Peter Abelard Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: In philosophy Abelard developed the theory of conceptualism to reconcile Platonic idealism with nominalism. His use of the dialectic to explore Scripture helped shape Scholasticism, and many of his religious views, condemned as heretical in his own lifetime, subsequently influenced church doctrine.

Early Life

Peter Abelard was born in Le Pallet, Brittany, about 1079. His father, Berengar, was lord of the village and a knight in the service of the Count of Brittany; since Abelard was the oldest son, his parents expected him to succeed to these titles. Nevertheless, they did not object when he showed more interest in intellectual than physical jousting. At fifteen Abelard left his parents, his three brothers—Raoul, Porcaire, and Dagobert—and his sister, Denise, to study under Roscelin of Compiègne. By 1100 he had moved on to Paris, where he attended the lectures of William of Champeaux, head of the cathedral school and archdeacon of Notre-Dame.

At the school, Abelard demonstrated the combination of brilliance and indiscretion that was to earn for him the title Rhinoceros indomitus—the unconquerable rhinoceros. William, an extreme Platonist, maintained that universal concepts such as “tree” exist independent of any specific examples. Thus, there is no substantial difference between one maple tree and another, or between an oak, a maple, or an elm. Moreover, the quality of “treeness” is independent of any individual example. In public debate Abelard forced William, regarded as the leading dialectician of the age, to abandon this position and accept Abelard’s own view of conceptualism. Without denying universal categories (which nominalists rejected), Abelard argued that one knows those universals only because of individual examples; if those specimens did not exist, neither would the universal.

Life’s Work

Abelard’s victory won for him the respect of his fellow students and the enmity of William; both factors prompted him to leave Notre-Dame and set up his own school, first at Melun (1102) and then at Corbeil, within five miles of the French capital. The rivalry with Abelard may have influenced William’s decision to leave Paris as well; outside the city he established a new monastery, dedicated to Saint Victor, where he continued teaching.

William’s departure left a vacancy at the cathedral school, and after Abelard recovered from an illness that had caused him to return to Brittany, he was invited to assume the chair of his former master (c. 1108). As soon as William learned of the appointment, he hastened back to Notre-Dame and forced Abelard to leave. Retreating first to Melun, Abelard soon was teaching at Sainte-Geneviève, at the very gates of Paris, drawing all but a handful of the students from the cathedral.

His teaching was interrupted again in 1111 when his parents decided to take Holy Orders, a common practice among the elderly in the twelfth century. Abelard had to go to Brittany to settle the family estate; then, perhaps at the urging of his mother, Lucia, he went to study theology under Anselm of Laon.

Just as William had been the most noted logician, so Anselm was the most famous religious teacher of the period. And just as Abelard had shown himself a better logician than William, so he would prove himself a better teacher of theology than Anselm. Finding the lectures at Laon dull, Abelard absented himself frequently. Students loyal to the old master challenged this lack of respect, and Abelard retorted that he himself could teach more effectively. Considering the little time that he had devoted to the subject, such a boast seemed absurd; his fellow students challenged him to make good his claim.

Abelard readily agreed, promising to lecture the next day on Ezekiel, one of the most abstruse books in the Bible. Even his opponents thought that matters had now gone too far and urged him to take time to prepare. Abelard refused; thus, when he rose to speak, he saw only a few people in the audience, all eagerly waiting for the upstart to make a fool of himself. Instead, his exegesis was so brilliant that within two days virtually all Anselm’s students were attending Abelard’s lectures and begging him to continue the series. Anselm thereupon forbade Abelard to teach anywhere in Laon.

By now, though, William’s old post was vacant once more, and in 1112 or 1113 Abelard assumed it without opposition, inaugurating his tenure by concluding his explication of Ezekiel. Handsome, of medium height, with piercing brown eyes, he was, as even his enemies conceded, “sublime in eloquence.” As magister scholarum of the leading school in France, if not of northern Europe, he was immensely popular. In part he owed this success to his unorthodox teaching methods. Rejecting the traditional lectio, in which the master read a text and then the commentaries on it, Abelard championed the disputatio, posing problems and resolving them through logic and careful textual analysis. Recalling those years, Héloïse wrote:

Who among kings or philosophers could equal thee in fame? What kingdom or city or village did not burn to see thee? Who, I ask, did not hasten to gaze upon thee when thou appearedst in public, nor on thy departure with straining neck and fixed eye follow thee?

Among those impressed with Abelard’s teaching was a canon of Notre-Dame named Fulbert, the uncle and guardian of Héloïse. She had been educated at the convent of Argenteuil, and, by the age of fourteen, she could read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. “La très sage Héloïs,” as François Villon referred to her in 1461 in “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballad of Dead Ladies”), may have already attended some of Abelard’s lectures when in 1117 Fulbert invited Abelard to live with him on the Île de la Cité in the rue des Chantres. In return, the thirty-eight-year-old Abelard would tutor the seventeen-year-old Héloïse.

Tall, thin, with thick brown hair, gray eyes, fine features, a gracious manner, and intelligence, she might have tempted a saint left alone in her company: The sequel was not surprising. As Abelard recorded:

More words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.

Finally, even Fulbert realized his mistake and evicted Abelard, but Héloïse was already pregnant. To protect her from her uncle’s anger Abelard took her to Brittany, where their son, Astrolabe or Astrolabius, was born. To reconcile themselves to Fulbert, Abelard offered to marry Héloïse, under the condition that the marriage remain secret, and Fulbert agreed.

Héloïse strongly opposed this step, recognizing it as the worst possible solution. If the purpose of the marriage was to lessen Fulbert’s shame, secrecy would not satisfy him. Any marriage would also remove Abelard’s prospects for advancement in the Church, and even his reputation as a philosopher would be diminished. She argued:

What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house?

Moreover, she did not regard marriage as necessary to bind her to Abelard, to whom she was linked by a love stronger than any church vows.

Whether because of his desire to redeem Héloïse’s honor, concern...

(The entire section is 3178 words.)