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Le Pallet near Nantes
|Died||21 April 1142 (age 62 or 63)|
Abbey of Saint-Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saône
Le Pallet near Nantes
|Died||21 April 1142 (age 62 or 63)|
Abbey of Saint-Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saône
Peter Abelard (//; Latin: Petrus Abaelardus or Abailardus; French: Pierre Abélard, pronounced: [a.beˈlaːʁ]; 1079 – 21 April 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician. He was also a composer. His affair with and love for Héloïse d'Argenteuil has become legendary. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century".
Abelard, originally called "Pierre le Pallet", was born c1079 in Le Pallet, about 10 miles (16 km) east of Nantes, in Brittany, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. As a boy, he learned quickly. His father, a wealthy lord called Berengar, encouraged Pierre to study the liberal arts, wherein he excelled at the art of dialectic (a branch of philosophy), which, at that time, consisted chiefly of the logic of Aristotle transmitted through Latin channels. Instead of entering a military career, as his father had done, Abelard became an academic. During his early academic pursuits, Abelard wandered throughout France, debating and learning, so as (in his own words) "he became such an one as the Peripatetics." He first studied in the Loire area, where the nominalist Roscellinus of Compiègne, who had been accused of heresy by Anselm, was his teacher during this period.
Around 1100, Abelard's travels finally brought him to Paris. In the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris, he was taught for a while by William of Champeaux, the disciple of Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with Saint Anselm) a leading proponent of Realism. During this time he changed his surname to "Abélard", sometimes written "Abailard" or "Abaelardus". Retrospectively, Abelard portrays William as having turned from approval to hostility when Abelard proved soon able to defeat the master in argument;[a] Abelard was, however, closer to William's thought than this account suggests. It was during this time that he would provoke quarrels with both William and Roscellinus. Against opposition from the metropolitan teacher, Abelard set up his own school, first at Melun, a favoured royal residence, then, around 1102-4, for more direct competition, he moved to Corbeil, nearer Paris.
His teaching was notably successful, though for a time he had to give it up and spend time in Brittany, the strain proving too great for his constitution. On his return, after 1108, he found William lecturing at the hermitage of Saint-Victor, just outside the Ile-de-la-Cite, and there they once again became rivals, with Abelard challenging William over his theory of universals. Abelard was once more victorious, and Abelard was almost able to hold the position of master at Notre Dame. For a short time, however, William was able to prevent Abelard from lecturing in Paris. Abelard accordingly was forced to resume his school at Melun, which he was then able to move, from c1110-12, to Paris itself, on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, overlooking Notre-Dame.
From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and in 1113 moved to Laon to attend the lectures of Anselm on biblical exegesis and Christian doctrine. Unimpressed by Anselm's teaching, Abelard began to offer his own lectures on the Book of Ezekiel. Anselm forbade him to continue this teaching, and Abelard returned to Paris where, in around 1115, he became master of Notre Dame and a canon of Sens (the cathedral of the archdiocese to which Paris belonged).
Distinguished in figure and manners, Abélard was seen surrounded by crowds – it is said thousands of students – drawn from all countries by the fame of his teaching. Enriched by the offerings of his pupils, and entertained with universal admiration, he came, as he says, to think himself the only undefeated philosopher in the world. But a change in his fortunes was at hand. In his devotion to science, he had always lived a very regular life, enlivened only by philosophical debate: now, at the height of his fame, he encountered romance.
Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert, was Heloise. She was remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. Abélard sought a place in Fulbert's house, and then in 1115 or 1116 began an affair with Héloïse. The affair interfered with his career, and Abélard himself boasted of his conquest. Once Fulbert found out, he separated them, but they continued to meet in secret. Héloïse became pregnant and was sent by Abélard to be looked after by his family in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son whom she named Astrolabe after the scientific instrument.[b]
To appease Fulbert, Abélard proposed a secret marriage so as not to mar his career prospects. Héloïse initially opposed it, but the couple were married. When Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, and Héloïse denied it, Abelard sent Héloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where she had been brought up, in order to protect her from her uncle. Heloise dressed as a nun and shared the nun's life, though she was not veiled. Héloïse sent letters to Abélard, questioning why she must submit to a religious life for which she had no calling.
