Ramon Lull: The wise man from Majorca

Tresent-day package tour visitors to the pleasurable Balearic island of Majorca may find a passing, perfunctory reference to Ramon Lull in their guide books. My own extravagantly compares him to Stephen Hawkins and Bill Gates. Bit bizarre! Lull’s idea of a universal science might conceivably connect him with the Cambridge scientist, and his ‘thinking machine’ to the Microsoft entrepreneur, but the Majorca mystic, poor as a church mouse and fit as a fiddle till ripe old age, would hardly rejoice at the compliment.

Lull’s lifelong passion was Islam. Born in 1232 in Palma, a mere three years after the recapture of the island from the Moors by the Catalan King Jaime I, he grew up in a ‘multicultural’ environment, with Jews, Muslims and Christians freely mingling around him. A well-to-do fellow and a royal courtier, married with children, Ramon was also a bit of a poet, a troubadour. At the age of 30, one night he was in his room, writing verse, inspired by his infatuation for a lady whom he loved with ‘wild love’. It was then that Christ appeared to him, changing his frivolous life forever. Donning the habit of a Franciscan ascetic, Ramon, St Francis-like, gave away all his earthly goods and devoted his life to God alone. The form that his new life took included the study of Arabic and of Islamic thought and texts.

Indeed, the mystic’s first published book was on the logic of the Muslim writer Al-Ghazali. Another of his 300 known works, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved (actually the 99th chapter of a torrential novel, Blanquerna), which I enjoyed reading while in Majorca, states explicitly that its composition is based on Sufi methods. This remarkable book consists of 366 paragraphs, one for each day of the year. It exemplified a steady, relentless dialectic between the Lover – the human soul – and the Beloved – the infinite, revealed God who is both in and beyond the world, with Love providing the amorous link between the two.

Later, on a modest, low local mountain – only 542 metres – Puig Randa, a handsome-faced young shepherd, or perhaps an angel, disclosed to Lull the idea that his celebrated masterpiece, The Great Art, was to take.

Analogies with a super algebra, computer model, thinking machine, proto-word processor and the like are of limited use. Basically, Lull was aiming to construct no less than a universal conceptual tongue, a prodigious lexicon which embodied all forms of knowledge, religion included. It was meant to show its necessary relation with God’s essential attributes. These daring ideas he illustrated with diagrams and figures, which still hold a peculiar fascination, as well as a certain suspicion…Genuine, new revolutionary paradigm or pie in the sky?

Jonathan Swift is said to have had our Ramon in his sights when he satirised the follies of the grand academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels. Argentinean writer J.L. Borges also lampooned Lull’s thinking machine, first by stating that it was unable to think a single thought, and then, in mock-recantation, asserting that it could think ‘too much’. In the end, though, Borges conceded the machine’s utility ‘as a literary and poetic device’. I doubt that the Majorca scientist-kabbalist would have felt flattered by that judgment.

Swift and Borges unfairly caricature Lull. Humanist thinkers of the Renaissance like Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno highly valued his ideas – they viewed them as a wonderful mnemonic technique, a scientific art of memory. Philosophers like Leibnitz admired him and pursued his vision of a world super-language. If indeed Bill Gates had ever heard of Ramon, I would not be too surprised if he held him in some regard. Borges, a declared unbeliever, deliberately ignores Lull’s central, overarching and overriding aim: the Divine. All his labours are devoted to providing a visionary interfaith theology, a mystical-rational model of divine contemplation, a royal way to the One God of the three monotheistic faiths.

Here I come back to Islam. In an age echoing with alarming clamours of crusades and reconquistas, Lull offered an approach to the rival/sister religion that was based not on confrontation and violence, but on knowledge, intellectual conversation, spirituality, even synthesis. He is best seen as a kind of pioneer, a bridge-builder between civilisations, a wise, righteous Christian who today would be ideally well-equipped to lead the much needed, worldwide rapprochement between Cross and Crescent.What response Lull received from his Muslim interlocutors is not clear. With sages, Sufis and theologians he would have dialogued pretty well. With the ordinary, grassroots believers…I suppose it would have been a different story. I guess it would not be all that different from what a Muslim preacher at the time would have experienced in the cities of Christian Europe. Happily, it is not true that he was stoned to death in North Africa, aged 84. It is certain he died later in Majorca. The legend of his suffering a martyr’s death is pious hagiography, not history. Still, it must have come in handy when he was beatified – proclaimed a Blessed – by Pius IX in 1847. His feast day falls on October the 16th.

Years ago, before the tomb of Blessed Ramon, hidden in the dark interior of the fine St Francesco Basilica in Palma, I spent some time quietly meditating. Was there a hint of his presence hovering about? The parish priest, with whom I spoke about Lull, told me that those who visit both the church and the windy summit of Mount Randa often report spiritual highs. Of course, that is possible, but I prefer to remember the mystic’s words, of a strongly Sufi flavour, from Blanquerna:

‘The Lover was singing the praise of his Beloved. He said he had transcended place, because he is in a placeless place. Therefore, when they asked the Lover where his Beloved was, he replied, “He is – but no one knows where.” Yet he knew his Beloved was in his remembrance.’


Gelli bio



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