Abelard, Peter

views updated Jun 11 2018


ABELARD, PETER (10791142), logician and Christian theologian. Peter Abelard was born at Le Pallet, outside of Nantes (Brittany). He chose to pursue the study and teaching of logic and journeyed to hear the lectures of Roscelin of Compiègne at Loches (Anjou); he later went to Paris to attend classes with the renowned dialectician William of Champeaux. His celebrated controversy with William on the question of universals revealed the persuasiveness of Abelard's quick mind and penetrating insight. Abelard's own teaching career began in Melun and Corbeil to the south of Paris, but he soon returned to Paris, teaching at Nôtre-Dame and at Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, just across the Seine from the capital.

Abelard's interest in applying twelfth-century methods of dialectical inquiry to Christian doctrine led him to study theology at Laon (c. 1113) with Anselm of Laon, who was recognized for his lectures on patristic teaching and for his role in the formation of a standardized biblical commentary (Glossa ordinaria ). Abelard's return to Paris before he completed the course of studies was influenced by several factors. He was indeed disenchanted with Anselm's method, which, although it organized information in a systematic fashion, relied more on repeating past authority than on any personal critique. The work at Laon was a formidable accomplishment, but Peter wanted more. He was determined to bring a fresh approach to theology.

It was at this time that Abelard met Héloïse, the niece of Fulbert, a canon of Nôtre-Dame. Peter became her tutor, friend, and lover. Much of their early relationshipthe love affair, the birth of their son Astrolabe, a secret marriage followed by the punitive castration of Abelard ordered by Fulbertis recorded by Peter in The Story of My Misfortunes. After the tragedy and his loss of prestige as a teacher, Abelard insisted that Héloïse enter religious life at the convent of Argenteuil (c. 1119) while he made profession at the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis. Peter Abelard was officially affiliated with Saint-Denis for almost four years. During this time he studied the sources of the Christian tradition. The brilliant mind that had once captured the imagination of students of logic was now applied to sorting out a coherent presentation of doctrine from a nearly unintelligible accretion of teachings. The task was awesome. Abelard's Sic et non (Yes and No) faced the problem directly by arranging conflicting patristic opinions around key doctrinal issues. The work was timely and challenging. Students, armed with the exegetical principles enunciated in the prologue, were eager to resolve the 158 questions. Abelard's second theological work from this time was a discussion of the Trinity structured within dialectical analysis (Theologia "Summi boni" ) and was not favorably received. The text was in fact condemned at a public trial in Soissons (1121). His treatise was burned, and Peter was temporarily confined to the nearby Abbey of Saint-Medard. He returned to Saint-Denis but only briefly; in 1122, Abelard was released from the obligation of residency there.

Humiliated at the turn of events in his life, Peter sought solitude. When he was given land along the banks of the Ardusson at Quincy (Troyes), he built an oratory and dedicated it to the Paraclete. Within a short time, however, students came to his retreat. In his teaching, he began to modify his approach in his discussion of the Trinity, and he composed the first draft of his second major theological treatise, Christian Theology. Abelard then accepted election as abbot of Saint-Guildas, a monastery near Vannes (Brittany), and unsuccessfully attempted monastic reform (c. 1127).

Little is known of Abelard's public activities after this. But in 1129, Suger, then abbot of Saint-Denis, reclaimed the lands of Argenteuil from Héloïse's community. She turned to Peter for assistance, and he gave them the oratory he had built. When the foundation was confirmed by Innocent II and the bishop of Troyes (1131), Héloïse became the first prioress. As cofounder with Héloïse, Abelard was considerably involved in the formation of the ideals that would shape the community's life. Héloïse's critique of the Benedictine rule (letter 6 of the published correspondence of Héloïse and Abelard), for example, elicited two doctrinal letters from Abelard: On the Origin of Nuns and Rule of Life (letters 7 and 8). Abelard also replied to forty-two questions on problematic scriptural texts sent by Héloïse (Problemata Heloissae ) and commented extensively on the opening chapters of Genesis (Expositio in Hexaemeron ). He prepared a collection of sermons, prayers, a breviary, and 143 hymns as well. His recommendations about the study of biblical languages (letter 9) and his instruction on reading scripture gave Héloïse extraordinary directives concerning the relationship of study to understanding the scriptures.

This work with the Paraclete was, however, only one aspect of Abelard's achievement. From 1135 onward, he was engaged in the composition of his Ethics, in expounding Paul's Letter to the Romans, and in drafting a new study on the Trinity (Theologia "Scholarium" ). Several doctrinal letters and Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and with a Christian are also the work of these fruitful years. But the newness of Abelard's ideas and the rigor with which he upheld the primacy of dialectics for a true theology threatened many. William of Saint-Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux were among Peter's opponents, and through their efforts there was a second condemnation of Abelard by the Council of Sens (1140). Peter insisted that his teaching was misunderstood and intended to appeal his case with the pope. Ill health made a journey to Rome impossible, however, and Abelard retired to Cluny, where he was befriended by its abbot, Peter the Venerable. The final writings, Apology and Confession of Faith, reflect Abelard's sincerity and doctrinal orthodoxy. Abelard ultimately left Cluny for Saint-Marcel-sur-Saône, a smaller priory, where he died, probably in 1142.

Although Abelard's initial fame rested on his success as a teacher of logic, within a few decades his commentaries on logic (the Introductiones parvulum and the Logica ingredientibus ), as well as his own treatise, the Dialectica, were replaced by the metaphysics of Aristotle. In the theological arena, Abelard exercised unusual leadership as a teacher during the formative years in the developing theology of the schools. His students were numerous, and a few school works, such as the Sentences of Hermann (Epitome theologiae Christianae ) or the considerable exposition of Pauline writings (Commentaria Cantabrigiensis ), rely heavily on Abelard's teaching. Several well-known masters also turned to Abelard as a significant thinker. Perhaps the most important of these is Peter Lombard, whose Book of Sentences, modeled on Abelard's Sic et non, contains many of Abelard's opinions and became the primary text for training theologians during the next four hundred years. However, the most lasting influence Peter held was with the community of the Paraclete. Until its dissolution during the French Revolution (1792), the monastery held its own as the special foundation of Héloïse and Master Peter, preserving Abelardian manuscripts and conserving the finer points of his teachings.

The literary legacy of Abelard records the genius of a probing, mature, and experienced teacher. He expounded texts vigorously and forged seminal ideas for the development of Christian thought. He opposed Augustinian views on several counts, denying for example that the guilt of Adam was transmitted to humanity. Abelard created a more precise language to describe the interior character of sin and moral culpability and considered consent as the single factor that could render human behavior sinful. He also believed that the redemption theories that expressed the notion of a price or ransom imposed on God were unacceptable. Instead, Abelard held that Christ's redemptive work as the incarnate Word, in life as in death, was the supreme expression and fulfillment of God's creative love. Finally, Abelard's approach to theology was part of a new mode of thought that brought questions, debate, and systematization to the fore as the science of sacred doctrine. Abelard did this with bravado, drawing upon the best in these procedures, creating a few himself, and integrating both method and doctrine through the filter of his penetrating intelligence.


In the nineteenth century, scholarly research on the twelfth century as a locus for monastic reform and the rise of the schools fostered a renaissance in Abelardian studies. The nineteenth-century editions of Abelard's theological writings remain invaluable: volume 178 of the Patrologia Latina, edited by J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1885), and Petri Abaelardi opera, 2 vols., edited by Victor Cousin (Paris, 18491859). More recent critical editions and major studies of Abelard's works are listed below, in chronological order.

Texts and Studies

Buytaert, Eligius M., ed. Petri Abelardi opera theologica. 2 vols. In Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, vols. 11 and 12. Turnhout, 1969. Includes a comprehensive bibliography up to 1967.

Jolivet, Jean. Arts du langage et théologie chez Abélard. Études de philosophie mediévale, no. 57. Paris, 1969.

Luscombe, David E. The School of Peter Abelard. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, n.s. no. 14. Cambridge, 1969.

Luscombe, David E. Peter Abelard. The Historical Association, General Series, no. 95. London, 1979. Includes an excellent updated bibliography, a list of English translations of Abelard's works, a summary of the best scholarly articles, and a critique of the most significant studies on Abelard.

Peppermüller, Rolf. Abaelards Auslegung des Römerbriefes. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und der Theologie des Mittelalters, n.s. no. 10. Münster, 1972.

Weingart, Richard E. The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abailard. Oxford, 1970.

Essay Collections

Peter Abelard. Edited by Eligius M. Buytaert. Proceedings of the International Conference, Louvain, 1012 May 1971. Mediaevalia Lovanensia, series I, studia II. Louvain, 1974.

Pierre Abélard, Pierre le Vénérable: Les courants philosophiques, littéraires et artistiques en occident au milieu du douzième siècle. Abbaye de Cluny, 29 July 1972. Colloques internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, no. 546. Paris, 1975.

Petrus Abaelardus (10791142): Person, Werk und Wirkung. Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Trier, 1719 April 1979. Edited by Rudolph Thomas, David E. Luscombe, et al. Trier theologische Studien, no. 18. Trier, Germany, 1981.

Eileen F. Kearney (1987)

Abelard, Peter

views updated May 21 2018


Philosopher and theologian (Lat. Abaelardus, Abeilardus ); b. Pallet, Brittany, 1079; d. Châlons-sur-Saône, April 21, 1142. One of the greatest philosophers of the 12th century, this peripatetic from Pallet, known as Peripateticus palatinus and Doctor scholasticus, is renowned for his solution of the problem of universals. As a theologian, he outraged his contemporaries by his original use of dialectics. As a man, he is known for his celebrated love affair with hÉloÏse.

Life. Peter's father, Berengar, Lord of Pallet, planned a military career for him, but he chose learning instead. When he was about 15, he began the study of logic, probably under roscelin of compiÈgne. In his autobiographical Historia calamitatum, he says that he traveled to any town where a teacher of logic could be found. Finally arriving in Paris, he studied under william of champeaux, head of the cathedral school of Notre Dame. Prior to William's arrival, Paris had been considered intellectually inferior to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec and the cathedral schools of Laon and Chartres. Through William, Paris acquired great renown. While enrolled as a student, Abelard defeated William in public debate. On the strength of this victory, Abelard set up his own school in nearby Melun, and later in Corbeil. He was then only 25 years old. His youth and rashness in attacking men of established reputation in such a way that they were publicly disgraced earned him celebrity, devoted followers, and persistent enemies. After about two years

as a teacher in the region of Paris, he became ill and returned to his native Brittany. Returning to Paris in 1108, he studied rhetoric under the same man against whom he had previously jousted, William of Champeaux. Public disputations had become a prominent feature of school life; during one of them Abelard forced the master to modify his extreme realist position, according to which there is a separately existent reality corresponding to each of the universal terms in one's vocabulary.

When he was 34, Abelard began to study theology under anselm of laon. He found fault with Anselm's teaching methods, and to show that he could do better he gave a public lecture on the Book of Ezechiel after only one day's preparation. The novelty of his teaching consisted in the forthright raising of questions suggested by his dialectical studies; this was not the traditional method of communicating the patristic tradition with its heavy emphasis on questions that had affective implications. Once more Abelard earned the resentment of his teacher by arousing the interest of Anselm's students, thus showing that they preferred the work of a gifted amateur to Anselm's traditional mode of teaching.

