Ramon Llull, Philosophical Genius, Freelancer and First Unipersonal NGO

Victor Pallejà

Islamologist and Professor of History of Religions, Universitat d’Alacant

We can say, in general, that today the figure of Ramon Llull suffers in two ways: on the one hand, for the little regard given to those who are not supported by the great state cultures; on the other, for the scepticism of those who pathologically distrust native minds. This means that, popularly, the figure of Ramon Llull is found in that medieval world where all is possible. Myths, shadows, distance and unreality is all that we can extract from the great Majorcan. Students who still remember reading the Book of the Beasts in school can deduce, simply, that he must have had some role in the history of Catalan literature. In terms of the media, only the fashionable “esoteric-gothic” novelettes can arouse curiosity for a while.

This sad panorama contrasts, however, with the magnificent research work developed in the last fifty years by Lullism, and which has brought a whole series of advances of great historical importance, which place the great tertiary Franciscan at the forefront of the formation of European culture and very close to current debates, such as the dialogue between religions, the search for peace and the role of the Church.

We should note the rarity of a phenomenon of this kind in the invariable panorama of the studies of humanities: research on Llull has multiplied, permanent institutions have been created around him, and there is a constant expansion of studies, editions and translations of his work all over the world.

It is with great regret that we must say, however, that outside specialised centres very little of the new and exciting features of Ramon Llull now reaches the people in the street, or even the average university student or the person with a certain level of education. Changing this situation is not about making the image of the Middle Ages interesting, easy or fascinating. The fact is that we have a new Ramon Llull who, objectively, furnishes us with all that we need to feel great confidence in the success of any cultural dynamic related with Lullism.1 And without having to add any localist exaggeration, compassionate falsehood or cultural snare as is usual everywhere.

In this case, the collective punishment applied to Catalan culture is sadly real, given that Ramon Llull is boxed in between French France and Spanish Spain as a space which we would like never to have existed. Situated in a vanished kingdom of Majorca, he emerges reclaimed as part of the “south of France” by French historiography where all is quite dead and there is no known inheritor. Moreover, James II made Montpellier a great political and cultural capital difficult to adapt to peninsular Spain which itself wanted to know nothing of the Roussillon and the regions beyond the Pyrenees. The Catholic Church, for its part, has also disregarded him, although he had its blessing, which is extraordinary! If we want to resolve some of these questions, we cannot pretend that we live in full cultural normality.

Thinking about this panorama on a European and Mediterranean scale, we only have to agree that we are rediscovering the institutional isolation of the centres of learning, as well as the serious difficulties there are in bringing culture to a society increasingly distanced from the references that link the present with the past. Thus, what is often lacking are the words and concepts necessary to maintain the link that makes sense of the living history of men and cultures on which we depend to understand our world in depth. It is necessary, therefore, to rethink the key and updated concepts that situate Ramon Llull in our closest landscape, simply and intelligibly. Some aspects can serve as an example of this.

In the first place, it is important to know that Ramon Llull was a brilliant man. Llull was not Leonardo da Vinci, but the European genius has not been manifested in only one way or one person. While one fills the bookshops, there is still much to do to make the other known and arouse curiosity about him. The original Ramon Llull is a well of ideas reflected in numerous works that speak about practically everything that could be said. Today we still do not know where he found many of his ideas, if they were completely original, and this is part of his most exclusive charms.

Philosophy and scholasticism provoke distrust in many readers, and probably logic and the dialectical subtleties are not attractive, although modern life and politics are constructed with these elements. The debate between Aristotle and the monotheist believers and the confrontation with the “Averroists” seems to be water under the bridge, but the creation of the scientific method, the laws of reasoned discourse, would not be where they are without the passionate searching by whole generations of thinkers such as our curious hyperactive man. Llull wanted to write the best book in the world and find the best “necessary reasons” to convince without defeating with weapons… as far as possible, of course.

It is necessary to know that the men of the 14th century are not so removed from the ideas we have today. In particular, their conflicts often reproduce what are now everyday concerns: the clash of civilisations, tolerance, and the search for a universal and unique science. However, who knows the political Ramon Llull, the man of great projects of peace and concord with Islam and Judaism? Is he contradictory in his ideas? That too! It is possible that he is not always liked, and we can easily reject more than one of his proposals, but the organisation and clarity of his ideas is fascinating, and his communicative effort is admirable. Moreover, who has produced so much poetry, prose, explanatory methods and geometries which inspired the most ambivalent rational dreams? How is it possible that this man is blamed for what is most valued in others: the fact of being a great humanist and touching on many very serious issues? And if he were mad, as he himself says, what more can we ask!

