I have been working quite a bit on the dissertation and have neglected the blog a bit, but I thought I might post a wee bit about the fascinating thirteenth-century mystic and philosopher, Ramon Llull. I wrote a paper about his Liber principiorum medicinae (Book of the principles of medicine -- LPM) for a history of medieval science class I took a couple of years ago, so I will just cut and paste a bit (footnotes available on demand):
Ramon Llull is a singular figure. Born in Majorca in 1232 or 1233, he spent the first thirty years of his life as a courtier of James the Conqueror. Around 1263 he had a series of visions that led him to dedicate his life to God, although he did not enter a religious order at that time. After his visions, he decided to serve God through martyrdom, “and to accomplish this by carrying out the task of converting to His worship and service the Saracens who in such numbers surrounded the Christians on all sides.” In addition to this, he felt “he would have to write a book, the best in the world, against the errors of the unbelievers.” To prepare himself, he spent ten years in Majorca studying a wide variety of subjects including Latin and Arabic.alchemists were much interested in his work, and many of them wrote works that they attributed to him -- the Pseudo-Llullian works. In my paper I tried to explain how his Art works:
When he felt ready, Llull began to write. Thanks to his long life (he lived until 1316) and astounding energy, Llull wrote at least 292 books in Latin, Catalan, and Arabic. He wrote novels, poetry, sermons, treatises on law, astrology, medicine and a widely-translated book on chivalry. Llull considered his most important work his Art, a vast systemization of the world that had as an aim the demonstration of the relationship of all of reality to a certain number of God’s attributes or “dignities:” goodness, greatness, power, wisdom, etc. This is the book (“the best in the world”) he referred to in the Vita coaetanea, although really it is a series of books, each a reworking of the Art. They include the Ars compendiosa inveniendi veritatem of ca. 1274, the Ars demonstrativa of 1283, the Ars inventiva veritatis of 1290, and the Ars generalis ultima of 1305-8. Many of his other books, including the Liber principiorum medicinae, are applications of the Art to specific fields.
Given the number of Llull’s works and the complexity of his ideas, it is very difficult to find one useful approach to studying his system. He reduces ideas to letter codes, such as A B C D, which may or may not signify the same thing from one book to another. In each work he defines his “alphabet” or code, usually with the aid of diagrams, and his warning at the beginning of the LPM is typical of warnings in many of his works: “These letters form the basis of the Art, and whoever does not know them cannot understand the Art.” The “alphabets,” however, change from work to work. In the Ars compendiosa inveniendo veritatem, the version of the Art written at the same time as the LPM, the letters B through K represent the various “dignities” of God, whereas A represents the unity of God. In the LPM, the letters change to represent the four qualities (A through D) and the sixteen possible combinations of those qualities (E through Y). The number of dignities changed as Llull refined his Art. He began with sixteen, and in other works there are ten, twelve, twenty, or nine. No wonder one critic spoke of “the severe ordeal of battling with Ramon Lull.”
The Art is a method, a process to be used. It is based a number of figures that the reader is supposed to operate in a certain fashion, and through which “a man can find the truth in the fastest manner, and contemplate and know God and animate virtues and mortify vices.” These figures consist usually of wheels or boxes that show possible relations between different concepts. An examination of two of these figures can provide a simplified overview of how Llull’s Art functions.
The central figure is “Figure A.” It is a wheel which has as a center the letter A, representing God. It is surrounded by 16 camerae, chambers, representing “the sixteen Virtues; however we do not say they are ‘cardinal’ virtues, nor ‘theological’ nor ‘accidental,’ but rather essential virtues.” These “virtues,” referred to in Llull’s other works as “dignities”, are the following: goodness, magnitude, eternity, power, wisdom, will, virtue, truth, glory, perfection, justice, largess, mercy, humility, dominion, and patience. Each dignity has its own letter in the Latin alphabet from B to R, and Llull always refers to the letter, not to the word. The camerae are connected by a web of lines that represent all the possible binary combinations of the dignities, for the operation Llull expects of the reader involves combining these concepts: “from which [sixteen dignities] are formed 120 chambers, through which the lovers of this art can achieve knowledge of God and pose and solve questions through necessary reasons.”
