While reading The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, I ran across the phrase “descending from ‘generals’ to ‘specials’”and it reminded me of the Jesuit idea of “descending into the particular”.

Yates indicates, I think rightly, that this is:

a notion implicit in Lullism as it ascends and descends on the ladder of being [scala naturae] from specials to generals and from generals to specials. This terminology is specifically used of memory in Lull’s Liber ad memoriam confirmandam in which it is stated that memory is to be divided into specials and generals, the specials descending from the generals.

This seems like it is very closely associated with the Jesuit’s concept of “descending into the particular” (or the specials) within their teaching on thinking. (For those unfamiliar, I recall that Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting podcast episode within Revisionist History on this area of moral reasoning.)

Given that Raymond Lull (c. 1232 – c. 1315) has significant philosophical and religious sway in his lifetime, it is highly likely that the Jesuits (founded 1535) may have picked up the foundation of the concept from him. Yates writes this section in Chapter X, in relation to the ideas of memory with respect to Lullism which assuredly influenced Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his ideas of memory.

I can’t help but think about why the Jesuits didn’t also include the idea of ascension into their philosophy? Perhaps some additional research into the topic will reveal some more direct associations. I think Yates’ link between Lullism and Ramism are pretty solid. I’d like to see some more direct evidence between Lullism and the Jesuits. I’d love to delve into the use of the art of memory within the Jesuit tradition as well.

The scala naturae or great chain of being has had a profound effect (not necessarily a positive one) on religion and modern culture. Far too many people are completely ignorant of what it is or what it entails, yet it underpins a huge swath of Western thought.

Miniature in an illuminated manuscript of Raymond Lull next to a ladder indicating the the levels of being
Scala Naturae or Ladder of Being in Breviculum ex artibus Raimundi Lulli electum – St. Peter perg. 92 [page 13 (5r)]

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich