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Medieval Philosophy

Peripateticus Palatinus: The Story of Abelard, Part 2

Bill East


NOTE: This lengthy article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author. Comments engendered by these postings may be accessed through the archives of the discussion list starting in March, 1998.


Peripateticus Palatinus (9)

Following this disaster, both Abelard and Heloise embraced the religious life. Abelard says, 'it was shame and confusion in my remorse and misery rather than any devout wish for conversion which brought me to seek shelter in a monastery cloister.' Heloise was later to write to Abelard, 'It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone.'

Nevertheless, whatever sense of vocation either or both may or may not have felt, both entered the religious life and both lived the life of Benedictines for the rest of their days. This needs to be kept in mind, perhaps more than it has been, particularly in the case of Abelard. If we ask how Thomas Aquinas came to be regarded as the Church's leading theologian, part of the answer will lie in the Angelic Doctor's undoubted excellence, but part of the answer is also that he had a very strong support group in the Dominicans. The Dominicans have done their duty by Aquinas, as also by Albertus Magnus. We have excellent editions and exhaustive studies of both these doctors. Likewise the Franciscans have done their duty by their more prominent theologians, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and Ockham. All have been well-edited and well studied by members of their own order.

The secular masters, those who lacked the support of a religious order, have fared less well. Abelard began his career as a secular master, but spent the last part of his life - over twenty years - as a monk. And the Benedictines have not done so well by Abelard, they have not taken him to heart as one of their own. Perhaps this is natural enough, considering that Abelard on his own admission never wanted to be a monk anyway, and that his life as a monk was somewhat irregular: he was at loggerheads with the other monks at St Denis and eventually had to leave; when he became Abbot of St Gildas de Rhuis he was in such enmity with the other monks that he believed they were trying to poison him.

For whatever reason, we have no Benedictine edition of the works of Abelard, and indeed no critical edition of his complete works at all. His works have been edited piecemeal by various scholars, and some have not been properly edited at all. David Luscombe has written: '. . . future generations of philosophers were not much aware of Abelard's writings or ideas. The reasons for this still await elucidation.' One reason is surely that Abelard lacked any support group to push his cause. The Benedictines did not rally round. I have found that when I mention this to Benedictines, they generally respond 'I didn't know Abelard WAS a Benedictine.' Of course, Fr Anselm knew . . .

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But Abelard's religious conversion, if we dare call it that, had a decisive influence on his scholarship. Hitherto, despite his foray into Bible study under Anselm of Laon, he had been pre-eminently a philosopher. Now he became a theologian. He tells us, 'I applied myself mainly to study of the Scriptures as being more suitable to my present calling, but I did not wholly abandon the instruction in the profane arts in which I was better practised and which was most expected of me. In fact I used it as a hook, baited with a taste of philosophy, to draw my listeners towards the study of the true philosophy' - by which of course he means theology.

His simultaneous profession of the two disciplines provoked antagonism. 'When it became apparent that God had granted me the gift for interpreting the Scriptures as well as secular literature, the numbers in my school began to increase for both subjects, while elsewhere they diminished rapidly. This roused the envy and hatred of the other heads of schools against me; they set out to disparage me in whatever way they could, and two of them especially were always attacking me behind my back for occupying myself with secular literature in a manner totally unsuitable to my monastic calling, and for presuming to set up as a teacher of sacred learning when I had no teacher myself.'

Whereas others underwent a long apprenticeship in Bible study before commenting on the scriptures, Abelard had served his time as a philosopher, particularly as a dialectician, a student of logic, and he applied these techniques to the study of the Bible. Although others before Abelard had used logic in discussion of religious questions - after all, logic is simply straight thinking, an essential tool in any form of study - he did so more thoroughly than any of his predecessors, and did so with an unprecedented brilliance and freshness. It was this, rather than any carefully elaborated theological system, which was his chief contribution to the subject.

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[I am indebted in the following remarks to the article by D.E. Luscombe in 'A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy', ed. Peter Dronke, Cambridge 1988, pp. 279ff.]

Since the application of logic is so important in Abelard's theological work, let us look for a moment at his logical works. These derive from seven basic ancient texts: 1. The Isagoge of Porphyry. Porphyry (232-303 AD) was a Neoplatonist philosopher. Isagoge is Greek for 'introduction' and the work is an introduction to the Categories of Aristotle; 2 and 3 are works by Aristotle himself, namely the Categories and the De interpretatione, the only two works of Aristotle which were at all widely known at the time; Abelard would know them in the translation of Boethius; the remaining four are works of Boethius himself, the De syllogismo categorico, De syllogismo hypothetico, De differentiis topicis and De divisione. Abelard also shows a limited knowledge of the Prior Analytics and Sophistici elenchi of Aristotle which were beginning to be known during his lifetime.

In his treatise Theologia Abelard applies his dialectic to give an account of the Trinity. This treatise exists in various forms, corresponding to successive revisions of the text by Abelard, distinguished by the titles Theologia 'Summi Boni', Theologia Christiana and Theologia 'Scholarium'. We have seen how the extreme nominalism of his first master Roscelin led him into the error of Tritheism, of maintaining that there are three gods. It is indeed a difficult matter to discern how persons may be distinguished in an individual substance, which is what Christians maintain to be the case with respect to God. Abelard says that the vocabulary of philosophy is deficient when it comes to speaking of God. Nobody would have disagreed with this. Nevertheless, in an attempt to reply to other dialecticians, he examines identity and difference by constructing propositions in which the names of persons and of the divine essence enter as subject or as predicate.

In the Theologia 'Summi Boni' he distinguishes six ways (reduced to five in the Theologia Christiana and to three in the Theologia 'Scholarium') by which things may be identical, together with six corresponding ways by which things may be different, e.g. difference of essence, difference in number, difference in definition. He concludes his discussion of identity and difference with a brief examination of the differences between the persons in God. Here there can be no difference of essence - God is one and the same essentially - but he distinguishes difference of definition, that is difference of properties. It is the property of the Father to be by himself; that of the Son, to be eternally engendered by the Father; that of the Spirit, to proceed from the Father and the Son.

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It was a brave attempt to deal with a particularly difficult question, but it aroused opposition. It was condemned at the Council of Soissons in 1121 and Abelard was made to throw his own book into the fire. This was the book which he calls in his autobiography On the Unity and Trinity of God, which is probably the same book we know as the Theologia 'Summi Boni'. It is not entirely clear from Abelard's account what fault was found with his Trinitarian theology. Apparently he narrowly escaped being stoned by a mob who thought he had preached tritheism; someone at the council muttered something about Abelard having said that only God the Father was almighty. Certainly he presents his judges as being thoroughly confused about their own understanding of the Trinity; but of course, Abelard was not an impartial observer.

He continued to have trouble with successive versions of the Theologia; about 1139 William of St Thierry wrote to Geoffrey, Bishop of Chartres, and to Bernard of Clairvaux, drawing their attention to it. He writes, 'A little while ago I read by accident a certain treatise of that man, entitled Theologia of Peter Abaelard.' It should be pointed out that it is a difficult enough book to read on purpose; William must have been a remarkable man to read it by accident.

He goes on, 'I have two copies containing almost the same, except that the one may be a little more lengthy than the other.' Possibly he had both the Christiana and the 'Scholarium'. William continues, 'In it I have found certain statements by which I was greatly shocked.' He complains of 'unheard-of novelties of phrase which he applies to matters of faith, as well as . . . novel senses which he puts upon received terms.'

He mentions some thirteen propositions he had found in the work which particularly disturbed him. The fifth of these is, 'That the Holy Spirit is the soul of the world (anima mundi).' There was some truth in the accusation: Abelard did in fact relate the Platonic and Stoic ideas concerning the world-soul to the Holy Spirit. William concludes, '. . . there are, as I hear, some other treatises of his besides, of which the names are Sic et Non, Scito te ipsum, and some others, about which I fear that their doctrines may be as monstrous as their titles are strange; but, as I am told, they hate the light, and cannot be found even when sought for.'

Bernard was alarmed by William's letter, and wrote to the Pope informing him about Abelard. He complains: 'In short, to describe this theologian in few words, he distinguishes with Arius degrees and inequalities in the Trinity; with Pelagius he prefers free will to grace; with Nestorius he divides Christ in excluding His humanity from union with the Trinity.'

Bernard seems to have been inordinately pleased with this sentence, because he uses it again in a letter on the same subject to Stephen, Cardinal Bishop of Palestrina: 'In short, our new theologian distinguishes with Arius degrees and inequalities in the Trinity, with Pelagius prefers free will to grace, with Nestorius he divides Christ in excluding His Humanity from union with the Trinity.' And again, in a letter to another Cardinal, he writes, 'You will see that this theologian distinguishes with Arius grades and inequalities in the Trinity, that with Pelagius he prefers free will to grace, that with Nestorius he divides Christ in excluding His Humanity from the Trinity.' And he uses the same words in a letter to an Italian Abbot.

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The upshot of Bernard's epistolary zeal was that several of Abelard's propositions were condemned at the Council of Sens in 1140. Abelard, by now an old man, set out for Rome to challenge the condemnation. He did not stand a cat in hell's chance of succeeding in his challenge. To understand why not, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of papal politics during the period. Pope Honorius II died during the night of 13/14th February 1130. There were at the time two factions among the Cardinals; a minority of younger ones, mostly from North Italy and France, interested in the reform of the Church, and a majority of older ones, mostly from Rome and southern Italy, whose interest was not in internal reform but in asserting the rights of the papacy against the emperor.

The younger faction, led by Aimeric, Chancellor of Rome, who was a friend of Bernard's, hastily buried the dead pope, held a clandestine election and elected one Gregorio Papareschi as Pope Innocent II at daybreak. Later that morning the majority of cardinals met and elected Pietro Pierleoni, a former monk of Cluny, as Pope Anacletus II. There followed an eight-year schism. Anacletus held Rome, and Innocent had to flee to France, but his claim was soon recognised everywhere except in Scotland, Aquitaine and South Italy.

Innocent's most effective advocates were Bernard, who won over to his cause Louis VI of France and Henry I of England, and Archbishop Norbert of Magdeburg, who secured the support of Germany. Anacletus obligingly ended the schism by dying on 25th January 1138. His adherents elected Victor IV as his successor, but he resigned on 29th May, whereupon his faction made their submission to Innocent. In April 1139 Innocent held the Second Lateran Council, which anulled all the decisions, acts and ordinations of Anacletus. In 1140 Innocent confirmed the condemnation of the teaching of Peter Abelard made by the council of Sens in June of that year.

Abelard was travelling to Rome to appeal against this decision when Peter the Venerable persuaded him to give up the fight and stay at Cluny. Bernard was the Pope-maker; no appeal to the Pope against a council of Bernard had any chance of success. Peter, together with the Abbot of Citeaux, now effected a reconciliation between Abelard and Bernard and allowed Abelard to die in the peace of the Church.

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Peter wrote a most wonderful letter to Heloise on the occasion of Abelard's death. He writes, 'The nature and extent of the saintliness, humility and devotion of his life among us, to which Cluny can bear witness, cannot briefly be told. I do not remember seeing anyone, I think, who was his equal in conduct and manner: St Germain could not have appeared more lowly nor St Martin himself so poor . . . His reading was continuous, his prayer assiduous, his silence perpetual, except when informal conference amongst the brothers or a public sermon addressed to them in assembly on sacred subjects compelled him to speak. He was present at the holy Sacraments, offering the sacrifice of the immortal Lamb to God whenever he could, and indeed, almost without interruption, after he had been restored to apostolic grace through my letter and efforts on his behalf. What more need I say? His mind, his speech, his work were devoted to meditation, to teaching and to profession of what was always holy, philosophic and scholarly.' You can't say fairer than that.

