Debate and the Art of Memory

Today I went to a debate club competition against one of the most highly-ranked debate teams in the nation, and listened as our kids debated their kids.  I’m not confident enough to say “we won”, but I believe we did better than just “holding our own”.  I think they were impressed by the quality of our thought processes, and our presentation skills and analytical skills.  We were impressed by their ability to listen, and their skill at refuting arguments. Things to practice for the future, for both teams, I think.

What surprised me is that neither their coach, nor my colleagues on the debate team from my school, had ever gone back to some of the original sources on public speaking and argument, like pseudo-Cicero’s commentary on memory in Ad Herennium. And so my opposite number was reduced to saying, “you’ve got to signpost your speech,” which was his method of saying, “you have to build in cues into your speech, that tell your audience where it is that you’re going.”

The signposts that he had in mind of course, were “I’d like to begin by refuting the three points that my opponent made, namely…” and then naming and refuting each of them, first the first principle of the opponent, and then the second, and then the third, and then … “now I’d like to lay our our own three principles, along with the examples that best illustrate them.”

And these signposts that he’s talking about, in fact, are rather like doorways between rooms in a Palace of Memory.

It thus aids the debater to think carefully about the space he or she builds in the imagination for storing the argument he or she intends to make.  Those signposts…

  • Good morning, my name is… and we today are arguing….
  • I’d like to refute my opponent’s several principles and examples
  • I’d like now to make four arguments for our position
  • that is why the position must fail/succeed.

actually suggest the structure of the mental framework that one builds in the Palace of Memory, namely:

  1. A small anteroom, with a table or altar in the middle
  2. A doorway passing from it to a dark and lonely room, with two niches in each wall, and a candle beside each niche.
  3. A doorway passing from that room into a fine but long hallway with four pedestals each down the center, with a statue on each to be admired from every angle.
  4. A doorway from there to a second small anteroom with two doors, and one key on a chain that can reach one door but not the other.

Here’s how one uses such a space.  Place the argument you wish to make on the pedestal in the first anteroom, and examine it from all sides.  Then proceed to the dark and lonely room, and walk from niche to niche, placing the principle arguments of one’s opponent in each niche, going clockwise around the room.  Then go around and light a candle beside each image, revealing each such argument to be a monstrous thing when exposed to the light.  Then proceed to the long hallway, and stop to admire each of the statues in the hallway from every angle, lovingly allowing your eye and your sense to pass over every detail of them.  Finally, proceed to the last room, the second antechamber, and carefully lock the door of one’s opponent, while unlocking, and passing through, the door that represents your own argument.

The signposts, then, are the doorways, and the major elements or statements that one must make (“Good morning, Mr. Speaker, allow me to introduce myself, and let me state that we categorically oppose/support the proposition”) may be inscribed or carved on a sign above the doorway, as a reminder not to go through the doorway until specific statements are made.  The niches and pedestals in each room are used as placeholders for the images that one must use to represent each point or example that must be offered or refuted, and the chambers themselves represent the generic elements of each argument.  The opening speaker may, for example, begin in the first room, proceed quickly through the second and go directly to the third; while the opposition speaker will want to linger in the second room, and spend only a little time in the third.  The amount of time spent in the fourth and last chamber will depend on whether one is starting the debate or closing it, but the difficulty of locking and locking those two locks will help the speaker remember the tasks which are at hand in their debate.

One of today’s presenters opened the argument with a short presentation lasting 45 seconds… out of a possible five minutes.  Yet a careful survey of these four rooms would have easily served to carry her through the full five minutes, and adequate practice in such a space would have well-prepared her to run out of time, rather than lose most of it to her opponents.


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