, transparent, and neutral for the process of expression and the transfer of experience.

In order to stress the divergence between lived and transferred experience, I use in this book a term coined by Edmund Husserl in 1936 – Lebenswelt (lifeworld) – which became popular among philosophers and sociologists from the phenomenological school. Husserl’s term is especially helpful for my inquiries because it determines a whole complex of sensual experiences and feelings, together with their accompanying mental reactions and intellectual processes evoked in every human being by his or her immediate “here-and-now” experienced material environment. “Experience” which I am talking about is embedded exactly in Lebenswelt.

It must be strongly stressed that we draw each one element of our knowledge of the external world, which exceeds beyond Lebenswelt, from the communicational media. Before radio, cinema, and TV became globally widespread, the only medium suitable for the extension of human Lebenswelt – besides the living speech of others and a limited number of visual images that proliferated only in the era of their mechanical reproduction – was writing, which down to the middle of the fifteenth century circulated in the western civilization only in the form of manuscripts. That said, the main goal of this book is to answer the question how “experience,” as described above, has transformed into so conditioned forms of message.

In the twentieth century, the problem of the linguistic framing of experience preoccupied many thinkers from the phenomenological and ←14 | 15→hermeneutic schools. It also proved interesting for the structuralists and poststructuralists, even though they approached it from another, not subjective, standpoint, in which the object of deep thoughts becomes the problem of reference of linguistic signs in abstraction from the subjective-experiential realm.

In turn, the inheritors of positivism developed distinct theories of knowledge, founded on their obvious certitude about the “naturality” and absolute, non-relative status of its linguistic, especially textual, expressions. At the end of the previous century, besides the further development of all these modes of thinking, there was a rapid growth of new methods of thought concerning both experience as such and its linguistic expressions. Now these questions are dealt with by researchers from so different areas as: postcolonial studies, gender and queer studies, grounded theory in social sciences, cultural studies, memory studies, sensory studies, and so on. We are observing an intense reflection especially on experiences related to the negative aspects of human social and historical condition, such as: exclusion, marginalization, stigmatization, privation, traumatization, and victimization. It is hard to overestimate the role of Holocaust studies, where the problem of intersubjective (non)expressibility of the border experiences is putting and discussing with extreme acuity. Most of these academic investigations is diversely related to the current social and political problems of our civilization. Within this panoramic view the “pure” scientific knowledge turns out to be only one among many equivalent elements, highly dependent on non-scientific aspects of its creation and transmission. This knowledge is also no more – at least in the actual phase of our cultural evolution – the highest, most privileged form of learning. Moreover, it is impossible to attribute such a role to anyone other form of knowledge, except by virtue of an arbitrary decision.

So, the notion of experience – a notion extraordinarily important in our time, even, so to say, neuralgic for the contemporary cultural and political common consciousness – is present today in philosophy, historiography, social sciences, literary studies, and anthropology – and everywhere it is embedded (categorially and analytically) in the metacategories which are emerging from writing practices, from the textual thinking founded for the Europeans by the ancient Greeks, with Plato and Aristotle at the forefront.

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By formulating such a supposition (which was proved already in my previous book and here the proof is being continued), I am not intending to project some kind of escape or even withdrawal from this situation – a situation which would be labelled by more radical theorists as the prison of writing. We cannot get out form this prison for this would require us to exceeded the borders of language understood as a tool for the human communication. The only thing we can do is to try to make our utterances – verbal and textual – as meaningful and affecting as it is possible for us, even when these utterances say nothing about the reality as such; like this book which, to be sure, is composed only from interpretations of other books and texts, but which nonetheless strives in its content to get out of the brackets of text enclosing that part of our world which is not a text and which appeared within these brackets only in part and by way of contingency.

One can guess that part is pars maxima. For those of us who are not the inhabitants of textual world such guessing is obvious, but just because writing is not their natural environment, they are seldom able to articulate this obviousness. So, usually they are content with its silent experience.

1 Cicero in twenty-eight volumes, vol. XIX, De Natura Deorum, Academica, with an English translation by H. Rackham, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd (Loeb Classical Library 268), MCMLXVII, p. 213.

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Chapter 1 The rhetors and the rhapsodes: notes on two modes of remembering

Before I get to describing the cultural phenomena connected mainly with the presence of the text in the Greek Hellenistic culture, I would pay some attention to the one of human mental abilities, which, although based on an organic, biological fundament, enters into a close relationships with the media transferring the cultural content and yields to their influences. This ability is what we call memory. And the question is: how the relations between memory and the plexus “oral/written” were formed in those phases of ancient Greek culture when writing and the text already dominated the circulation of symbolic signs.

In the Greek mythology, the mother of Muses was Mnemosyne – the personification of memory. She has this role e.g. in the lineage of gods described by Hesiod in Theogony.2 There is no doubt that, before the broad proliferation of print, memory was one of the major human mental powers in terms of their importance for the cultural system. After all, it was the mental power responsible to the greatest extent for the transfer of cultural messages everywhere besides relatively narrow social groups dominated by the circulation of the manuscripts.

Memory performed a very important function in the ancient culture, both in oral and written transmissions. Its functioning in oral transmissions has been analyzed meticulously but not decisively by such theorists of oralism as Milman Parry, Albert B. Lord, Walter J. Ong, Eric A. Havelock, and their successors working on the borders between classical and cultural studies at the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. In turn, the role of memory in the written forms of ancient and early medieval European culture has been precisely described for the first time in two initial chapters of ←17 | 18→Frances Yates’ book, The Art of Memory, and later in a number of medieval studies with Mary Carruthers’ works at the forefront. So, it might seem that there is nothing more to say about this topic. But this is not the case, since no one so far has analyzed mutual relations between these two modes of memory, which are very different. As we shall see, these are the two oldest modes of memorization in our culture and they furnish a constant point of reference for all later models up to our time.3

This is not an unfounded statement. One needs only to read major works written by the scholars interested in oralism and the “art of memory” to find out that each of these groups of scholars was not interested in the results obtained by the other; perhaps, they did not even know about each other. Thus, in the second chapter of her book about the art of memory Frances Yates writes:

One must believe, I think, that Simonides [a Greek archaic poet, traditionally recognized as the inventor of the art of memory – add. PM] really did take some notable step about mnemonics, teaching or publishing rules which, though they probably derived from an earlier oral tradition, had the appearance of a new presentation of the subject. We cannot concern ourselves here with the pre-Simonidean origins of the art of memory; some think it was Pythagorean; other have hinted at Egyptian influence. One can imagine that some form of the art might have been a very ancient technique use by bards and story-tellers. The inventions supposedly introduced by Simonides may have been symptoms of the emergence of a more highly organized society. Poets are now to have their definite economic place; a mnemonic practiced in the ages of oral memory, before writing, becomes codified into rules.4

Yates was a pioneer in modern research concerning the ancient art of memory. Before her book, only a few texts on that theme appeared.5 In ←18 | 19→the greatest encyclopedia of the classical studies ever published (Pauly’s Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft), whose eighty volumes emerged as result of nearly hundred years of work of the best classical scholars (1894–1980), an entry about mnemonics fulfils only one column, and even not entirely. One can suppose that for the text-centered scholars from the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries “the theatres of memory” and other mnemotechnic tricks described by Quintilian or Cicero6 were embarrassing relics of an age when the written text had not yet the absolute power over human minds. In turn, the successors of Milman Parry on the field of oral studies were not interested in the art of memory for a quite opposite reason: it was a product of advanced literacy and the fact that there were relics of oral environment in it had no significance, at least for those of them, for whom the transit from “the oral” to “the written” was a revolution, not an evolution. Frances Yates herself spotted possible connections between the two distinct modes of memory: that of rhetors and that of rhapsodes. Still, she made only a general mention about these connections because her attention was focused on subsequent, mostly renaissance forms of the art of memory. Besides, it seems she did not know the achievements of Parry and Ong in detail, or she just ignored them.7 That is why memory of Homeric rhapsodes and ←19 | 20→memory of sophists and rhetors became separated from each other in the contemporary humanities.

But were they separated only then? Let us have a look on a passus from Pliny’s Natural History. Discussing the human mental abilities in the seventh book, Pliny mentions also memory (this fragment is almost identical with a passus in Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, XI 2, 50–51, and this may be a proof for the stability of Roman imagination about the notion of memory).

