The Ghost of Simonides


There are plenty of daily tragedies ongoing in Romania, especially the chronic mismanagement of this country’s government and natural resources, as I have documented at length elsewhere. But for me one of the greatest standing tragedies in this country is that the classical philosophy texts of Ancient Greece are not part of the curriculum and only specialized scholars at the university ever get exposed to them.

I consider it scandalous that Socrates is never taught, that Plato is only vaguely familiar, perhaps for his Republic or the Allegory of the Cave and that Aristotle is never mentioned at all! As Alfred North Whitehead famously put it, “All of European philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato”. How can you not include at least these three, to say nothing of Pythagoras, Zeno, Anaximander or even Xenophon and Simonides?

I mention all of this because this past weekend I had an extraordinary experience (in between all the clubbing and nightlife activities) that thrilled me to the core. Slowly and steadily I am starting to get to know many of the homeless people here in town, some of which are ethnic Gypsies and others Romanian or even Hungarian, but all of them having in common a lot of experience in the Casa de Copii (my documentary on this here). And one man I met this past weekend and spoke to at length was illiterate.

Now a lot of people use this word illiterate (Rom: analfabet) rather liberally, referring usually to people who are poor readers or have difficulty with reading comprehension or just as an insulting euphemism for stupidity. The United States Center for Education Statistics regularly conducts a survey called the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which subdivides literacy into three types and then rates each response on a scale from 1-5 where only a 1 is completely illiterate as in totally unable to read at all. Certainly many people are low scorers and have difficulty understanding written material but very few adults are comprehensively illiterate.

The man I met this weekend is receiving money from the Romanian government (250 lei or about 72 USD per month) due to a “mental handicap” but I spoke to him for more than an hour and it was clear that he could think and express himself quite clearly. After I had gotten more familiar with him, I asked him specifically what his “handicap” was and that’s when he revealed to me that it was purely because he was illiterate. I then questioned him extensively and was shocked (and delighted – see below) that he truly meant he was illiterate. He knew a few letters on sight but truly could not combine them into words.

Imagine that tomorrow you woke up in the rural countryside of the Republic of Georgia. I’m going to assume that you cannot read or write the Georgian language. So imagine that you saw a sign on which was written what you see to the left of the screen. Could you understand it? No, you couldn’t. But if you see it written down often enough you might be able to memorize it based on its shape and thus recognize it even if you couldn’t truly read. The man I met this past weekend is at this level of literacy.

By the way, the word written in Georgian script there is none other than “Romania” :)

Now this level of true illiteracy is so rare that I got quite excited because unlike high school graduates in Romania, I have read my classical Greek texts (in English) and so immediately recognized that this man was in a unique position to settle a very ancient debate. Some of you may know it as the “Riddle of the Academy” and others of you may know of it as Simonides versus Aristotle or perhaps the Sophists versus the Rhetoricians or even the dialectic versus the rhetorical.

I’m sure that all of you are familiar with the two epic poems of Greek literature, called in English the Iliad and the Odyssey. Certainly if you’ve never actually read them you still know the stories and the plots because they has been endlessly recycled into movies and more modern books. What’s interesting about them for the purposes of discussing literacy is that both of these immensely long poems were memorized by ancient Greek bards (called aoidos), who were paid to recite them (sung actually) at banquets and festivals. This is incredible because the Odyssey alone is 12,000 lines long!

Other cultures also had bards (the British word) which sung or recited incredibly long poems, called skalds in Scandinavia and other names depending on the local culture. The most famous poem written in Old English is Beowulf, itself over 3,000 lines long and it likewise was sung or recited by men called scops. Even if it is assumed that some of the lines of these poems were improvised on the spot, memorizing an enormously long story composed of rhyming couplets that are thousands of lines long is a feat that almost nobody could do today.

The ancient debate therefore was exactly how people used to (accurately!) remember so much material. Most people in western cultures consider it a laudable accomplishment if they’ve memorized a few stanzas of a poem and yet these ancient bards were recalling from memory enormously long poems. So how was it possible?

The theory that developed was that reading made you unable to remember. In fact, some ancients considered reading to be one of the most dangerous things a person could do, not because you might learn something prohibited (that was more of a medieval European development) but because there was just no way you could keep your mind sharp once you had learned to read. In other words, once you were “corrupted” by reading, the only way you could remember things is to read (or re-read) them. Certainly in the modern world day planners and calendars (and now apps that do the same thing) are predicated precisely on the belief that what is not written down will be forgotten.

