Moveable Property


There is a fixed phrase we use, "furniture of the mind", which has intrigued me for days. Why furniture? How did the phrase get fixed? Here is my amateur theory, which I present because it is usually the way of things that if one works towards an answer, one will arrive at it - even if first taking some wrong turns. Speaking of wrong turns: that expression may have come to us from the method of loci.
Both Cicero and Quintilian wrote about the mnemonic technique that uses imagined buildings with rooms and furniture as 'places' where information is 'stored'. It was Cicero who wrote of the Greek origin of this technique, embodied in Simonides, who - his story goes - used the technique to remember where guests had been sitting at an unfortunate dinner.
Topical memory was revived by thinkers in the Renaissance - and in the 19th century by Gregor von Feinagle. The 16th century revival seems to have had particular flourish: Samuel Quicchelberg would illustrate elaborate theatres (an idea taken from Giulio Camillo) where treasures would be assembled so "one can quickly obtain a singular knowledge and wonderful experience of things" (via Bolzini; only those two pages were consulted, I hope to get hold of that book).
Mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno developed his own mnemonic system (ill.), which he expounded in three books, one with the title Ars Memoriae - though De umbris idearum reflects in its title the use of 'shadows' - on the 'seals' of ideas - in his system, which Bolzini writes elsewhere was an inventive logic "particularly accommodated to magic and reform." Bruno had been inspired by 14th century Raymond Lull's idea that it was possible to arrive at a universal key enabling one, through mastery of its alphabet, to know and remember everything. The mnemonic approach was popularised through painting and later printing.
Bruno was not the only scientist to consider mnemonic techniques: Francis Bacon approved of them - and in Advancement of Learning, writes of the furniture that ought to fill young minds which are empty. The extent of Locke's mnemonics was in the commonplace book, but he, too, writes of the furniture of the mind. This use seems connected to Quintilian's phrase connecting reading with the "furniture" of (poor) preparation. Later, the phrase appears in John Stuart Mill, C.S. Lewis "habitual furniture" and Thoreau.


But I am not satisfied: isn't there a Greek antecedent to this concept? We know that ὕλη is matter in Aristotle, an externalization of idea in matter. There is a crossover between matter as such and nominalism - the expression of things is a highly charged matter. I found (thanks to Perseus) mention of furniture,  κατασκευή, in Isocrates, where it signifies furniture or apparatus in the sense of buildings and fixtures - with the contextual meaning of arrangement and method, or manner of life.
The title of this blog post - moveable property - is expressed by one word in both ancient Greek and Latin: επιπλα and invecta - though the metaphorical meaning of the Greek word seems to be expressed through the Latin supellex. If "furniture of the mind" did indeed emerge from the imagery of 'moveable property', one is led - visibly, if not quite literally - to the gravity of how they are organised (which 'room' do they belong in?)...
Lest this post seem, though, like the ramblings of an idler, I shall end it with the sharpest reference to mind furniture that I found - in Persius' Satires (4: 52), where Socrates is supposedly calling out Alcibiades, saying something to the effect of: "Dwell in your own house and you'll discover what an ill-furnished mind you have!" Avarice, lust, the praises of the mob - such is not the furniture of a true man.
Or I could quote from Plautius who writes in Stichus about literal furniture, and scolding the help: "Now mark my words! If things aren't arranged in there just exactly where they ought to be when I return, the reminders you get from me will be the memorials of cowhide."
I plan to develop this theme further - in connection with what I wrote on utensils. The kind of materialism that forms places worth inhabiting.




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