Here, Pliny understands memory as an ability to reproduce exactly the sets of names and relations occurring among them and among their designates. This is just such understanding of memory as it happens in written cultures – because writing becomes a matrix of memory, which should be mapped with absolute precision in subsequent mental acts of remembrance. One can see that this notion of memory is totally different from the dynamic memory of aoides as reconstructed by Ong and Havelock. It is significant that Pliny ←20 | 21→does not mention about the aoides at all: people who were able to memorize many thousands of epic verses (no matter how they did it) obviously would have catch the attention of the author who so willingly cited and narrated all exceptional achievements known to him – as is clearly visible even in the passage cited above. Instead of this, he recalls apocryphal tales about Cyrus the Great and Mithridates. So, it can be concluded that Pliny just did not know about the existence of aoides, and that he certainly did not know about their memorical achievements. And it is true also about Cicero and Quintilian, which means that probably no one of them found any information concerning the details of the activities of aoides in the Greek writings available to them, i.e. – in all Greek literature.

This statement is not surprising, because Plato and Aristotle, who lived few hundred years earlier, also mention the aoides and rhapsodes seldom and reluctantly.9 Moreover, all these authors undoubtedly knew the persons of Demodocus and Phemios from Odyssey, and yet they did not associate their songs – songs of true aoides – with the question of memory, which means probably that in their own personal memory and creative imagination Demodocus and Phemios were only fictitious persons, whose actions do not require any serious inquiry, other than actions of real men. They simply did not care, how aoides sung their songs; anyway, they probably thought that these older singers have already used a written text of their songs.10 But why memory of sophists and rhetors was so radically cut off from memory of their predecessors? To put it somehow paradoxically: why memory of the text forgot memory of speech?

Let us quote Frances Yates once again: “a mnemonic practiced in the ages of oral memory, before writing, becomes codified into rules.”11 For ←21 | 22→Yates, oral memory of rhapsodes is just the primal, primitive, intuitive ability, which can be appreciated only insofar as it is framed within the strict rules of artis rhetoricae. In fact, her account did not differ from the views of all modern of rhetoric, and its ancient codifiers, too, at least those who noticed any kind of memory other than rhetoric one, which was rare. And Eric A. Havelock, in his studies on Greek mentality in the fifth century BC showed that the rising literacy produced a similar approach to oral culture among sophists and philosophers, although in their case this approach was naturally ambivalent, because they dealt with a new medium of communication, with which they had to come to terms. But Havelock, because of his main area of interest was the influence of writing on the Greek philosophy, did not include into his analyses the fact that transition from orality to literacy did not take away the importance of memory, but just changed this role, so radically that the memory of rhapsodes’ memory vanished very quickly. What this change was about?

The proliferation of writing freed the Greek minds from the necessity of memorization of all the content of their symbolic culture – this theorem is one of the main assumptions of the whole theory of the ancient Greek orality. There is also an equally common assumption that this freedom was associated in Greek minds not only with benefits, as evidenced by the legend of Theuth and Thamus narrated in Plato’s Phaedrus. For Plato, the transfer of memory from the inside of the human mind to its outside – that is to say, into the text – was related with a danger of “corruption of thought:” it was a purely ethical question, and it is for purely ethical reasons that Socrates in Platonic dialogues criticizes the mindless learning by heart of sophistic declamations. “Forgetfulness,” about which Thamus speaks, should be understood not verbatim, as an oblivion of any content of the mind, but as a component of the Platonic metaphysics: it is an oblivion of Truth in favor of “beliefs” (doxai), which occurs every time the living word of a. real dialogue between a master and a seeking disciple degrades to the form of a mute, written, and petrified substitute, available to any random reader, who can read it in any random way. Nevertheless, if one considers this question out of its ethical context, it will turn out that the process of introduction of writing to Greece admittedly deprived the oral memory of its raison d’etre but did not eliminate the need for memory as such.

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The Greeks no longer needed the psychodynamics of orality as reconstructed by Ong – that is why they forgot it so soon. But they still needed a form of cultural memory, because the growing circulation of written texts did not eliminate from their mentality certain primal features of oral culture. I mean here the culture of “the living word,” rhetoric, the culture of speeches that in ancient Greece and Rome were delivered only from memory. No renowned sophist or rhetor read his speeches from written scrolls. And that is precisely the point where the art of memory begins. Its putative inventor was the poet Simonides of Ceos, but all its Greek masters known by their names – like Metrodorus of Scepsis, or Hippias of Elis12 – were also the rhetors. They could construct their arguments using all the benefits of writing: the hypotactic syntax, the system of abstract ideas and notions, the inner critic of one’s own and someone else’s discourse. But they presented the final result of all these “written” treatments for the public just as their predecessors performing the Homeric songs. And the same way of presentation of very different structures of enunciation required also a very different method of memorization. This method was just the art of memory.

Therefore, I would argue that the art of memory – ars memoriae, whose history we can trace in the European culture from the fifth century BC onwards to the Age of Enlightenment – is a technique of transfer of the cultural content that, in the process of evolution of Western culture considered in terms of its media evolution, was a succession of oral psychodynamics subjected to the rigors of the written discourse. The beginnings and development of the art of memory resulted from the few centuries of mutual interpenetration of both these modes of cultural communication. In an older (“revolutionary”) version of the theory of Greek orality, the occurrence of the art of memory is incomprehensible: writing just frees its users from the necessity of memorization. And perhaps that is why the more radical theorists of orality showed no interest in this problem.

Let us set up a “discrepancy report” between the oral mode of memory and the written one.

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The psychodynamics of orality The art of memory
Enunciation type formular rhetorical
Repetition type approximate (contextual) verbatim (textual)
Performers rhapsodes and aoides sophists and rhetors
Social form aristocracy, oligarchy democracy
Method performance, improvisation mind palace, algorithm
Medium living word, voice written text
Senses whole sensorium eyesight
Physiological context body mind

When I use the term “performance,” I mean not only the social conditions of the performance situation but also the image of rhapsody emerging from Lord and Parry’s research, which involves not only “pure memory,” i.e. the memory used by the written man, but also all of his carnality – the same aspect of the psychodynamics of orality is referred to in the table by the terms “whole sensorium” and “body” contrasted with “eyesight” and “mind” on the side of the art of memory. These somatic aspects of the psychodynamics of orality bring it closer to the phenomenological analyses of Merleau-Ponty and his successors.13

Let us now look at some excerpts from the source texts on the art of memory in ancient times. In the body of preserved works devoted to the theory of rhetoric, they constitute a small fraction, which indicates little interest of Roman theorists of pronunciation in this problem.14 Greek texts concerning this field have been too little preserved to allow us to formulate ←24 | 25→binding judgements, but it is worth noting that in both Aristotle’s Rhetorics there is not even a single mention of memory, and his short dissertation On Memory (449 b-453 b) deals with this problem in complete detachment from the historical, social, and cultural context. In other words, the Stagirite adopts a naturalistic, not a cultural understanding of the phenomenon of memory. Many remarks that shed light on the transition from oral to rhetorical memory would certainly be found in the works of the sophists, from which only small fragments survived to our times. The Roman author of Rhetoric for Herennius says (III, 23, 38):

Then he criticizes this method as ineffective. This is one of our few specific information about the mnemonics of sophists. It can be assumed that the multiplicity of imagines, i.e. mental representations of objects that were connected with words and problems of prepared and uttered speech, postulated by sophists, maintains a strong connection with oral psychodynamics, with the richness of details characteristic for it and for the originally embedded home epics, serving to make the stream of speech better present in the minds of the recipients.

Memory (memoria) was the fourth of five phases of speech preparation in the most frequent, peripathetic division of rhetoric. However, the most important were the first three phases: inventio, dispositio, and elocutio. They determined the scope, content, and shape of the speech, the means of expression used in it and the methods of persuasion. Memory only served to consolidate the finished material, and the fifth part of the standard theory of rhetoric – pronuntiatio – was as neglected as the previous one, but also equally interesting from the point of view adopted here. For it was a theory of the very performance of speech, covering the same issues mentioned here in connection with “motorics,” “somaesthetics,” and “memory of the body” in the psychodynamics of orality – but also treating them ←25 | 26→in a completely different way. However, let us return to the memory of rhetoric.16

One statement about memory can be found in Cicero’s youthful work on the first of the most important parts of pronunciation theory, De inventione (I, 9). It is a concise definition:

memoria est firma animi rerum ac verborum perceptio [Memory is the firm mental grasp of matter and words].17