Fulbert, most probably believing that Abélard wanted to be rid of Héloïse by forcing her to become a nun, arranged for a band of men to break into Abelard's room one night and castrate him, effectively ending Abélard's romantic career. In reaction, Abelard decided to become a monk at the monastery of St Denis, near Paris.
In the Abbey of Saint-Denis, the 40-year-old Abélard sought to bury himself as a monk with his woes out of sight. Finding no respite in the cloister, and having gradually turned again to study, he gave in to urgent entreaties, and reopened his school at an unknown priory owned by the monastery. His lectures, now framed in a devotional spirit, and with lectures on theology as well as his previous lectures on logic, were once again heard by crowds of students, and his old influence seemed to have returned, but he still had many enemies against whom he could make less vigorous opposition. Using his studies of the Bible and of the leaders of the church as his basis, he wrote a collection of inconsistencies and titled it Sic et non (Yes and No).
No sooner had he published his theological lectures (the Theologia 'Summi Boni') than his adversaries picked up on his rationalistic interpretation of the Trinitarian dogma. Two pupils of Anselm of Laon, Alberic of Rheims and Lotulf of Lombardy, instigated proceedings against Abelard, charging him with the heresy of Sabellius in a provincial synod held at Soissons in 1121. They obtained through irregular procedures an official condemnation of his teaching, and Abelard was made to burn the Theologia himself. He was then sentenced to perpetual confinement in a monastery other than his own, but it seems to have been agreed in advance that this sentence would be revoked almost immediately, because after a few days in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons, Abelard returned to St. Denis.
Life in his own monastery proved no more congenial than before. For this Abélard himself was partly responsible. He took a sort of malicious pleasure in irritating the monks. As if for the sake of a joke, he cited Bede to prove that the believed founder of the monastery of St Denis, Dionysius the Areopagite had been Bishop of Corinth, while the other monks relied upon the statement of the Abbot Hilduin that he had been Bishop of Athens. When this historical heresy led to the inevitable persecution, Abélard wrote a letter to the Abbot Adam in which he preferred to the authority of Bede that of Eusebius of Caesarea's Historia Ecclesiastica and St. Jerome, according to whom Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, was distinct from Dionysius the Areopagite, bishop of Athens and founder of the abbey, though, in deference to Bede, he suggested that the Areopagite might also have been bishop of Corinth. Adam accused him of insulting both the monastery and the Kingdom of France (which had Denis as its patron saint); life in the monastery grew intolerable for Abélard, and he was finally allowed to leave.
Abelard initially lodged at St Ayoul of Provins, where the prior was a friend. Then, after the death of Abbot Adam in March 1122, Abelard was able to gain permission from the new abbot, Suger, to live "in whatever solitary place he wished". In a deserted place near Nogent-sur-Seine in Champagne, he built a cabin of stubble and reeds, and a simple oratory dedicated to the Trinity and became a hermit. When his retreat became known, students flocked from Paris, and covered the wilderness around him with their tents and huts. He began to teach again there. The oratory was rebuilt in wood and stone and rededicated as the Oratory of the Paraclete.
Abelard remained at the Paraclete for about five years. Increasingly, however, he feared new persecution, this time by two "new apostles" - probably Bernard of Clairvaux and Norbert of Xanten. Abelard therefore decided to leave and find another refuge, accepting sometime between 1126 and 1128 an invitation to preside over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany. The region was inhospitable, the domain a prey to outlaws, the house itself savage and disorderly.
