spacer1. 1583/84 was a banner year for mnemotechnics in England. This was initiated, of course, by the extended visit of Giordano Bruno: NOTE 1

Bruno opened his campaign in England with a volume, dedicated to the French ambassador, containing an Art of Memory which is a reprint from the one in the Cantus Circaeus, and two other works entitled Explicatio Triginta Sigillorum and Sigillus Sigillorum. The “thirty“ grouping of the “seals“ shows that he is still moving in the mystico-magical realms of the De umbris idearum, and, in fact, the whole volume is a further development of the exploration of memory as a major instrument in the formation of a Magus...

In various ways, Bruno’s presence excited interest in the subject of memory-training. In the first place, on June 6, 1583 Christopher Marlowe’s friend, the poet Thomas Watson, delivered an address on the subject to an audience graced by the presence of Adalbert Łaski, Voivode of Siradia. Since a little later Łaski went to Oxford under the escort of Sir Philip Sidney, and it is highly likely that Bruno traveled with the same party, NOTE 2 it is plausible to think that Bruno was likewise present during Watson’s lecture. Watson presented an entirely straightforward and pragmatic treatment of the subject, largely cribbed out of the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herrenium, and since he was an inveterate practical joker, it is highly tempting to imagine that his actual intention was to deflate Bruno’s pretentiousness and poke fun at his mysticism by showing that a trained memory was something that any reasonably intelligent and diligent man could acquire. Nevertheless, he took memory-training seriously enough that a year or two later he published his exposition under the title Compendium Memoriae Localis (the text of his original speech, which does not greatly differ from the published version, is preserved in British Library me. Sloane 3731).
spacer2. Next to appear was Alexander Dickson’s De Umbra Rationis et Iudicii (the dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Leicester is dated January 1, 1584 new style). Dickson [1558 - 1604] was born in Kirkton, Errol, Scotland, and after his university education at St. Andrews and an evident spell of study on the Continent, he turned up in 1583 as a resident of Tower ward, London. NOTE 3 The dedication to Leicester of both this work and his subsequent published defense against the attack of William Perkins — more on this below — go to show that he was, as his biographer put it, a member of Leicester’s circle, and this impression is strengthened by a 1592 remark of Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland William Bowes, who reported that “Dickson, master of the art of memory, and sometime attending on Mr. Philip Sidney, deceased, has come to court.” NOTE 4
spacer3. Dickson’s book is a rather strange-seeming production. Clearly, he has only chosen to publish selections from a longer and more elaborate philosophica dialogue. The first part consists of a short snatch of a conversation between Thamus, Mercurius, and Theutates, the second a of a longer exchange between Thamus and Socrates, at the end of which, at Socrates’ request, Thamus delivers a speech about memory, which is in fact Dickson’s treatise on mnemotechnics embedded within the larger work (we have no way of knowing whether the dialogue resumed after Thamus concluded his presentation). Thamus and Theuthus (Thoth) are familiar from the myth related by Plato at Phaedrus p. 274D (trans. B. D. Jowett):

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

spacer4. Theuth reappears in the Hermetic Corpus (regarded in the Renaissance as a storehouse of ancient Egyptian wisdom and religion): he is the son of Hermes and recipient of his father’s teachings in the Hermetic treatise “Though Unmanifest, God is Most Manifest: Of Hermes to his Son Tat” and is elsewhere identified with Hermes Trismegistus himself. That Dickson is situating his dialogue in a specifically Hermetic environment is shown by his allusions to and quotations from the Corpus, and most crucially by his claim (in Chapter II of his memory discourse) that mnemotechnics were not a Greek invention, but instead can be traced back to the Egyptians and Druids.
spacer5. He must have employed a setting in the afterlife (with which Thoth had great associations in Egyptian religion and mythology, which represented him as the scribe who recorded the sentences pronounced on the dead), since, besides the dead King Thamus the dialogue features Socrates., who is subjected to an extensive attack by Thamus, which is striking for the way it anticipates Nietzsche’s case against him. It largely works by repeating the humorous accusations leveled by Aristophanes in The Clouds as serious ones, coupled with a critique of Socratic rationalism as being inferior to true wisdom (in § 6):

Insuper, divine tibi philosophari videbaris cum hominibus rationis imperium, cupiditatis et irae obtemperantiam inculcares. At falsum. Neque enim ratio est quae vocet ad officium iubendo, aut vetando a fraude deterreat. Imo vero contra, ratio est, non ira, quae decipit, quaeque decipitur, et nisi mens adsit et in regenerationis craterem homines immergantur, blue frustra rationis commendationi nitentur.