Let us note that, already in this very short term, one can see a certain connection with oralism, unintentional by the author, just like all the others I will be pointing out here. For Cicero speaks of a grasp [perceptio] of words and matter. The notions of res and verbum, which are standard in the theory of rhetoric, roughly correspond to our terms of content and form. Res is an image of a thought, which the speaker must pin on the words. This image does not necessarily consist of things, of representations of ←26 | 27→material objects – it may be an image of ideas or emotions – but, as is clear from the source texts, it is related to a mental state in which words do not yet appear. Therefore, it can be assumed that the rhetor’s res corresponds, to a certain extent, to the visual image evoked by the rhapsod’s recitation in the minds of the listeners. We can see, however, that what was the final result of the oral psychodynamics is a prefabricated element in rhetorical theory. The medium of writing and text already includes the leading in the process of producing and transmitting a performative statement. Still, if we were to consider that in the theoretical juxtaposition of res-verbum there is some remnant of oral culture, even with an inverted sign, we would at the same time adopt the hypothesis that the very opposition of “form” and “content,” whose role in the history of European reflection on literature and art does not need to be reminded, would be yet another residuum of the ancient element of speech and its gradual change in writing, which could be added to the long list of such “residua” that constitute the self-knowledge of Western culture.18

To be sure, it is impossible to make such a strong hypothesis based on a single sentence. So let us take a look at the next significant fragments of these deliberations. The oldest description of mnemonics at our disposal is the conclusion of the third book of Rhetoric for Herennius – a treaty once attributed to Cicero, written between 86 and 82 BC. We read there (III, 17, 30):

Those who know the letters of the alphabet can thereby write out what is dictated to them and read aloud what they have written. Likewise, those who have learned mnemonics can set in “backgrounds” [locis]19 what they have heard, and from these backgrounds deliver it by memory. For the backgrounds [loci] are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images [imagines] like the letters, ←27 | 28→the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery [pronuntiatio] is like the reading [lectio].20

This extensive comparison is evidence for the mixing of elements of speech and writing culture in ancient rhetoric theory. The thought patterns specific to both these media of cultural communication are mixed here. Although the comparison of memory to the tablet on which records appear is a great literary topos, whose realizations we have seen over the course of more than twenty centuries, from Plato to Locke21, this does not mean that one cannot point out specific conditions of this topos in any of its historical moments, especially the early ones. By the way, today’s Internet users, who sometimes treat the electrographic recording of the text in the interface of the web pages as if it were a typographic recording, that is to say, embedded stable on the surface of the print page, reason along the lines of the author of Rhetoric for Herennius.

In describing imagines, the author makes an important distinction (III, 20, 33):

Since, then, images [imagines] must resemble objects [res], we ought ourselves to choose from all objects likenesses for our use. Hence likenesses are bound to be of two kinds, one of subject-matter, the other of words. Likenesses of matter [res] are formed when we enlist images that present a general view of the matter with which we are dealing; likenesses of words [verba] are established when the record of each single noun or appellative is kept by an image [imago].22

At this point another clash of oral and written model of memory is visible, which causes a certain inconsistency in the quoted sentence, in which first there is a general similarity of imagines to res and immediately afterwards – two kinds of similarities, to res and to verba. The first of these similarities has its roots in the psychodynamics of orality: mental representations correspond to the general image of the spoken thought, not to single words. However, matching imagines to specific words is already a correlate of ←28 | 29→writing. The mental image becomes here an instance of the process of remembering derived from the written image of a word. Only in such a situation can the utterance be mentally dismembered into its individual verbal parts.

The following sentences of Rhetoric for Herennius describe a concrete example of using imagines. Without going into its detailed analysis (otherwise made by Frances Yates), I merely point out that the nature of associations according to which imagines should be selected for both res and verba has much more to do with “written mnemonics” than with mimetic intuition based on the general framework of the narrative, as Ong and Havelock had it. In short, these associations hinge on a rational-abstract analysis of the content of the statement, for which writing is the proper medium, not the voice. In the next example (III, 21, 34), which concerns remembering a poetic text (and thus a kind of text closer to the art of rhapsodies than judicial and showpiece speeches), there are also sentences in addition to similar technical recommendations:

After these sentences one can no longer doubt that writing is the primary medium for the rhetorical art of memory. Any remnants of living speech created spontaneously are subordinated to it to such an extent that nobody remembers their origin.

These are not all the important observations of the anonymous author of Rhetoric for Herennius. In the following, he deals with determining which imagines are best for enhancing memory, which ones work best on it. His conclusion is as follows (III, 22, 36): “Thus nature shows that she is not aroused by the common, ordinary event [such as sunrise and sunset – add. PM], but is moved by a new or striking occurrence [such as a solar eclipse – add. PM].”24 Here, another influence of writing becomes apparent: the speaker’s memory no longer reacts to “everyday life” because it is not ←29 | 30→burdened with the obligation to contain the entire content of culture. There is no longer any need to remember long enumerations, lists, genealogies, or detailed behavioral scenarios. Thus, what is particularly easy to remember becomes “uncommon.” And so it is in Western culture to our days.

One of the last sentences in the part of Rhetoric for Herennius devoted to memory is: “So, since a ready memory is a useful thing, you see clearly with what great pains we must strive to acquire so useful a faculty.”25 Whether the view of the ancient aoides and rhapsodes on their own art was similar to this bitter self-awareness of rhetoric, cannot be determined today. Perhaps, they did not pay so much conscious attention to their own technique as to be able to formulate such reflections.

Let us move on to another elaboration of rhetorical art. In the dialogue On the Orator (De oratore), Cicero adds to the image of memory we have already learned some interesting details related to legal practice. When calculating the benefits for a judicial speaker of mastering the art of memory, he says through one of the participants in this dialogue (II 355):

But what business is it of mine to specify the value to a speaker and the usefulness and effectiveness of memory? of retaining the information given you when you were briefed and the opinions you yourself have formed? of having all your ideas firmly planted in your mind and all your resources of vocabulary neatly arranged? of giving such close attention to the instructions of your client and to the speech of the opponent you have to answer that they may seem not just to pour what they say into your ears but to imprint it on your mind?26

What manifests itself here is the complex communication situation in which the rhetor operates. The art of pronunciation was still quasi-oral at the time, not allowing the use of written records (or allowing such a use only for special moments, such as reading testimonies of witnesses or legal acts). At the same time, however, the degree of complication of judicial arguments and the structure of legal reasoning was already determined by the use of writing. Therefore, a good judicial speaker had to combine the “rhapsodic” ←30 | 31→ability to deliver or even make extensive speeches from memory – with the critical ability to immediately assess his opponent’s complex reasoning, which he could only record by listening. Ars memoriae facilitated this difficult task, partly in keeping with both communication models. That is why in the following sentences Cicero praises people gifted with great memory by nature, because they can remember more of someone else’s arguments and more of someone else’s words in general. In oral culture, such an ability was not needed for there was no critical, internally differentiated discourse on such a large scale. In Cicero’s day, such a discourse had already become established, but the methods of its application still remained partly “illiterate.” But immediately afterwards (III 357), when the role of the senses in intellectual processes is mentioned, Cicero says that auditory experiences should be amplified by visual ones, because then they become more easily fixed in the mind. There is no mention of the text here, but the mere emphasis on the value of sight suggests its presence or is caused by that presence.

Quintilianus, who at the end of the first century AD summarized the knowledge of rhetoric in his Institutio oratoria, did not add anything significantly new to the information provided by his predecessors. However, the way he gave his lecture suggests the same residua of orality whose presence I have indicated in Rhetoric for Herennius and in De oratore. Still, in the fourth century AD Fortunatianus, the author of the last ancient Ars rhetorica, included in the form of questions and answers, repeats:

Do you always have to learn words? As long as time permits; if not, let’s stick to the res itself and match the words with it at the right time (III 14, trans. PM)

It turns out, therefore, that in the writings of Latin theorists of rhetoric from the first century BC and the first century AD one can find some traces of oral culture, which have been preserved in rhetoric for many centuries to come, regardless of the consciously developed shape of the whole discipline. But these traces are strongly obliterated and were hardly visible to the authors who left them in these texts.27 Thus, the thesis put forward ←31 | 32→here about a radical historical break between the rhetoric memory and the rhapsodic memory remains in force, and what is more – the power of this break is revealed even more clearly precisely in the lack of knowledge of Cicero or the author of Rhetoric for Herennius about possible links between rhetoric memoriae and psychodynamic memory and in the close connection of these residuals with notions or ideas already shaped solely on the basis of the medium of writing.