During this time, however, Abelard came back into contact with Heloise. In April 1129, Abbot Suger of St Denis succeeded in his plans to have the nuns, including Heloise, expelled from the convent at Argenteuil, in order to take over the property for St Denis. Learning of this, Abelard gave the deserted Paraclete to Heloise and the nuns who came with her, a gift which was confirmed in 1131 by Pope Innocent II in a charter granted while he was visiting Auxerre. Heloise became the abbess of a flourishing community of nuns, and Abelard helped the community to grow intellectually and practically; in the capacity of spiritual director he often was called to revisit the spot thus made doubly dear to him. Around this time, he published a book of hymns that he had composed.
Lack of success at St Gildas made Abelard decide to take up public teaching again (although he remained for a few more years, officially, Abbot of St Gildas). It is not entirely certain what he then did, but given that John of Salisbury heard Abelard lecture on dialectic in 1136, it is presumed that he returned to Paris and resumed teaching on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. It is presumed his lectures included logic, at least until 1136,[c] but were mainly concerned with the Bible, Christian doctrine, and ethics.
At some point in this time Abélard wrote, among other things, his famous Historia Calamitatum. This moved Héloïse to write her first Letter, which remains an unsurpassed utterance of human passion and womanly devotion; the first being followed by the two other Letters, in which she finally accepted the part of resignation, which, now as a brother to a sister, Abélard commended to her. Sometime before 1140, Abelard published his masterpiece, Ethica or Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself), where he analyzes the idea of sin and that actions are not what a man will be judged for but intentions. During this period, he also wrote Dialogus inter Philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum (Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian), and also Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos, a commentary on St. Paul's epistle to the Romans, where he expands on the meaning of Christ's life.
Abelard was to face, however, another challenge which would put a final end to his teaching career. After 1136, it is not clear whether Abelard had stopped teaching, or whether he perhaps continued with all except his lectures on logic until as late as 1141. Whatever the exact timing, a process was instigated by William of St Thierry, who discovered what he considered to be heresies in some of Abelard's teaching. In spring 1140 he wrote to the Bishop of Chartres and to Bernard of Clairvaux denouncing them. Another, less distinguished, theologian, Thomas of Morigny, also produced at the same time a list of Abelard's supposed heresies, perhaps at Bernard's instigation. Amid pressure from Bernard, Abelard challenged Bernard either to withdraw his accusations, or to make them publicly at the important church council at Sens planned for 2 June 1141. In so doing, Abelard put himself into the position of the wronged party and forced Bernard to defend himself from the accusation of slander. Bernard avoided this trap, however: on the eve of the council, he called a private meeting of the assembled bishops and persuaded them to condemn, one by one, each of the heretical propositions he attributed to Abelard. When Abelard appeared at the council the next day, he was presented with a list of condemned propositions imputed to him.
Refusing to answer to these propositions, Abelard left the assembly, appealed to the Pope, and set off for Rome, hoping that the Pope would be more supportive. However, this hope was unfounded. On 16 July 1141, Pope Innocent II issued a bull excommunicating Abelard and his followers and imposing perpetual silence on him, and in a second document he ordered Abelard to be confined in a monastery and his books to be burned. Abelard was saved from this sentence, however, by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. Abelard had stopped there, on his way to Rome, before the papal condemnation had reached France. Peter persuaded Abelard, already old, to give up his journey and stay at the monastery. Peter managed to arrange a reconciliation with Bernard, to have the sentence of excommunication lifted, and to persuade Innocent that it was enough if Abelard remained under the aegis of Cluny. Abelard was treated, not at all as a condemned heretic, but as a revered and wise scholar. He spent his final months at the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saône, before he died on 21 April 1142. He is said to have uttered the last words "I don't know", before expiring. He died from a combination of fever and a skin disorder, most likely scurvy.
Abelard was first buried at St. Marcel, but his remains were soon carried off secretly to the Paraclete, and given over to the loving care of Héloïse, who in time came herself to rest beside them in 1163.