Paris and Héloïse. When Abelard returned to Paris, he was allowed to teach both theology and dialectics, first at the school of Mont Sainte-Geneviève and then, in 1113, at the cathedral school of Notre Dame. Students flocked to him in such numbers that he acquired both wealth and honors. At this time he fell in love with Héloïse, the niece of Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame. This unwitting man invited Abelard to live in his house and, ironically, to take charge of the further education of his niece. When Héloïse became pregnant, Abelard had her secretly conveyed to his home in Brittany. The whimsical name Astrolabe was given to their son. Later, to mollify Fulbert, Abelard secretly married Héloïse. This was possible since he had not received major orders at the time. When the marriage became known publicly and when students began to sing love songs and lyrics reputed to have been written by Abelard for Héloïse, Abelard tried to safeguard his position by having Héloïse enter the convent of Saint-Argenteuil, where she had been brought up. Fulbert regarded this as an evasion of responsibility and in anger hired men who, with the connivance of Abelard's servant, entered his room at night and emasculated him.

Abelard's personal fame as a man centers not so much on his philosophical and theological work as it does upon this love affair with Héloïse, told in such detail and with such frankness in letters that are still extant. He is the only philosopher in the Middle Ages who left an autobiography and personal letters, in which historians find details that are very illuminating for the study of social and intellectual life in the 12th century. The information supplied in these is invaluable for destroying false stereo-types set up by 19th-century historians, such as Jules Michelet, about intellectual freedom in the Middle Ages.

St. Bernard's Denunciation. After his downfall, Abelard entered the monastery at Saint-Denis to become a Benedictine monk. Characteristically, he aroused opposition by offering proof that the monastery's patron was not identical with Dionysius the Areopagite. He resumed teaching in Paris until 1121, when the Council of Soissons condemned his teaching on the Blessed Trinity. After spending some time in forced residence in a monastic house, he set up a school in what became the town of Nogent-sûr-Seine. In 1125 he was elected abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Gildas in his native Brittany. Finding his life as abbot difficult and complicated because of the monks of Saint-Gildas, he was back teaching in Paris in 1136. His teaching was denounced to St. bernard of clairvaux by william of saint-thierry, who accused him of a rationalist approach that attempted to empty even doctrines such as the Trinity of all mystery. Bernard wrote to Pope Innocent II and to numerous bishops against Abelard and his teaching. Under the illusion that he would have the opportunity of publicly disputing with Bernard, Abelard appeared before the Council of Sens in 1141 only to find that his role was to listen silently while a sentence of condemnation was read to him. He appealed to Pope Innocent, oblivious of the fact that Bernard's letters had closed all doors to him. On his way to Rome, he was received at the monastery of Cluny by peter the venerable, who persuaded him to abandon the struggle, attempt reconciliation with Bernard, and accept a papal authorization to pass his remaining years under the protection of Cluny. He died at a Cluniac priory in 1142.

Writings. Abelard's more important extant works are those that treat of logic and theology. In addition, there are extant sermons, poems, and letters, one of which is an autobiography covering his life until about 1129.

Logic. His Introductiones parvulorum are short glosses on the logical treatises of Porphyry, Aristotle, and Boethius, probably representing the lessons he gave to beginners. Logica ingredientibus contained more elaborate glosses on Porphyry and on the Categories and De interpretatione of Aristotle. Dialectica is his most developed and complete work on logic; the beginning of this work, probably attacking the realist position, has not survived.

Theology. His Tractatus de fide Trinitatis is the surviving record of his theological lectures prior to the Council of Soissons (1121). This work is notable for its lack of reference to the Church Fathers and the substitution of personal and seemingly rationalistic attempts to explain the Blessed Trinity. The compilation Sic et non lists the opinions of the Fathers, often contradictory, on various theological topics raised in scholastic disputations. This is at the same time an answer to those who said that he was not concerned with the Fathers and a proof that some rational approach was needed to reconcile their differences. One version of this work seems to have been written about 1123, and another toward the end of his life in 1136. Theologia Christiana is a reworking of the Tractatus de fide Trinitatis with many citations from the Church Fathers and the Scripture. It seems to have been written in 1124. Books 1 and 2 of Introductio ad theologiam are a reworking of his earlier books on theology. Book 3 represents an advanced form of his thought and was probably written in 1136. His Ethics, or Scito teipsum, probably written in 1137, deals with moral theology. Dialogus inter philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum was written during the last year of his life and gives his final thought on the problem of reason and faith.

Influence. The importance of Abelard in the history of philosophy rests mainly on his proposed solution to the problem of universals. He stood midway between the ultrarealist position of the Platonic tradition and the nominalist views of Roscelin, saying that universals as such exist only in the mind but that they signify the nature that individual things share in common. His place in theology depends mainly on his contribution toward the scholastic method. Historically, he stands close to the origin of the tradition, exemplified by Peter Lombard, that used varying opinions of the Fathers as the starting point for theological synthesis. His speculative pursuit of questions in theology without reference to their affective connotations seems to have outraged William of Saint-Thierry. In a letter to Bernard, the latter accuses Abelard of doing in theology what he had learned to do in dialectics, of being "a censor of the faith, not a disciple; an improver of it, not an imitator." Viewed from the vantage point of the great syntheses of faith and reason established by 13th-century scholasticism, in which Abelardian methods had an important place, his work seems more defensible than it did to his contemporaries. As to the orthodoxy of Abelard's theological opinions there are, on the one hand, the condemnations of Soissons and Sens (the latter formally approved by Innocent II) and the firm, lasting hostility of Bernard. On the other hand, modern scholars such as Jean Cottiaux and J. Rozycki, after a careful study of the development of his doctrine on faith and reason and on the Trinity, have found it possible to give a much more benign interpretation. Two things are certain: (1) Abelard wished to reason in such a way as not to be separated from Christ, and (2) much that was condemned at Sens cannot be found, as such, in his writings. This does not mean that Bernard and the bishops were wrong in condemning what they thought his contemporaries would have drawn from his words. Extant MSS of some of Abelard's immediate disciples indicate that the sense of the errors condemned was the very sense defended by the school of Abelard.

Modern scholarship has shown the existence of a school of Abelard both in theology and in logic. Not all of his disciples, however, were like Adam, a canon of the Lateran, who taught the errors of his master concerning the Incarnation before 1135 and who, being attacked by gerhoh of reichersberg, preferred apostasy to retraction. Direct disciples, such as john of salisbury and peter of poitiers, were orthodox, while others, such as william of conches and gilbert de la porrÉe, were accused of heresy. Bernard, William of Saint-Thierry, and John of Salisbury attest to the vast divulgation of Abelard's writings and influence, even after the condemnation of 1141. This is confirmed by the discovery of numerous MSS of summae of various Sentences, theological treatises, and logical works, many of them anonymous, belonging to the school of Abelard. Even after he was long dead, Peter Abelard was attacked by Walter of Saint-Victor as one of France's evils in Contra quatuor labyrinthos Franciae. By that time, Abelard's dialectics had taken firm hold in early scholasticism.

See Also: dialectics in the middle ages, sentences and summae.

Bibliography: Works. Opera omnia, Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, v.178; Ouvrages inédits d'Abélard, ed. v. cousin (Paris 1836); Opera, ed. v. cousin et al., 2 v. (Paris 184959); "Peter Abelards Philosophische Schriften," ed. b. geyer, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters 21.14 (Münster 191933) 1633; Dialectica, ed. l. m. de rijk (Assen 1956). Studies. Gilson History of Christian Philosophy 153163. j. g. sikes, Peter Abailard (Cambridge, Eng. 1932). É. h. gilson, Héloise and Abelard, tr. l. k. shook (Chicago 1951). e. portaliÉ, a. vacant et al, ed. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190350) 1.1:3655. p. glorieux, a. vacant et al, ed. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190350) Tables généraees 1:57. e. vacandard, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 1:7191. g. parÉ et al., La Renaissance du XII e siècle: Les Écoles et l'enseignement (Paris 1933). r. e. weingart, The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abailard (London 1970). j. marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge 1997).

[s. r. smith]

Peter Abelard

views updated May 23 2018

Peter Abelard

Born c. 1079

Died 1142

French philosopher

P eter Abelard was a philosopher, meaning that his writings addressed the nature of values and reality. Like most European thinkers of his time, Abelard was particularly concerned with a better understanding of Christianity. This led him into investigations of ethics, or the philosophy of right and wrong. His belief that sin has more to do with a person's attitude than with their actions would hardly raise any eyebrows today, but in twelfth-century France, such ideas nearly got him killed. In a time and place when the authority of the Bible and the Catholic Church were absolute, Abelard seemed to be questioning both. Similarly, his explanations concerning the nature of ideas placed him at odds with many of the leading minds of the day.

But Abelard is not remembered merely as a thinker; his tragic but tender love affair with Héloïse, a student who became his wife and later simply his friend, is a compelling story in its own right. Today the two occupy a place among the ranks of the world's great lovers.

Fighting with ideas and not swords

Peter Abelard was born in Le Pallet (pah-LAY), a village in the region of Brittany, a peninsula in the northwest part of France. His father, Berengar, was a lord and knight, and his parents expected him to follow in these professions, but from an early age he showed a greater interest in fighting with ideas than in fighting with swords.

In medieval Europe, there was only one place for an intellectual, a person whose profession or lifestyle centers around study and ideas: the church. This meant that he would have to pursue a career in the priesthood, which in turn meant that he could never marry—a fact that would later have a great effect on his life.

At the age of fifteen, Abelard left his parents, his three brothers, and his sister, to study under Roscelin de Compiègne (rawz-LAn duh KAHn-pyan). A priest and philosopher, Roscelin had recently been forced to change his teachings about the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost who make up the three parts of the Christian God) because his claim that they were actually three separate gods went against established beliefs of the church. Like Roscelin, Abelard would later get into a great deal of trouble with his ideas.

"The unconquerable rhinoceros"

In 1100, Abelard went to the French capital of Paris, where he began studying under Guillaume (gee-YOHM), or William, of Champeaux (sham-POH). William was a high official at the Cathedral of Notre Dame (NOH-truh DAHM), the greatest church in France, and therefore a powerful man. Perhaps if young Abelard had been as wise as he was smart, he would not have humiliated William as he did in a public debate concerning the nature of ideas.

Abelard's victory over William won him a number of admirers among his classmates, who dubbed him Rhinoceros indomitus, or "the unconquerable rhinoceros." But it made a lifelong enemy of William, and by 1102, Abelard had left Notre Dame to establish a school of his own outside the capital. Meanwhile William, no doubt because of his recent shaming by Abelard, left Notre Dame for another appointment as well. Abelard suffered a brief illness and returned to Brittany, but in 1108 was invited to take William's old job at Notre Dame. This so infuriated William that he returned to Paris and forced Abelard out, whereupon the young scholar began teaching at another school. Most of the students at Notre Dame left the cathedral to study under Abelard, their new hero.

Anselm of Laon

After another brief period at home, in 1113 Abelard went to study with Anselm of Laon (LAH-own; died 1117). Like William before him, Anselm—not to be confused with Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1034–1109), a philosopher regarded by many historians as Abelard's equal—was a highly respected teacher; and as with William, Abelard made a fool of him.

Because Abelard skipped many of Anselm's classes, some of his classmates challenged his lack of respect. Abelard

Li Po

Like Abelard, the Chinese poet Li Po (BOH; 701–762) was a brash, highly talented figure whose recklessness often got him into trouble. Because his ancestors had been exiled to the northern part of China, they had intermarried with the Mongols, a hardy tribal people of that region. As a result, Li Po was taller than most Chinese. He also had different ideas about the world, having been exposed primarily to Taoist (DOW-ist) rather than Confucian teachings. Confucianism, which dominated Chinese thinking, taught submission to people in authority, whereas Taoism urged followers to seek meaning by removing themselves from society.

From his youth, Li Po seemed wild and uncontrollable, and as a young man he associated with ruffians who were fond of sword-fighting. Though he married and had children, he spent much of the time wandering the countryside by himself, and he began writing what many scholars consider some of the finest work composed by a Chinese poet. He also took to excessive drinking; he believed that when he was drunk he had a higher understanding of reality.