Are there today any remnants of the two memorization models discussed here? Undoubtedly – some of them were described by Paul Zumthor and Walter Ong, among others. The rhythmic enumerations, the refrains of the entertainment songs, and all the repetitive formulas present in our speech and in our verbal practices, which the mentioned authors indicate, can be regarded as residuals of orality. In my opinion, some features of most performing arts can also be added to them. An actor, dancer, or musician masters their skills in a similar way as performers of oral epics did. Their memory is not the “memory of the brain,” which would include only the textual record of the role or score, but the “memory of the body,” to use the title of an essay by Jan Kott on similar issues,28 or “sensual-motoric memory.”29 “Memory of the brain,” on the other hand, is memory of ←32 | 33→scientists, humanists and, to some extent, the creators of fiction – and this state of affairs is a result of an extremely profound literarization of their professions in a historical and cultural process.30

As for artis memoriae, there is no doubt that all “mnemonists,” people gifted with a phenomenal memory, described by contemporary authors dealing with the phenomenon of memory (from Alexander Luria to Oliver Sacks and the editors of The Guinness World Book of Records), are involuntary successors to the former masters of this art. Their abilities are innate, not acquired, but – it is worth noting – a mnemonist described by Luria in his Little Book About A Vast Memory31 remembered everything in a way that almost coincided with the method of “memorial palace” described by Cicero and Quintilian. On the other hand, the cases of “great memory” cited by Pliny also had to be conditioned physiologically. In our times, however, such skills are only curiosities or objects of neurophysiological research. It is also obvious that memory of the creators of culture, burdened in the Oral Age with the weight of the whole content of culture, was probably burdened more or less strongly (though again – in a completely different way) with the weight of bibliographic data.

Continuing these remarks, we should also mention the distinction made by Roman theorists of rhetoric between natural memory (memoria naturalis), meaning an “ordinary” ability to remember, and artificial memory (memoria artificiosa), meaning the ability to remember much more data than in the case of ordinary memory. So, the author of Rhetoric for Herennius tells us (III 28–29):

In this fragment, we again have to do with the popular topos (nature surpasses art, art refines nature) and again we can presume that it is precisely its use that is temporarily close to its historical origins. The distinction between natural and artificial memory, each of which contributes to the strengthening of the other, did not exist in the Oral Age, since writing is also necessary for its introduction. For an oral mnemonist, there is no difference between the resources of his own memory and the resources of the “external memory” of his culture. It does not exist because memory of such a man is in his own opinion or intuition – and in the opinion of his countrymen – identical to the whole memory of his culture. Hence, the categories of “naturalness” and “artificiality” do not make sense here. In order for them to exist, it is necessary to have a medium external to human memory to convey cultural contents – which, in the case discussed here, is writing. By radically expanding the content of culture and, at the same time, broadening the realm of experience, no individual memory is able to encompass this content, and if so, those who embrace it more than others must develop a special mechanism of remembering – secondary to the basic medium of communication. And so again we come to the art of memory.

In the written Greek culture of the fourth or third century BC there were certainly people who knew Homeric epics by heart, but knew them from the text. And this knowledge was no longer a necessary condition for their culture to last, but only an impressive mnemonic achievement or a reason for personal satisfaction, sometimes also an ideological symbol.33 Here we ←34 | 35→can also see a change in the social functions of memory after culture had passed to the phase of the predominance of writing. After all, the art of memory was not only used to deliver carefully calibrated speeches. From the book by Frances Yates we learn about its numerous connections with various, mainly “underground,” currents of European culture from late antiquity to the Enlightenment. However, whatever were the social roles of the art of remembrance – they were certainly not the same as the social role of psychodynamics of orality, as this served the sustainability of culture as a whole.

Considering the relationship between oral and written memory, at least one more preliminary hypothesis can be made. Plato rejected the activities of the sophists, and thus also their mnemonic methods (the previously mentioned fragments of both Hippiases speak directly about it). If one considers Havelock’s interpretation in the Preface to Plato as the authoritative one, the philosopher also rejected the activity of rhapsodes with their oral psychodynamics. This means that he did not like either “natural” memory of the oralists or “artificial” memory of the sophists. Why did he not recognize any part of this alternative? Well, perhaps because none of them fit into his own concept of memory, which he put forward in the science of anamnesis.34 The memory of the rhapsodes and the memory of the sophists, despite their great differences, had the same basic task – to record and repeat human words, regardless of their “essential” meaning, regardless of their attitude to the Truth. For similar reasons, many people today do not like the Internet, which serves as a storehouse, and since the spread of social networking sites, also as a centrifuge of all possible manifestations of human mental activity regardless of any value system. This, however, is the purpose of any medium for the transmission of cultural information: it is up ←35 | 36→to the user, sender, and recipient to determine the value and meaning of this information. But for a philosopher with such views as Plato, it was unacceptable. Hence his aversion to both these forms of flawed human memory which so easily dissuade one from the Truth and so reluctantly bend to it.

2 Cf. James A. Notopoulos, “Mnemosyne in Oral Literature,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. LXIX, 1938, pp. 465–493. It is one of very first philological papers containing the results of Milman Parry’s researches.

3 It must be noted here that I use the term “memory” basically in its cultural meaning, and not the physiological one. Of course, any exhaustive elaboration of this problem would require the knowledge of neuroscience. Nor do I include a great mass of recent articles written in the vein of memory studies, for an inquiry into the ancient contexts of numerous forms of collective memory described by theorists from this field would require a separate book.

4 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Routledge, London 1966, pp. 43–44.

5 See: Helga Hajdu, Das mnemotechnische Schrifttum des Mittelalters, Budapest 1936; the first part of this article (pp. 11–33) describes the ancient art of memory.

6 The bibliographical references about ancient sources of our knowledge of the art of memory are given by Yates, ch. 1 and 2. Here I only remind that the primary texts are: Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, XI 2, 1–51 (50–51 cf.: Pliny, Historia naturalis, VII 88–90); Rhetorica ad Herennium III 28–40; Cicero, De inventione I 9; Cicero, De oratore, II 350–360. There are to find descriptions of a mental mechanism known as “memory palace” or “method of loci,” although no one among ancient writers used such a name – it comes only from the times of Renaissance. The details of these descriptions leave no doubt that all this mechanism was based primarily on the writing (cf. e.g. Rhetorica ad Herennium III 30 about the role of the imaginations of letters). I will discuss these sources later.

7 Ong’s capital works on orality were published already after Yates’ The Art of Memory, but she knew very well his studies on Petrus Ramus. Significantly, during his intellectual career Walter Ong crossed the road from researches on life and work of the last great representative of the artis memoriae tradition, which was Petrus Ramus, to the analyze memory of rhapsodes – but he did it without, as it seems, noticing that there are any links between both modes of remembering. A reason for this was probably the fact that Ong – as distinct from Havelock – was not interested in the phase of mutual contact of oral and written cultures in ancient Greece.

8 Pliny, Natural History with an English translation in ten volumes, Vol. II, libri III-VII, trans. H. Rackham, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd (Loeb Classical Library 352) MCMLXI, pp. 563–565.

9 I tried to explain possible reasons of this reluctance in my previous book Pismo, tekst, literatura [Writing, text, literature], Warszawa 2013.

10 Already Demetrius of Phalerum (ca. 350 – ca. 280 BC) – who lived more than two centuries before Cicero, was a pupil of Theophrastus and, ipso facto, an “intellectual grandson” of Aristotle – claimed that the aoides, Phemios from Ithaca among them, wrote down their songs to perform them later with musical instruments (fr. 146 Stork-Ophuijsen-Dorandi, forwarded by Tzetzes in his introduction to the scholia to Lycophron). It is a very expressive example of forgetfulness about the oral performances.

11 Yates, p. 44.

12 Hippias was one of historical persons scoffed by ironical Socrates (who did it in Platonic dialogues titled with the name of Hippias) just because of his masterful memory. See: Greater Hippias 285 and Lesser Hippias 368.

13 In the modern humanities, there are at least two currents that can provide further inspiration or research tools for the issues discussed in this text. The first is the performance theory of Richard Schechner, the second is the somaesthetics of Richard Shusterman. Schechner examines the general conditions for performing all, and especially creative human activities, which take place within the framework of social ties using symbols (especially language symbols). Shusterman explores the relationship between mental and bodily practices in cultural contexts.

14 The marginal status of the problem of memory in the ancient theory of rhetoric finds its equivalent in its contemporary discussions. In Lausberg’s canonical synthesis (Handbook of Literary Rhetoric), only 9 of 1324 paragraphs (i.e. two pages of text from almost a thousand) are devoted to memory.

15 Pseudo-Cicero, Ad C. Herennium De Ratione Dicendi (Rhetorica Ad Herennium) with an English translation by Harry Caplan, London, William Heinemann Ltd, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library 403) MCMLXIV, p. 221.