The bones of the pair were moved more than once afterwards, but they were preserved even through the vicissitudes of the French Revolution, and now are presumed to lie in the well-known tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris. The transfer of their remains there in 1817 is considered to have considerably contributed to the popularity of that cemetery, at the time still far outside the built-up area of Paris. By tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt, in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.
This remains, however, disputed. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims Abélard and Héloïse are buried there and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument, or cenotaph. According to Père-Lachaise, the remains of both lovers were transferred from the Oratory in the early 19th century and reburied in the famous crypt on their grounds. Others believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.
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The general importance of Abélard lies in his having fixed more decisively than anyone before him the scholastic manner of philosophizing, with the object of giving a formally rational expression to received ecclesiastical doctrine. Though his particular interpretations may have been condemned, they were conceived in essentially the same spirit as the general scheme of thought afterwards elaborated in the 13th century with approval from the heads of the Church.
He helped to establish the ascendancy of the philosophical authority of Aristotle which became firmly established in the half-century after his death. It was at this time that the completed Organon, and gradually all the other works of the Greek thinker, first came to be available in the schools. Before his time, Plato's authority was the basis for the prevailing Realism. As regards his so-called Conceptualism and his attitude to the question of universals, see Scholasticism.
Outside of his dialectic, it was in ethics that Abélard showed greatest activity of philosophical thought. He stressed the subjective intention as determining, if not the moral character, at least the moral value, of human action. His thought in this direction, anticipating something of modern speculation, is remarkable because his scholastic successors accomplished least in the field of morals, hardly venturing to bring the principles and rules of conduct under pure philosophical discussion, even after they were made fully aware of Aristotle's great ethical inquiries.
Pope Innocent III accepted Abélard's doctrine of Limbo, which amended Augustine of Hippo's doctrine of Original Sin. The Vatican accepted the view that unbaptized babies did not, as at first believed, go straight to Hell but to a special area of Limbo ("limbus infantium"). They would therefore feel no pain and remain in a state of natural bliss. Supernatural bliss, however, is not available to unbaptized children because they cannot experience beatific vision.
He is also closely associated with the moral influence theory of atonement.
Abélard was an enormous influence on his contemporaries and the course of medieval philosophical thought, but he has been known in modern times mainly for his connection with Héloïse. Only one of his strictly philosophical works, the ethical treatise Scito te ipsum, had been published before the nineteenth century, in 1721. It was only with the publication by Cousin in 1836 of the collection entitled Ouvrages inedits d'Abelard that Abelard's philosophical work began to be studied more closely. Cousin's collection gave extracts from the theological work Sic et Non ("Yes and No") which is an assemblage of opposite opinions on doctrinal points culled from the Fathers as a basis for discussion, the main interest in which lies in the fact that there is no attempt to reconcile the different opinions. The collection also includes the Dialectica, and commentaries on logical works of Aristotle, Porphyry and Boethius. Two works published by Cousin and believed at the time to be by Abelard, the fragment De Generibus et Speciebus (published in the 1836 collection), and also the psychological treatise De Intellectibus (published separately by Cousin in Fragmens Philosophiques, vol. ii.), are now believed on upon internal evidence not to be by Abélard himself, but only to have sprung out of his school. A genuine work, the Glossulae super Porphyrium, from which Charles de Rémusat gave extracts in his monograph Abélard (1845), was published in 1930.
The story of Abelard and Heloise has proved immensely popular in modern European culture. This story is known almost entirely from a few sources: first, the Historia Calamitatum; secondly, the seven letters between Abelard and Heloise which survive (four written by Abelard, and three by Heloise), and always follow the Historia Calamitatum in the manuscript tradition; thirdly, four letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise (three by Peter, one by Heloise). They are, in modern times, the best known and most widely translated parts of Abelard's work.