At one point Li Po was befriended by the emperor Hsüan Tsung (shwee-AHND-zoong; ruled 712–56), who so admired his work that he once served Li Po food with his own hands—an almost unthinkable act of humility for a Chinese ruler. One of Li Po's most famous poems was "A Song of Pure Happiness," which he wrote in celebration of the emperor's beautiful concubine, Yang Kuei-fei (see box in Irene of Athens entry).

At a later point, however, Li offended a member of the imperial court—perhaps even the emperor himself—and he again wandered the country. During this time, he associated with Tu Fu (doo-FOO; 712–770), a poet whom many critics consider Li Po's equal. Tu Fu had an entirely different approach to life than Li Po, and was a calming influence on him.

During the widespread rebellion led by Yang Kuei-fei's lover, An Lu-shan, which nearly toppled the government of the T'ang dynasty, Li Po was imprisoned. He only gained his release through the help of a soldier he had befriended many years before. He returned to his wife and lived out his days quietly. According to folklore, Li Po died of drowning: supposedly he was drunk in his boat on a beautiful evening, and leaned too far over the side to admire his reflection in the moonlit water.

announced that he could do a better job than his teacher, and to prove it he prepared a lecture of his own. The subject was Ezekiel, one of the most challenging books of the Bible, and Abelard spent a single day in preparation. The next day, he spoke so brilliantly that most of Anselm's students deserted him in favor of Abelard.

Thus Abelard gained a new enemy, and Anselm saw to it that the upstart was forbidden from teaching anywhere in the region. By then, however, William's old job at Notre Dame was vacant once again, and Abelard took it. He could not have suspected that his great pride was about to lead him into misfortune.

Abelard and Héloïse

A handsome man with deep brown eyes, Abelard was a commanding presence. In his style of teaching, he rejected the old method of simply reading a text along with all the established commentaries on it; instead, he favored an active approach, introducing an idea and then grappling with it verbally through careful analysis. This made him an exciting lecturer, and won him countless admirers.

Among these was a high official at Notre Dame named Fulbert (fool-BEHR), who in 1117 invited Abelard to come live with him and tutor his niece Héloïse (EL-oh-eez; c. 1100–1164). Abelard was thirty-eight and Héloïse seventeen—tall, with fine features, a gracious manner, and great intelligence. The outcome of their long hours together should not have come as a surprise to anyone: as Abelard himself recalled, "More words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching."


By the time Fulbert realized what was going on and ordered Abelard to leave his home, Héloïse was pregnant. Abelard took her with him to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son they named Astrolabe. (They placed the boy in the care of Abelard's sister Denise.) Abelard proposed marriage, and Fulbert was agreeable—not least because he would have one of the most admired men in France for an adoptive sonin-law. Surprisingly, it was Héloïse who objected, on the grounds that marriage would ruin Abelard's chances for advancement in the church, and that family responsibilities would keep him from his work. Furthermore, she maintained that their love was stronger than any legal vows.

Nevertheless, they went ahead with the marriage, which they kept secret to protect Abelard's reputation. Soon, however, Fulbert began bragging about the fact that Abelard was his relative, and when the two publicly denied that they were married, Fulbert became abusive toward his niece. Abelard arranged for Héloïse to escape to a convent, or nunnery, in Argenteuil (ar-zhahn-TWEE).

Fearing that Abelard intended to force Héloïse to become a nun, thereby breaking off the marriage, Fulbert decided to take revenge. He bribed Abelard's servant to leave his master's door unlocked, and one night Fulbert, accompanied by a few hoodlums, broke into Abelard's bedroom and castrated him.

Despite the many enemies he had made, Abelard had many friends as well, and the public was outraged when they learned what had happened. Abelard's servant and one of Fulbert's henchmen were captured, blinded, and castrated; as for Fulbert, he lost his position and was forced to leave the city.

New enemies

Feeling that his misfortune was a punishment from God, Abelard became a monk in 1119, and told Héloïse to become a nun. But soon he was back to his rebellious self, raising hackles among the monks at the monastery of Saint-Denis by criticizing their methods. Therefore when he requested permission to return to his work as a teacher, the monks were happy to see him go.

In 1120, Abelard wrote a book about the nature of the Trinity that so infuriated some of Anselm's disciples that they organized a meeting at Soissons (swah-SAWn) in 1121 and condemned him on religious grounds. Abelard returned to the monastery, but again made enemies, and with the help of a powerful friend established a monastery of his own dedicated to the Paraclete, or Holy Ghost. This caused problems too, since monasteries were supposed to be dedicated to the entire Trinity or to Christ.

In 1123, Abelard published one of his most important works, Sic et Non ("For and Against"), which presented some 160 seemingly illogical statements by church leaders and argued that only through reasoning could one understand them. It was bad enough to place such an emphasis on reason as opposed to religious faith, but also in 1123, his Ethics put forth the idea that sin is a matter of one's intentions rather than one's actions; in other words, a sin can only be a sin if one knowingly commits it. Students continued to flock to Abelard, but when he realized he had gained a truly powerful enemy in Bernard of Clairvaux (see entry), he took a job in Brittany—far from Paris.

Abelard's latter years

In 1128, Héloïse established a convent in the buildings formerly occupied by Abelard's monastery. Meanwhile Abelard's enemies in Brittany tried several times to have him killed, so he escaped and in 1132 wrote a volume translated as The Story of My Misfortunes. Héloïse obtained a copy and wrote him a letter in which she made it clear that she still loved him. Abelard responded: "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." She understood that he no longer wanted to speak of love, but they continued to correspond on questions of faith.

By 1136, Abelard was back in Paris, preparing to debate Bernard. But Bernard was not about to engage in an argument he knew he would lose, and on June 3, 1140, he charged Abelard with heresy (HAIR-uh-see)—that is, holding ideas that went against established church beliefs. Abelard appealed to Pope Innocent II (ruled 1130–43), but he learned that the pope supported Bernard, so he agreed to make peace. In private, however, he wrote a work the English title of which is Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian. In it he still maintained that reason, as opposed to blind faith, was a necessary part of religious belief.

