Peter Abelard Analysis


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’ 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’ 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’, 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. This work provides primary information about Abelard’s life from his birth until about 1132.

Clanchy, M. T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. This historical work interprets Abelard’s life, thought, and historical circumstances in accessible ways.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. A leading historian of Western philosophy emphasizes Abelard’s contribution to controversies about metaphysics and the theory of knowledge.

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. The work contains a good summary of Abelard’s views on metaphysics and religion.

Luscombe, David Edward. The School of Abelard: The Influence of Abelard’s Thought in the Early Scholastic Period. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. This study shows how Abelard influenced Western philosophy. Includes an extensive bibliography of works by and about Abelard.

Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A good account of Abelard’s thought and his contributions to the history of philosophy.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Examines Abelard’s influence.

Rinser, Luise. Abelard’s Love. Translated by Jean M. Snook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Focuses on Abelard’s relation to Héloïse.

Starnes, Kathleen M. Peter Abelard, His Place in History. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. A helpful study that offers important insights about the development of Abelard’s thought and its significance in Western philosophy.

Worthington, Marjorie. The Immortal Lovers: Heloise and Abelard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. A popular, well-written biography of the two lovers. Good on twelfth century background.