Dionysius of Miletus and the Memory-Men: Learning by Nature, Not Magic

Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 521-522

“Consider it immaterial whether Dionysius of Miletus was, as some claim, born from famous forebears or whether, as others maintain, he was a child of freedmen, since he became well-known through his own efforts. For emphasis on one’s ancestors is a trait of those with no chance of praise earned on their own.


These foregoing details provide a general sense of Dionysius, and how it was his custom to consider the matter of his speeches as long as [his teacher] Isaios would. Concerning the story circulating about Dionysius, that he trained his students in mnemonic practice using the Chaldean arts*, I will attempt to show its origins. There are no special arts of memory, nor could there be. For, since memory teaches us the arts, it is unteachable itself; there is no method of gaining it since it is a present from nature or a portion of the immortal soul. For, it shouldn’t be credited that human beings are mortal, nor could any of the things we have learned be taught unless memory itself lived alongside men. Whether it is right to call her the mother of time or her child, I will not quibble with the poets—let it be whatever they want.

In addition to this, who canonized among the wise would be so heedless of his own reputation as to slander what has actually been taught correctly by using witchcraft with his students? Where, then, does the mnemonic skill of his followers come from? The speeches of Dionysius provided such pleasure to them that they compelled him to repeat them often, and he would—since he could sense their delight in hearing them. The students who learned more easily used to imprint them on their thoughts and they used to recite them to others once they had fully retained them by practice rather than memory.  This is why the used to be called “memory-men” and made this technique their art. In addition, this is why some criticize the speeches of Dionysius as bits collected from here and there, since they claim that where Dionysius was brief, others have added much.”

*i.e., Some type of magic

κβ′. Διονύσιος δὲ ὁ Μιλήσιος εἴθ’, ὡς ἔνιοί φασι, πατέρων ἐπιφανεστάτων ἐγένετο, εἴθ’, ὥς τινες, αὐτὸ τοῦτο ἐλευθέρων, ἀφείσθω τούτου τοῦ μέρους, ἐπειδὴ οἰκείᾳ ἀρετῇ ἐλαμπρύνετο, τὸ γὰρ καταφεύγειν ἐς τοὺς ἄνω ἀποβεβληκότων ἐστὶ τὸν ἐφ’ ἑαυτῶν ἔπαινον.

Τοιάδε μὲν ἡ ἐπίπαν ἰδέα τοῦ Διονυσίου, καθ’ ἣν τὰ τῆς μελέτης αὐτῷ προὔβαινεν ἐπισκοπουμένῳ καιρόν, ὅσονπερ ὁ ᾿Ισαῖος, ὁ δὲ λόγος ὁ περὶ τοῦ Διονυσίου λεγόμενος, ὡς Χαλδαίοις τέχναις τοὺς ὁμιλητὰς τὸ μνημονικὸν ἀναπαιδεύοντος πόθεν εἴρηται, ἐγὼ δηλώσω· τέχναι μνήμης οὔτε εἰσὶν οὔτ’ ἂν γένοιντο, μνήμη μὲν γὰρ δίδωσι τέχνας, αὐτὴ δὲ ἀδίδακτος καὶ οὐδεμιᾷ τέχνῃ ἁλωτός, ἔστι γὰρ πλεονέκτημα φύσεως ἢ τῆς ἀθανάτου ψυχῆς μοῖρα. οὐ γὰρ ἄν ποτε θνητὰ νομισθείη τὰ ἀνθρώπεια, οὐδὲ διδακτά, ἃ ἐμάθομεν, εἰ μνήμη συνεπολιτεύετο ἀνθρώποις, ἣν εἴτε μητέρα δεῖ χρόνου καλεῖν, εἴτε παῖδα, μὴ διαφερώμεθα πρὸς τοὺς ποιητάς, ἀλλ’ ἔστω, ὅ τι βούλονται. πρὸς δὲ τούτοις τίς οὕτως εὐήθης κατὰ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ δόξης ἐν σοφοῖς γραφόμενος, ὡς γοητεύων ἐν μειρακίοις διαβάλλειν καὶ ἃ ὀρθῶς ἐπαιδεύθη; πόθεν οὖν τὸ μνημονικὸν τοῖς ἀκροωμένοις; ἄπληστα τὴν ἡδονὴν ἐδόκει τὰ τοῦ Διονυσίου καὶ πολλάκις ἐπαναλαμβάνειν αὐτὰ ἠναγκάζετο, ἐπειδὴ ξυνίει σφῶν χαιρόντων τῇ ἀκροάσει. οἱ δὴ εὐμαθέστεροι τῶν νέων ἐνετυποῦντο αὐτὰ ταῖς γνώμαις καὶ ἀπήγγελλον ἑτέροις μελέτῃ μᾶλλον ἢ μνήμῃ ξυνειληφότες, ὅθεν μνημονικοί τε ὠνομάζοντο καὶ τέχνην αὐτὸ πεποιημένοι. ἔνθεν ὁρμώμενοί τινες τὰς τοῦ Διονυσίου μελέτας ἐσπερματολογῆσθαί φασιν, ὡς δὴ ἄλλο ἄλλου ξυνενεγκόντων ἐς αὐτάς, ἐν ᾧ ἐβραχυλόγησεν.

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