Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3178
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.
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.
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 over Fulbert’s possible vengeance, or fear that Héloïse might eventually marry another, Abelard rejected her sage advice, though to keep the marriage secret they lived apart. As Héloïse had predicted, Fulbert soon was boasting of his alliance with France’s leading philosopher, and when Abelard and Héloïse denied having wed, Fulbert began to abuse his niece. Abelard thereupon removed her to the convent at Argenteuil, where she would be safe from Fulbert but close enough for him to visit.
Fulbert was now convinced that Abelard intended to force Héloïse to become a nun and thereby dissolve his marriage, leaving him free for ecclesiastical advancement. The enraged canon devised a revenge that would at once block such promotion and fittingly punish Abelard’s lechery. Bribing Abelard’s servant to leave the door unlocked, Fulbert, accompanied by some ruffians, burst into Abelard’s bedroom one night and castrated him.
Paris rallied to Abelard’s support. Fulbert was stripped of his canonry and expelled from the city. The two culprits who were apprehended—one of them Abelard’s feckless servant—were blinded and castrated. Seeing his suffering as divine retribution, Abelard gave up his post at Notre-Dame and retired to the monastery of Saint-Denis, where he became a monk (c. 1119). He also ordered Héloïse to assume the veil, though she had no religious vocation; indeed, he insisted that she take her vows first. Was this another sign that he feared she might marry another? If so, he little understood her deep love for him.
At Saint-Denis, Abelard lost little time in making new enemies by pointing out that the monks were not adhering to the Benedictine rule. Therefore, when Abelard asked permission to resume teaching, the abbot gladly allowed him to establish a school at the priory, removed from the monastery. Students again surrounded him, and for them, he prepared Tractatus de unitate et trinitate divina (c. 1120), a work he would expand and revise several times over the next sixteen years.
While the monks of Saint-Denis were delighted with Abelard’s absence, others were not pleased with his teaching. Among the disciples of Anselm who still resented Abelard’s behavior at Laon were Alberic of Rheims and Lotulph of Novara. They maintained that a monk should not teach philosophy, that Abelard lacked the training to teach theology, and that his book, which sought to use logic to demonstrate the existence and nature of the Trinity, was heretical. They organized a council at Soissons in 1121 to try the book, and they secured Abelard’s condemnation. Even the presiding papal legate regarded the decision as unjust and immediately allowed Abelard to return to Saint-Denis.
At the monastery, Abelard embroiled himself in further controversy by challenging the identity of the monks’ supposed patron saint. So inflamed were passions against him that he fled to Provins. The friendly Count Theobald arranged for him to establish a hermitage near Troyes, and Abelard dedicated it to the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. Again the orthodox objected; traditionally, hermitages were dedicated to the entire Trinity or to Christ, never to the Paraclete.
Students cared nothing about the name, though. Leaving the comforts of Paris they came in the thousands to till the fields and build accommodations in order to listen again to the words of Abelard, who rewarded them with stimulating lectures and treatises. Sic et Non (c. 1123) responded to criticism that authority did not need the support of logic to establish faith. Abelard assembled some 160 seemingly contradictory statements by the church fathers and argued that only through reason could one reconcile these. Ethica sur liber dictus Scito te ipsum (c. 1123; Ethics, 1935) postulated that sin derives from intention, not action. Performing a good deed for evil purposes is not meritorious; committing wrong unknowingly is not sinful.
These heterodox views disturbed Bernard of Clairvaux and Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg. In his treatise on baptism (1125), Bernard rejected Abelard’s view on sin, and Abelard was so uneasy about this opposition that around 1125 he accepted the post of abbot at the monastery of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (in Brittany), a place so remote that even his devoted students did not follow him there.
The buildings at the Paraclete were abandoned but soon found another use. The abbot of Saint-Denis claimed the convent of Argenteuil and expelled the nuns. Around 1128, Abelard offered his former hermitage to a group under Héloïse, and they accepted. Soon the convent was so successful that other nunneries placed themselves under Héloïse’s jurisdiction, and daughter institutions had to be established to house all the members.
Abelard did not fare as well in Brittany. As at Saint-Denis, his efforts to reform the dissolute monks met with hostility. Twice they tried to poison him; when he learned of a plot to cut his throat, he fled.
Hiding and in despair, Abelard composed Historia calamitatum (c. 1132; The Story of My Misfortunes, 1922). A copy reaching Héloïse, she promptly wrote to Abelard the first of a brief but poignant series of love letters that reveal how truly she meant her statement in 1118 that she would prefer to be Abelard’s mistress than Caesar Augustus’ wife.
Though her love had not abated, Abelard’s had. “If . . . you have need of my instruction and writings in matters pertaining to God, write to me what you want, so that I may answer as God permits me,” he replied to her impassioned lines, urging her to forget their former life together. Ever obedient, preferring Abelard’s religious treatises to silence, she requested and received sermons, psalms, biblical exegeses, a rule more suitable for convents than that devised by Benedict for monasteries. As she had inspired Abelard to compose love poetry during their short time together, so now she served as a religious muse.
