Peter Abelard (1079—1142)

Light of truth

What is famously known about Peter Abelard is his legendary love affair with his attractive and brilliant student Heloise d’Argenteuil which led to his castration at the instigation of Heloise’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, Canon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris who lost patience when Abelard would not choose between marriage to his niece and the celibate priesthood. But Abelard was the most famous teacher in early twelfth-century Paris which fact also created many enemies for him, some of whom were jealous of the large crowds that his lectures attracted. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him as “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century.” Nobody could deny the penetration of his thought and the breadth of his knowledge. Both philosopher and theologian, Abelard was born at Le Pallet near Nantes, the son of a knight. His father wanted him to follow a military career but he from early on showed evidence of a lively, restless and independent mind which brought him into frequent conflict with his teachers. He went on to lecture at Paris to large audiences of enthusiastic students first in dialectics and later in theology. The tragic love affair with his student Heloise forced his to retire to the monastery of St Denis and then began the attack on his orthodoxy and he was condemned unheard at the council of Soissons in 1121 which caused the burning of some of his books. By 1136 he was back in Paris but the enmity of Bernard of Clairvaux who denounced him to Rome led to the condemnation of some of his views at the council of Sens which was confirmed by Pope Innocent II. A reconciliation with Bernard seemed to have occurred before his death.

Abelard’s versatility is reflected in his writing on philosophy and theology. In philosophy his interests were in Metaphysics, Logic and Philosophy of Language. Notable works were Tractatus de fide Trinitatis (Treatise on faith in the Trinity), Sic et Non (Yes and No) and Dialogus inter philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum (Dialogue between a philosopher, a Jew and a Christian) etc. He was also the author of a collection of hymns. Abelard was a leading figure of scholasticism, with his clarification of the problem of “universals” and the problem of language. The conflict between the “Nominalists” and the “Realists” in scholasticism began to be acute with him. More important were his analysis of language and the question of meaning in language. The understanding of the thing, which is required for words to have meaning, is at least in part, he said, a true understanding of the thing as it was conceived in the mind of God. With this thinking he moved to a position of realism which the Nominalists like William of Ockham later attacked, thus creating a real crisis in scholasticism. Abelard was accused of setting reason above faith, and one of his critics called him, ‘a censor of the faith, not a disciple, an improver of it, not an imitator.’ It was never Abelard’s purpose simply to set reason against faith. His writings are best seen as a sustained attempt to question the content of faith and so to gain a fuller, or more lucid perception of it. The Historia Calamitatum, the account which he gave of his life, records some of the difficulties, private and public, caused by such an approach. As well as the pleasures he took in his own powers of argument, it tells of the disappointments which he suffered when he felt his ideas had been misunderstood which led to his frequent immersion in controversy. After his separation from Heloise, who entered a convent where she became abbess, he himself entered the monastic life, but the two continued to write to each other and their surviving correspondence with its blend of ardour and sensitivity to the trials of life forms a classic of romantic literature well known in the Middle Ages and retaining its fascination today. One can compare him to Jerome who held increasingly to an ideal of the monk as one engaged in a solitary intellectual search for God. His influence is evident in the many authors who took up his method and in a sense in the history of scholasticism itself.

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