It belongs to the examined life to strive for excellence in the discipline of memory. The honest and diligent activity of remembering helps us in several ways.
It can be action-guiding or forward-looking. Through remembering a past experience, we are able to make a prudent call about what to do here and now—not repeating a past mistake, repeating or improving on a past success, and so on. Memory also helps us discern a vocation: does this possible path forward make sense in light of how my life has gone up to now? So, remembering the past makes the future not wholly opaque. But memory is not merely forward-looking, of course. Through remembering, we keep our past with us in our present. As an object of present contemplation, we can come to learn more about the past, and we can come to deepen our love for the people and places and things we loved less than we might have.
Through memory, then, we mimic something of the eternal life of God—the eternal present, as Boethius describes it, in which past and future are somehow enjoyed simultaneously.
I think, then, that we mortals can be counted among the gods who make their own importance, as it says in Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, “Epic.” But we should distinguish two rather different ways by which we can make something important, a distinction which echoes the famous dilemma Socrates posed to Euthyphro. The first way is voluntaristic: things with no intrinsic value become important by the mere fact that we take them to be so. The importance on this view is, so to speak, all on the side of the gods who do the valuing. The second way is anti-voluntaristic: the gods recognize things with intrinsic value and value them accordingly.
In what sense, then, on this anti-voluntaristic view, do we as humans made in God’s image make our own importance? I think this has to do with how much time we have on our hands. Wittgenstein said that philosophers should greet each other like this: “Take your time!” It is the vocation of the philosopher to pause and to reflect, not to be rushed along by the business of life, or swirled away in climates of opinion, but to do his best to get in touch with the real nature of things, to see what’s really there. This is what comes naturally to God; it’s harder for us, but again, memory gives us that godlike opportunity to keep the past with us, as a present object of contemplation. What was not noticed then, or what could not have been noticed then, can become present to us as we continue to study the past. And, this includes the value of things, the goodness there all along, waiting to be discovered and loved and so made important to the one who remembers.
There is something even more godlike about the one with power to make his past important not just to himself, but to others. In “Epic,” the ghost of Homer tells the poet that he made the Iliad out of a local row. Let’s say this local row was at least as important to the people fighting as it was to the poet who sang about it. But the poet had not only the godlike power to discover continually in memory the importance of the row, but the additional godlike power to re-create the row in verse and show it to the world as it really is.
We who read Homer—or Plato, or Augustine, or Dante, or Shakespeare—therefore have a head start on the excavation of the full meaning of our own experiences. We need not start from scratch. A lifetime habit of reading and thinking about books, therefore, is an aid to seeing things as they are, helping us not to miss so much in the present experience, and to find what we missed in the experience remembered. Or as T. S. Eliot puts it in one of his poems: “the past experience revived in the meaning / is not the experience of one life only / But of many generations—not forgetting / something that is probably quite ineffable.”
I do not know what Eliot means here by “ineffable,” but I want to offer a gloss of my own, one that fits my purpose: ineffable is not unintelligible; as Aquinas and other scholastics tell us, there are things chock full of intelligibility which are nevertheless not, or not fully, intelligible to us. God is ineffable, but also a plenum of intelligibility and goodness: the True itself, the Good itself. The ineffability of our own experiences then, if they are ineffable, does not mean that we can’t find what’s really there. Instead, I take it to mean that whatever our degree of understanding or loving the objects held in memory, we have not understood everything there to be understood, or loved everything there to be loved.
This fact implies that we have not just ample but inexhaustible subject matter for memory to work on: always more to learn, always more to love.
Earlier, I distinguished two ways of understanding what it means for us to make our own importance: a voluntaristic and an anti-voluntaristic. I took the anti-voluntaristic way, the road less travelled these days but well-traveled by nearly all the great poets and philosophers and theologians prior to the nineteenth century. What would happen if we took the other road, the trendier voluntarist road? On this road you are to imagine a world in itself bereft of all value, meaningless; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, its value totally extrinsic to it, projected onto it, naively or defiantly as the case may, by human observers.
In his ode to Dejection, Coleridge wrote that “we receive but what we give / and in our life alone does Nature live: / […] / Ah! From the soul itself must issue forth / A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud / Enveloping the Earth…” The poet goes on to identify this light and glory with Joy. But the problem with Joy, he continues, is that it’s impermanent, and as he considers the terrors of the world—the ravening Wind, the blasted tree, dying soldiers on a frozen battlefield, a little girl lost in the mountains on a stormy night—his Joy is diminished. And the poem ends feebly with a wish that the Lady whom the poet addresses might “evermore rejoice.” Nature lives, then, only when we’re in that joyful, importance-making mood—when we happen to give enough of a damn to make it important by our thinking about it. As Joy departs, so too does the meaningfulness of the world. What can we do then? Well, just wish for the joy to come back; that’s all Coleridge could give us, at that stage in his life. But if you’ve convinced yourself that the importance of the world around you pops in and out of existence as your moods change, you will eventually realize that the importance constructed on the whims of Joy is fraudulent. You will despair, or you will repent.
Contrast this with the traveler on the anti-voluntaristic road. For him too, feelings of Joy come and go. But what he knows—except in his darkest moments, when he forgets—is that the world out there is teeming with goodness and beauty, that the evil is not the permanent thing but the corruption of goodness. He knows, too, that his feelings can put him in touch with what is really there; that the importance is out there, including in our pasts, to be made important to us by our discovery of it, not our construction of it. And, finally, he knows that there is always more to discover and so always more to love.