A History of Memes

In this post I would like to address the history of Memes through the lens of a discourse theorist, tracing their roots back to Western antiquity.

A History of Memes for Mind on Fire Books by Willy Martinez

A meme can be defined as an opinion given as judgment or advice, or as a contrived conclusion about what we all agree to be true. And it’s true that Aristotle once said that country folk are more prone to speak in Maxims or Memes and readily show themselves off. In the age of internet memes, does that make us all country folk in the eyes of Aristotle?

In classical Roman rhetoric the term “enthymeme” was used to describe a feeling, judgment or opinion.  But the word doesn’t begin with the Romans, the origins of the word and etymology of the word traces back to the Greeks as a tool analyzed by Aristotle.  Since the terms true sense varies from culture to culture, we can study rhetorical treatise to gain a more comprehensive view of how the word may have been thought of within a particular culture and audience.

The Greek Roots of the Memes

During the first sophistic, the Greeks made use of this term as being a ‘gnome’ or ‘maxim’.  Literally, gnome means “a thought,” usually an opinion given as a judgment or advice (Aristotle 1645).  To take a step back and look at the bigger picture, Aristotle says that there are two common modes of persuasion which can be used in all three species, and those two are the paradigm and the enthymeme.  A Maxim is actually a part of an enthymeme, or ‘meme’.  To Aristotle, a maxim serves as the conclusion to a meme.

A History of Memes for Mind on Fire Books by Willy Martinez
A History of Memes for Mind on Fire Books by Willy Martinez

There is a time and age requirement in order to deliver a successful maxim, as prescribed by Aristotle – “Speaking in maxims is appropriate to those older in years and on subjects with which one is experienced, since to speak maxims is unseemly for one too young” (167).  Aristotle follows up with the claim that country folk are more prone to speak in Maxims and readily show themselves off (1678).  Because these maxims touch upon ‘truths’ common to many, the orator sharing the maxim is revered as having a moral character.  The maxim reinforces persuasion on the speaker’s ethos.  In the footnotes, George Kennedy relays to us that it was tradition in Ancient Greece for sages, poetry and Greek tragedy for these gnomes or maxims to be used.  Aristotle provides a couple of examples below (165):

“it is never right for a man that is shrewd, to have his children be taught to be to wise”

“Best for a man is to be healthy, as it seems to me”

How Do You Even Know If You Got A Good Deal?
How Do You Even Know If You Got A Good Deal?

Success! You're on the list.

Roman Roots for Memes

A History of Memes for Mind on Fire Books by Willy Martinez

After Aristotle comes Cicero on our list of classical rhetoricians.  But Cicero and the Romans referred to maxims as sententia.  In book 2, of On the Ideal Orator, Crassus tells his audience that employing “sharp-wittedness, together with economy in [their] use of witty sayings will distinguish the orator from the buffoon” and that it will aim to “achieve something, while buffoons go on all day without any reason at all” (189).  Sententia/memes, can be defined as an opinion given as judgment or advice, or as a contrived conclusion about what we all agree to be true.  Both of these words are tied to wisdom.  The delivery of this wisdom continues to be arranged at the end of the statement.

Cicero suggests that the disposition of the orator should be quick witted humor, but only when appropriate, thoughtful and disguised.  An interesting understanding on where these witticisms lay in respect to other functions is repeated in the categories of the humorous when Crassus reminds us, “for as I said earlier, while the subject matter of joking and of the serious are different, [but] the system of their categories and commonplaces is the same” (195).  Blending of the commonplaces between the two also allows the Romans of the time to place humor and wisdom together as Sententia.  But before we blend the two, take a look at the table below to see where sententia fits in respect to its classification in the humorous.

Cicero goes on to break up the categories of the humorous: jokes either derive their humor from the words themselves or from the content. 

Jokes and Memes Categories

Jokes depending on words: seldom promote as much laughter (191)  Jokes depending on content: more numerous and more likely to be laughed at (196)
Slight alteration of a word ( from Mr. Noble to Mr. Mobile)Insinuation
Funny interpretation of nameIrony
Taking something literally on purposeCalling something disgraceful by an honorable name
 Censuring stupidity
 Sententia (pointed remarks, Cicero 202, 203)
 None are as funny as the unexpected turn

Sententia is classified under the section of jokes depending on content.  The content in this case would have to be attached to wisdom or advice.  Usually this advice comes towards the end and it summarizes the conversation.  Below are some modern examples:

“if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it”, “actions speak louder than words”, “better safe than sorry”, “you can’t tell a book by its cover”, “too many cooks spoil the broth”                           

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”
                                                             — Abraham Lincoln, 16 June 1858

Love, Money, Power, Success… Everything.
Love, Money, Power, Success… Everything.

Success! You're on the list.

After the Roman Empire

The next rhetorician to say something about memes is Quintilian in his Institutes of Oratory.  Since Quintilian plans out the education for a Roman male growing up, there are different lessons at different times of the pupil’s life.  Under his outline for his version of the progymnasmata, the retelling of fables and Maxims comes third on the list of a child’s education in oratory.  Subjecting children to the memorization of maxims may be as an ode to the Greek tradition of repeating maxims or sentential at public events. 

            Maxims become Sententia.  Sententia later become proverbs, and these sententiae can also be defined as aphorisms.  These are all, rhetorically speaking, tricky little devices.  Essentially though, the device is used to strengthen your argument; insert a enthymeme at the end of your statement to seem more credible since these sentential are already commonly accepted ‘truths’ and remember that “from all types of urbanity we must take bits of witticism and humor that we and sprinkle, like a little salt, throughout all of our speech” (93). 

If you liked this article, we have similar content studying communication from discourse theory, here.

[ebook_store ebook_id=”4786″][ebook_store ebook_id=”4740″]

Published by Willy Martinez

Willy Martinez is a creative writer, Integrated Marketing Specialist, and Boxing coach. Since being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2004, he has pursued his passion for telling stories, whether they be through film, graphic design, and writing for digital art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: