Peter Abelard (1079-1142)



Who was Peter Abelard?

miniature portrait by Jean de Meun, 14th century

Peter Abelard was a brilliant and controversial French philosopher and theologian of the Chrsitian religion, who is also well known for his ill-fated romance with Héloïse. He was born in 1079, in Le Pallet, near Nantes, Brittany. He died April 21, 1142, at Priory of Saint-Marcel, Burgundy.

According to his autobiography (the famous History of My Troubles), Peter Abelard was born the son of a knight, but he gave up his inheritance and a potential military career to pursue philosophy. He traveled throughout France, studying with various masters and often stirring up quarrels between them.

He studied under the famous nominalist Roscelin, William of Champeaux (a realist), and Anselm of Laon, but was dissatisfied with all of his teachers. Abelard began teaching himself, and he writes that his rivals did not take kindly to the competition and he endured a great deal of persecution.




Life of Abelard

Abelard moved to Paris, where he became a well-known teacher of philosophy and theology. Around 1118, Abelard was hired to be a private tutor to young Héloïse, niece of Canon Fulbert (a clergyman in the cathedral of Paris). Abelard and Héloïse fell in love, had a son they called Astrolabe, then secretly married. When Canon Fulbert discovered this, he had Abelard castrated and Héloïse sent away to a convent. Abelard then withdrew to the monastery of Saint-Denis near Paris and made the unwilling Héloïse become a nun at Argenteuil outside Paris. They would not see each other again for 10 years.

At Saint-Denis, Abelard settled into a life of theological reading and writing, but his teachings, at once controversial and popular, prevented him from living in peace. In 1121, a regional council at Soissons condemned his Theologia as heretical and he was put under house arrest for a time.

Upon returning to the abbey of Saint-Denis, Abelard pointed out (rightly) that its patron saint, Denis of France, could not be identical to Denis of Athens (a.k.a. Dionysius the Areopagite, a convert of St. Paul) as was claimed. In danger of facing trial before the king of France for these teachings, he fled to Champagne. In 1125, he became the abbot of a remote monastery in Breton, where he once again stirred up controversy. After attempts were made on his life, he returned to France.

Peter Abelard spent most of the remainder of his life at the Mont-Sainte-Geneviève outside Paris, where he composed most of his major works (see below). He attracted many enthusiastic students but aroused hostility for his criticism of other teachers and his unconventional theological views. He founded a school he dedicated to the Paraclete and, with Héloïse who had joined him there, a convent of the same name. His renewed success eventually aroused the opposition of the mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential men in Christendom. Bernard preached against Abelard's teachings and especially the manner in which Abeldard applied reason to matters of faith. The philosopher was officially condemned by a council held at Sens in 1141. The condemnation was confirmed by Pope Innocent II.

The philosopher then retired to the monastery of Cluny in Burgundy, where he lived the remaining two years of his life. Thanks to the skillful mediation of the monastery's abbot, Abelard made peace with Bernard of Clairvaux and retired from teaching. He composed his Profession of Faith, meant to demonstrate his orthodoxy and lived as a monk until his death in 1142. At Héloïse's request, Abelard's body was buried at the Paraclete, near Héloïse's convent. She was buried next to him upon her death in 1164, and the two now rest side by side in Paris' Père-Lachaise cemetary.

Works of Peter Abelard

Abelard's major work was the Sic et Non (Yes and No), a collection of quotations from the Bible and the church fathers that showed support for both sides of theological questions. In it he explained how the meaning of words develops over time and how apparent contradictions can be reconciled. Other works include:

  • Theologia, which applies the dialectical method to the Trinity and the mystery of God and was condemned as heretical in 1121;
  • Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself or Ethics), which presents Abelard's controversial concept of original sin;
  • Dialogue Between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian, a work of apologetics; and
  • Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which contains Abelard's unique doctrine of the atonement.

Abelard also wrote numerous hymns, a monastic rule for Héloïse's convent, and a vast number of love letters to Héloïse. A collection of the pair's romantic and religious correspondence survives, but their authenticity has been the subject of much scholarly debate.

Thought of Peter Abelard

Abelard's most important contribution to the field of philosophy is in his doctrine regarding universals. On the one hand, Abelard rejected realism, which claims that descriptions, like "red," have independent reality, and are all red things share in that reality. But Abelard was also dissatisfied with nominalism, in which all descriptions are mere words and have no meaning in themselves. Instead, he proposed his own theory, which has been called "conceptualism." He taught that universals (e.g., redness) do not exist on their own, but that descriptive words ("red") have real, consistent meaning, just as matter has form that can be talked about meaningfully, but form cannot exist without matter.

Theologically, Abelard is best known for what is often called a "moral theory of atonement." Traditional views of the atonement held that Christ's death paid a debt, either to God or to the Devil, that humans could not pay ourselves, but Abelard approached the matter from a more subjective angle. He explained that Christ's life and death were such radical demonstrations of the love of God that we are moved to love God in response, and God then forgives us on the basis of that love, and of the intercessory prayers of Christ.

Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear - love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found. {1}

This subjective view of the atonement became popular during the Enlightenment, a time of intense skepticism towards anything transcendent or supernatural.

Finally, Abelard made significant contributions to Christian thought in the areas of ethics and sin. He controversially taught that humans are not born with original guilt, as no person can be guilty for the sin of another. We do suffer the effects of Adam's sin in that we have a corrupted will and inclination towards evil, but there is no guilt until we have agreed with or acted upon the inclination. He also argued that whether an act is good or evil depends entirely on one's intention. Finally, Abelard insisted that no person can absolve another person of sin, so the function of confession can only be to instruct the sinner in the proper penance.

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References

Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Blackwell, 1997): 407-08.

Wendy Doniger, ed., "Abelard, Peter." Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Religion (Merriam-Webster, 1999).

Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 2: From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation, 2nd. ed. (Abingdon, 1987): 167-74. Available at amazon.com and christianbook.com.

David Edward Luscombe, "Peter Abelard." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).

Books on Abelard

Etienne Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (University of Michigan Press, 1960).

Peter Abelard: Proceedings of the International Conference, Louvain, May 10-13, 1971 (University Press, 1974).

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Penguin, 1998).

Marion Meade, Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard (Soho Press, 1994).

R.C. Weingart, The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abelard (Clarendon, 1970).