16 At this point, it is worth noting that all the ancient rhetoric in general is a very promising field of research not only for oral/written theorists, but also for all authors dealing with cultural communication media. As far as I know, so far few scholars have entered the field. In Lausberg’s case the pronuntiatio deserves even less attention than memoria. Although Lausberg notes in passing (paragraph 1091) that “rhetorical pronunciation has its literary equivalent in epic recitation (Aristoteles Poetica XXVI, 6: rhapsodein), lyrical poetry (Arist. Po. XXVI, 6: diadein) and in drama (Arist. Po. XXVI, 6: he hypokritike),” it is doubtful that it could have any similarity in verbal and performance contexts. Elements of the performative analysis of Cicero’s statement can be found in Jerzy Axer’s dispersed analyses, but the main emphasis there is on the acting aspect of the speaker’s actions, and not on the issues of somatics and communicative contexts, which are specific parts of this aspect. Axer treats oratory as an artistic rather than cultural practice. See e.g.: Jerzy Axer, “Tribunal-Stage-Arena: Modelling of the Communication Situation in M. Tullius Cicero’s Judicial Speeches,” in: Rhetorica. A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, vol. VII, no. 4, 1989, pp. 299–311.

17 Cicero, De inventione, De optimo genere oratorum, Topica, with an English translation by H. M. Hubbell, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd (Loeb Classical Library 386), MCMXLIX, p. 21. Some of the manuscripts here give “verborum ad inventionem,” which, in turn, some modern editors understand as “ad inventionem retinendam,” but the possible adoption of this version does not significantly change the meaning of the whole sentence.

18 Noteworthy in this context is the famous saying of Cato the Elder in Roman culture: Rem tene, verba sequentur, which can be roughly rendered as “stick to the subject and the words will come alone.”

19 Locus and imago [place and image] are the two most important tools of the process of remembering in the art of memory, forming the basis of the mechanism of the “palace of memory.” In order to master the course of the planned speech well, the speaker must place the imagines he associates with particular parts or words of an argument in the appropriate loci. Yates gives a detailed analysis of this process.

20 Pseudo-Cicero, p. 209.

21 A noteworthy cognitive approach to the problems of ancient memory and culture of the book is the work of Jocelyn Penny Small: Wax Tablets of Mind. Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity, Routledge, New York-London 1997.

22 Pseudo-Cicero, p. 213–215.

23 Pseudo-Cicero, p. 217.

24 Pseudo-Cicero, pp. 219–221.

25 Pseudo-Cicero, p. 225.

26 Cicero in twenty-eight volumes, vol. III, De Oratore in two volumes, pt. I, Books I, II, with an English translation by E. W. Sutton, completed, with an Introduction, by H. Rackham, London, William Heinemann Ltd, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library 348) MCMLXVII, p. 467.

27 It should be remembered, moreover, that the proportion of orality and literacy in Rome during the Late Republic and Early Empire was very different from the ideas and habits of our era. It is not a matter of the degree of the spread of writing (i.e. the index of society’s literacy), but of the fact that the Roman theory of rhetoric – as never before and never later in Europe – has achieved a functional alignment of literature and judicial pronunciation. Indeed, one and the same theory could have been equally successful in describing both these linguistic and cultural practices. Even for a medieval European, they were completely separated from each other. This theoretical equation testifies to the profound difference in the perception of the division between “artistic” and “non-artistic” linguistic practices between the ancient Romans and the people of Europe in later periods. This difference must be taken into consideration in our understanding of their perception of their mutual relationship in the performance of these practices. This is another possible research problem for performance scholars and somatoesteticians.

28 Jan Kott, “The Memory of the Body,” in his: The Memory of the Body. Essays on Theatre and Death, Evanston 1992.

29 Interesting descriptions of such a mnemonic method can be found in the texts of performance art theorists, especially those dealing with acting and music. Similar theses on the relationship between body, mind, and performance can be found in the texts by Konstantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig. Schechner and Shusterman’s theoretical works can also be useful in analyzing musical performance as a cultural phenomenon. Within the framework of memory studies, the memory of the body was first studied by Paul Connerton in his book How Societies Remember (Cambridge 1989).

30 Attempts to “exit beyond text” made in various literary eras and styles and, much less frequently, in schools and philosophical orientations deserve careful examination. They were particularly intensively undertaken by Romantics.

31 Alexander Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist. A Little Book About A Vast Memory, Harvard 1968. Havelock quotes Luria’s analyses from this book in Chapter 5 of his book The Muse Learns to Write as an illustration of non-written methods of categorizing data in the human mind – which, in the context of these observations, does not seem entirely accurate.

32 Pseudo-Cicero, p. 207.

33 In a developed culture of writing and printing, books were destroyed many times in order to destroy the cultural memory they contain, but perhaps never – neither in Hitler’s Germany, nor in China under Qin Shi Huang in the third century BC, nor during the religious wars of the Reformation period – has such a degree of destruction been achieved that the sustainability of the basic structures of culture contained in the records been seriously threatened. Such a situation can be found in Ray Bradbury’s fantastic novel Fahrenheit 451. Its protagonists oppose totalitarian power, learning by heart the texts contained in the books destroyed in mass. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarian power manipulates social memory through radical current transformations of the stock of texts archived in libraries (depending on the political situation, new “right” versions of old newspapers are printed and previous ones deleted).

34 The combination of rhetorical mnemonics with the Platonic anamnesis by some modern researchers testifies to a complete mixing of all ancient memory models in their text-centered interpretations.

←36 | 37→

Chapter 2 Beginnings and development of technical writing: Fachliteratur

Memory, understood as a psychological ability, and not as an intellectual disposition mediated and strengthened by notation, was no longer one of the main tools for conveying symbolic content in the post-classical eras of Greek culture. These were epochs of an increasing influence of the text, which with time began to take on forms and enter into cycles exceeding even the achievements of Alexandria’s scholars in the field of philology and text-centered literary forms. However, the power of the text over human cognitive processes became neither indivisible nor unambiguous.

Alexandrian creators and scholars, active in the third and the second centuries BC, developed textual practices to replace the Lebenswelt experience in the way we see for the first time in the works of Aristotle, whose demands they developed intensively, though not necessarily under his direct influence, in their textual “theory-practice.”35 But the first attempts at the textualization of experience came much earlier among the Greeks. These attempts, made by logographs and sophists, remained isolated in the fifth century. However, at the end of this century, and in the century to follow, new, more numerous texts with a textbook function appeared, providing theoretical knowledge on various social practices and forms of action. The section of ancient literature usually referred to as Fachliteratur in German (“specialized literature” or “professional literature”) can be considered as one of the explicit implementations of the principles of textualization of experience. However, the question must be asked about the internal diversity of this literature, both in terms of the forms of written expression it uses and in terms of the type of social and target group circuits.36

←37 | 38→

For, as in other genres of ancient text, it is possible to see here an evolution that has been influenced by the processes of dissemination of writing practices in ancient Greek culture and society. These processes, however, are taking a different course from that of the earliest philosophical or sophistical texts with which I dealt in my previous book. There, I tried to show that for people like Gorgias, Plato or Alcidamas, writing, text, and related cultural activities were objects of intense reflection, a new problematic tool for cultural existence. In the case of textbooks, such as works of Fachliterature, the presence of writing and text can no longer be problematic, because the very existence of a textbook is due to the recognition of the obvious possibility of the textual transmission of experience. Aristotle had a great influence on the development of such an approach, and himself practiced it in his works, and in the Organon he not only practiced but also codified it. But even before his activity, there were texts that fell under the category of “textbook transfer of practical knowledge.” These texts are of particular interest to the researcher of the media aspects of the circulation of cultural content, because they occupy a liminal position in the dynamics of this circulation, namely – they still derive in part from a culture dominated by direct oral communication, by the environment of speech; but on the other hand, their task is to influence at a distance, to transfer the stock of practical experience connected with social and motoric activities – in the form of a symbolic text record. The question then arises: how did their authors find themselves in the face of this double nature of their own message?

