Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ramon Llull

Two manuscript pages from works of Ramon Llull, and his "Figure A" and "Figure T" from a printed edition.

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.

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.”

It is very confusing, but very cool. What I like about Llull is that not only is he both a mathematician and a mystic, but that his mysticism is mathematical and his mathematics is mystical. Later 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:

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.


crystal said...

Interesting guy. I looked up his The Book of the Lover and the Beloved thinking that would be more understandable than the more technical stuff, but it was still pretty obscure.

Intriguing that he was beatified but not canonized .... perhaps because of the alchemy?

Liam said...

Hi, Crystal.

You might check out his novels. Also, his book on chivalry is fun. It was translated and printed by William Caxton.

I wasn't sure about the story of his beatification, so I just looked it up now. Apparently at the beginning it was just a local cult in his native Mallorca. His memory suffered intense persecution in the late 14th century at the hands of a particularly nasty Dominican inquisitor, and that probably had more to do with Dominican--Franciscan battles than anything else (it's unsure whether Llull was a third order Franciscan, he was certainly associated with the Franciscans and they claim him as one of their own).

He returned to popularity in the fifteenth century, and that's when Llullian schools popped up in France and Spain. In the 17th century, the Spanish king Philip III advanced the cause of his canonization, but the initiative lost steam. In the 19th century, however, he was studied once again, and the pope extended his cult to the whole of the Franciscan order. We'll get him canonized yet.

Jeff said...

He almost had a sort of I Ching thing going with that:

"Thus “beginning” and “end” are mediated by “middle,” and “majority” and “minority” are mediated by “equality.”

Sort of like Yin and Yang?

Humble fellow, this Ramon, wasn't he? His book was "the best in the world"? Well, that's setting your standards and expectations high. It doesn't seem as if the Dogs of God friars were quite in agreement with him. Still, his style might be something worth emulating, eh?

That's it. I'm setting out to write "the best blog in the world". Why settle for less?

Liam said...

Hi Jeff,

Well, in his defense, he got the whole idea behind the Art from a mystical revelation, and he would probably say that the reason the book was so important was due to God, not to him.

Anyway, you already write the best blog in the world.

Jeff said...

Oh, I've probably got inquisitors who disagree with me too. :-)

Thanks, Liam. You write the best blog in the world too. So do a lot of other people. That's what's cool about blogging.

cowboyangel said...

Fascinating post, Monsieur Moore. I probably would have known all of this if I had actually read your Lull paper that I held onto for 2 years. Aren't friends great?!

I was immediately struck by the similarity between Lull's combinatorial wheels and various aspects of the Kabbalah and Sufism. Since Hebrew and Arabic both have numeric values for each letter of the alphabet, they have very developed mathematical-mystical systems. Gematriais the Jewish version. If you have a chance, check out Moshe Idel's "RAMON LULL AND ECSTATIC KABBALAH: A PRELIMINARY OBSERVATION" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51. (1988), pp. 170-174.) It's in JSTOR. Pring-Mill and Hillgarth encouraged Idel to "pursue the line" on the "probability of the historical relationship between [Lull's theory of ars combinatoria] and the ecstatic Kabbalah," particularly the work of Abraham Abulafia. Abulafia, one of the main figures associated with Gematria, was active in the Kabbalah circles of Gerona and Barcelona, where his system made its first appearance in 1270, not long before Lull's work. Idel also says, "Lull was in contact
with important Jewish figures living in Barcelona, as the inripit of a lost work of
his demonstrates."

Oh wow, I was trying to remember the name of the book I read about Abraham Abulafia, so I checked OCLC - and it turns out to have been by Moshe Idel! The mystical experience in Abraham Abulafia (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1988). Those rascal connexions.

Do you know what kind of influence the Sufis had on Lull's work? I'd bet serious money that he knew of them and had read their work, since he knew Arabic. Ibn Arabi would've been publishing during the first decades of the 1200s, along with other Sufis of Andalusia. What's the extent of the Moorish holdings by 1200? They're pretty much reduced to the south, no?

What an amazing time period. Spain was one seriously hopped-up mystical orchard from 1100-1300.

There's another intersting JSTOR article on Lull's combinatorial wheels: "Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer," by Janet Zweig. Art Journal Vol. 56, No. 3, Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology (Autumn, 1997), pp. 20-29.

It includes more images of Lull's wheels.

Liam said...

Thanks, cowboy. I'm familiar with the Zweig article, but I will have to check out the other one.

In 1200, the south of Spain was still in Muslim hands, but there was a decisive victory of the Christian kingdoms at the Navas de Tolosa in 1212. The first half of the 13th century saw the conquest of most of Andalucia by Fernando III, el Santo. Still, the Muslim intellectual influence was strong even in the Christian kingdoms.

cowboyangel said...

Right, Navas de Tolosa. I've heard of that.

So, I did a little digging and came across Miguel Asín Palacios’ Abemasarra y su escuela: Orígenes de la filosofía hispano-musulmana (Madrid 1914) [English translation by Elmer Douglas and Howard Yoder, The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers (Brill 1978)]. Appendix VI is entitled “The Theory of the Hadras of Ibn Arabi and of the Dignities of Raymond Lull and other Analogies of the Two Systems.” Palacios says: “The terminology of the divine Dignities (Dignitates) is one of the indisputable keys of the relationship of Lull to Sufism. . . . This became completely confirmed when later the theory of Ibn Arabi about the divine names was compared with the development by Lull in his book Els cent noms de Deus and in the rest of his works. . . . Thus a comparative study of these one hundred Hadras with the Dignities of Lull leads to the full conviction that they are intimately related. First of all, one must note that Lull in his Els cent noms de Deus confesses to have written it in imitation of those [works] of the Muslims that revolve about the identical theme. . . . And if by chance there still should be a shade of doubt, Lull himself dissipates it in his Disputatio Raymundi christiani et Hamar sarraceni by putting in the mouth of the latter an enumeration of the ‘dignitates,’ almost identical in number and names with his. . . . The evidence of this imitation of the hadras by the Dignities of Lull is reinforced when it is considered not singly but as one more case of the many which the system of Lull offers when compared with that of Ibn Arabi.”

I checked out a bio of Lull and will read it soon. I’ve been reading a lot of other interesting stuff as well, on the Judeao-Arabic culture in Al-Andalus and the influence of Sufism and Neo-Platonism on the Jewish poets, philosophers and mystics. The early Jewish mystics were writing in Arabic, and some were even studying with Sufis. Because of the language issue, it was necessary many times to use Islamic/Sufi terminology and concepts – also, that’s what they were used to in many cases because of the surrounding culture. In 1160, Judah Ibn Tibbon began an “immense project of preserving Judeao-Arabic classics for the community of Provence, which was losing the ability to read Arabic.” So the work of Maimonides and other important writers actually had to be translated into Hebrew. The Sufis seem to arrive in Spin around 900. A lot of the mystical fireworks seem to have taken place in the south at first, but a little later some Jewish mystics appear in Zaragoza. And, of course, by the 1200s, there are great Kabbalah circles in Gerona and Barcelona. Things seem to move northward in time. I’m thinking of trying to map out where different Jewish, Sufi and Christian mystics were during which years. One would see, for instance, that Moses de Leon, author of The Zohar, and Santa Teresa both lived in Avila. He died and was buried there, I believe. Obviously, she comes along much later, but she did have the Jewish lineage.

The more I read, the more I'm blown away by the mystical explosion among the three major monotheistic religions in an area smaller than Texas - in a relatively short period of time. Especially when I think back to all that bad Spanish television and the phenomenal sales of Marca!