Aristotle, who was a turd counter of the highest order, wrote an entire book on how to remember things, advocating a system by which reality is separated into categories and then all ideas are slotted and filed by which category they belong to.

Simonides of Ceos, an unabashed Sophist, developed a different system now called the Method of Loci or the “memory palace”. You might be familiar with this because Hannibal Lecter (of the “Silence of the Lambs” series) was a big fan of this technique. What’s especially interesting is that both of these men (as well as hundreds of others later in history, including Giordano Bruno) were struggling to find a method by which (literate) people could regain the fabulous memorization abilities of illiterate people.

Both Plato and Simonides lived at a time when there was a fierce battle going on between two camps, one being the ancient tradition of memorizing things learned orally and the other being those who said writing things down and then reading them was the better way to learn. What makes it even more interesting is that Plato himself seems to have been unsure which way was best, sometimes advocating the “let’s write it down” system (and he was, after all, a prolific writer) and then sometimes inside his own written texts talking about how his best teachings were deliberately left unwritten. This by the way is the “Mystery of the Academy” in a nutshell (for vastly more on this, see here).

And so now we get back to my illiterate new friend. Here is a man who is otherwise intelligent and yet he cannot read. He clearly lives and survives (remarkably well, actually) in a hyper-literate society so the question becomes, “How good is his memory?”

I was incredibly delighted to see very quickly that his memory was fucking phenomenal. He had a very serious fascination with mobile phones and which models were superior and which ones could do this or that. He owned a Nokia (sorry I don’t remember the exact model – natch!) and spent at least 45 minutes showing it to me, elaborating on all of its technical specifications, how fast it could transfer files via Bluetooth, how many miliamps the battery was and just about every single possible quantum of known information about exactly what this telephone could or could not do. He then informed me at great length about other makes and models of mobile phones and why some of them were superior, etc, etc, until I started joking with him saying that he should be working at a Nokia dealership. Clearly not even the official company rep at a tradeshow would be better informed than this guy.

I was flabbergasted because quod erat fucking demonstrandum right before my eyes that an illiterate person could have remarkable powers of memorization. He wasn’t just using some kind of eidetic or “photographic memory” recall but was clearly and unambiguously comprehending all of the information he was telling me and was able to answer questions concisely and coherently. I asked him how he had learned so much and he told me that someone had explained all of this to him once. He didn’t need to hear it multiple times to absorb it but because he had a natural interest, he heard it once and then learned it. Amazing!

And all of this from a guy officially declared “mentally handicapped” by the government. I began questioning him on how he supplemented his income and he told me his favorite thing to do was “work the market” (sa manipuleaza piata), by which he meant that he loved to acquire and then sell mobile telephones and other gadgets, in other words the classic bastion of capitalism, to buy low and sell high. Astounding! If this guy was wearing a tie and could speak English he could be a fucking commodity broker on the floor of the CME! Absolutely and unquestionably amazing. There is no doubt in my mind that he isn’t “handicapped” at all and that he has a far better grasp on market dynamics and capitalism than about 99% of the Romanians I know (all of whom are both literate and well-educated).

Of course I was quite exuberant about this discovery and attempted to learn just how he was able to memorize vast quantities of data without using either the Aristotelian or Simonides-style “memory palace” methods (or any of the mnemonic techniques that people like Derren Brown are masters of) but he was unable to tell me, partly due to a language barrier and partly because I don’t think he ever sat around long enough to reflect on it.

Clearly, quite a remarkable encounter and I am quite grateful that both I was exposed to classical literature on the topic as well as got a chance to meet this man. The only completely illiterate adults I ever met in the United States all suffered from a host of other problems and had a lot of difficulty expressing themselves clearly even via speech alone.

I have to tell you, sitting in a park on a lovely and delightfully warm Saturday afternoon with this fascinating man was a real treat. And it tickled me to no end that we were watching a stream of freshly-returned university students walk past us, all of them probably assessing us as nothing more than useless vagrants who were idly chit-chatting on the side of the road when actually it was one of the most stimulating learning experiences of my never-ending adventures in this fascinating country we call Romania.

PRICELESS!

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  1. Sherlock’s Mind Palace | Eye on Romania | Ochiul pe România
  2. Black and Blue | Eye on Romania | Ochiul pe România

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