Sunday, May 10, 2015

Peter Abelard

"Universals."  Scholastic method.  "No and Yes."  Say what?

These are all related to Peter Abelard, one of the great intellects of the twelfth century and one of the biggest wise-asses of his time.

As I noted in a previous post on medieval universities, the twelfth century was a time when (unlike now) it was assumed that faith and reason were not opposed forces.  Rather, it was assumed that what we would call religion and science should and would give you the same answer.  Peter Abelard is an outstanding example of this.

He started his career at the end of the eleventh century as a wandering teacher; these were relatively common in a time when universities had not yet developed and yet people were interested in intellectual issues.  He lectured on what was then a hot topic, whether "universals" (things like chairs, or abstract nouns like beauty or goodness) really existed as "universals," or whether they were just convenient names or categories we had created ("nominalism").  Abelard out-argued his own teacher (demonstrating his wise-ass characteristics), arguing that universals really were real, but they did not exist in some vague outside-the-world-place (as Plato had had it), but rather only in our brains.  This sort of ended the nominalism-realism debate on universals for about 3 centuries.

But Abelard is best known for his great work, "Sic et Non" ("Yes and No" in Latin), in which he embraced all the contradictions inherent in Christian theology.  The New Testament, the Old Testament, pronouncements of popes, pronouncements of councils, writings of church Fathers all contradict each other.  This is and was undeniable.

But how to resolve these contradictions?  You couldn't reply, "Just do what the Church says," because all these contradictory writings were written by completely orthodox churchmen, and in some cases were in the Bible.  The answer was to use human reasoning powers to figure it out.

Abelard's great work was a series of theological questions, such as, "Could God make black be white?"  He answered them both Yes and No, giving citations to support each side.  He did not then actually attempt to resolve the question, although that was clearly his intent, saying he left it as an exercise to the reader (another sign of being a wise-ass).

(God never changes, therefore He would never make black be white.  But God is omnipotent, so He can make colors be any colors He wants.  See what I mean?)

Abelard never "got into trouble" for this.  Everyone knew about the contradictions.  Now there was a way to deal with them beyond hoping they would go away.  His method, quickly named the "scholastic method" (because used in the schools), was immediately adopted by other intellectuals.  Within a few years, Gratian at the University of Bologna and Peter Lombard at the emerging University of Paris both wrote textbooks, in respectively law and theology, that became the textbooks for studying their fields.  Both used Abelard's method of answering a question two ways, with supporting citations on each side. They differed, however, in giving a final answer.

Peter Abelard is also known for his affair with Heloise (less romantic than you might have thought), but that's a story for another day.


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