Peter Abelard

The French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a leading thinker of the Middle Ages. His reputation outside academic circles is based upon his more human qualities as reflected in his love affair with Heloise.

In comparison with the literary and intellectual activity of the 9th century (the so-called Carolingian Renaissance), the period from 900 to 1050 contained few figures of cultural importance. Toward the end of the 11th century, however, the monastic and cathedral schools of northern France began to produce a series of gifted thinkers. This reawakening was part of the social, economic, and cultural transformation of Europe during the 12th century. The intellectual revival in particular was significant in laying the foundations for the development of scholastic philosophy and theology. The two most important figures in the early stages of this development were Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard.

Although writing before most of the works of Aristotle had been recovered, Abelard made an important contribution to philosophy and logic by his solution to the problem of universals. His theological writings also had great influence, especially his work on Christian ethics and his contribution to the development of the scholastic method.

Abelard was born at Le Pallet in Brittany near Nantes in 1079. His father, Berengar, was lord of Pallet. Since Abelard was the eldest son, it was expected that he would be knighted and succeed his father. He sought, however, an ecclesiastical career as a teacher in one of the cathedral schools that then flourished in northern France. Leaving home at the age of 15, he studied logic or dialectic under Roscelin of Compi'ne. Several years later, having been at various schools, he went to Paris to study under William of Champeaux, head of the cathedral school and archdeacon of Notre Dame. Abelard must have seemed a difficult student, for he questioned the method and conclusions of his master and raised points in class that embarrassed William in front of his students. According to Abelard, it was in such public debate that he later forced William to rethink his position on the question of universals.


Early Career

In 1102 Abelard set up his own school at Melun. He quickly attracted students and, on the basis of his growing reputation, shifted his lectures to Corbeil, closer to Paris. About 1106 poor health forced Abelard to visit his home in Brittany. He returned to Paris in 1107 and taught at the cathedral school. But under pressure from William, Abelard moved his lectures to Melun and later to the church of Ste-Genevi'e, located on a hill on the southern edge of Paris. There he taught until the entrance of his parents into monastic life about 1111 forced him to return to Brittany to help reorganize family affairs.

Although many of Abelard's works in logic were written later in his life, his thinking on this subject seems to have been formed in the early period of study and teaching. Eventually he was to produce two sets of glosses on the parts of Aristotle's logic that were then known, Categories and De interpretatione. He also glossed the logical treaties of Porphyry and Boethius. Much of this material was eventually drawn together in an extensive work entitled Dialectica.

The problem of universals was the most pressing philosophical question in Abelard's day. This problem concerned the degree of reality possessed by a universal concept, such as "man" or "tree." Some thinkers approached the problem with Platonic presuppositions and tended to give a high degree of reality to the universal concept. According to this ultrarealist position, the universal exists in reality apart from the individuals embraced by that category. This separately existing universal is the archetype and cause of the individual things that reflect it. On the other hand, the ultranominalist position maintained that the universal was only a concept in the mind, a term that conveniently related individual things which, apart from such an arbitrary classification, would have little or nothing in common.

Abelard took a different approach to this problem. Beginning with the question of how men come to know a universal, he maintained that they know such only through their experience with individual things that make up a class. According to Abelard, the quality that individual things in a class have in common is a universal, but such a universal never exists apart from the individual thing.


Affair with Heloise

The decision of his parents to enter the religious life or the development of his own interests led Abelard upon his return to Paris to seek instruction in theology. Journeying to the cathedral school at Laon, northeast of Paris, Abelard studied under the most renowned master of this subject, the elderly Anselm of Laon. As had happened so often in the past, Abelard found the teaching shallow and boring, and in response to the urging of his fellow students he lectured on the scriptural book of Ezekiel. The resulting breach between Abelard and Anselm precipitated Abelard's expulsion from Laon, and in 1113 he returned to the cathedral school in Paris, where he taught theology for a number of years in relative peace.

By mutual agreement of Abelard and Fulbert, a canon at the Cathedral in Paris, Abelard became a resident in Fulbert's house and tutor of his young, cultured, and beautiful niece Heloise. Abelard and Heloise fell in love, and after some months Fulbert discovered their affair and forced Abelard to leave his house. At this time Abelard was about 40 years old and Heloise about 18.

Heloise, however, soon found that she was pregnant, and with Abelard's cooperation she left Paris in order to have the child in the more secluded and secure surroundings of Le Pallet, where Abelard's relatives lived. She gave birth to a son, Astralabe, and soon afterward at the request of Fulbert and over her objections Heloise and Abelard were married in Paris. The marriage initially was to have remained a secret in order to protect Abelard's reputation as a committed philosopher and to leave the way open for his advancement in a Church career. Fulbert, however, was concerned about his own reputation and that of his niece, and he openly acknowledged Abelard as his nephew-in-law.