Abelard’s movements in the early 1130’s are unclear, but by 1136 he was again teaching in Paris. This return to prominence aroused his enemies, chief among them Bernard of Clairvaux, who saw in Abelard’s reliance on reason a challenge to faith. Whether Bernard’s extensive letter-writing campaign against Abelard would have succeeded is unclear, but in 1140 Abelard’s students challenged Bernard to debate their master at an assembly at Sens. Bernard at first refused, knowing that he was no match for the Rhinoceros indomitus. Bernard’s supporters insisted that he attend, however, and he finally agreed.
Yet he had no intention of engaging Abelard in any intellectual combat. On the day before the scheduled encounter, Bernard persuaded the gathered religious leaders to condemn Abelard unheard; when Abelard entered the church of Saint-Étienne on June 3, 1140, Bernard began reading out a list of seventeen charges of heresy. Realizing that he was facing a trial, not a debate, Abelard immediately stopped the proceedings by appealing to Rome for judgment. He then left the church, intending to plead his case before the pope.
Bernard’s letters moved faster than the aging Abelard, however, and Pope Innocent II owed his tiara to Bernard. At the abbey of Cluny, Abelard learned that Rome had confirmed Bernard’s verdict, and the local abbot, Peter the Venerable, now urged Abelard to make peace with his old antagonist. Although Abelard consented, the rhinoceros remained unconquered. In Dialogus inter philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum (1141-1142; Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, 1979), he still maintained that unless theologians could use reason, they could not defend their faith.
Abelard composed this treatise at the monastery of Saint-Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Sâone, in Burgundy, where he had gone for his health, and there he died on April 21, 1142. He had asked to be buried at the Paraclete, and so he was. Twenty-two years later, Héloïse was laid to rest beside him. According to a chronicler, as her body was lowered into the grave, Abelard reached up to embrace his wife. Over the centuries their bodies were moved several times, but they now lie in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris beneath the inscription, “ABELARD: HELOISE—For Ever One.”
In his epitaph for Abelard, Peter the Venerable called his friend “the Socrates of the Gauls, the great Plato of the West, our Aristotle.” Yet Abelard was neither a secular philosopher nor a religious skeptic. As he wrote in his Apologia (c. 1141), “I do not wish to be a philosopher by dissociating myself from Paul; I do not wish to be an Aristotle by separating myself from Christ, since there is no other name under heaven by which I can be saved.”
While Bernard was wrong to view Abelard as a heretic, he was right to see Abelard as a threat to the old order. Abelard’s popularity as a teacher helped create the university system, which spelled the end of the power of monastic schools. His fusion of logic and theology fostered a new scholasticism that was spread by his students, who included three future popes and the greatest classicist of the twelfth century, John of Salisbury. His manuscripts contributed to the era’s intellectual renaissance.
Abelard is best remembered, however, for his association with Héloïse; over the centuries writers have found in their story an inspiration for poems, plays, and novels. A strange new twist to that famous story was introduced in the 1980’s, when a computer-assisted stylistic analysis of the correspondence between Abelard and Héloïse suggested that all the letters, including those attributed to Héloïse, were in fact written by Abelard himself. Thus the possibility exists that Abelard was not only a philosopher but also, in a peculiar way, a gifted writer of fiction.
Abelard, Peter. Abelard and Heloise: The Story of His Misfortunes and the Personal Letters. Translated by Betty Radice. London: Folio Society, 1977. Abelard’s account of his life and his and Héloïse’s letters are available in many translations. These provide primary information about Abelard’s life from his birth until around 1132.
Grane, Leif. Peter Abelard: Philosophy and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Translated by Frederick Crowley and Christine Crowley. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970. An excellent survey of Abelard’s life set against the history, religion, and philosophy of the twelfth century. Chapter 5 neatly summarizes Abelard’s views on metaphysics and religion.
Lloyd, Roger Bradshaigh. The Stricken Lute: An Account of the Life of Peter Abelard. London: L. Dickson, 1932. A readable biography that touches lightly on Abelard’s philosophy. Stresses Abelard’s modernity.
Luscombe, David Edward. The School of Abelard: The Influence of Abelard’s Thought in the Early Scholastic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. According to the preface, “this book represents an historian’s attempt to discern the ways in which Abelard’s thought reached and influenced his contemporaries and successors.” Drawing on a variety of sources, especially Abelard’s manuscripts and the writings of his pupils, Luscombe concludes, “Abelard . . . was a major and continuing stimulus to debate and thought.” A twenty-eight-page bibliography of works by and about Abelard attests the truth of this assertion.
Sikes, Jeffrey Garrett. Peter Abelard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932. A scholarly and, despite its age, a most authoritative biography. Much attention is given to Abelard’s views on religious and philosophical matters.
Worthington, Marjorie. The Immortal Lovers: Heloise and Abelard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1960. A popular, well-written biography of the two lovers. Contains extensive quotations from The Story of My Misfortunes and the letters as well as novelistic re-creations of various episodes. Good on the twelfth century background.