S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The memory is perpetually looking back when we have nothing present to entertain us: it is like those repositories in animals that are filled with stores of food, on which they may ruminate when their present pasture fails.
Memory is the friend of wit, but the treacherous ally of invention; and there are many books that owe their success to two things: the good memory of those who write them and the bad memory of those who read them.
First, soundly infix in thy mind what thou desirest to remember. What wonder is it if agitation of business jog that out of thy head which was there rather tacked than fastened? Whereas those notions which get in by violenta possessio will abide there till ejectio firma, sickness, or extreme age, dispossess them. It is best knocking in the nail over night, and clinching it the next morning.
Overburden not thy memory to make so faithful a servant a slave. Remember Atlas was weary. Have as much reason as a camel, to rise when thou hast thy full load. Memory, like a purse, if it be over full that it cannot shut, all will drop out of it: take heed of a gluttonous curiosity to feed on many things, lest the greediness of the appetite of thy memory spoil the digestion thereof.
It is a fact well attested by experience, that the memory may be seriously injured by pressing upon it too hardly and continuously in early life. Whatever theory we hold as to this great function of our nature, it is certain that its powers are only gradually developed; and that if forced into premature exercise they are impaired by the effort. This is a maxim, indeed, of general import, applying to the condition and culture of every faculty of body and mind, but singularly to the one we are now considering, which forms, in one sense, the foundation of intellectual life. A regulated exercise, short of fatigue, is improving to it; but we are bound to refrain from goading it by constant and laborious efforts in early life, and before the instrument is strengthened to its work, or it decays under our hands.
Strong and many are the claims made upon us by our mother Earth: the love of localitythe charm and attraction which some one homely landscape possesses to us, surpassing all stranger beauties, is a remarkable feature in the human heart. We who are not ethereal creatures, but of mixed and diverse nature; we who, when we look our clearest towards the skies, must still have our standing-ground of earth secureit is strange what relations of personal love we enter into with the scenes of this lower sphere. How we delight to build our recollections upon some basis of realitya place, a country, a local habitation: how the events of life, as we look back upon them, have grown into the well-remembered background of the places where they fell upon us! here is some sunny garden or summer lane beautified and canonized forever with the flood of a great joy; and here are dim and silent places, rooms always shadowed and dark to us, whatever they may be to others, where distress or death came once, and since then dwells for evermore.
We owe to memory not only the increase of our knowledge, and our progress in rational inquiries, but many other intellectual pleasures. Indeed, almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well perceived, and is only known to have existed by the effects which it leaves behind. The greatest part of our ideas arises, therefore, from the view before or behind us, and we are happy or miserable, according as we are affected by the survey of our life, or our prospect of future existence.
Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and far from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the germ of all public affections. True, most true! The innocent associations of childhood, the kind mother who taught us to whisper the first faint accents of prayer, and watched with anxious face over our slumbers, the ground on which our little feet first trod, the pew in which we first sat during public worship, the school in which our first rudiments were taught, the torn Virgil, the dog-eared Horace, the friends and companions of our young days, the authors who first told us the history of our country, the songs that first made our hearts throb with noble and generous emotions, the burying-place of our fathers, the cradles of our children, are surely the first objects which nature tells us to love. Philanthropy, like charity, must begin at home. From this centre our sympathies may extend in an ever-extending circle.
Ideas quickly fade, and often vanish quite out of the understanding, leaving no more footsteps or remaining characters of themselves than shadows do flying over a field of corn . The memory of some men is very tenacious, even to a miracle; but yet there seems to be a constant decay of all our ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in minds the most retentive; so that if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated exercise of the senses, or reflection on those kind of objects which at first occasioned them, the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen.
Pictures drawn in our minds are laid in fading colours, and, unless sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. How much the constitution of our bodies and the make of our animal spirits are concerned in this, and whether the temper of the brain make this difference, that in some it retains the characters drawn on it like marble, in others like freestone, and in others little better than sand, I shall not here inquire: though it may seem probable that the constitution of the body does sometimes influence the memory; since we oftentimes find a disease quite strip the mind of all its ideas, and the flames of a fever in a few days calcine all those images to dust and confusion which seemed to be as lasting as if graved in marble.
Ideas are imprinted on the memory, some by an object affecting the senses only; others, that have more than once offered themselves, have yet been little taken notice of; the mind, intent only on one thing, not settling the stamp deep into itself.
By the assistance of this faculty we have all those ideas in our understandings which, though we do not actually contemplate, yet we can bring in sight and make appear again, and be the objects of our thoughts.
That the soul in a sleeping man should be this moment busy thinking, and the next moment in a waking man not remember those thoughts, would need some better proof than bare assertion to make it be believed.
It being granted that all our different perceptions are owing to changes happening in the fibres of the principal part of the brain, wherein the soul more immediately resides, the nature of the memory is obvious: for as the leaves of a tree that have been folded for some time in a certain manner preserve a facility of disposition to be folded again in the same manner, so the fibres of the brain, having once received certain impressions by the courses of the animal spirits, and by the action of objects, preserve for some time a facility to receive the same disposition. Now it is in this facility that memory consists; for we think the same things when the brain receives the same impressions.
In my country when they would decypher a man that has no sense, they say, such a one has no memory; and when I complain of mine, they seem not to believe I am in earnest, and presently reprove me, as tho I accusd myself for a fool, not discerning the difference between memory and understanding; wherein they are very wide of my intention, and do me wrong: experience rather daily shewing us the contrary, that a strong memory is commonly coupled with infirm judgment.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. ix.
What can you expect from a man who has not talked these five days?who is withdrawing his thoughts, as far as he can, from all the present world, its customs, and its manners, to be fully possessed and absorpt in the past?
No enjoyment, however inconsiderable, is confined to the present moment. A man is the happier for life from having made once an agreeable tour, or lived for any length of time with pleasant people, or enjoyed any considerable interval of innocent pleasure.
When a man shall be just about to quit the stage of this world, to put off his mortality, and to deliver up his last accounts to God, his memory shall serve him for little else but to terrify him with a frightful review of his past life.
It is commonly supposed that genius is seldom united with a very tenacious memory. So far, however, as my own observation has reached, I can scarcely recollect one person who possesses the former of these qualities, without a more than ordinary share of the latter. On a superficial view of the subject, indeed, the common opinion has some appearance of truth; for we are naturally led, in consequence of the topics about which conversation is usually employed, to estimate the extent of memory by the impression which trivial occurrences make upon it; and these in general escape the recollection of a man of ability, not because he is unable to retain them, but because he does not attend to them.
Dugald Stewart: Elements of the Philos. of the Human Mind, ch. vi.
It is an old saying, that we forget nothing, as people in fever begin suddenly to talk the language of their infancy; we are stricken by memory sometimes, and old affections rush back on us as vivid as in the time when they were our daily talk; when their presence gladdened our eyes; when their accents thrilled in our ears; when, with passionate tears and grief, we flung ourselves upon their hopeless corpses. Parting is death,at least as far as life is concerned. A passion comes to an end; it is carried off in a coffin, or weeping in a post-chaise; it drops out of life one way or the other, and the earth-clods close over it, and we see it no more. But it has been part of our souls, and it is eternal.
Many are saved by the deficiency of their memory from being spoiled by their education; for those who have no extraordinary memory are driven to supply its defects by thinking. If they do not remember a mathematical demonstration, they are driven to devise one. If they do not exactly retain what Aristotle or Smith have said, they are driven to consider what they were likely to have said, or ought to have said. And thus their faculties are invigorated by exercise.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Studies.