The Ancient Art of Advocacy Logo

The Three Elements of the Canon of Memory

Historically, the three elements of the canon of memory were:

  1. Memorizing one’s speech.

  2. Creating a memorable speech

  3. Building up a treasury or database of quotations, anecdotes, memorable phrases, stock phrases (such as different ways of describing the burden of proof) so you had a reservoir of apt phrases you could fall back on.

"If men learn the art of writing it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves".

1. Memorizing one’s speech

Historically, almost all rhetorical communication took place in some form of public forum, initially in the forums of Ancient Greece and later on in courts of law. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets, the latter being frowned upon. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates announcing that reliance on writing weakened memory:

"If men learn the art of writing it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves".

The canon of memory then was in many ways a tool to increase an orator’s ethos, or authority with his audience. Because it was expected that an orator could declaim a speech lasting several hours without anything other than minimal prompting, the ancient rhetoricians developed various techniques to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The “method of loci” technique was the most famous and the most popular way of remembering a speech. It was first described in the ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It is still used today; the book Moonwalking with Einstein, which describes various techniques for improving your memory includes it.

The way it works, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building (such as a court) or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. When you deliver your speech, you mentally walk through your “memory house” in order to retrieve the information you need to deliver.

We can’t know for certain if great orators of the past used this technique in their cases though there is evidence they did. It has been reliably reported that Curran’s speech for Rowan, which was 77 pages long, was delivered from memory from a note page containing thirty words:

 "To arms-Second. Reform-Third. Catholic Emancipation-Fourth. Convention-Now unlawful-consequence of conviction-Trial before revolution-Drowned-Lambert-Muir-Character of R.-Fumace etc. Rebellion smothered stalks-Redeeming spirit."

 There is some evidence that the phrase “in the first place” comes from this technique. A speaker using the technique might say, “In the first place,” in reference to the fact that the first part of his speech was in the first place or loci in his memory house. Fascinating, isn’t it? If you would like a more detailed explanation of this technique Quintilian covers it in detail here.

2. Making one’s speech memorable.

The second element of this canon entailed organizing your oration and using certain figures of speech and tropes to help you create a memorable speech. You can find more information on the figures of speech, tropes, and seeing examples of how advocates previously have used these techniques in practice, under the tab dealing with the third canon of rhetoric – How you phrase it.

 As an advocate, you can’t persuade your audience if people don’t remember the points you are making. What good is spending hours memorizing a persuasive speech if the judge and the jury forget what you said as soon as they walk out the door? So making it memorable is important.

 3. Keeping a treasury of rhetorical fodder.

 A third facet of the canon of memory involved storing up quotations, facts, and anecdotes that could be used at any time for future speeches or even an impromptu speech. That practice continues today, and new advocates are often encouraged by more experienced advocates to come up with a range of ways of describing the burden of proof for example, so you always have a store of stock phrases you can fall back on.

 According to the ancient rhetoricians, a master orator always has a treasury of rhetorical fodder in his mind and close at hand. Classical rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian, who were the QC’s of their day, encouraged their students to carry small journals to collect quotes and ideas for future speeches. During the Renaissance, these were known as a “commonplace book.” You can see an example of a lawyers common place book template from 1830 here which you can also download or you can buy or find examples of modern commonplace books on Amazon and other bookshops.

If you like the idea of creating your own notebook full of quotes, closing speeches, and burden of proof descriptions that you can fall back on if you get stuck, or need to throw something together at short notice, then you can either download a commonplace template in docxWord which is fully customisable,buy your own notebook  or create your own for the purpose.

You may want to have a read of some of the opening speeches, closing speeches and cross examination examples of some of the great barristers in history that you can find on the website, and if you find anything that you particularly like in those, then you can jot those down as well.

You are not authorised to post comments.