An Introduction to Ramon Llull (1232-1316)
Ramon Llull, known as Raimundo Lulio, Raymond Lully or Lull, was one of the most complex and original thinkers of the Middle Ages, yet he is also one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated. Llull’s production covers nearly every genre of the time in three languages: Latin, Catalan and Arabic. His output includes mystical works such as the Book of the Ascent and Descent of the Intellect in Latin and the Book of Contemplation in Arabic. Llull likewise published philosophical texts such as the Tree of Knowledge, scientific treatises like the New Geometry, and tractates on liberal arts such as logic and rhetoric. Finally, his output includes literary texts: novels like Blanquerna, an autobiography, and poetry. Exhaustive catalogues of his works list approximately 300 authentic ones, as well as dozens of apocrypha related to Cabbalism and Alchemy. Due to such a monstrous output—incredible for someone who started writing around forty years of age—it is often difficult to approach Llull or to categorize his thought into a coherent system, earning him appellations such as “perplexing” and “confusing.” Adding to such confusion, Llull often feuded with his better-known Scholastic contemporaries in French universities because of methodological differences. In spite of his idiosyncrasies, however, Llull is still unique to the point of being one of the most important thinkers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Born in Palma de Mallorca, Llull lived in a time when the Catalan Mediterranean Empire was at its apex. At the time, it included the kingdoms of Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia as well as the outlying zones of Naples, Sicily, Athens, and Sardinia. The island of Mallorca itself, conquered in 1229 by the Aragonese king James I, represented a crucible of cultures. On Mallorca, the three monotheistic religions interacted on a daily basis, a fact that undoubtedly influenced Llull’s formation and wish for dialogue between religions, a desire not shared by many of his contemporaries in Paris. Mallorca, and the Balearic islands in general, served as an economic crossroads between Europe and Africa as well as a jumping-off point for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Rome. Unlike the later Habsburg Empire in Spain, which absorbed the Catalan empire upon the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1479, the Catalan “emporium,” to use one scholar’s term, focused more on commerce and economic control than on territorial or imperial conquest. It is no coincidence that this empire produces a key figure such as Llull at its very peak, in a manner similar to Cervantes or Virgil in the cases of Spain and Rome. After his conversion, Llull traveled incessantly within Spanish and Catalan lands (Santiago, Barcelona, Naples, Mallorca); made several visits to Italy, taught in Paris and Montpelier, and made three missionary trips to North Africa. Llull’s travels form a crucial context for understanding his life and project.
Nine years after his first conversion experience, Llull (now aged 42) experienced another theophany on Mount Randa on Mallorca in which the “form and method” of his great Art (the Ars magna) was revealed to him. Due to this divine inspiration, Llull would champion the Art throughout his life despite significant setbacks to its teaching in Paris and elsewhere due to its highly complex, technical and idiosyncratic nature; the divine nature of the Art would also allow Llull to claim authority. One of the problems with the first versions of the Art, states one scholar, “was that Llull was trying to translate the theological language of his Muslim and Jewish contemporaries into Latin and Catalan.” Llull, moreover, had little formal education. Yet in part because of these setbacks and in part due to its natural development throughout Llull’s life, the Art became a lifelong project in a manner similar to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The universal quality of Llull’s Art enabled him to overcome several obstacles: scholastic logic, interreligious dialogue, and dependence upon ancient authors. As one scholar notes, the science of the Art, for Llull, was “the perfect vehicle for breaking through the intellectual boundaries between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Art’s function was to provide members of the three faiths with tools for true dialogue based on a terminology acceptable to all.” This approach avoided the pitfalls of the interpretation of sacred texts such as the Qur’an, since debaters could argue about these specific texts and thus retreat into a specific tradition or approach. Such a step, in fact, is more radical than it seems: Llull puts aside not only established authorities like St. Augustine, but also sacred texts themselves. Instead, he relies on rational argumentation rather than discipline-specific jargon. Llull’s system, then, must be wholly original in order to stymie text or tradition-specific approaches to theology, texts and interpretation. The upshot of the system detailed in the Art is a ladder that uses specific attributes and sets of questions to aid the mystic in her process of ascent and descent.
Llull’s attempt to create a universal language, while ultimately ineffective as a tool for religious conversion, was an impressive achievement and incredibly forward-looking for a 14th-century religious scholar. His invention of computational logic in the Art would entrance philosophers like Leibniz centuries after his death. His pioneering approaches to computational logic earned Llull the somewhat dubious title as the founder of computer science. The Catalan language is greatly indebted to his literary accomplishments as well: according to one account, Catalan is a “language created by a philosopher—to which it owes its precision—who, in addition to a philosopher, was also a poet—to which it owes its beauty.” Despite his importance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, little of Llull’s work is available in English translation. One hopes that work on Llull will continue, for he stands out as one of the most modern medieval writers.