The denial of the marriage by Abelard and Heloise angered Fulbert, and Abelard in order to protect her sent her to the convent at Argenteuil. Fulbert, thinking that Abelard was seeking to annul the marriage by forcing Heloise into the religious life, hired men to seize Abelard while he slept and emasculate him. This crime resulted in the disgrace of Fulbert and the death of those who had attacked Abelard. More importantly, it brought a temporary end to Abelard's teaching career, and both he and Heloise adopted the monastic life, she at Argenteuil and he at St-Denis, the famous Benedictine monastery north of Paris.


Monastic Years, 1118-1136

Abelard's life at St-Denis was difficult not only because of the public disgrace occasioned by his emasculation and the exposure of his affair with Heloise, but also because separation from the cathedral schools and subjection to the authority of an abbot were new and unpleasant experiences for him. Abelard's reputation attracted students, and his abbot permitted him to set up a school in a daughter priory separate from the monastery.

The resumption of teaching by Abelard brought criticism from his rivals, especially Alberic and Lotulf of Rheims, who maintained that a monk should not teach philosophy and that Abelard's training in theology was insufficient. They specifically attacked a work on the Trinity that Abelard had written for his students at St-Denis. Alberic in particular was instrumental in calling a council at Soissons in 1121 which condemned Abelard's work and placed him under "house arrest," first at St-Médard and then at St-Denis. Additional friction with his fellow monks forced Abelard to flee to a priory of St-Denis in Provins, located in the territory of the Count of Chartres, who was friendly toward him.

In spite of these reversals, Abelard still found time to write for his students. His most famous work, Sic et non, seems to have been written in this period. It was intended to provide source materials for students to debate theological questions. Conflicting quotations from earlier Christian authorities were placed side by side, and the introduction indicated the procedures the student should follow in arriving at a solution to the problems. The work did not attack traditional authorities, but it suggested that reliance on authority should be combined with a critical examination of the theological issues involved in each problem as well as an examination of the intention and merits of the authorities quoted.

In 1122 the abbot of St-Denis allowed Abelard to found a primitive hermitage on a piece of land between Provins and Troyes. There he built a school and a church, which he dedicated to the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. This period of quiet teaching away from the centers of civilization was interrupted in 1125 by opposition from representatives of a new type of piety, probably Norbert of Prémontré and Bernard of Clairvaux. Seeking the safety of his homeland, Abelard returned to Brittany to accept the abbacy of the unruly monastery of St-Gildas, on the coast near Vannes. For 10 years Abelard struggled to bring order to the monastery at the risk of his life, and he was able to befriend Heloise and her fellow nuns, expelled from Argenteuil by the abbot of St-Denis, by deeding to them the hermitage of the Paraclete.


Return to Teaching

In 1136 Abelard returned to Paris to teach at the church of Ste-Genevi'e. For the next 4 years he continued to attract students as well as opposition from Bernard and others. During this period Abelard wrote a work on ethics which took as its title the Socratic admonition, "Know thyself." In this work Abelard stressed the importance of intention in evaluating the moral or immoral character of an action.

The opposition of Bernard was instrumental in provoking a second trial of Abelard's orthodoxy. A council was convened at Sens in 1140, which resulted in the second condemnation of Abelard. Convinced of his innocence, Abelard decided to take his case before the Pope. He began his journey to Italy, but illness forced him to terminate his journey in Burgundy at the Cluniac priory of St-Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saône under the protection of his former pupil Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. There he died on April 21, 1142.


Further Reading on Peter Abelard

Abelard's autobiography is available in an excellent translation by J.T. Muckle, The Story of Abelard's Adversities (1964); written in a clever and convincing style, it presents only Abelard's side of events and issues. A scholarly study based on the life of Abelard and his relationship with Heloise is étienne Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (1938; trans. 1951). The delightful historical novel of the English medievalist Helen Waddell, Peter Abelard (1933), provides insight into the period. See also Cedric Whitman, Abelard (1965). The best introduction to the thought of Abelard remains J.G. Sikes, Peter Abailard (1932). The lengthy introduction to the translation of one of Abelard's most important works, Christian Theology, edited by J. Ramsay McCallum (1948), is informative. The influence of Abelard's teaching is covered by D.E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Ericson, Donald E., Abelard and Heloise: their lives, their love, their letters, New York, N.Y.: Bennett-Edwards, 1990.

Luscombe, D. E. (David Edward), Peter Abelard, London: Historical Association, 1979.

Marenbon, John., The philosophy of Peter Abelard, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.