Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Ramon Llull (1232-1316): Logic. Memory. Wacko.

Readings: Two versions of the role of Ramon Llull, Yates, ch. 8; Eco ch. 4.

Ramon Llull is one of the oddest characters we will encounter. Most people who discuss him, dismiss him as a wacko, which is altogether too easy to do. It is dangerous however, because, along with Hermeticism, Kabbalism and the arts of memory, Llull was a major influence on many Renaissance thinkers, including, of course, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. His most famous thing is his "art." He wrote prodigiously, so there are several versions (the ars magna, ars generalis, ars brevis, ars demonstrativa. This system was conceived with the particular purpose of converting Muslims to christianity; but it is also an example of one of the first (certainly in Western Europe) combinatoric representations of knowledge in history.

The fact that Lullism like Memory systems has disappeared does not mean we treat them as quaint fossils. They produce things, they are transformed, they are used for purposes not intended.


Ramon Llull's life story is one of the more amazing in history; it is all the more amazing that we know as much about it as we do, since Llull narrated a biography, from which many facts are drawn.

Of the first third of his life, we have little record. He seems to have lived a normal life as a member of Majorcan society... married, two children, but not particularly successful or religious. He had planned to enter the court of James the II, one of the candidates for the throne of Majorca. At this time, by his own account, Ramon was interested in little else besides sex, drungs and Troubador Poetry.


In his biography, Llull repents for this period of his life, which he claims was "given to composing worthless songs and poems and doing other licentious things."

And it was exactly at the moment when he sat down to compose one of these worthless songs, that he had a vision of Christ on the Cross.

After the vision repeated itself 5 times, Llull was convinced that God was really trying to get through to him. Lull resolves to do three things: "to accept dying for Christ in converting the unbelievers to His service; to write the above-mentioned book, if God granted him the ability to do so; and to procure the establishment of monasteries where various languages could be learned. So, after one last three month hurrah of licentious poetry writing, Llull converted to Chirstianity, his sole duty to evangelize amongst the invading Saracens.

Of course, in order to convert the invading Muslims (the Saracens, and remember, this is the time of the Crusades, as well as the height of the North African Islamic empires), Llull must learn arabic. So he buys a slave.

Nine years later...

After considerable study, Llull has learned arabic and latin, read the bible, the koran, the talmud, aristotle and plato. He has learned logic, including the best of the Arabic tradition, the Logic of Al-Ghazzali, and theology. His goal, of course, to learn the similarities of the major monotheistic religions in order to better convert the believers of one faith to another. The priniciple difficulties, it seems, concerned the notions of the Trinity, and the Incarnation.

Then one day, after these nine years, he comes home to learn that his faithful slave and teacher has blasphemed God. "Upon returning and finding out about it from those who had heard the blasphemy, Ramon, impelled by a great zeal for the faith, hit the Saracen on the mouth, on the forehead, and on the face. As a result the Saracen became extremely embittered, and he began plotting the death of his master."

The Slave attacks and stabs Llull, who nonetheless survives, and the Slave commits suicide. Of course, this is all Llull's version.

After this point, Llull begins to compose his most famous work, the ars Magna, which he will use to convert people. The remainder of his life is taken up with missions to North africa, where he is more or less welcomed by the theologians of Islam, who enjoy the chance to dispute these issues with an intelligent representative. It is unclear whether he ever achieved his goal of converting anyone.

dispute with

Llull's famous dispute with his slave, from The works of Ramon Llull, ed. Bonner.

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Mon Mar 17 09:52:19 CST 2003