Monday, September 08, 2008
Who's Who: Peter Abelard (1079-1142)
Medieval French philosopher, teacher, and theologian
Born in Brittany, Abelard studied with several of the great teachers of his day—including Roscelin (a rebel nominalist), William of Champeaux (an orthodox realist), and Anselm of Laon—at several locations in northern France, including Paris. Abelard first taught at Melun and Corbeil, and later at Paris. A bold and original thinker, he attracted large numbers to his lectures and counted many of the great minds of the twelfth century as his students, including Peter Lombard, John of Salisbury, and Otto of Freising. Many future leaders of Christendom were in attendance: several popes, twenty cardinals, and about fifty bishops.
While in Paris, Abelard lived at the house of Fulbert, who was the canon at Notre Dame. He fell in love with Fulbert’s niece, Heloise, and a son was born to her. Abelard offered to marry her, but she thought it better to enter a convent since marrying would hamper Abelard’s career in the church. Fulbert in retaliation ordered the castration of Abelard, who then retired to the monastery of St. Denis. The lifelong correspondence of Abelard and Heloise, known especially through her published Letters, has made the two of them classic figures among the world’s lovers.
In 1121 Abelard was condemned by the Council of Soissons for heresy and was forced to seek refuge. He found asylum in the remote monastery of St. Gildas in Brittany, where he stayed for ten years and was abbot until the monks forced him to leave. Returning to Paris, he remained popular with students. New charges of heresy from Norbert of Premontre and Bernard of Clairvaux resulted in Abelard’s condemnation by the church at the Council of Sens (1141) and the order to be silent. After a brief stay in a monastery, he began a journey to Rome to appeal his case. He stopped at Cluny where the abbot, Peter the Venerable, regarded Abelard’s case as hopeless and advised him not to continue. Abelard died shortly thereafter and was buried at Troyes; eventually Heloise was buried beside him.
Abelard’s training brought him into contact with two traditions of early scholastic thought, realism and nominalism. Abelard had difficulties with both and suggested an alternative, conceptualism—a meaningful “halfway house” to some, a heretical compromise to others. For Abelard there was reality both in the particular object and in the idea or universal (concept), although for Abelard the concept had reality only in the mind. His idea of reality caused his view of the Trinity to be regarded as heresy.
Further, Abelard had difficulty with church leaders because of his high regard for reason and its critical use in the study of theology and philosophy. Abelard, however, was not the forerunner of modern nationalism and atheism as some have judged. His own words attest that he was truly a Christian: “I do not want to be a philosopher if it means resisting St. Paul; I do not wish to be Aristotle if it must separate me from Christ.” Abelard sought to evaluate and understand his faith in the light of reason. His motto, “I understand so that I might believe,” reversed the order of Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury. Abelard stressed the importance of reasoned experience. He also maintained that all persons should be able to read the Scripture and arrive at valid conclusions on their own.
Abelard’s most important contribution was the establishment of a critical methodology for theology. In reaction against the unreasoning pietism of some of his fellow monks, he stressed the value of a more analytical approach to theology, having been pointed in that direction by Anselm of Laon. Abelard lined up conflicting authorities on both sides of 158 theological problems in his controversial work of 1123 entitled Sic et Non (Yes and No). In an approach less dogmatic than Anselm’s rationalism, Abelard cited contrasting texts from both the Bible and the church fathers without harmonizing them. His collection of alternative views, however, was prefaced with rules for resolving such problems by distinguishing various senses of the words used.
Abelard’s disciple, Peter Lombard, continued that procedure in his Sentences, which became a standard textbook. For the next two hundred years, Abelard’s approach influenced the scholastic method of debating alternative positions and citing conflicting arguments, as seen, for example, in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
Abelard published a more thorough presentation of his theology as Theologica Christiana in 1123 and 1124. He also wrote an autobiography, The Story of My Misfortunes, as well as other theological and philosophical works. - T. O. Kay & A. F. Holmes
J. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, eds,Who's Who in Christian History. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.