Eco: The Alphabet and the Four Figures

by Esteban


Raymond Llull (1232-1316), Ars magna, segunda figurageneralis et ultima, 1517, held in the Getty Research Institute and digitized by that institution in collaboration with the Internet Archive, generously posted on This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


“The ars combinatoria of Lull employs an alphabet of nine letters–B to K, leaving out J–and four figures (see figure 4.1). In a tabula generalis that appears in several of his works, Lull set out a table of six groups of nine entities, one for each of the nine letters.

The first group are the nine absolute principles, or divine dignities, which communicate their natures to each other and spread throughout creation.

After this, there are nine relative principles, nine types of question, nine subjects, nine virtues and nine vices.

Lull specifies (and this is an obvious reference to Aristotle’s list of categories) that the nine dignities are subjects of predication, while the other five series are predicates. We shall see that subject and predicate are sometimes allowed to exchange their roles, while in other cases variations of order are not considered as pertinent.

First figure. This traces all the possible combinations between the dignities, thus allowing predications such as “Goodness [bonitas] is great,” “Greatness [magnitudo] is glorious,” etc.

Since the dignities are treated as nouns when they appear as a predicate, the lines connecting them can be read in both directions. The line connecting magnitudo and bonitas can, for example, be read as both “Greatness is good” and “Goodness is great.” This explains why 36 lines produce 72 combinations.

The first figure is designed to allow regular syllogisms to be inferred. To demonstrate, for example, that goodness can be great, it is necessary to argue that “all that is magnified by greatness is great–but goodness is what is magnified by greatness–therefore goodness is great.”

The first table excludes self-predications, like BB or CC, because, for Lull, there is no possibility of a middle term in an expression of the type “Goodness is good” (in Aristotelian logic, “all As are B–C is an A–therefore C is a B” is a valid syllogism because, following certain rules, the middle term A is so disposed to act as the, as it were, bond between B and C).

Second figure. This serves to connect the relative principles with triples of definitions. They are the relations connecting the divine dignities with the cosmos. Since it is intended merely as a visual mnemonic that helps to fix in the mind the various relations between different types of entity, there is no method of combination associated with the second figure.

For example, difference, concordance and opposition (contrarietas) can each be considered in reference to (1) two sensible entities, such as a plant and a stone, (2) a sensible and an intellectual entity, like body and soul, and (3) two intellectual entities, like the soul and an angel.

Third figure. Here Lull displayed all possible letter pairings. The figure contains 36 pairs inserted in what Lull calls the 36 chambers. The figure makes it seem that he intended to exclude inversions.

Yet, in reality, the figure does contemplate inversions in order, and thus the number of the chambers is virtually 72 since each letter is permitted to function as either subject or predicate (“Goodness is great” also gives “Greatness is good:” Ars magna, VI, 2).

Having established the combinations, Lull proceeds to what he calls the “evacuation of the chambers.” Taking, for example, chamber BC, we read it first according to the first figure, obtaining goodness and greatness (bonitas and magnitudo); then according to the second figure, obtaining difference and concordance, (differentia and concordantia: Ars magna, II, 3).

From these two pairs we derive 12 propositions: “Goodness is great,” “Difference is great,” Goodness is different,” “Goodness is different,” “Difference is good,” “Goodness is concordant,” “Difference is concordant,” “Greatness is good,” “Concordance is good,” “Greatness is different,” “Concordance is different,” “Greatness is concordant,” and “Concordance is great.”

Going back to the tabula generalis in figure 4.1, we find that, under the next heading, Questiones, B and C  are utrum (whether) and quid (what). By combining these 2 questions with the 12 propositions we have just constructed, we obtain 24 questions, like “Whether goodness is great?,” or “What is a great goodness?” (see Ars magna, VI, 1).

In this way, the third figure generates 432 propositions and 864 questions–at least in theory. In reality, there are 10 additional rules to be considered (given in Ars magna, VI, iv).

For the chamber BC, for example, there are the rules B and C. These rules depend on the theological definition of the terms, and on certain argumentative constraints which have nothing to do with the rules of combination.


Quarta figura, fourth figure.

Fourth figure. This is the most famous of the figures, and the one destined to have the greatest influence on subsequent tradition. In this figure, triples generated by the nine elements are considered.

In contrast to the preceding figures, which are simply static diagrams, the fourth figure is mobile. It is a mechanism formed by three concentric circles, of decreasing size, inserted into each other, and held together usually by a knotted cord.

If we recall that in the Sefer Yezirah the combination of the letters was visually represented by a wheel or a spinning disc, it seems probable that Lull, a native of Majorca, has been influenced here by the kabbalistic tradition that flourished in his time in the Iberian peninsula.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 56-60.