By this time, Abelard was sixty-three and in ailing health. He died on April 21, 1142, and in accordance with his wishes, was buried at the Paraclete. When Héloïse died twenty-two years later, she was laid to rest beside him. Later their bodies were moved to Père-Lachaise (PAYR luh-SHEZ), a famous cemetery in Paris, where their headstone reads, "ABELARD: HÉLOÏSE—For Ever One."

For More Information


Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Skuryznski, Gloria. Spider's Voice (fiction). New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999.

Web Sites

"Abelard and Heloise Links." [Online] Available http://maple.lemoyne.edu/~kagan/abld.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Li Po." [Online] Available http://www.dpo.uab.edu/~yangzw/libai1.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Peter Abelard." [Online] Available http://www.mala.bc.ca/~mcneil/abelard.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Peter Abelard, Abbot, Theologian, Philosopher." [Online] Available http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/142.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Peter Abelard

views updated Jun 08 2018

Peter Abelard

The French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a leading thinker of the Middle Ages. His reputation outside academic circles is based upon his more human qualities as reflected in his love affair with Heloise.

In comparison with the literary and intellectual activity of the 9th century (the so-called Carolingian Renaissance), the period from 900 to 1050 contained few figures of cultural importance. Toward the end of the 11th century, however, the monastic and cathedral schools of northern France began to produce a series of gifted thinkers. This reawakening was part of the social, economic, and cultural transformation of Europe during the 12th century. The intellectual revival in particular was significant in laying the foundations for the development of scholastic philosophy and theology. The two most important figures in the early stages of this development were Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard.

Although writing before most of the works of Aristotle had been recovered, Abelard made an important contribution to philosophy and logic by his solution to the problem of universals. His theological writings also had great influence, especially his work on Christian ethics and his contribution to the development of the scholastic method.

Abelard was born at Le Pallet in Brittany near Nantes in 1079. His father, Berengar, was lord of Pallet. Since Abelard was the eldest son, it was expected that he would be knighted and succeed his father. He sought, however, an ecclesiastical career as a teacher in one of the cathedral schools that then flourished in northern France. Leaving home at the age of 15, he studied logic or dialectic under Roscelin of Compi'ne. Several years later, having been at various schools, he went to Paris to study under William of Champeaux, head of the cathedral school and archdeacon of Notre Dame. Abelard must have seemed a difficult student, for he questioned the method and conclusions of his master and raised points in class that embarrassed William in front of his students. According to Abelard, it was in such public debate that he later forced William to rethink his position on the question of universals.

Early Career

In 1102 Abelard set up his own school at Melun. He quickly attracted students and, on the basis of his growing reputation, shifted his lectures to Corbeil, closer to Paris. About 1106 poor health forced Abelard to visit his home in Brittany. He returned to Paris in 1107 and taught at the cathedral school. But under pressure from William, Abelard moved his lectures to Melun and later to the church of Ste-Genevi'e, located on a hill on the southern edge of Paris. There he taught until the entrance of his parents into monastic life about 1111 forced him to return to Brittany to help reorganize family affairs.

Although many of Abelard's works in logic were written later in his life, his thinking on this subject seems to have been formed in the early period of study and teaching. Eventually he was to produce two sets of glosses on the parts of Aristotle's logic that were then known, Categories and De interpretatione. He also glossed the logical treaties of Porphyry and Boethius. Much of this material was eventually drawn together in an extensive work entitled Dialectica.

The problem of universals was the most pressing philosophical question in Abelard's day. This problem concerned the degree of reality possessed by a universal concept, such as "man" or "tree." Some thinkers approached the problem with Platonic presuppositions and tended to give a high degree of reality to the universal concept. According to this ultrarealist position, the universal exists in reality apart from the individuals embraced by that category. This separately existing universal is the archetype and cause of the individual things that reflect it. On the other hand, the ultranominalist position maintained that the universal was only a concept in the mind, a term that conveniently related individual things which, apart from such an arbitrary classification, would have little or nothing in common.

Abelard took a different approach to this problem. Beginning with the question of how men come to know a universal, he maintained that they know such only through their experience with individual things that make up a class. According to Abelard, the quality that individual things in a class have in common is a universal, but such a universal never exists apart from the individual thing.

Affair with Heloise

The decision of his parents to enter the religious life or the development of his own interests led Abelard upon his return to Paris to seek instruction in theology. Journeying to the cathedral school at Laon, northeast of Paris, Abelard studied under the most renowned master of this subject, the elderly Anselm of Laon. As had happened so often in the past, Abelard found the teaching shallow and boring, and in response to the urging of his fellow students he lectured on the scriptural book of Ezekiel. The resulting breach between Abelard and Anselm precipitated Abelard's expulsion from Laon, and in 1113 he returned to the cathedral school in Paris, where he taught theology for a number of years in relative peace.

By mutual agreement of Abelard and Fulbert, a canon at the Cathedral in Paris, Abelard became a resident in Fulbert's house and tutor of his young, cultured, and beautiful niece Heloise. Abelard and Heloise fell in love, and after some months Fulbert discovered their affair and forced Abelard to leave his house. At this time Abelard was about 40 years old and Heloise about 18.

Heloise, however, soon found that she was pregnant, and with Abelard's cooperation she left Paris in order to have the child in the more secluded and secure surroundings of Le Pallet, where Abelard's relatives lived. She gave birth to a son, Astralabe, and soon afterward at the request of Fulbert and over her objections Heloise and Abelard were married in Paris. The marriage initially was to have remained a secret in order to protect Abelard's reputation as a committed philosopher and to leave the way open for his advancement in a Church career. Fulbert, however, was concerned about his own reputation and that of his niece, and he openly acknowledged Abelard as his nephew-in-law.

