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Deacon Kyle Eller: A little ‘time travel’ reminds me of the permanent things

Unlike St. Padre Pio, I cannot bilocate, but a few weeks ago, I did feel like I was time traveling, occupying several historical eras simultaneously. 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

It began with an Internet rabbit hole. Although I still sometimes forget my keys, I enjoy learning about and practicing the ars memoriae — the “art of memory” — a set of techniques, some dating back to ancient Greece, for committing things to memory. I use it for a number of things, from remembering the outline of a homily to recalling long computer passphrases. 

I was chatting about this with the remarkable ChatGPT. If you haven’t heard about it, ChatGPT, in its own words, is “an artificial intelligence language model developed by OpenAI, capable of generating human-like responses to a wide range of prompts, questions, and tasks.” 

I asked ChatGPT about how the Scholastics, medieval thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, thought about the art of memory, and I soon had several references, including St. Thomas and someone named Hugh of St. Victor. 

I had only vaguely heard of Hugh, so I started digging and learned that he talked about memory in a book called the “Didascalicon,” also known as “On the Study of Reading.” On the Internet Archive I found an English translation of the book. 

So it was that I found myself skimming and paging through a book written by a man who died in 1141, translated and published in 1961, and digitized off the shelf of a University of Florida library and recommended by an artificial intelligence here in the 21st century. 

The book is about education and touches on a large range of subjects and disciplines, from Scripture and church councils to geometry to fabric making. The discussion of training one’s memory comes in the context of explaining how to read a book well, meditating on and critically engaging its contents. He gave the striking admonition that we should not be proud of how much we’ve read but rather how much we recall, and to that end he gave the advice of doing an “epilogue” — a brief, headline summary of what we’ve read — and committing it to our memory as though we were tucking it in a chest of drawers. 

But as I paged through, dipping in on an interesting subject here and there, what struck me most was considering that advice in the context of his time. He was writing before the printing press was invented, when books were rare and expensive and literacy was nowhere near universal. When Hugh said that any book was worth learning from, it was because books were a major undertaking, written by and for the highly educated who had something worth saying. 

Hugh was writing from the heart of Christendom, an explicitly Christian civilization, not yet shattered by schisms and secularizing movements, at a time when the sum of academic knowledge was manageable: when a highly educated person such as Hugh could almost grasp it all. His writing is confident and rooted. 

While I was time traveling to the 12th century, I was also back in the 20th. “Leafing” (even digitally) through this book published in 1961, just a decade before I was born, took me back to a time I remember well and fondly, the world of card catalogs and dusty library shelves, of books stacked on a table in hopes, with the help of a good index, of finding a relevant paragraph or two that formed a tentative piece of an answer. 

That era, too, had a confidence and rootedness. This was not Christendom but peak Christian-infused liberalism. The world made sense, mostly. We were confident in what we could learn, whether it was what we read in a book or what we read in a newspaper, and how it fit into the world. You could be an expert in a discipline. 

Those who haven’t lived through the transition from that age to the Internet age, and now to the “age of the algorithm,” when our lives are increasingly influenced by the invisible hand of “artificial intelligence,” perhaps cannot grasp how profound the change has been. 

We can now access instantly answers that once might have taken weeks or months to find, or perhaps practically could not be found at all. But we justifiably have much less confidence in the answers we find. A few decades ago, information about what was happening in the world was precious and highly valued. Now we all drink from what Twitter was once called in the early days, a “digital firehose,” that we can’t possibly keep up with, and which is of shockingly uneven quality, and which, thanks to algorithms giving us the worst of what we ask for, is often probably bad for our mental health. 

A common culture in which we’re rooted? Confidence in our understanding? The ability to have a decent grasp of or trust in what passes for knowledge? Good luck. 

And that’s a problem, for these things are part of what makes us human, part of how God made us, as social creatures. 

I have spent most of my adult life as a journalist, and I am writing this for a newspaper. I can’t be expected, I trust, to fully advocate Henry David Thoreau’s quip, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” 

But perhaps it’s enough to say that we probably all would do well to reconsider the balance of the Eternities and the Times on our reading lists. The things we truly need to know — the things that make for a good life — are vastly more likely to be found in an old book than they are in the latest tweet or the latest bizzaro ideology to sweep the world. 

If we focus more on the “permanent things” and our real identities in God, and less time on the ephemeral and dubious, we can be a little more like Hugh of St. Victor, and think more deeply about them, wrestle with them, remember them, build a life on them. 

And as the best old book, the Bible, given to us by God, reminds us, the things of this world are passing, and we should seek after the things that endure. As Jesus himself said, “Though heaven and earth should pass away, my words will stand” (Matthew 24:35). 

So spend more time in that one. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]