We have less than scarce data about the earliest texts of this kind. We do not even know whether their titles and authorship, certified by much later authors, already acting under the influence of deeply textualized cultural mechanisms, are fully credible, or whether they represent a retrospective cultural projection. In his seminal study Athenian Books in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, Eric G. Turner lists the following positions:

These “book entities,” or rather their shadows, are probably fictions created in written prejudices, emerged in a cultural process a few centuries later, when the possibility of building the Parthenon, sculpting Doryphoros, determining any counting of time, designing an urban space or exhibiting Antigone was no longer imaginable without the guidance of a textbook. Modern researchers have willingly recognized this possibility of early textualization of cultural experience by the Greeks, as can be seen in the English equivalent of the title of the alleged treatise of Sophocles used by Turner. The phrase “peri chorou” (literally: “about the [tragic] chorus”) only with a great deal of freedom can be rendered as a title suggesting to the reader from the twentieth century a historical or theoretical work devoted to dramaturgy. The information that Sophocles put his creative activity within the framework of some discursive or even theoretical written expression is intriguing, especially if we consider that during its heyday Attic drama belonged to the performing arts, not to “literature” or “philosophy,” by which I mean that at that time there was no tendency to theorize it, especially in a text.38 However, all our sources in this case are two mentions, one in Suda Lexicon (tenth century) and the other in Plutarch (first/second century). In the Byzantine lexicon, we read in the biography of Sophocles:

He wrote elegy and paeans and an account in prose [logon katalogaden] of the chorus [peri tou chorou], in rivalry with Thespis and Choirilos. (Liber Suda, sigma 815 Adler)39

In Plutarch’s text, How a Man May Become Aware of his Progress in Virtue (7, 79 b), we have a note that Sophocles was critical about Aeschylus’ style, ←39 | 40→but this fragment, very damaged in manuscripts, does not contain any notions connected with the written word, and Plutarch could have meant an oral statement, an ad hoc one, transmitted in some relation – not a developed author’s stamped text. Suda’s testimony, widely discussed by specialists,40 is suspicious inasmuch as it suggests that Sophocles has somehow been arguing with the fathers of the tragedy, Thespis and Choerilus, whose life and work were already unknown in the classical era. This sample allows us to see how fragile and illusory are the traces of these alleged earliest “theoretical” or “professional” treatises in our sources.41

35 See: Roy Harris, Rationality and Literate Mind, Routledge 2009, Paweł Majewski, Pismo, tekst, literature [Writing, text, literature], Warszawa 2013.

36 Contemporary specialist literature devoted to ancient specialist literature is very rich. In the following sections, I will cite representative examples on individual partial topics. On the general quality of Greek technical writing see. e.g. Philip J. van der Eijk, Towards a Rhetoric of Ancient Scientific Discourse: Some Formal Characteristics of Greek Medical and Philosophical Texts, in: Egbert J. Bakker (ed.), Grammar as Intepretation. Greek Literature in its Linguistic Contexts, Brill 1997, pp. 77–130.

37 Eric G. Turner, Athenian Books in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, London 1951, p. 18.

38 The question of whether it is possible to theorize practical experience in a non-textual way is left unanswered here. Perhaps, it can be regarded as equivalent to the “lessons of masters” given to students in the form of comments on practical activities.

39 Internet translation (“Suda Online”), https://www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/sol/sol-entries/sigma/815 [2020.05.28].

40 Antique treatises on dramatic art were thoroughly examined in the monograph: Antonio Bagordo Die antiken Traktate über das Drama (Lepizig 1998). The researcher collected testimonies concerning eighty-eight authors living between the fifth century BC and the third century AD, but nearly all these testimonies consist only of allusions and loose references to the existence of one or another treatise. Thus, such a fascinating form of the textualization of experience, which was the ancient theoretical approach to performative practices related to drama, will remain unknown to us. As far as Sophocles is concerned, Bagordo quotes the opinions of such experts on the subject as K. J. Dover, O. Crusius, T. B. L. Webster and A. W. Pickard-Cambridge – all of them deny the value of the mention about Peri chorou.

41 Several dozen Greek treatises on building and decorative art are enumerated by Vitruvius (On architecture, book VII, preface, 11 ff.), but also in this case we do not learn any more details. Besides, a large part of this enumeration concerns the authors of the Hellenistic era, sometimes well-known from elsewhere.

←40 | 41→

Chapter 3 Xenophon, Ischomachus, Kikkuli: the transparency of the message

The costly charm of the ancient tragedy, and indeed of all the old literature, is, that the persons speak simply, speak as persons who have great good sense without knowing it, before yet the reflective habit has become the predominant habit of the mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, essay History42

Today’s examples of the first-ever “professional literature” are the works of Xenophon on practical issues, especially Oeconomicus and On Horsemanship (Hippika), and to some extent also Hunting with Dogs (Kynegetikos).

Xenophon (ca. 430–354 BC), aside from being one of the most often and most eagerly read authors of the classical period ever since the Renaissance, is also among those writers produced by the Greek culture who are of particular interest for a historically inclined media theory. The Polish author of his biography called him “a warrior and an author,”43 and while these labels are anachronistic, they do render well the sort of work he produced which, to modern eyes, seems to be polymorphous and defies the text-centered categorizations. He seems to have been a man devoid of excessive inclination for abstract, theoretical thought, seeing writing as a “transparent” practice facilitating all sorts of social and political activities.44 He and Plato ←41 | 42→were both Socrates’ disciples, but already the ancients noticed that none of them ever mentioned the other one’s name,45 which we can confirm today, as their entire (or almost entire) corpuses have luckily survived to our times. This silence is most certainly caused by a strong, mutual aversion they had for each other on both intellectual and psychological grounds; if one may judge their characters based on their style and the problematic they touched upon in their works, it is indeed difficult to imagine two more divergent personalities. It has also been long known, at least since the early Renaissance humanists, that the image of Socrates rendered in the writings of Plato and Xenophon is rather an image of two very different “Socrateses,” and the decision which one of them better resembles the real Socrates has been troubling all classically oriented humanists ever since – assuming, of course, that they accept the existence of an independent extra-textual reality at all.

Xenophon was not particularly interested in the Greek discussion about the cultural and social functions of practices of literacy, even though it reached its peak of intensity during his lifetime. Most probably, writing as a phenomenon and as an activity was never an object of reflection for him, but only served him as a tool facilitating the social life and broadening its scope – there are hardly any references to writing in his works. At the same time, he must have had a natural ease in writing (or, in other words, his literate diction resonated well with the readers), since his contemporaries and the future generations appreciated his writing style as adroit, sophisticated, and elegant, and many centuries later, during subsequent periods of revived popularity of the classical Attic dialect, he was presented as the model author using that form of Greek. Diogenes Laertius claims that it is Xenophon who brought about the “publication” of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, by which he presumably means that he ordered multiple handwritten copies of this extensive and difficult text ←42 | 43→and contributed to its spread among the Athenian cultural and political elites of the early fourth century. These were practical, social efforts, and not merely a theoretical deliberation on the role of writing, which was the sort of activity Plato preferred to undertake in isolation from his peers. Xenophon clearly preferred to act with texts rather than on texts or in texts; he treated the practices of literacy and their results as tools of collective life, not as means of abstract reflection.

This pragmatic, utilitarian approach is visible in his own writings, and more specifically in the works already mentioned here: in Oeconomicus, famous as an alleged polemic with Plato or even a parody of his style, and in a short text on horse breeding known as On Horsemanship, which ought not to be confused with a much longer treaty Hipparchicus.

Chronologically speaking, Oeconomicus is the first known text in the European culture which is wholly devoted to the issues that we might call “management” today – just as another Xenophon’s work, Cyropaedia, is seen as the founding text of pedagogy. It takes the form of a Socratic dialogue resembling the Platonic dialogues, which it might have been intended to emulate or mock, as it is dated as belonging to Xenophon’s late period, after 362. The title Oeconomicus literally means “the one, who knows the affairs of the house very well,” and the main topic of the work is managing just such issues, which, in Xenophon’s world, would have implied the distribution and redistribution of goods and “human resource management,” as well as agricultural technologies. Cicero translated Oeconomicus to Latin (which was more of an ideological or intellectual gesture than a practical one, as the structure of land ownership and management in the late republican Rome bore little resemblance to those in late classical Athens), but in later periods this text did not raise much interest outside the circles of humanists and philologists until the second half of the twentieth century, when it was taken up by political philosophers (such as Leo Strauss46) and by the scholars intrigued by Xenophon’s intuitions on psychology of management, women issues, and the dynamics of power in interpersonal relations (Foucault devoted an entire chapter of the second volume of his History of Sexuality to Oeconomicus). As is often the case, modern scholars ←43 | 44→have presented a large variety of mutually exclusive interpretations: some of them, for instance, have asserted that Xenophon is the forerunner of the emancipation of women, while others – that he is a misogynist. Most of such approaches do not account for the historical and cultural contexts of Xenophon’s works.

Here the focus is not on Xenophon’s view on economic matters, but the way he used writing to fulfil the aims of a very specific type of cultural communication that is textual transmission of specialized knowledge about how a certain type of social practices is carried out. Havelock and his disciples suggested that Homeric singers transmitted such knowledge through narrative descriptions weaved into the plots of the epics they performed. Such message had larger impact on the senses and emotions of the audience than on their reflexive realm; it did not separate the “practical” from the “theoretical,” even though – or perhaps exactly because – the performers and the audience of the rhapsodic form did not necessarily do any of the described things in their own lives, e.g. fighting in a battle, sailing or performing sacrifice. Xenophon, living in an already literate society, prefers a different method.

