Monday, May 11, 2015

Peter Abelard's life & hard times

As noted in the previous post on Peter Abelard, he was one of the great thinkers of the twelfth century, one of the most outstanding examples of the medieval assumption that faith and reason (religion and science, we would probably say) would give you the same answer.  Some people who really ought to know better have seen him as anachronistic, as someone just like us only living in the twelfth century, because he applied rationality to matters of faith.  But he was a totally twelfth-century kind of guy.

He also had a very adventurous life.  He was a teacher in the Paris schools that eventually became the University of Paris.  One of the cathedral priests had a very smart niece named Heloise, who he thought should get a good education, but girls couldn't attend these schools.  So he asked Peter Abelard to come give her private lessons.

The private lessons worked all right.  She learned a whole lot, some of it having to do with Latin and theology, some of it, well…  They named the baby "Astrolabe," after an astronomical device that had just been invented.

They did indeed get married, although Heloise initially didn't want to, afraid marriage would hurt Abelard's career, because it meant he could never be a priest.  Both were hassled by rumor-mongers (think today's paparazzi), so Abelard sent her off to stay in a nunnery, though not as a nun--indeed, they enjoyed "conjugal visits" behind the abbess's back.

Heloise's uncle back in Paris became distraught at hearing his niece was in a nunnery, thinking Abelard had dumped her there so he could pretend he wasn't married.  Deciding to teach Abelard a sharp lesson, he sent some thugs around to Abelard's house, who castrated him.

This pretty much ended Abelard's and Heloise's marriage, as you can imagine.  Now Heloise did become a nun, as abbess at a new house Abelard helped her found.  He called it "The Paraclete."  The paraclete is the Holy Spirit.  Abelard, a wise-ass as ever, said that God the Father and God the Son got all the press, and it was time to do something for the poor neglected God the Holy Spirit.  Young Astrolabe was sent to be trained as a monk.

Abelard went off to be the abbot of a monastery in Brittany, near where he'd come from originally.  It was a terrible monastery, where the monks had no interest in leading a regular, austere life, and who decided it would be fun to poison their strict abbot with his hot-shot Paris ways.  (It didn't work.)

Back in Paris (I wonder why) Abelard returned to teaching.  He got in trouble for a book he wrote on the Trinity.  The difficulty with his "solution" to the "universals" problem, that categories really exist but only in our brains, is that certain abstract nouns like "the Trinity" are really supposed to exist in external reality, and people noticed.  Abelard denied he had ever said anything unorthodox about the Trinity, and quoted Augustine to back him up and told the judges at his trial that they knew no theology or even Latin, but it didn't help.  He was ordered to burn his book on the Trinity, which he did, sobbing and explaining theological points the while.

He wrote up the account of all these adventures.  Heloise, who he hadn't been in touch with in several years, read it and sent him a scathing letter--"You never write!  You never call!  When I think of what I sacrificed for you!"  But after they got past this stage, they started quite an interesting correspondence, in which Abelard argued that because women are weaker physically than men, their privations, fasting, and the like are more pleasing to God.  (So much for the idea that medieval people considered women inferior.)  But they never saw each other again.

Heloise, as is clear in her letters, was certainly just as smart as Abelard, even if neither one had as much common sense as one would prefer.  After a while, still smarting over having to burn his book on the Trinity, he rewrote it and set off to Rome to see if he could get the pope to say it was fine after all.  But he died on the way and has been (since the nineteenth century) buried next to Heloise in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  (So are Molière and Jim Morrison of the Doors.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015


  1. Wow! Such a (mis)adventurous life for a philosopher! Poor Abelard...

    A question: Why being married would be a problem to his carrer?

    1. If married, he couldn't be a priest, which meant he could never head up a school or become a cathedral canon. These were careers a philosopher would have wanted. Sure gives a different look to "life of the mind," doesn't it!