Ramon Llull's Ars Magna

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingConference abstract in proceedingResearchpeer-review

4142 Downloads (Pure)


Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna

Thessa Jensen

Institute for Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University
Aalborg, Denmark

The Great Art of Ramon Llull — the Ars Magna — must be seen as one of the basic philosophical approaches to formalisation of thought, language, and knowledge; conceived and written in the late 13th century by a lay-monk whose life alone would be worth a Hollywood movie.

In this paper I will take a brief look at Llull’s life and work, before explaining the four main parts of his Ars Magna. Finally, I will try to give a new perspec-tive on how the Ars Magna still might be a viable and valuable approach to understand some of the challenges and possibilities found in computer science and ethics.

Llull was born in 1232 in Palma de Mallorca, a melting pot for different cul-tures and religions at the time. Being educated at the king’s court, Llull learned the trade of the troubadour as well as reading and writing in Catalan. He became a devout Christian later in life only after he had married. Jesus showed himself to Llull on several occasions, and eventually Llull resumed his rather debauched life and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to three purposes, which were to become a missionary and die for Christ, to develop and write the Ars Magna, and to build monasteries which should teach various languages [1,2].

The rest of his life, Llull spent travelling around the Mediterranean in an ef-fort to convince Muslims, especially, of the truth of the Christian faith. He soon discovered that the main challenge was to explain the divine Trinity to non Christians. Furthermore, he realised that culture and language barriers must be taken into account when he tried to explain the Christian faith. In-stead of focussing on the differences, Llull sought out the similarities, going as far as copying the worshipping style of Muslims.

Legend has it that Llull was stoned to death in the city of Tunis in 1316 by an angry mob of Muslims, unable to dismantle his arguments for the primacy of the Christian faith. His dead body was brought back to Mallorca, and the peo-ple of Mallorca have since tried to have Llull canonised as a saint.

Ars Magna
A few years before his death Llull began to write the most thorough and final version of his Ars Magna, the Ars Generalis Ultima [3]. The books explain the different figures of the Ars, its principles, questions, descriptions, and combinations.

Figure A, which is the divine figure, contains the nine divine or basic princi-ples. It is made up by two or three concentric circles on top of each other. The inner circles contain the nine letters B to K (J is missing in the Latin alphabet and the outer circle has the nine principles written on it. The combinations of letters with principles are used to construct logical arguments and syllogisms.

The centre of the figure T is made up by three triangles on top of each other. Each triangle points at three different letters in the inner circle around the triangles. Each letter has a principle attached. The outer circle explains the relative principles.

The third figure as well as the fourth figure are combinatoric figures, contain-ing pairs of two letters (third figure) or possible pairs of three letters (fourth figure, in which the different circles can be moved to find new combination of the nine letters).

Finally, the alphabet of the Ars Magna together with an extensive list of pos-sible combinations and their explanations are part of the Ars Generalis Ulti-ma.

Llull saw his Ars as a tool for an amiable and logical discussion among peers. The divine principles as well as the relative principles were common ground for the theological and philosophical trained religious leaders. Through the design of the different figures in his Ars, Llull allowed a discussion which was removed from the holy scriptures and their interpretation, instead revolv-ing around understanding the very nature of belief, life, and God as such.

Computer Science?
Llull was an inspiration for later scientists, most notably Giordano Bruno, Athanasius Kirchner, Agrippa of Nettesheim and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose dissertation De Arte Combinatoria begins with a discussion of Llull’s Ars Magna. Umberto Eco also mentioned Llull in his book The Search for the Perfect Language in which Eco describes the quest for developing or discov-ering the most basic language which would enable people to understand or translate everything easily into another language. The same quest can be found in the work of artificial intelligence and knowledge representation, which seeks to formalise language and knowledge in a way which can be translated into a computer program.

And as Fidora’s and Sierra’s [4] anthology Ramon Llull: From the Ars Magna to Artificial Intelligence shows, Llull’s influence and relevance is profound in today’s work on topics ranging from conceptual graphs and logical analysis, social choice theory and adaptive reasoning to Llull’s influence on Peirce’s pragmatic thinking.

Llull is important, even now, on a whole other level. His ethical considera-tions when he wanted to convince people of the one true faith can be found in modern philosophers like e.g. Knud E. Løgstrup and Zygmunt Bauman. By using a list of commonly acknowledged principles and combinatoric rules, Llull turns missionary persuasion into a Habermasian dream of communica-tion among equals.
1. Bonner A.: Doctor illuminatus. Princeton University Press (1993).
2. Platzeck E. W.: Das Leben des seligen Raimund Lull: die" Vita Coetanea" und ausgewählte Texte zum Leben Lulls aus seinen Werken und Zeitdoku-menten. Patmos-Verlag (1964).
3. Lullus, R.: Ars Generalis Ultima. Minerva GmbH (1970).
4. Fidora A., Sierra C. (eds): Ramon Llull: From the Ars Magna to Artificial Intelligence. Barcelona: Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (2011).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEurocast 2017. Computer Aided Systems Theory : EXTENDED ABSTRACTS
Number of pages3
Publication date22 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2017
EventEUROCAST: International Conference on Computer Aided Systems Theory - Museo Elder de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, Las Palmas, Spain
Duration: 19 Feb 201724 Feb 2017
Conference number: 16


LocationMuseo Elder de la Ciencia y la Tecnología
CityLas Palmas
Internet address


  • Ramon Llull
  • computer science
  • artificial intelligence
  • religion
  • ethics
  • language
  • Ars Magna


Dive into the research topics of 'Ramon Llull's Ars Magna'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this