Doctor Illuminatus: a Ramon Llull Reader, edited and translated by Anthony Bonner, Princeton University Press (distributed by J Wiley and Sons: 0800 243407) £17.95 This introduction to Llull’s writings is an abridgement of Bonner’s two-volume Selected Works, published in 1985. It includes The Book of the Lover and the Beloved (translated by his wife, Eve), The Book of the Beasts and the Ars Brevis. Though littleknown today, Blessed Ramon Llull, 1232-1316, a Majorcan who brought his native Catalan language to international prominence, was an extraordinary figure in his time. Both a polymath and ardent apologist for the faith, his long life following his Damascene “conversion” in his 30s was largely spent in explaining and defending the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to the Jews and Saracens of his day. “He sought to persuade in order to save souls,” as Bonner explains; all the energies of his considerable genius – Llull wrote over 265 books on every conceivable subject – were devoted to this end. Not least among his intellectual feats was his Ars, an intricate and ingenious device of combinatory diagrams and symbols, designed to demonstrate all the attributes (or “dignities” as Llull termed them) of the Trinitarian God to unbelievers. Despite the fact that this elaborate mechanism seems to have converted no one it remains a singular, if idiosyncratic, achievement of the medieval mind. Easily the most readable – and enduring – of the writings in this volume is The Book of the Lover and the Beloved, Lull’s love-song of 365 versicles, inspired by Sufi mystical literature. These versicles, designed for daily meditation, are as compelling, mysterious and beautiful today as when they were first composed. With their unique blend of troubadour, Franciscan and Islamic influences they deserve to be better known. Llull moves effortlessly from talking about God in his polemical works to addressing him, the “beloved”, directly in these exquisite dialogues of the soul, with their frequent tears of compunction and constant interplay of memory, understanding and will: “The lover and beloved spoke to each other with signs of love. With fear, weeping, thoughts and tears, the lover recounted his suffering to his beloved” (No 48). A random example such as this cannot convey their cumulative power, describing a passionate relationship wholly purged of an erotic component. A Llullian scholar and friend says that if he were faced with the wreckage of the world’s literature this is the book he would salvage.
Aiming To Kill: The Ethics of Suicide and Euthanasia by Nigel Biggar. Darton, Longman, Todd £10.95 The author, professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin, rehearses all the arguments of this debate with thoroughness. His method is to examine the traditional Christian stance, then, in three subsequent chapters, to discuss the value of human life, the morality of “acts of killing” and the possibility of “slippery slopes” before forming a conclusion. As he points out, English law has always distinguished between intention and foresight, ie the principle of “double effect”. Suicide, though no longer criminal, remains unlawful and medical practice distinguishes between a demand for suicide and the refusal of burdensome treatment.
Biggar likes to distinguish between “biographical life” and “biological life”, implying that the former is more sacred than the latter. This dualism is resisted by the Catholic theologian Germaine Grisez – with good reason in my view: where do you draw the line? Biggar suggests (cautiously) that “there are situations where human beings are rendered permanently incapable of responding to a vocation. In these rare cases... it could be morally permissible to intend to take human life because, that life having lost its unique preciousness, its sacred value, the intention would not be malevolent.” Just as alarm bells start ringing in my head, he qualifies this by asking whether “it should be permissible”, citing the situation in Holland where, since 1984, Dutch doctors have been allowed to practise physician assisted suicide under certain conditions. This, Biggar, demonstrates, has led to a shift towards non-voluntary euthanasia – the slippery slope predicted by opponents of the Dutch experiment. Publicised cases after the Tony Bland legal judgment have, in his view, taken England tentatively down the Dutch road; for this reason he resists a relaxation of the law on euthanasia and concludes with a plea for more palliative care and better “spiritual formation” of doctors. Although I do not entirely agree with his views, yet his is a voice of measured restraint in the disquieting debate surrounding the current and ill-conceived Mental Capacity Bill.
Peace in the post-Christian Era by Thomas Merton. Alban Books £9.99 This book, intended for publication in 1962 but suppressed by Merton’s Trappist superiors, is now published for the first time. Naturally, given the date of its composition, it is preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war, thereby evoking many memories of CND marches and the spectacle of Bertrand Russell protesting in pavement sit-downs with patrician hauteur. Does this date it? Not in the least, for although Merton is specifically concerned with nuclear issues, the larger questions raised concern all modern warfare: the Iraq conflict casts its long shadow over the whole subject, rehearsed in forthright and urgent prose over 40 years ago.
Recognising that “we have no obligation to render ourselves helpless in the face of an overwhelming enemy power” and accepting a nation’s “right to defend itself”, Merton nevertheless constantly returns to a Christian stance: “Every man must in some sense be regarded as Christ” and Christians “have an obligation to be peacemakers”. Peace, he emphasises, demands “heroic labour”; it requires, paradoxically, “greater heroism than war”. The morality of pre-emptive strikes is questioned, as are the “just war” theories of St Augustine, not formulated with the vast destructive power of modern weaponry in mind. Merton is prophetic, as when he describes “our Western world where... an affluent society... is sinking into the depth of moral degradation while an underdeveloped society lives the vicious and despairing life of an enormous worldwide slum”. Do read it.