The denial of the marriage by Abelard and Heloise angered Fulbert, and Abelard in order to protect her sent her to the convent at Argenteuil. Fulbert, thinking that Abelard was seeking to annul the marriage by forcing Heloise into the religious life, hired men to seize Abelard while he slept and emasculate him. This crime resulted in the disgrace of Fulbert and the death of those who had attacked Abelard. More importantly, it brought a temporary end to Abelard's teaching career, and both he and Heloise adopted the monastic life, she at Argenteuil and he at St-Denis, the famous Benedictine monastery north of Paris.

Monastic Years, 1118-1136

Abelard's life at St-Denis was difficult not only because of the public disgrace occasioned by his emasculation and the exposure of his affair with Heloise, but also because separation from the cathedral schools and subjection to the authority of an abbot were new and unpleasant experiences for him. Abelard's reputation attracted students, and his abbot permitted him to set up a school in a daughter priory separate from the monastery.

The resumption of teaching by Abelard brought criticism from his rivals, especially Alberic and Lotulf of Rheims, who maintained that a monk should not teach philosophy and that Abelard's training in theology was insufficient. They specifically attacked a work on the Trinity that Abelard had written for his students at St-Denis. Alberic in particular was instrumental in calling a council at Soissons in 1121 which condemned Abelard's work and placed him under "house arrest," first at St-Médard and then at St-Denis. Additional friction with his fellow monks forced Abelard to flee to a priory of St-Denis in Provins, located in the territory of the Count of Chartres, who was friendly toward him.

In spite of these reversals, Abelard still found time to write for his students. His most famous work, Sic et non, seems to have been written in this period. It was intended to provide source materials for students to debate theological questions. Conflicting quotations from earlier Christian authorities were placed side by side, and the introduction indicated the procedures the student should follow in arriving at a solution to the problems. The work did not attack traditional authorities, but it suggested that reliance on authority should be combined with a critical examination of the theological issues involved in each problem as well as an examination of the intention and merits of the authorities quoted.

In 1122 the abbot of St-Denis allowed Abelard to found a primitive hermitage on a piece of land between Provins and Troyes. There he built a school and a church, which he dedicated to the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. This period of quiet teaching away from the centers of civilization was interrupted in 1125 by opposition from representatives of a new type of piety, probably Norbert of Prémontré and Bernard of Clairvaux. Seeking the safety of his homeland, Abelard returned to Brittany to accept the abbacy of the unruly monastery of St-Gildas, on the coast near Vannes. For 10 years Abelard struggled to bring order to the monastery at the risk of his life, and he was able to befriend Heloise and her fellow nuns, expelled from Argenteuil by the abbot of St-Denis, by deeding to them the hermitage of the Paraclete.

Return to Teaching

In 1136 Abelard returned to Paris to teach at the church of Ste-Genevi'e. For the next 4 years he continued to attract students as well as opposition from Bernard and others. During this period Abelard wrote a work on ethics which took as its title the Socratic admonition, "Know thyself." In this work Abelard stressed the importance of intention in evaluating the moral or immoral character of an action.

The opposition of Bernard was instrumental in provoking a second trial of Abelard's orthodoxy. A council was convened at Sens in 1140, which resulted in the second condemnation of Abelard. Convinced of his innocence, Abelard decided to take his case before the Pope. He began his journey to Italy, but illness forced him to terminate his journey in Burgundy at the Cluniac priory of St-Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saône under the protection of his former pupil Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. There he died on April 21, 1142.

Further Reading

Abelard's autobiography is available in an excellent translation by J.T. Muckle, The Story of Abelard's Adversities (1964); written in a clever and convincing style, it presents only Abelard's side of events and issues. A scholarly study based on the life of Abelard and his relationship with Heloise is étienne Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (1938; trans. 1951). The delightful historical novel of the English medievalist Helen Waddell, Peter Abelard (1933), provides insight into the period. See also Cedric Whitman, Abelard (1965). The best introduction to the thought of Abelard remains J.G. Sikes, Peter Abailard (1932). The lengthy introduction to the translation of one of Abelard's most important works, Christian Theology, edited by J. Ramsay McCallum (1948), is informative. The influence of Abelard's teaching is covered by D.E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard (1969).

Additional Sources

Ericson, Donald E., Abelard and Heloise: their lives, their love, their letters, New York, N.Y.: Bennett-Edwards, 1990.

Luscombe, D. E. (David Edward), Peter Abelard, London: Historical Association, 1979.

Marenbon, John., The philosophy of Peter Abelard, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. □

Peter Abelard

views updated Jun 11 2018

Peter Abelard

Philosopher and theologian


Abelard and the Rise of the Schools. Peter Abelard, the most skilled logician of his day, was a major figure in the twelfth-century rise of Scholasticism in Paris. His chief influence lay in his work on the subject of universals and his contributions toward defining the Scholastic methodology, which consisted in the systematic application of reason to questions of philosophy and theology. Possessed of an ambitious and even “entrepreneurial” spirit, Abelard lived variously in Melun, Corbeil, and Paris, traveling wherever he thought he could best further his career as a teacher. His lectures were always well attended, and among his later students were Arnold of Brescia and John of Salisbury. Abelard was an important forerunner of the thirteenth-century university schoolmen, though personal scandal and clerical opposition were to mar his own career.

Early Career. A native of Le Palais, Brittany and the first-born son of a knight, Abelard moved to Paris to study philosophy. He quickly established a reputation as a master of dialectic. Indeed, Paul Vignaux refers to Abelard as “The Knight of Dialectics,” in that he gave up his birthright as a knight of the sword to become instead a “Knight of the Schools.” In Paris he studied first under William of Champeaux at the cloister school of Notre Dame. Before long he felt dissatisfied with his teacher and began to debate him publicly. A similar situation arose when he went to study theology with Anselm of Laon. Finding Anselm’s method of scriptural exegesis insufficiently rigorous, Abelard openly challenged him and began to offer lectures of his own. In this way he quickly established himself as a teacher, but in proportion to his academic success he met with envy. As a kind of Socratic figure, he aroused the resentment of fellow teachers, many of whom did not hesitate to conspire against him.

