Memory and History

Inspired by the passage from Plutarch quoted below.

Memory[i] and history are inextricably linked, the latter having its origin in the former.  With their typical perceptiveness the Greeks recognized this lineage, all the arts descend from memory and the God.  Hesiod:

[The muses] in Pieria[ii] did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt, when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges.

Hesiod, Theogony

The eldest daughter of Memory and Zeus was Clio, the muse of history.  First among her sisters, she commemorates the great deeds of men. It is for this commemoration that the Achaeans and Trojans fought on the plains of Ilium. 

The fragility of this remembrance is the brilliant ambiguity at the heart of the epic, revealed by the one who questions the worth of this remembrance, the exception, the best of the Achaeans, Swift-Footed Achilles.

Unlike the rest, Achilles knows his fate, [iii] and thus has that most precious of things: a choice.  He can fight under the walls of Troy, achieve eternal glory, and die, or he can return home to bucolic Phthia and die unremembered after a long and happy life.[iv]

Knowledge of his choice leaves Achilles deeply conflicted; in particular because he is himself half-divine yet, despite his demigoddery, condemned to die.[v]  Given the opportunity by Agamemnon’s slight, he abdicates choice all together and goes off to sulk on the beach, leaving his companions to be slaughtered as his internal turmoil rages.[vi]

In the end, he does not choose to fight for the sake of eternal glory, but for love.[vii]  Over the course of the poem, the locus of his rage shifts, from Agamemnon to his fate and, therefore, himself.[viii]  Patroclus, his blood brother, is struck down, unfairly, by the gods and by Hector while standing in for Achilles–leading Achilles’s men, wearing Achilles’s armor, with the fighting prowess of his blood-brother.[ix]  Only then does Achilles storm into the fray, the murder of his friend and the murder of himself co-mingled, love of self and love of his brother twisted into god-like anger.[x]

Ultimately, the resolution of this anger comes only through divine intervention and sacrificial propitiation.[xi] This triggers the recognition of his father’s grief in Priam’s grief for Hector, allowing him to accept that he will, like his mortal father and unlike his sea-goddess mother, die, leaving only the fragile immortality of remembrance.[xii]

And this immortality is a small comfort indeed, no use to the dead, as we see in the Odyssey: when summoned from the land of shades, Achilles tells Odysseus that glory is worthless to the dead, better to be a living slave then a dead hero. 

In the Iliad itself, there is the haunting image of the long-dead tree, the turning point of the chariot race run in the funeral games of Patroclus:

Now, the turn itself-it’s clear, you cannot miss it.
There’s a dead tree-stump standing six feet high.
it’s oak or pine, not rotted through by the rains,
and it’s propped by two white stones on either side.
That’s your halfway mark where the homestretch starts
and there’s plenty of good smooth racing-room around it
it’s either the grave-mound of a man dead long ago
or men who lived before us set it up as a goal.

Iliad, Book XXIII


Either an honored grave or a marker of a game long forgotten.  Think of the sheer casualness with which the observation is made, the ease with which they’ve forgotten.  What the heroes lack in this moment, though it is present at many other points in the epic is the moral duty to remember, for it is only because of this duty that glory is possible at all.[xiii] 

Most obviously, this is manifest throughout the Iliad in the emphasis on lineage.  Homer spends just as much if not more time speaking about the “sons of Atreus” as Agamemnon and Menalaus.  All men live in the shadow of their fathers.[xiv] The living embodiment of the previous generation is Nestor, never failing to remind those around him of the deeds of the dead and their superiority to the living.[xv]

The spirit of Nestor lives on in the historians: 

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus  am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. 

Herodotus, Histories

The duty of the historian, therefore, first emerges from the moral duty to commemorate the dead, to prevent their images from being lost to time.[xvi]  We hold this duty not only to men of the past but to the other residents of memory, those in the future (see footnote 1) including our future selves.  Witness Herodotus’s adversary, and general stick-in-the-mud, Thucydides’s insistence that his history is useful:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world- I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters….

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1

And the dead, properly commemorated serve as guides to the future, see Patroclus’s ghost, Anchises in Elysium, Virgil and the innumerable counselors Dante meets in the underworld, examples multiply. 

But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live.

Tacitus, Agricola, 99

In memory these shades can live, albeit as mere images, recalling the past, shaping the future and ameliorating the pains of the present.[xvii]

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing  biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself  to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as  a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and  adorn my own life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were,  in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view —

  ” Their stature and their qualities,”  

and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.  

” Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have? ”  

or what more effective means to one’s moral improvement?  Democritus tells us we ought to pray that of the phantasms  appearing in the circumambient air, such may present themselves to us as are propitious, and that we may rather meet  with those that are agreeable to our natures and are good  than the evil and unfortunate; which is simply introducing  into philosophy a doctrine untrue in itself, and leading to  endless superstitions. My method, on the contrary, is, by the  study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to  habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best  and worthiest characters. I thus am enabled to free myself  from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from  the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged  in ; by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm  temper to view these noble examples. Of this kind are those  of Timoleon the Corinthian and Paulus Aemilius, to write  whose lives is my present business; men equally famous, not  only for their virtues, but success; insomuch that they have  left it doubtful whether they owe their greatest achievements  to good fortune, or their own prudence and conduct. In us, they can live again and that is, it seems, why we at least in part, write history. [xviii] 

Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

[i] Memory is a far more expansive and powerful capacity than we typically think.  It’s not merely the storehouse of past ideas and impressions but a vast landscape in which those fragments are assembled into wholes.  The present is a product of memory, the intersection of past remembrances and future expectations extrapolated from these remembrances (themselves, therefore, both extant only in memory).  We live suspended, therefore, between memories.

[ii] The birthplace and resting place of Orpheus as well, surely this is no accident.

[iii] Hector, too, has an intuition of his doom.  Though, befitting his inferior status in comparison, he cannot seem to fully grasp it, alternatively acknowledging and ignoring his destiny in the same moment.  One second bemoaning the inevitable destruction of his city, the enslavement of his wife; the next proclaiming that his son—who will die cruelly at the hands of his killer’s son—will be a greater man than he. 

[iv] It is easy to forget that it is in fact a true prophecy.  Achilles did fight, did die, and did attain eternal glory.  Even in our culturally benighted age we know the name of Achilles, while the images of innumerable others have faded to dust, even the best of them. Diomedes fought the gods themselves, yet who today remembers Diomedes?

[v] Any complaint that Homer lacks psychological realism shatters against the character of Achilles.

[vi] That Agamemnon’s offense is not truly what motivates Achilles to refuse to return to battle is seen clearly in his contradictory responses to the embassy in Book IX.  Notice also whose argument comes closest to swaying him, Ajax who appeals to friendship. 

And what is Achilles doing when the ambassadors arrive: Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,

they found him there. delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes …

Iliad, Book IX

And who is the muse of the lyre?  Clio, of course. 

[vii] A deep bond of friendship, not erotic love, as certain later commentators whose stunted imaginations are incapable of recognizing that a deep friendship between men does not require fucking.

[viii] Rage over our fate is ultimately sourced in rage at our place within the cosmos, our own finite and limited nature.  This is, incidentally, the rage of the primordial revolt, the rage of Satan.

[ix] Patroclus in his aresteia is capable of storming Troy himself, though it is Achilles who is destined to conquer Troy by killing its embodiment, Hector.  He will, of course, die before the city is finally destroyed, that task being largely accomplished by the near psychotic rage of Neoptolemus, motivated by the memory of his lost father. 

[x] Divine wrath is, of course, founded in love, cf. the inscription Dante finds over the gates of Hell: “MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,/AND THE PRIMAL LOVE” (Inferno, Canto 3)

[xi] cf. David Malouf’s Ransom for a poignant treatment.

[xii] It’s fucking beautiful.

[xiii] Remember though before you judge them too harshly for this lack that the order of society has been terribly disrupted by the eruption of Achilles’s rage and not yet restored by these games and the sacrificial self-offering of Priam, itself deeply bound up in the relation between father and son. 

[xiv] I almost wrote, “save Achilles,” but Achilles lives more in the shadow of his father, a father he is doomed to surpass and pre-decease, than anyone.  That’s the whole problem.   

[xv] Surely in the background here we should also keep Fustel de Coulanges’s contentions about the centrality of ancestor-worship to the Greeks in mind.

[xvi] Compare Jewish history, not of men but God, whose image only emerges in negative space, between and behind the lines, as famously described by Auerbach in “Odysseus’s Scar.”  It’s not an accident that the memory’s place in the trinity of our mind most closely corresponds to God the Father, and that history is one of the dominant genres of the Old Testament. 

[xvii] “The living do not have a constitutive need to speak as much as to hear themselves spoken to, above all by the ancestor.  We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld–address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” (Robert Pogue Harrison, Dominion of the Dead, 151)

[xviii] What happens next is, of course, the collision with and assimilation of Jewish history into this model, a topic for another day.

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