Peter Abelard Jacques Maritain Center : Readings Abelard Abelard, Peter, dialectician, philosopher, and theologian, b. 1079; d. 1142. Peter Abelard (also spelled Abeillard, Abailard, etc., while the best MSS. have Abaelardus) was born in the little village of Pallet, about ten miles east of Nantes in Brittany.
His father, Berengar, was lord of the village, his mother’s name was Lucia; both afterwards entered the monastic state. Peter, the oldest of their children, was intended for a military career, but, as he himself tells us, he abandoned Mars for Minerva, the profession of arms for that of learning. Accordingly, at an early age, he left his father’s castle and sought instruction as a wandering scholar at the schools of the most renowned teachers of those days. Among these teachers was Roscelin the Nominalist, at whose school at Locmenach, near Vannes, Abelard certainly spent some time before he proceeded to Paris. Although the University of Paris did not exist as a corporate institution until more than half a century after Abelard’s death, there flourished at Paris in his time the Cathedral School, the School of Ste.
Genevive, and that of St. Germain des Pr, the forerunners of the university schools of the following century. The Cathedral School was undoubtedly the most important of these, and thither the young Abelard directed his steps in order to study dialectic under the renowned master (scholasticus) William of Champeaux. Soon, however, the youth from the province, for whom the prestige of a great name was far from awe-inspiring, not only ventured to object to the teaching of the Parisian master, but attempted to set up as a rival teacher. Finding that this was not an easy matter in Paris, he established his school first at Melun and later at Corbeil.
This was, probably, in the year 1101. The next couple of years Abelard spent in his native place almost cut off from France, as he says. The reason of this enforced retreat from the dialectical fray was failing health. On returning to Paris, he became once more a pupil of William of Champeaux for the purpose of studying rhetoric. When William retired to the monastery of St. Victor, Abelard, who meantime had resumed his teaching at Melun, hastened to Paris to secure the chair of the Cathedral School. Having failed in this, he set up his school in Mt.
Ste. Genevieve (1108). There and at the Cathedral School, in which in 1113 he finally succeeded in obtaining a chair, he enjoyed the greatest renown as a teacher of rhetoric and dialectic. Before taking up the duty of teaching theology at the Cathedral School, he went to Laon where he presented himself to the venerable Anselm of Laon as a student of theology. Soon, however, his petulant restiveness under restraint once more asserted itself, and he was not content until he had as completely discomfited the teacher of theology at Laon as he had successfully harassed the teacher of rhetoric and dialectic at Paris. Taking Abelard’s own account of the incident, it is impossible not to blame him for the temerity which made him such enemies as Alberic and Lotulph, pupils of Anselm, who, later on, appeared against Abelard.
The theological studies pursued by Abelard at Laon were what we would nowadays call the study of exegesis. There can be no doubt that Abelard’s career as a teacher at Paris, from 1108 to 1118, was an exceptionally brilliant one. In his Story of My Calamities (Historia Calamitatum) he tells us how pupils flocked to him from every country in Europe, a statement which is more than corroborated by Ihe authority of his contemporaries. He was, In fact, the idol of Paris; eloquent, vivacious, handsome, possessed of an unusually rich voice, full of confidence in his own power to please, he had, as he tells us, the whole world at his feet. That Abelard was unduly conscious of these advantages is admitted by his most ardent admirers; indeed, in the Story of My Calamities, he confesses that at that period of his life he was filled with vanity and pride.
To these faults he attributes his downfall, which was as swift and tragic as was everything, seemingly, in his meteoric career. He tells us in graphic language the tale which has become part of the classic literature of the love-theme, how he fell in love with Heloise, niece of Canon Fulbert; he spares us none of the details of the story, recounts all the circumstances of its tragic ending, the brutal vengeance of the Canon, the flight of Heloise to Pallet, where their son, whom he named Astrolabius, was born, the secret wedding, the retirement of Heloise to the nunnery of Argenteuil, and his abandonment of his academic career. He was at the time a cleric in minor orders, and had naturally looked forward to a distinguished career as an ecclesiastical teacher. After his downfall, he retired to the Abbey of St. Denis, and, Heloise having taken the veil at Argenteuil, he assumed the habit of a Benedictine monk at the royal Abbey of St. Denis. He who had considered himself the only surviving philosopher in the whole world was willing to hide himself — definitely, as he thought — in monastic solitude. But whatever dreams he may have had of final peace in his monastic retreat were soon shattered.
He quarrelled with the monks of St. Denis, the occasion being his irreverent criticism of the legend of their patron saint, and was sent to a branch institution, a priory or cella, where, once more, he soon attracted unfavourable attention by the spirit of the teaching which he gave in philosophy and theology. More subtle and more learned than ever, as a contemporary (Otto of Freising) describes him, he took up the former quarrel with Anselm’s pupils. Through their influence, his orthodoxy, especially on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, was impeached, and he was summoned to appear before a council at Soissons, in 1121, presided over by the papal legate, Kuno, Bishop of Praneste. While it is not easy to determine exactly what took place at the Council, it is clear that there was no formal condemnation of Abelard’s doctrines, but that he was nevertheless condemned to recite the Athanasian Creed, and to burn his book on the Trinity.
Besides, he was sentenced to imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Mdard, at the instance apparently, of the monks of St. Denis, whose enmity, especially that of their Abbot Adam, was unrelenting. In his despair, he fled to a desert place in the neighbourhood of Troyes. Thither pupils soon began to flock, huts and tents for their reception were built, and an oratory erected, under the title The Paraclete, and there his former success as a teacher was renewed.
After the death of Adam, Abbot of St. Denis, his successor, Suger, absolved Abelard from censure, and thus restored him to his rank as a monk. The Abbey of St. Gildas de Rhuys, near Vannes, on the coast of Brittany, having lost its Abbot in 1125, elected Abelard to fill his place. At the same time, the community of Argenteuil was dispersed, and Heloise gladly accepted the Oratory of the Paraclete, where she became Abbess.
As Abbot of St. Gildas, Abelard had, according to his own account, a very troublesome time. The monks, considering him too strict, endeavoured in various ways to rid themselves of his rule, and even attempted to poison him. They finally drove him from the monastery. Retaining the title of Abbot, he resided for some time in the neighbourhood of Nantes and later (probably in 1136) resumed his career as teacher at Paris and revived, to some extent, the renown of the days when, twenty years earlier, he gathered all Europe to hear his lectures.
Among his pupils at this time were Arnold of Brescia and John of Salisbury. Now begins the last act in the tragedy of Abelard’s life, in which St. Bernard plays a conspicuous part. The monk of Clairvaux, the most powerful man in the Church in those days, was alarmed at the heterodoxy of Abelard’s teaching, and questioned the Trinitarian doctrine contained in Abelard’s writings. There were admonitions on the one side and defiances on the other; St.
Bernard, having first warned Abelard in private, proceeded to denounce him to the bishops of France; Abelard, underestimating the ability and influence of his adversary, requested a meeting, or council, of bishops, before whom Bernard and he should discuss the points in dispute. Accordingly, a council was held at Sens (the metropolitan see to which Paris was then suffragan) in 1141. On the eve of the co …