In the dialogue Socrates talks with Critoboulus, the son of Crito, immortalized by Plato in his account of Socrates’ imprisonment. Critoboulus is a man perfectly managing a model household and farm. Socrates asks him questions about how he ensures such success. The roles switch quickly though, just like in Plato’s work, and it is Socrates who takes the role of the “expert.” However, the quasi-Platonian analysis of notions takes a different turn here. Instead of dissociating the notions from any concreteness and elevating them to the level of abstraction, in order to obtain an “idea,” Socrates and Critoboulus strive to elucidate the meanings of the notions by invoking real examples illustrating their content. It has little to do with text-centered distinctions between deduction and induction or such, but a lot more with the degree of textualization of communication in which people share their experience in practices of importance for their coexistence. The Platonic message was all about rejecting the accidental quantum of experience and replacing it with a conceptual template rooted in a visual, logo-alphabetic image of notions. According to Plato, applied knowledge should be drawn in particular cases from such a theoretical matrix of experience. Aristotle went further still, separating algorithms of ←44 | 45→reasoning from all real experience and creating a total theoretical approach, only occasionally supported with examples (the “empiricism” of his philosophy is wholly dependent on textuality, as I will prove in next chapter). Xenophon, in turn, clearly does not intend to distance his text from “real experience” and therefore he combines the Platonic style of dialogue with strictly practical premises, which the text only records, gives an account of them, a mimetic reflection, but is not an independent, abstracted entity.

Searching for an answer on how to be a good man of the house and manager, Socrates and Critoboulus give examples taken from Xenophon’s personal biographical experience. This includes references to Persian culture and seasonal agricultural works, which take up most of Oeconomicus. The textual argument remains closely bound with praxis; it gives a functional account of praxis rather than replacing it with a theory. The general notions pertaining to the function of a good steward do not become decontextualized ideas, nor do they form a poetic enunciation, as is the case in Hesiod’s Works and Days. However, in chapter 7 Xenophon introduces the character of Ischomachus, whom Socrates invokes during the discussion of good household management. Ischomachus, a figure otherwise unknown (even though there have been speculations about him resembling several real-life citizens), is described as kalos kai agathos, “beautiful and good,” a person who fulfils the ideal of humanity. The rest of the dialogue is an account of a conversation between Socrates and Ischomachus, which is clearly an allusion to a similar device employed by Plato in Symposium, where in the crucial moments Socrates invokes the authority of Diotima. The similarity is made still stronger by the main theme taken up by Ischomachus: the cooperation between husband and wife in household management. There is not a word on the metaphysics of love here though; it is merely about the practical cooperation in everyday life.

Let us look more closely at a few sentences from chapter 8. Ischomachus tells Socrates about the importance of orderliness and cleanliness in how the farm utilities are located for the proper functioning of the house:

The fragment quoted above, which within the dialogue sets the scene for a discussion of the arrangement of house utilities, is interesting not only as an example of Xenophon’s “practicality” but also as it brings several cultural motifs to the fore. First, it is not hard to see that the postulate to keep order within a household and the assertion of the advantage that comes from such orderliness for the functioning of a household are not drawn from the Platonic, literate model of understanding and experiencing the reality, but come from a particular observation made by one of the participants of the dialogue. This observation is then posed as a directive for a certain class of social actions, and not because of some textual rule either, but because of the speakers’ broad practical experience. There is no literate or textual mediation of experience here: text serves as a “pure medium” and does not affect either the structure of knowledge or the message (not in the diegetic time of the story but also not on the level of authorial production of a written message). The presence of text does not affect the shape of the transmitted knowledge, it does not transform it with distant recipients in mind, it does not try to adjust the message to the needs of “every possible reader” in “any possible time or space;” it does not categorize the reality and the actions performed in/on48 it according to the rigors of literate and ←46 | 47→abstract thought. Moreover, it is worth noticing that the text does not use any sophistical or rhetorical persuasive devices that provoked anger in Plato and Aristotle. Xenophon does not refer to any mental or personal qualities of his readers; he does not try to influence their judgment with purely verbal devices. This is where the “transparency” of his style lies. It is a “literate, rational” style, but it is also “non-literate and concrete.”

It does not mean that Xenophon does not use any elements of the existing world or that we cannot find traces of reality in the devices he uses. The very reference to the arrangement of letters is a sign of his awareness of the technology of writing – however, Xenophon does not treat this technology in any special way, but as equal with other methods of bringing order into existence. The practical order praised and recommended by Ischomachus on the example of the perfectly kept Phoenician ship can be associated with at least three other cultural phenomena, two of which are strongly linked with practices of literacy.

First, the focus on the arrangement of objects in a particular social space and proxemics necessarily brings to mind the temple inventories in ancient cultures, from Sumer, through Egypt to Crete. Today we can study these material arrangements mainly through the literate order of the inventories (sometimes through excavation works too). The relationship between the existence of such inventories and the early forms of literacy has been thoroughly analyzed by Goody.49 However, despite the superficial similarity there is no functional resemblance between the two phenomena. Apart from the simple fact that we do not know to what extent the order in the records that we can observe today reflects the actual arrangement of temple and palace goods (the very illusion that the books signify or impose the physical arrangement of objects that they describe is in itself characteristic of the “typographic” minds of the modern Europeans), the main issue is that the arrangement of goods had no practical significance, and more specifically bore no significance to any social or political activities, as these resources were by definition meant not to enable the everyday functioning of the system, but to ensure its permanence through honoring the gods and ←47 | 48→rulers with these goods. In other words, the actual physical arrangement of these resources could have been important to narrow groups of clergy or courtiers, but certainly neither everyday fulfilment of the processes of management nor proper functioning of the elements of social system which are determined largely by short-term factors depended on it. Unlike a merchant ship or a household and a farm which indeed depended on a proper arrangement of particular objects.

The other possible association is military discipline, which Xenophon probably knew well from his own biographical experience. The practical analogy is much clearer here, as the success of any military exercise and the operational efficacy of a soldier in such culture is largely dependent on the degree of perfection in routine fulfilment of prescribed actions. It is worth noticing that in this case the practices of literacy are of little significance. Even though they facilitate any type of collective actions, which require high standardization (bureaucracy, rules, regulations, etc.) in case of the military realm they do not have any foundational role.

The third possible association is the art of memory, ars memoriae. Precise arrangement of numerous objects in order to easily access them when needed is a method similar to the technique of “places of memory” discussed in ancient theories of rhetoric (and this association is strengthened when Ischomachus mentions the mental reproduction of the arrangement of objects when it is not directly seen, as in “a palace of memory”). The comparison to remembering the placement of letters in the written name that comes immediately afterwards invokes the advanced practices of literacy which strongly affect the cognitive functions. However, in this case, too, the practical function of the image is different. The rhetorical apparatus of the palace of memory is a highly abstract intellectual product, the aim of which is to perfect the technique of giving speeches, whereas the proper arrangement of the load onboard a ship is simply meant to make it easier to use equipment while sailing. The example shows how writing deludes us when to our eyes and minds it equates phenomena belonging to very different orders of reality. The illusion is the price we pay for the advantages of the alphabet.

Thus, three associations have been incorporated in the interpretation – and all three dismissed. What is the conclusion? It confirms that Xenophon most probably meant pure practice only and the textual communication was ←48 | 49→merely a transparent medium. Presumably, he hoped to act on a small scale, not sub specie aeternitatis, as was the case for Plato. Therefore, Xenophon did not bother to produce any absolute textual message, or to adjust it to social practices in a way that would make it applicable to as many of them as possible, notwithstanding the time and space of their fulfilment.

In chapter 13 of Oeconomicus, Socrates and Ischomachus discuss the figure of a “bailiff” [epitropos], thereby introducing another “human factor,” apart from a spouse, into the problematic of household management:

It is one of the most important moments of the conversation because it brings together vital psychological and political themes. It needs to be said first that Ischomachus’ fears in the dialogue are caused by the “vulgarity” of his methods as compared to the Platonic ones: it is not said explicitly here but it would have been rather obvious for a contemporary reader. In The Republic, Plato devotes extensive passages to describing the method of perfect education for guardians, who are the equivalent of a bailiff in Oeconomicus in terms of their social role. However, while Plato’s methods are mostly about developing vaguely defined personal qualities of the guardians which are supposed to guarantee their impeccable praxeological attitude, Ischomachus in the later part of the dialogue tells Socrates that he simply rewards his disciples when they fulfil their tasks properly, and punishes them when they fail. Motivating is basically positive or negative ←49 | 50→stimulation of their major needs and desires – and this is also what he recommends to them as means of dealing with their subordinates. This is the simplest possible motivating method and, again, it is not derived from any abstract rules formulated in a detached literate discourse, but from practical experience and years of observation of how real-life participants of social games behave. Ischomachus’ disclaimers (about the method being “laughable” and “simple”)51 signal that Xenophon realized that even in his time such recommendation could sound naïve, because of the growing role of the “methods of literacy” in the social processes. In turn, the sequence “rule – play the master – be a king” suggests that Xenophon knows how fluid the transition from “practical everyday reality” to the macro-level of political power can be and how in the latter area practical methods based on concrete everyday experience can fail.