There is a very specific aspect where Llull is especially close to us: he is a man of action. We no longer speak of the birth of a professional intellectual in 13th century Europe, who was an essential phenomenon throughout the modern world. Rather, this is an individual, a self-made man, who knew university but who was self-taught and searched all over for more advanced knowledge. He studied Latin, Arabic and Hebrew and wanted to know how to approach the most important cultures and religions, thinking without frontiers… He was a laic in the search for knowledge that broke down many barriers and alone sought out the best training and the immediate putting into practice of all he knew. His agenda of contacts, which largely came from his political life within the court of great monarchs, opened the doors to the most influential centres of his time, and he occasionally went there to explain his ideas, peace plans, institutional reforms and more: he was a true freelancer of thought and of action!

The speculative and clerical vision shown of his life does not give us the global dimension of the first European who wrote largely in vernacular language for all people and endeavoured to resolve the most serious conflicts of his time. Alongside the great figure of Dante, he could occupy a place as a poet, thinker and reformer-conserver of the values of a society that thought about all that it did in Christian terms. He also lived, like Dante, distressed and struggling, between the two same European parties who sought the total destruction of the enemy: Ghibellines and Guelphs. Today, the consequences of those events that shook society still resonate. In the same way, the struggle between the papacy and the empire multiplied this conflict which resulted in the current situation of the relations between Church and State, between secularism and religiosity. We could talk of a long list of practical and theoretical debates that would fill pages and more pages of thought that until very recently was clearly considered as the core of our society.

Therefore, it is important to emphasise the practical life of Ramon Llull, even to go further and manifest that the realistic dimension of his thought has nothing to do with the concerns of a scatterbrain. The accommodation to the theory of “wisdom and outburst” finally disfigured the physiognomy of the great figures. The so-called utopias, good or bad, have been possible more often than is thought and the Lullian praxis has gone quite far on this issue.

We have an example of this realistic and practical character in a little known part of his life when he travels through Cyprus and Asia Minor until reaching Armenia. Unpublished passages of his work are conserved translated into the language, testimony of the constant effort to make himself understood by all. But what was he doing there? When the arrival of the Mongols decided the destiny of the planet, the alliance between Christians and Muslims against them or of Christians and Mongols against Muslims could resolve the conflict of the Middle East in a determined way. Ramon Llull was quick to propose his thought to bring about peace, prompted by the determined will of his character. He worked alone like an NGO, similar to the friends of the Community of Saint Egidio now: perhaps they annoy the most powerful institutions, but their task is potentially real although on few occasions effective.

Shortly before the experience of the Marco Polos called on by the Pope among the Ambassadors of the most powerful lords of the East and West, the outcomes of the evangelising efforts and the Catalan war ships sent to the island of Arwad on the Syrian coast in a desperate operation are still pending and any result is possible. It is very difficult to elucidate what role he played but, whatever it was, he managed to place himself right in the middle of the hurricane of his time; to appear and propose ideas. Faced with this, who can claim to have been able to approach the task that distinguishes the great figures?

In conclusion, thanks to some very good material uncovered by researchers and medievalists, Llull does not only represent a still forgotten past. Quite the contrary: Lullian science and practice have an open future. The method, the issues and, above all, the practical and decisive attitude seem well prepared for defining points of meeting or confrontation with other cultures and religions, given that they can demonstrate a continuity of many centuries, a heritage that will be better exploited instead of remaining ignored against the consensus of recognised experts worldwide.


[1] Is it necessary for medievalists of great renown such as Kurt Flasch in his important Das philosophische Denken in Mittelalter.Von Augustinus bis Machiavelli (Stuttgart, Reclam, 2000; Catalan edition: El pensament filosòfic a l’edat mitjana, Santa Coloma de Queralt, obrador edèndum, 2006) to devote a long chapter to Ramon Llull to cast doubt on his value? Many other examples could be cited in this sense.