Abelard and Heloise. His career was also threatened for personal reasons. According to a commonly held medieval ideal, the philosopher was supposed to be an ascetic, completely detached from worldly pursuits. Abelard, however, became involved in a love affair with Heloise, a private student of his who was at the time living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. The affair was not only a scandal on account of Abelard’s refusing the normal constraints of the scholarly life, but also because it marked a betrayal of his agreement with Fulbert. The resulting castration of Abelard by Fulbert’s servants and the marriage and exile of Abelard and Heloise have inspired many literary treatments of the couple’s ill-fated love. Heloise concluded her life as an abbess and Abelard as a humbled monk and theologian, though the affair did not bring an end to Abelard’s days as a teacher.

Charges of Heresy. His academic career upset, Abelard had sought refuge at the Abbey of St. Denis. After a quarrel with the brothers there, he went in exile to Nogent-sur-Seine and started a school known as Le Paraclet (The Comforter). Later he served as abbot of St. Gildas in Brittany, but he found the behavior of the monks to be unruly and ill suited to study. Abelard returned to Paris and lectured at St. Genevieve, during which time he became involved in intense theological debate with Bernard of Clairvaux and other major clerics. Several of his writings, including Sic et Non (Yes and No, circa 1117–1128) and Theologia Christiana (Christian Theology, circa 1134–1138) led to a confrontation with conservative factions who feared what they perceived to be Abelard’s overly rational approach to theology. Abelard believed the issues could be settled by means of public debate, of which he was a master. Bernard of Clairvaux had other ideas about the matter: he sought by secret political means to have the full force of ecclesiastical condemnation used against Abelard. When Abelard arrived at Sens for the “debate” on 3 June 1140, he discovered that Bernard had already prejudiced the ecclesiastical authorities against him. Rather than accept their judgment, Abelard departed and made his way to Rome to plead his case. He went to the Monastery of Cluny on the invitation of the abbot, Peter the Venerable, and there he composed Apologia contra Bernardum (Defense against Bernard). Bernard, however, was able through his connections to secure a papal condemnation of Abelard as a heretic. Abelard’s sentence would have meant his excommunication, confinement to a monastery, and the destruction of his books, had it not been for the diplomacy of Peter the Venerable, who managed to reconcile Abelard and Bernard. Abelard was allowed to reside at Cluny, and the ban of excommunication was lifted. He moved to another Clu-niac house at St. Marcel-sur-Saone, where he died peacefully on 21 April 1142.

Logical and Philosophical Works. Abelard’s writings reflect above all his mastery of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation, Porphyry’s Isagoge, and Boethius’s De differentiis topicis, Abelard wrote tracts on logic in Introductiones Parvulorum (The Lesser Glosses on Logic, believed to have been written circa 1105) and Logica Ingredientibus (The Greater Glosses on Logic, circa 1112–1130). He also wrote Dialectica (Dialectic, circa 1130–1140), a treatise dealing with propositions, syllogisms, and logical consequences. Perhaps the most influential of all Abelard’s logical works was his Sic et Non, in which a series of questions are posed, together with conflicting answers from patristic authorities. Though Abelard contented himself with merely collating the relevant passages from the Church Fathers, in his preface he set forth guidelines for comparison, logical scrutiny, and synthesis. The objective and rigorously dialectical methodology modeled in this work became a hallmark of Scholasticism.

Ethical and Theological Works. It would be a mistake to see Abelard as only a logician. His work in ethics, the Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself, circa 1138–1142) is an important contribution to the development of moral philosophy. Abelard placed primary emphasis on the role of intention in human deliberative moral action. In particular, he gave a nuanced account of the role of intention in moral decisions. Later in life Abelard applied his dialectical skills to theology. Here he met with great opposition from traditional theologians, who accused him of substituting reason for faith. Some in power viewed him as such a threat to the Christian faith that he was forced to burn one of his earliest works, a treatise on the trinity titled Theologia Summi Boni (Theology of the Highest Good, circa 1118–1120). His later theological works include Commentary on Romans (circa 1125–1131) and his Theologia Christiana. Peter Abelard, one could claim, helped lay the foundation for the world of university theology as distinct from that of monastic lectio divina (divine reading of scripture). His aim was not simply to meditate at length on the text of scripture, but to examine the text rationally in terms of its grammatical, logical, and rhetorical possibilities. Argumentum, or rational argument in the service of faith, had replaced non-argumentative meditative thought. Henceforth, a person’s public ability was measured by the dialectical skill of the debater and not by appeals to the authority of a learned person or a book.

Other Works. Abelard’s literary output was not confined to scholarly works. He also wrote Latin and vernacular poetry, including many religious hymns. Perhaps his best-known nonphilosophical work is his correspondence with Heloise. His elegant use of the epistolary form helped to establish the letter as a significant mode of philosophical and theological expression. Abelard also made use of the letter as a frame for his Historia Calamitatum (circa 1132–1133), an autobiographical account of his life and troubles. Including biographical detail rare for a figure of the Middle Ages, the work provides a frank description of his career as a gifted but highly controversial scholar.


M. T. Chnchy, Abelard (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

John Marenbon, Early Medieval Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1983).

Paul Vignaux, Philosophy in the Middle Ages: An Introduction (New York: well, 1997).

Abelard, Peter

views updated May 21 2018

Abelard, Peter (1079–1142). Christian philosopher and theologian. Born at Pallet, near Nantes, he was one of the most brilliant and controversial theologians of his day. His academic career was cut short after his love-affair with Héloïse in Paris, where he was a popular lecturer. He challenged current philosophical orthodoxy, preparing the way for nominalism, and was condemned for his teaching on the Trinity. His doctrine of the atonement, emphasizing the love of Christ, manifest in his life and passion, which calls forth a human response of love, has had a continuing influence: His works include Christian Theology, Ethics, and his letters to Héloïse.