It is unclear quite how the letters of Abelard and Heloise came to be preserved. There are brief and factual references to their relationship by twelfth-century writers including William Godel and Walter Map. It seems unlikely, however, that the letters were widely known in this period. Rather, the earliest manuscripts of the letters are dated to the late thirteenth century. It therefore seems likely that the letters sent between Abelard and Heloise were kept by Heloise at the Paraclete along with the 'Letters of Direction', and that more than a century after her death they were brought to Paris and copied. At this time, the story of their love affair was summarised by Jean de Meun in his continuation to Le Roman de la Rose.
Their story does not appear to have been widely known in the later Middle Ages, either. There is no mention of the couple in Dante; Chaucer makes a very brief reference in the Wife of Bath's Prologue (lines 677-8), but no more. One of the first people to show a deeper interest in the couple appears to have been Petrarch, who owned an early fourteenth century manuscript of the couple's letters. This silence on what is today seen as a particularly touching story is perhaps surprising, given the Renaissance ideal of courtly love - but it is possible that the story of Abelard and Heloise could not be appropriately fitted into the ideals of the lover's devotion to the chaste and unattainable lady.
The first publication of the letters, in Latin, was in Paris in 1616, simultaneously in two editions. These editions gave rise to numerous translations of the letters into European languages - and consequent eighteenth and nineteenth century interest in the story of the medieval lovers. In the eighteenth century, the couple were revered as tragic lovers, who endured adversity in life but were united in death. With this reputation, they were the only individuals from the pre-Revolutionary period whose remains were given a place of honour at the newly founded cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris. At this time, they were effectively revered as romantic saints; for some, they were forerunners of modernity, at odds with the ecclesiastical and monastic structures of their day and to be celebrated more for rejecting the traditions of the past than for any particular intellectual achievement.
The Historia was first published in 1841 by John Caspar Orelli of Turici. Then, in 1849, Victor Cousin published Petri Abaelardi opera, in part based on the 2 Paris editions of 1616 but also based on the reading of four manuscripts; this became the standard edition of the letters. Soon after, in 1855, Migne printed an expanded version of the 1616 edition under the title Opera Petri Abaelardi, without the name of Heloise on the title page.
Critical editions of the Historia Calamitatum and the letters were subsequently published in the 1950s and 1960s.
At various times in the past two hundred years, it has been suggested that not all the letters are genuine. Questions were first raised in 1806 by Ignaz Fessler, and were renewed by JC Orelli in 1944 and Ludovic Lalanne in 1855, who all suggested that the letters might simply by a literary fiction. Doubts were raised at intervals in the succeeding decades. More recently, John Benton hypothesised (in 1972) that the entire letter collection might have been forged in the late thirteenth century, or by Abelard himself (a position Benton had reverted to by 1979). In the aftermath of reaction to Benton's thought, though, scholars have become more confident in asserting the genuine nature of the letters.
According to historian Constant Mews the The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abélard, a set of 113 anonymous love letters found in a 15th-century manuscript, represent the correspondence exchanged by Héloïse and Abélard during the earlier phase of their affair. These are not to be confused with the accepted Letters of Abélard and Héloïse which were written nearly fifteen years after their romance ended.
Abélard was also long known as an important poet and composer. He composed some celebrated love songs for Héloïse that are now lost, and which have not been identified in the anonymous repertoire. Héloïse praised these songs in a letter: "The great charm and sweetness in language and music, and a soft attractiveness of the melody obliged even the unlettered".
Abélard composed a hymnbook for the religious community that Héloïse joined. This hymnbook, written after 1130, differed from contemporary hymnals, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux, in that Abélard used completely new and homogeneous material. The songs were grouped by metre, which meant that comparatively few melodies could be used. Only one melody from this hymnal survives, O quanta qualia.
Abélard also left six biblical planctus (laments), which were original, and which influenced the subsequent development of the lai, a song form that flourished in northern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Melodies that have survived have been praised as "flexible, expressive melodies [that] show an elegance and technical adroitness that are very similar to the qualities that have been long admired in Abélard's poetry."
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