These dignities, “the instruments of God’s creative activity, the causes and archetypes of all created perfection,” are the center of Llull’s system. Through them, everything is related to God. It is possible that Llull got his dignities from Arabic theology, or from Augustine’s list of the divine attributes in De trinitate, from the Jewish Cabala, or from the De divinis nominibus of Pseudo-Dionysus via John Scotus Erigena. Wherever he found them, he used them to develop a system that is at once very dynamic and mechanistic. Not only can these dignities be combined with each other, but they can be combined with the fifteen concepts arranged in the five triangles of another figure, “Figure T.” The concepts in figures “A” and “T” would later be known as the “absolute” and “relative” principals of the Art. Each triangle of figure “T” consists of two concepts that can be considered in some way opposites, balanced by a mediating third term. Thus “beginning” and “end” are mediated by “middle,” and “majority” and “minority” are mediated by “equality.” These relative principals are the means through which “the Dignities mutually communicate their natures and diffuse them throughout all creation.” Llull calculates the number of combinations in figure “T” as 115.
Even leaving out the five other figures in the Ars compendiosa inveniendi veritatem, it is easy to see both how complex and how mechanical the system is. In a later version of the Art, Lull even proposed a figure that only consisted of three sets of concentric wheels marked B through K for the absolute and relative principals. One wheel was fixed and the other two could be moved so that the practitioner of the Art could make his or her own combinations. Thus by combining figures “A” and “T,” he or she could posit, for example, “the beginning of the virtue of greatness,” or “the equality of the wisdom of glory.” This substitution of symbols for concept and the subsequent exhaustive combination of them has led some to see Llull as a precursor of modern symbolic logic and computer science.
This is a very simplified description of how the Art functions, but what exactly is the Art and what purpose does it serve? What does Llull mean by “finding truth?” One of its purposes, to judge by the title of the 1283 version, Ars demonstrativa, is to demonstrate how all aspects of reality are interconnected and function in a similar analogical manner. As R. D. F. Pring-Mill puts it, “Basically, the Art works by relating all areas of knowledge (including the religious field) directly back to the manifestation of God’s ‘Dignities’ in the universe, and then proceeding to argue its way analogically up and down the ‘ladder of being.,’” Much of this has to do with conversion of unbelievers, which Llull saw as his particular mission. The purpose of this book was, as stated in the Vita, to be “against the errors of unbelievers.” The Art presupposes “as an axiomatic point of departure, both the monotheistic vision of the Godhead which was common to the Jewish, Moslem, and Christian faiths, and their common acceptance of broadly Neo-Platonic exemplarist world-picture.”
The Art is also a manual for exploration. It is, as Anthony Bonner points out, a technique—“ars” was the usual scholastic translation for the Greek techne. Llull set out building blocks for the apprentice of his art and expected that anyone could be the master of it after a year’s study. It could be applied to any field and any field could be applied to it, it was just a matter of plugging in data to the machine. In one book on astrology and medicine, Lull recognizes that his information could be faulty, but not his Art:Again I excuse myself, since I do not know
whether it is true that Aries is hot and dry . . .
but I suppose that it is so, according to what
the ancients said, which had been seen by
them through experience. And if it is true, what
I say about the stars is necessarily true,
since I say this artificially through the
Ars generalis, and the Art is infallible.
His Art was, after all, a product of divine illumination. It was a mystical gift of a structure that could be applied to all things. If it seems that Llull is writing on many levels at any given time, it is because for him nothing is outside the Art, and nothing is disconnected from the great chain of being. Everything Llull writes about refers ultimately to the transcendent categories of the dignities. The Art can be applied to the physical world, but its center is in the metaphysical world. For Llull, there is no dramatic separation between them.
For more on Llull, check out the Centre de Documentació Ramon Llull at the University of Barcelona (in several languages, including English), or this page, by an apparent modern-day Llullian, that includes several of his works in English and even a free downloadable program that allows you to use Llull's figures on your computer. Llull's foremost translator in English Anthony Bonner has distilled his great and expensive two volume anthology of Llull's writing into an affordable paperback, Doctor Illuminatus. It's fun stuff.