[“To move on, you seemed to be philosophizing divinely when you taught that reason should rule in men and that desire and anger ought to be mastered. But wrongly so. It is not reason which calls us to our duty by its command, or deters us from deceit by its veto. No, quite to the contrary, it is reason, not anger, which deceives and is deceived, and, unless intelligence is added and mankind is dipped into the cup of regeneration, it is in vain that they rely on your praise of reason.”]

(As pointed out in the commentary note ad loc., “the cup of regeneration” is a specifically Hermetic concept.)
spacer6. On the basis of the Hermetic “Egyptian” environment in which he presents his mnemotechnic discourse, as well as more detailed considerations yet to be mentioned. Dickson is regularly described and discussed as Bruno’s disciple (most notably by Frances Yates in her The Art of Memory). NOTE 5 Indeed, Bruno regarded Dickson as a kindred spirit: in his Cena de le Censeri he speaks of “that clever, honest, kind, gentlemanly and faithful friend, Alexander Dickson,” and indeed makes “Dicsono” a speaker in one of the dialogues in the collection, De la Causa. The remainder of this introductory essay will be devoted to considering the nature and extent of the Bruno’s influence on the De Umbra Rationis, for this is the best way of getting at what Dickson is and is not attempting to do in this work.
spacer7. The second dialogue-fragment was this portion of the book that appears to have most provoked a Cambridge don named William Perkins (who signed himself “G. P.”) into publishing a heated assault on Dickson, his 1584 Antidicsonus, in which he spent a good deal of time defending Ramus [Pierre de la Ramée, 1515 - 1572], a highly influential Protestant Humanist, logician, and educational reformer who exerted great influence over English Puritans and was particularly admired at Cambridge (this rebuttal triggered a pamphleteering war between Dickson and Perkins, which has been described by Frances Yates and so need not be mentioned here). NOTE 6 Evidently he regarded Dickson’s Socrates as a lay-figure for Ramus, a view endorsed by Yates (and this explains Perkins’ accusations that De Umbra Rationis et Iudicii smacks of Papism). But if Dickson’s Socrates is indeed a lay-figure for Ramus, he does not immediately appear to be a very particularized one. Dickson has done little to alter the traditional portrait of Socrates, or at least the Aristophanic version thereof, so as to make him seem Ramus-like. Only one feature of this presentation is flagrantly unhistorical, and serves as the tip-off that shows what Dickson really had in mind. Throughout his book, Dickson keeps harping on the relationship between Socrates and Anaxagoras and represents Socrates as his enemy. Indeed, at one point Thamus asks him Sed quis te furor in Anaxagoram commovit? [“But what frenzy drove you against Anaxagoras?”], and at the end of his memory-discourse he speaks of the necessity of Socrates reconciling himself with the other philosopher, adding the teasing words Quamvis haec tota transitio mihi suspecta est, et hic forte aliquid subesse possit [“Although this entire passing of yours strikes me as suspicious, and may have some hidden meaning.”] In truth, at Plato’s Phaedo pp. 97B - 99C Socrates relates how as a young man he was briefly captivated by Anaxagoras’ idea of a cosmic Mind (Νοῦς) governing all things, but that his enthusiasm cooled off when he realized that Anaxagoras’ appeal to Mind really served to explain very little. But in this account, and elsewhere in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates exhibits no especial animus against Anaxagoras. It may therefore be suggested that Socrates stands for Ramus and Anaxagoras for Bruno. This takes us back to the quotation given above about the difference between reason and wisdom: like Bruno’s Logifer in De Umbris Idearum, Socrates-Ramus is the type of the dryasdust pedant capable only of dealing with the surface play of events, whereas Anaxagoras-Bruno is an enlightened philosopher possessed of genuine spiritual understanding. This reading has the obvious advantage of explaining the relevance of this portion of the dialogue to the work as a whole.
spacer8. Turning to the memory treatise itself, one can point out numerous elements that look decidedly Brunoistic. But it must first be said that Dickson’s discourse differs from Watson’s Compendium Memoriae Localis and countless other Renaissance treatments of mnemotechnics in that it is not a “how to” manual providing instructions for acquiring mastery of a “local memory” or “place memory” system whereby eidetic images of things to be remembered are systematically stored in separate imaginary places, capable of quick and easy retrieval. Rather, although Dickson does occasionally offer some practical advice, it is a kind of philosophical meditation on such a system, written in such a way that it is only comprehensible for a reader who is already familiar with how such a system works. (For this reason, I strongly urge those of my readers who lack such familiarity to read Watson’s Compendium Memoriae Localis, Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, or some similar work before trying to come to grips with Dickson). Although a number of ideas are touched upon, as indicated by the title, the central subject of discussion are “shadows.” Read in context, it is difficult not to take this as an allusion to Bruno De Umbris Idearum and expect that Dickson will be discussing Bruno’s philosophical shadows of Platonic ideas, which are capable of allowing Man to apprehend things too lofty to be contemplated directly (although Yates does not say so, Bruno doubtless took the idea from the way the shadows function in Plato’s Myth of the Cave in the Republic). NOTE 7 Our anticipation that these shadows will have some such import is encouraged by the mystical lingo which which Dickson alludes to them, when he speaks of the mind “existing within the shadow of the light,” “a shadow also resides within the light,” and so forth. It therefore comes as a distinct surprise to see how Dickson writes about shadows when he gets down to the business of mnemotechnics (particularly in the section beginning at Chapter XII): for him, it turns out, a shadow is quite simply an image employed in lieu of something to be remembered (what he calls a “subject”) which is itself too abstract or difficult to generate an eidetic image such as can be stored in an imaginary mnemonic “place” (receptaculum). Thus, for instance, the “shadow” or image of a sword can be employed to represent the abstract idea of justice (an example used in Chapter VIII). As such, therefore, in Dickson’s system a “shadow” is an eidetic image that stands in relation to its “subject” in the same way that a metaphor does to its object correlative, and a handy way to remember things which would otherwise be difficult to accomodate to a place-memory system.
spacer9. This same disconnection between appearance and reality in Dickson’s treatise is visible in Chapters XVI and XVII. In the former of these (the title of which could also be translated as “ON ASTROLOGICAL MODIFICATIONS”) he recommends that the reader imagine a system of the signs of the Zodiac, enhanced by the moveable stars and the draco lunae (a Brunonian feature, whatever exactly it is), each subdivided into ten subdivisions or decans, producing a grand total of 200 decans. In the latter, of thirty alphabetical letters, evidently also subdivided quinque consistentium accessione spirantibus, eorumque consistentium effectis et adiunctis pro liquidis et finalibus ex ratione providentibus (whatever that precisely means). Ostensibly, these chapters too seem redolent of of elements in De Umbris Idearum: former makes us think of the magical significance Bruno placed on the Zodiac, and and the latter of his wheel with its thirty letters. the outermost of a concentric set of five such wheels. NOTE 8 But closer inspection again reveals something entirely different. These chapters are admittedly difficult to understand, at least in part because of their lack of illustrative examples, but their main thrust is clear enough. Dickson is simply presenting us with two possible sets of containers, based respectively on the signs of the Zodiac thus enlarged (no doubt they are to be marked by their traditional eidetic images), and thirty letters (and he gives us no instruction that these are to be imagined as written on any sort of wheel or arranged in a circular formation). Both are capable of subdivision into subordinate parts, in order to accommodate a large number of things to be remembered. Hence Dickson is only suggesting two possible “filing systems.” Watson describes a similar system in his Chapter 5, and helps us understand it at least in the manuscript version of his treatise, by the inclusion of an illustrative diagram. And the single example of what can be stored in one of these systems he provides is distinctly practical and mundane: in Chapter XVI he points out that his Zodiacal system can be used to help one recall the particular Book and chapter of some passage in a book. It might also be worth pointing out that in Chapter XVI Dickson is content to abide by the traditional Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe, whereas in his visit to Oxford Bruno eagerly urged the new Copernican heliocentric model on his hosts.
spacer10. In fact, the everyday, humble, and entirely practical act of remembering a citation in a book goes to show what Dickson’s system is and is not designed to do. And the disconnect between the appearance and the reality of his system is equally visible in what he does not say. At no point does he make any Brunoistic claims for mnemotechnics: that they are in any way mystical or magical, that they are some kind of spiritual askesis or a means of acquiring some special gnosis, or have any spiritually uplifting or transformative power. Despite the mystical veneer he places on the subject, and his very crabbed and elliptical way of expressing himself, as if he were discussing something abstruse and philosophical — if someone were to accuse him of deliberate mystification, maybe not without a touch of charlatanism (which incidentally makes his treatise very difficult to translate), NOTE 9 I would not care to disagree —in point of fact the system he recommends is designed for the sole and only purpose of improving one’s ability to remember things.
spacer11. To summarize, then, although Dickson’s surrounding dialogue-context and some of his quotations and terminology are highly redolent of “Egyptianizing” Hermeticism and Brunoism, the mnemonic system he actually describes and discusses has little if anything to do with this mystical rigmarole. If Dickson is to be categorized as a Brunoist, it looks as if he can only be called such in a limited and contingent way: he was willing to adopt the Hermetic trappings and some of the imagery and vocabulary of Brunoism, and even have a little fun ragging Ramus, but when it came to the essence of the matter, his mnemotechnic system, he was very much his own man. His pragmatic view of the subject, in fact, puts him much closer to Watson’s chaste, classicizing approach (and also to that of Ramus). This discovery helps us understand a few facts which would otherwise be difficult to explain. If he were a thoroughgoing Brunoist, or for that matter visibly a Catholic, how would he have gained the favor of the Puritan-leaning Leicester and Sidney? Or why would his pamphlet have been printed by the Huguenot immigrant Thomas Vautrollier? NOTE 10 Then too, we must consider the endorsing epistle of John Adams of Lincoln that stands at the beginning of the volume, who wrote:

Cum enim memoriae bonitas, inductis iam olim literis extincta, nunc tandem aetate nostra coepisset excitare, sed ita tamen ut melancolica barbarie gravissime affecta, et monstrosa specie deformis, indigna generosis procis amica videretur, ecce Dicsonus inventus est, qui quasi novalem terram aliquam, diuturna oratione, novatione, iteratione, omnique adeo cultu et satione dimensam, naturae sensusque prioris vigori restitueret. Restituit, et magna mortalium utilitate vulgavit.

[“At a time when the goodness of memory, which once had been set forth in writing, had become defunct but then had started to rouse itself in our times, but in such a way that it was very greatly tainted by mad barbarism, behold, Dickson was found, who, as if he were the discoverer of some new land, marking it out with his cultivation and planting, by his lengthy discourse, innovation, and repetitions, restored it to the nature and meaning of its erstwhile vigor. He restored it, and, to the great advantage of mankind, published it.”]

What could Adams have meant by “mad barbarism” other than the kind of mysticizing, “magical” mnemotechnics advocated by such figures as Ficino, Bruno, and other writers studied by Francis Yates? This is a commendation that could just as well have been written about Ramus or Watson: he cut through such contemporary nonsense and got back to mnemotechnics as the Greeks and Romans understood them. It would seem as if Adams was not fooled by the external show of Bruno-like Hermeticism and penetrated to the true essence of the thing.
spacer 12. I would like to thank Jamie Reid Baxter for recommending the inclusion of this work in The Philological Museum and also for his invaluable advice and suggestions for improvement, and alos for arranging for Dr. John Purser to place his transcription of the text at my disposal. I am equally, of course, grateful to Dr. Purser for his kindness in allowing me to rely on his work.


spacerNOTE 1 Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, 1964), p. 205.

spacerNOTE 2 Ib. pp. 206f.

spacerNOTE 3 See the biography of Dickson by Peter Beal in the O. D. N. B.

spacerNOTE 4 Quoted by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago, 1966), p. 283.

spacerNOTE 5 Yates, op. cit. (1964) p. 199 and op. cit. (1966), pp. 266 - 286. Cf. als0 (e. g.), Marsha Keith Schuchard, Restoring the Temple of Vision: Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture (Leiden, 2002), p.

spacerNOTE 6 Yates, op. cit. (1966), pp. 266 - 286.

spacerNOTE 7 See Yates’ discussion of the contents of Bruno’s Umbra Idearum, ib. Chapter IX.

spacerNOTE 8 See Yates’ same chapter.

spacerNOTE 9 The specter of charlatanism is raised by the equivocal facts of Dickson’s biography, as described by Beal: in later life he appears to have functioned as some manner of spy or double agent. When I complain of the difficulty of his Latin, I am largely thinking of the idiosyncratic meaning he appears to have placed on such words as conformatio, horizon, and inflexio, which makes it hard to grasp what such words are supposed to convey. Horizon, for example, sometimes designates a circumference or periphery, but sometimes seems used in a sense suggested by Gk. ὁρίζομαι, “to divide, to make a distinction.”

spacerNOTE 10 Then too, in assessing Dickson’s religion one must keep in mind his evidently close friendship with the militantly Protestant Thomas Murray, translator of James VI’sLepanto,” tutor to Prince Charles, and Provost of Eton. Two of his epigrams celebrating their friendship appear at the end of Murray’s Naupactiados (London, 1604 — the first of these was also printed in Arthur Johnstone’s Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum, Amsterdam, 1637, II.200; the translations are by Jamie Reid Baxter):


Una erat in binis semper mens, una voluntas,
spacerUnus et in bino corpore sensus erat.
Unus erat binis dolor, oblectatio binis
spacerUnaque, spes binis una, metusque fuit.
Unus amor binis; una aversatio binis;
spacerUna etiam binis ira; odiumque fuit.
Unus erat nobis labor, una et cura duobus;
spacerUna etiam nobis vita duobus erat.
Sic duo non duo sunt; unus non unus; at unus
spacerEst duo; nunc duo sunt unus; utrumque simul.
Sic ego Dicsonus; fuit ille Moravius, et, sic
spacerUnus uterque fuit; neuter uterque fuit.


One were the two of us in mind and will,
One set of senses filled both of our frames;
One was the pain of the two of us, and one the joy,
One was the hope of the two of us, and one the fear;
One love in the two of us, and our aversions were one;
One in anger likewise the two of us were, and one in hate;
One was our striving, one were both our cares;
One life, too, we had, the two of us.
Thus two are not two; one not one; but one
Is two; now two are one; and each the other.
Thus I am Dickson; he was Murray, and, thus
One and the other were one; neither one was another.”]

Qui Caelum, terram, oceanum, mundumque tenebat,
spacerDicsonum exiguus non tenet hunc tumulus;
Non caelum, terra, oceanus, non maximus isto
spacerDignus Alexandro mundus erit tumulus.
Nam caelo, terra, oceano, mundoque soluto,
spacerNulla hunc mors solvet. Nullus erit tumulus.

{“The Dickson who held heaven, earth, ocean and the world,
This Dickson no exiguous sepulchre holds.
No heaven, earth, ocean, nor the greatest world
Will be a sepulchre worthy of this Alexander.
For when heaven, earth, ocean and world are dissolved,
No death will dissolve this man. There will be no sepulchre.”]