The Catalan philosopher and missionary Ramon Llull (c. 1232–c. 1316) compiled a unified system of Christian philosophical thought and attempted to propagate it in the Muslim world. In so doing, he achieved several forward-looking breakthroughs in philosophy. A world traveler and perhaps the first Christian missionary in the Arab world, Llull remains a fascinating figure of the medieval era.
Like many other medieval philosophers, Ramon Llull was a polymath whose writings covered a great variety of subjects. He wrote more than 250 books, ranging from alchemy and chivalry to romantic allegory, the theory of elections, and even a set of proverbs. Some of his writings were in his native language of Catalan, and he is considered the father of the literary form of that language, which is still spoken in a substantial part of Spain. Llull's most significant work was the Ars Magna or Great Art, which, known simply as Art, was issued in 1305 and subsequently presented in shortened form as the Ars Brevis. That work entailed a series of arguments, partly presented in graphic form, that were designed to convert adherents of other faiths (primarily Islam as Muslims were still numerous in what is now Spain at the time) to Christianity. The logical ideas in the Ars Magna proved influential on later philosophers and were also cited as precursors to the development of computer science.
Llull's bad behavior ceased in 1263, when, while writing a song for another woman (perhaps de Castello), he experienced a vision of Christ on the Cross, floating as if suspended in the air. When this vision reoccurred five more times, he interpreted it as a sign that he should devote his life to the promotion of Christianity. Contemplating his future, he settled on a three-pronged course of action. He would travel and preach to nonbelievers; would write books presenting arguments in support of Christianity; and would establish monasteries with educational programs to back this enterprise, teaching monks the languages—principally Arabic and Latin—necessary for his overall mission to succeed.
Unfortunately, Llull was not a scholar, and he had no training in any of his three fields of endeavor. Although his spiritual enterprises were slow to develop at first, he persisted, and he finally joined the Franciscan order. He sequestered himself for a period of study, and when he returned to Majorca, he mastered the Arabic language, according to some accounts after purchasing a Muslim slave with whom he studied. He also undertook a thorough study of Latin and familiarized himself with the writings of earlier Christian philosophers. One of the most remarkable aspects of Llull's career is that in a field—philosophy—heavily marked by the transmission of knowledge from master to student, he was apparently entirely self-taught.
In the early 1270s, Llull seems to have divested himself of most of his possessions. His wife, not exactly on board with this plan, requested a court order making her administrator of the family properties, and her request was granted on May 13, 1276. With this arrangement in place, Llull was now free to roam, and over the next few decades he became one of the best-traveled figures of the medieval era. He negotiated with popes, visited with various scholars, and traversed Muslim lands for disputation with clerics and direct proselytizing. His first trip was to the French city of Montpellier, then under Aragonese control, in 1274 or 1275. He intended to persuade King James II of Aragon to found a monastery in the Majorcan town of Miramar that would educate missionaries in Arabic. James agreed to fund the monastery, and Pope John XXI approved it in October of 1276.
Llull wrote his first book, on the logical thought of the Persian Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali, in Arabic, in 1271; a second book, Llibre de contemplació en Déu (“Book on the Contemplation of God”), was written in his native Catalan. Fortified by these successes, Llull began writing in earnest and extending his literary and philosophical tendrils. Feeling the need for challenges and critiques while writing the Ars Magna, he traveled to Paris, then the intellectual center of the medieval Christian world. Although detailed accounts of Llull's time in the city are lacking, after arriving there in 1287, he visited the Sorbonne, then as now Paris's top university. In the summer of 1289, he traveled from Paris to Montpellier and began to present the Ars Magna publicly, compiling one of two abbreviated versions of the work, the Ars inventiva veritatis, as an aid to readers.
Although the Ars Magna was written in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, Llull often wrote in his native tongue, as in his 1283 novel Blanquerna. This volume marked the first major literary work to be written in Catalan, and it was also one of the first novels ever written. Llull's Libre de ciècia, a general encyclopedia, was written in Catalan and subsequently translated into Latin for wider use.
Llull also wrote about mathematics, anticipating several later theories in that field, and about art and architecture. Beyond his writings, he attained considerable fame as an alchemist and was reputedly able to create gold for the kings who backed his missionary expeditions. His reputation as an alchemist lasted for centuries, and he was mentioned in this capacity by William Butler Yeats in his short story “Rosa Alchemica.”
Upon reaching middle age, the tireless Llull devoted much of his time to proselytizing in Europe and North Africa, testing the ideas he had devised during his younger years. From a base in Genoa, Italy, where he had a patron, he embarked on a trip to Tunisia, planning to make contact with Muslim intellectuals there. The plan was not notably successful; he was jailed and put on a ship bound for Naples, then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. He then traveled to Rome and then back to Paris, writing lengthy texts (including the Libre de ciècia) all this time. During the 1290s, he coined the phrase “Immaculate Conception.” Fellow theologians, amazed by Llull's creativity and insights, nicknamed him Doctor Illuminatus. He traveled to Cyprus and then as far as Armenia on missionary trips, speaking with adherents of Christian sects unaffiliated with the central church in Rome.
During a trip to Libya, Llull was once again arrested. In this case, he was jailed for six months, during which time several local scholars attempted to convert him to Islam. Finally released with his Christian faith intact, he boarded a ship for Genoa; when the boat sank en route, Llull and another passenger survived. In 1310, he returned to Paris, where an assembly of Sorbonne faculty approved many of his writings as conforming to Catholic doctrine.
Llull was present at the General Council in Vienna called by Pope Clement V in 1311. Now nearly 80 years old, he was a key figure at this meeting, presenting, among other positions, a petition for the church to establish or promote Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean language schools for purposes of conversion. Llull also advocated for the expulsion from Europe of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, and he may have been the first writer to explicitly state this position.
The 82-year-old Llull made his final trip to North Africa, arriving in the Berber-speaking city of Bougie (now Béjaïa, Algeria) in 1313. Once again he received a hostile reception but was rescued by a group of traders. He then returned to Majorca, where he died, likely sometime in June of 1316. In the calendar of the Franciscan order, he is the saint of the day for June 26. Although Llull's work fell into obscurity as subsequent Catholic theologians rejected aspects of his thought, the 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in his remarkable career. His major works were translated and published in new editions and Bonner translated and edited a selection of his writings in English as Doctor Illuminatus: A Ramon Llull Reader.
Bonner, Anthony, The Art and Logic of Ramon Llull, Brill, 2007.
Fidora, Alexander, and Josep E. Rubio, Raimundus Llullus: An Introduction to His Life, Works, and Thought, Brepois, 2008.
Gardner, Martin, The Ars Magna of Ramon Llull: Logic Machines and Diagrams, McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Llull, Ramón, Blanquerna: A Thirteenth-Century Romance, translated by Allison E. Peers, Jarrolds, 1926.
Who Was Ramon Llull?, http://quisestlullus.narpan.net/eng/1_intro_eng.html (November 1, 2017), “Introduction to Ramon Llull.”□