Peter Abelard. An impudent nuisance to his contemporaries, a romantic figment later, and perhaps our first free man.
“By doubting, we come to inquire and by inquiry we arrive at truth”.
The church has never quite understood Abelard to the fullest, or known what to do with him. Should the church condemn his writings or revere him as a saint? He was a man of spectacular gifts and intellectual talent but the fundamentalism of today despises his intellectualism, appeal to reason and philosophic attitude. He possessed like passions as other men and his view of the trinity bordered on tri-theism. Calvin would have had him burned at the stake in his day.
In the year 1117 a thirty-eight year old logician named Peter Abelard seduced with no difficulty whatever an ardent teen-aged girl named Heloise and the world has never forgotten them. Yhe reason, however, is far from apparent. For one thing, their love affair lacked the most essential ingredient for immortality: namely an immortal lover, a man ho, for his love, throws away an empire, like Antony, or pollutes his honor, like Tristan. Abelard’s infatuation with Héloise began cooling the moment it began causing him trouble….
In his day, theologians tended to prove their points chiefly by quoting statements from the Church Fathers. Abelard produced a book called Sic Et Non (“Yes and No”), in which he took numerous theological issues and produced quotations from the Fathers on one side, set next to quotations from the Fathers on the other side. He then proceeded to reconcile the contradictions, pointing out that language is ambiguous and depends on context, and that statements that appear to answer the same question “Yes” and “No” may on closer examination turn out to be answering different questions.
….Abelard’s affection was so dubious that it inspired in Héloise the most common doubt; years after their separation she was still asking if Abelard loved her for herself or her body. He set her doubts to rest: “I satisfied my wretched in thee, and this was all that I loved…Weep for thy Savior, not for thy seducer.” And he meant every word. …
Abelard’s teaching was condemned at Soursouns in 1121 and his first theological work had been burned as heretical. He fol
d Plato in theology and his best teachings emphasized Aristotle’s dialectic, holding that the system of logic and dialectical method of intellectual reflection could be applied to the truths of faith, this pre-dated Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics by a century. His concept of ethics maintained that an act is to be judged by the intention of the doer.
By any conventional historical reckoning, Abelard was not even a figure of the first rank. He was the best logician of his day, but he founded no philosophical school and it was the men he bested in debate who set scholastic philosophy on its future course. Nor was he a great spirit who labored to reform and strengthen a shaky, if universal church. To enemies such as Bernard of Clairvaux, he was an impudent adventurer, and a self vaunting troublemaker who spoke for no established order and served no established institution.
“In those days, theologians tended to prove their points chiefly by quoting statements from the Church Fathers. In his book he collected a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions and produced quotations from the Fathers on one side, next to contradictory quotations from the Fathers on the other side. He then proceeded to harmonize the contradictions, pointing out that language is vague and depends on the context. Abelard pointed out the foolishness of relying on authorities and showed the most respected theological authorities to be hopelessly at odds with each other. Abelard left these questions open for discussion and thereby left himself open to charges of heresy. For quite some time the Church had included his writings in the Index of Forbidden Books.”
…On the whole they were right. He was a genuine spiritual anomaly, and therein lies his significance. He was the first truly free individual in postclassical Europe; the first, that is, whose personality expressed with superb force and clarity not class, caste, code or office, but itself.
From the moment he swaggered into Paris, a handome, well-born Breton youth who endeavored to refute the opinions of his teachers, personal fame was Abelard’s chief spur. The old feudal order of the Dark Ages was crumbling and Europe was more open and free . The High Middle Ages had not yet been pieced together and the Church was not yet the vast highly centralized hierarchy it was soon to become, with its majestic autocratic popes. In fact, in Abelard’s day there were often two popes at once, each seeking to prevail over the other in the lively court of public opinion on which their authority rested; no Inquisition to efficiently extirpate heresy and no Church controlled universities directing intellectual life.
Abelard was one of these utterly new men, disturbingly ardent in their religious faith, ripe for every heresy, and inclined to look on the indolent Church, an organization adapted to serfs and rude warriors, with a less than worshipful eye. In that short-lived ferment Abelard made his way like an ambitious politician seeking the main chance. To his own rationalistic views and his own dashing personality , Abelard gave the widest currency by seeking out and vanquishing in public debate whatever champions of the prevailing view he could corner.
By the time Abelard decided to seduce Héloise, the orphaned ward of the canon of Notre Dame, Abelard had come to regard himself as “the only philosopher remaining in the world” . He was the leader of the young “moderni” , a pied piper with all of Europe”s restless youth in his train. It was more than sheer mental power that drew the youth from near and far to him; there was a magnetic freshness about a logician who sang songs like a troubadour and strutted like a prince. There was freshness, too, in his belief that the truths of faith must be true to reason, and freshness in his scorn for orthodox reputations.
When the swarming students of Paris learned that their champion was making love to the canon’s ward, they sang his praises even louder, seduction having completed the portrait of a personality more vivid, more expressive, more unfettered than any they had seen. For her par, Héloise rejoiced in her role as Abelard’s “whore’ , her word, but her guardian was less thrilled, despite Abelard’s efforts to placate him. His grisly vengeance is well known: He gathered some kinsmen together and had him castrated, surprising him in his sleep. Abelard’s reaction is revealing:
” In truth I felt the disgrace more than the hurt to my body and was more afflicted with shame than with pain. My incessant thought was of the renown in which I had so delighted, now brought low, nay utterly blotted out, so swiftly, by an evil chance.”
Unmanned and ashamed, Abelard joined a monastery and forced Héloise to become a nun. That was the end between them, and if his life were a tale of romance, it would have ended there. But it did not. During his remaining twenty-three years Abelard largely ignored Héloise, but he himself was far from done. If anything, his fame grew greater, his followers more formidable, while his own intellectual ambitions became more lofty, more courageous, and in a sense, more serious.
Abelard now began to elucidate rationally on that mystery of Christian mysteries, that pandora’s box of heresy, the doctrine of the Trinity. And worse, he wrote down his conclusions in writing. This led to his treatise being burned, forcing him to take refuge in the wilderness and to live a hermit’s existence; but inevitably young men from all over the Continent gathered around him again. In 1140, he was accused of being a “heretic in spirit” and the pope concurred. Abelard and his works were formally condemned and his defenders excommunicated.
The makers of the medieval world finished by crushing him. More than a century later, when french writers began to revive Abelard’s memory, they scarcely knew what to make of him, for in the new medieval order a free spirit such as Abelard’s was unknown. So they absorbed him into the romantic tradition and cast him in the role of star-crossed lover. He does not fit the part. In life Abelard had played only himself; that was his sin and his glory.
“Then, turning from the consideration of such hindrances to the study of philosophy, Héloïse bade me observe what were the conditions of honourable wedlock. What possible concord could there be between scholars and domestics, between authors and cradles, between books or tablets and distaffs, between the stylus or the pen and the spindle? What man, intent on his religious or philosophical meditations, can possibly endure the whining of children, the lullabies of the nurse seeking to quiet them, or the noisy confusion of family life? Who can endure the continual untidiness of children? The rich, you may reply, can do this, because they have palaces or houses containing many rooms, and because their wealth takes no thought of expense and protects them from daily worries. But to this the answer is that the condition of philosophers is by no means that of the wealthy, nor can those whose minds are occupied with riches and worldly cares find time for religious or philosophical study. For this reason the renowned philosophers of old utterly despised the world, fleeing from its perils rather than reluctantly giving them up, and denied themselves all its delights in order that they might repose in the embraces of philosophy alone. One of them, and the greatest of all, Seneca, in his advice to Lucilius, says: “Philosophy is not a thing to be studied only in hours of leisure; we must give up everything else to devote ourselves to it, for no amount of time is really sufficient thereto”
“The great philosophical dispute of the day concerned Universals. We say that Citation, Secretariat, and Man-o-War, are all horses. One group of philosophers (then called “Realists” but now called “Idealists”, and taking their cue from Plato) said that there is an objectively existing Something that the aforesaid C, S, and MoW all have in common: namely, their equine nature. A second group of philosophers (then called “Nominalists” but now called “Realists”, and taking their cue from Aristotle) said that it was silly to assert the existence of anything here except the concrete individual particular objects called C, S, and MoW, and the name “horse” which we agree to give to them all. Hence the competing slogans, “Universals are Real” and “Universals are Names.” When Abelard appeared on the scene, it was dominated by Realists. He took the Nominalist side, with modifications that enabled him to sidestep the standard realist objections, and his skill in debate won him many admirers. (He tells us himself that he mopped up the floor with his opponents, and silenced or convinced all his professors, but that may be a teeny bit exaggerated.) For background material, the reader is referred to Chapters 14 to 16 of Henry Adams’ book Mont-saint-michel and Chartres. For evidence that the question can still rouse passions today, the reader is referred to Ayn Rand’s An Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology, available in paperback at your local bookstore or library.” ( James E. Kiefer )