The character of Ischomachus has an interesting trait here, because it is clear that unlike unworldly Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, he has been created by Xenophon as “a real person.” What, then, is the status of knowledge, if it is not absolute knowledge, revealed or acquired in the metaphysical anamnesis which emerges in the minds of philosophers who have internalized writing, but neither is it purely local knowledge since it can be turned into a textual directive, which entails it being applicable “elsewhere”?

The above remarks on the specificity of Xenophon’s writings in the context of the transmission of experiential knowledge (not to be confused with modern experimental knowledge, whose rules and structures are derived from the textual model of cognition) suggest that Ischomachus is a character located on the borderline between the two cultural systems that coexisted in his world. He has qualities of a figure of “authority” based on oral transmission, in which a singer, a sage, or a chief preaches to his audience through a mythical narrative which combines “tradition” with “here and now” of the storytelling. However, the content of Ischomachus’ message has nothing in common with the mythical stories of the rhapsodists because it comes from a rational observation of actual social practices performed ←50 | 51→in particular time and space. In that sense, he resembles an “expert,” a figure born in the literate world, which through practices of literacy is also an increasingly rationalized world. And yet, what Ischomachus says is not absolute in character in a way that comes from advanced mental and reflective activities deeply rooted in the media of writing and text. As was already said here, Xenophon who draws on the advantages offered by writing, sees no need for formulating abstract algorithms of rules of practical doing. And it is just such algorithmic approach that is one of the most important consequences of alphabetization in the Western culture: it was in the times of the author of Oeconomicus, and in the times of Plato, too, when the foundations for it were laid. Ischomachus the expert is not an expert known for giving advice with no relation to the processual reality and drawn only from automatically employing abstract rules suggested in manuals. He is an “experienced expert,” and this only seemingly pleonastic term can be applied to Xenophon as the author of Ischomachus’ words as well.

This sort of practical experience, which is the subject of Oeconomicus, is also visible in chapter 16 when Socrates and Ischomachus begin a long discussion about agricultural activities. In the introduction to the conversation, Socrates says:

The context of use of the word “philosopher” is striking here. It is hard not to see it as ironical toward Plato: the Platonic philosopher lives in the world of ideas, and its spatial elevation is frequently and eagerly emphasized in all the metaphors of flight outside and over the material world. Meanwhile, Xenophon the philosopher is literally bound to land, he cultivates it, remaining in a physical contact with it, and he performs particular physical actions working in the matter of soil. But perhaps this is simply a trace of a self-contained concept of the philosopher’s task. Perhaps, according to Xenophon this task is not to abstract notions derived through literacy from experience, which Plato began to do on a large scale, and Aristotle continued followed by nearly all the other Western philosophers – but quite ←51 | 52→the opposite, the task is to construct as precise links between the practical motoric experiences and their verbal and textual expression. Therefore, the philosopher’s task is not to elevate himself spiritually above the world, but to work on developing the motoric potentials of a human in the world. While Plato deprives the philosopher of the body, Xenophon strives to teach him to use the body; and both employ text as means of influencing the readers to achieve their objectives. It is not difficult to say which of these versions triumphed in Europe. But why this one?

Among the last words of Oeconomicus, we find the term sophrosyne, crucial for the Greek thought of the late fifth and the early fourth centuries but extremely difficult to translate. It is usually rendered as “prudence,” and Ischomachus applies it to people who have mastered the art of governing others in such a way that they allow themselves to be managed, without becoming objects of manipulation. Earlier it is said that the main advantage of effective managers is not knowledge or experience itself, nor even luck but “carefulness and application” (epimeleia),53 a quality related to reflexive ability to grasp the content of experience and use it in future practices. The final conclusions given by Socrates and Ischomachus are then focused on the highest form of practical skills, which is any human activity whose aim is to oppose the entropy in the real world. Alphabetic writing happens to be one of the most effective tools we have to achieve this goal. However, Xenophon, unlike Plato and Aristotle, tried to employ it, not in order to create universal models of thinking and doing, but to produce the most precise descriptions of concrete activities, real-life practices, which he synthetized only to the level of local classes of activities (“agriculture in Attica,” “keeping a neat household by a wealthy citizen of Athens”), never reaching the absolute, ideal level. Comparing the use of writing and text by the people discussed here, we see the seeds of the two major types of textualization of experience in the Western culture: the text of theory and the text of practice.

Let us now discuss the other one of Xenophon’s texts mentioned earlier. On Horsemanship (literally: “matters pertaining to equitation”) is a very ←52 | 53→brief text which in its structure and style already resembles a modern, typographic manual. It has all the textual qualities I have listed with reference to Oeconomicus, and, moreover, it is not a dialogue that we are dealing with here but a monologue of an expert who reveals his subjectivity in the text but only to bring out the authority of knowledge and not to sketch a contextual communication. The scholars of antiquity do not agree on the target audience of the work. Some claim Xenophon wrote it for the use of his own sons, which is suggested by the mention of “the benefit of our younger friends,” neoterois ton philon delosai; others think it was meant for wealthy Athenians. The final sentences of the text are:

We encounter here a few semantically laden terms, together with a clear announcement of a forthcoming sequel to this work, that is, Hipparchikos: it is a sign that that Xenophon consciously distributed the material of his writing. It is particularly worth paying attention to the notion of “hypomnema,” which can be rendered as “sub-memory” and which, in ancient writings, mostly in the post-Hellenic epochs, signified a literary genre more or less resembling our essay, and which by the end of antiquity also meant “diaries” and “memoirs.” In the most general sense, the Greeks used the term to describe any kind of written record which is basically meant to be a reminder about some useful and needed mental contents.

Of all Greek notions pertaining to the cultural roles of writing and text the word “hypomnema” most clearly renders their role as extensions of human organism, or more precisely of its capacity called memory. In the oldest recorded uses of this word, it actually meant the very content of memory, but the very fact that this content of memory was perceived as such means that the process of internal self-reflection was already under way. In the works of Thucydides (II 44), Isocrates, Demosthenes, Plato (Phaedrus 249c), and in numerous inscriptions, expressions such as ←53 | 54→“echein hypomnema tinos” (“to have hypomnema of someone”) mean “to remember about something.” Liddell and Scott’s dictionary gives Latin “monumentum” as a synonym of this meaning. In both these words, there is the core related to human internal cognitive powers (mnema, mens); and in English it is related, of course, to “monument.”55

←54 | 55→

A juxtaposition of three terms – “hypomnema,” “mathema” (subject of mental learning, learning process) and “meletema” (subject of practical learning, exercise process; also “care”) – is a proof of developed Xenophon’s awareness of the relationship between the text and experience. The first of these words defines Hippika’s message in its textual layer – as a text in fact, as a message extended in time and space beyond the moment and place of its formulation, for the use of people in other places. “Mathema” here means the didactic component of the message, that it is to serve the recipient as a basis for acquiring new knowledge. The most problematic is the third term – “meletema” – which can be understood as a sign of the entanglement of the Hippika’s text itself with its extra-textual reference, because it is a text describing a set of practical activities performed using the human body in close connection with the material environment of that body (a relationship rendered in the Lebenswelt concept), and as such, in a sense, it deletes itself. Hippika is therefore a text whose author knows, or at least intuitively guesses, that he is trying to include in it a description of something that is not and cannot be either text or even speech – for it is a motoric activity in which the human body participates, and not only the mind subjecting the exterior and its data to mental processing. The description – both oral and written – can only symbolically relate this activity, but it is impossible to convey through it the motoric content that lies in the performer’s body and its surroundings subjected to this activity. This is an extremely expressive example of the inner contradiction that lies in every text of practice, which necessarily describes in a reflective and mediated way the realm of action, the occurrence of which is direct toward the subjects involved. Let us take a look at a representative fragment of Hippika:


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (November)
writing systems ancient Greece Aristotle cultural studies cultural anthropology Archimedes
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 238 pp., 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Paweł Majewski (Author)

Paweł Majewski , professor at the University of Warsaw. His books concern the influence of means of communication on the formation of cultural systems (Writing, Text, Literature, Warsaw 2013; The Speaking Lion, Warsaw 2018; The Feast of the Language, Warsaw 2019) and the works of Stanisław Lem (Between an Animal and a Machine. Technological Utopia of Stanisław Lem, Peter Lang 2018).


Title: Textualization of Experience