Peter concludes his letter, 'Thus did Master Peter end his days, He who was known nearly all over the world for his unique mastery of knowledge and who won fame everywhere as a disciple of one who said, "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted," steadfast in his own gentleness and humility, thus passed over to him, as we must believe. Him, therefore, venerable and dearest sister in the Lord, him to whom after your union in the flesh you are joined by the better, and therefore stronger, bond of divine love, with whom and under whom you have long served God: him, I say, in your place, or as another you, God cherishes in his bosom, and keeps him there to be restored to you through his grace at the coming of the Lord, at the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet-note of God descending from heaven.'

Peter allowed Heloise to collect the body of Abelard to bury in her own convent, as Abelard had particularly asked her to do in the course of their correspondence, and sent her a copy of the absolution he had given Abelard for all his sins, together with a promise to say a trental of masses for the repose of his soul, and another promise to try to obtain preferment for her son Astralabe. A sympathetic character was Peter the Venerable.

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William of St Thierry had voiced concern over two other works of Abelard besides the Theologia; namely the Sic et Non and the Scito te ipsum, neither of which he had read or even clapped eyes on, but which he was sure contained horrible things. The Sic et Non was a collection of quotations from Bible and the Fathers on a wide range of theological subjects, in each case some being for, and some against, the question in hand. Abelard does not attempt to resolve their differences, but he laid the foundation of the scholastic method. An Aquinas in the next century would quote opinions which seemed to contradict the point he was making, would oppose another quotation: Sed contra, but on the other hand, and would then explain the apparent contradictions: Respondeo.

The Scito te ipsum, 'Know thyself' was Abelard's principal work on Ethics. His overriding concern in his ethical thought is with with intention behind an act. Works are themselves morally neutral; what matters is the intention with which they are performed. He maintains that we use the term 'sin' improperly when we talk of people sinning in ignorance or through negligence: properly speaking, a sin involves a deliberate evil intention. In common usage however it means - or meant, in Abelard's day - nothing more than something we ought not to do.

Thus we may say that those who persecuted Christ or his people, whom they thought they ought to persecute, sinned in act. Nevertheless, says Abelard, they would have sinned more grievously if they had spared them against their own conscience. There was a tradition of laying stress on intention and consent, going back to Augustine; but nobody before Abelard had gone so far as to suggest that those who had crucified Christ might not have been thereby sinning, indeed might even have sinned in sparing him if they had sincerely thought they ought to put him to death.

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Abelard's ethical teaching gets its particular edge from his reading of Stoic ethics in Cicero and Seneca. He is by no means uncritical of Stoicism. He is unable for instance to accept the Stoic view that all sins are equal. He remarks that such a view is manifest stupidity (manifesta stulticia). But it was a genuine and original contribution of Abelard to apply the Stoic notion of assent to that of sin in a Christian context. He made a permanent mark on Christian ethical thinking.

David Luscombe comments: 'Once the storm of anger had abated, attention was constructively focused upon Abelard's theory of the moral indifference of all human actions, even the killing of Christ, and upon the sense in which ignorance as such did not constitute sin unless it was positively willed. They were led to agree with Abelard that actions on the whole are neither good nor bad, and Peter Lombard, for example, gave a place to this thesis in his Sentences. But they could not support the view that even the most scandalous acts were not intrinsically sinful or could be performed without prevarication. The Lombard argued that certain actions were in themselves evil and his view prevailed in the later twelfth century.'

In fact, the later scholastics evolved a definition of mortal sin, as opposed to venial sin, which still remains in use today. A mortal sin is said to have three characteristics: first, knowledge. You can't commit a mortal sin in ignorance; you have to know it's a sin. Second, intention: you must do it with the full intention of committing a sin. And thirdly, it must be a serious matter in itself: if the action is in itself trivial then it is not a mortal sin, even if you knew it was wrong and intended to do it.

Abelard would have heartily agreed with the first two conditions, and indeed the notion of intention was his particular contribution to the debate; but he would have denied that an action could be morally serious or trivial in itself. This was the contribution of the more conservative tradition, represented especially by the Lombard.

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Copyright (C) 1998, Bill East. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.