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Abelard, Peter (1080-1142)
Peter Abelard was a French scholastic philosopher. The story of his affair with his student, Héloïse, has become legendary.

Abelard's Youth
He was born in the little village of Pallet, about 10 miles east of Nantes, in Brittany, the eldest son of a noble Breton family. As a boy, he learned quickly, and chose an academic life instead of the military career usual for one of his birth. He acquired the art of dialectic, then called a branch of philosophy. Dialectic consisted chiefly of the logic of Aristotle transmitted through Latin channels and was the great subject of liberal study in the Episcopal schools. The nominalist Roscellinus, the famous canon of Compiegne, claims to have been his teacher; but whether this was in early youth, when he wandered from school to school for instruction and exercise, or some years later, after he had already begun to teach, remains uncertain.


Abélard's travels finally brought him to Paris while still in his teens. There, 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, and most advanced of Realists. He was soon able to defeat the master in argument, resulting in a long duel that ended in the downfall of the philosophic theory of Realism, till then dominant in the early Middle Ages. It was to be replaced by Abélard's Conceptualism, or by Nominalism, the principal rival of Realism prior to Abélard. First, against opposition from the metropolitan teacher, while yet only twenty-two, Abélard set up a school of his own at Melun. Then, for more direct competitionwith his old master, he moved to Corbeil, which was nearer Paris.

The success of his teaching was notable, though the strain proved too great for his constitution. Upon his return, some time after 1108, he found William lecturing in a monastic retreat outside the city. There they once again became rivals. Abélard was once again victorious, and now stood supreme. From Melun, where he had resumed teaching, Abélard went on to the capital, and set up his school on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, overlooking Notre-Dame. From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and attended the lectures of Anselm at Laon. His triumph was complete; the pupil was able to give lectures which were acknowledged superior to those of the master. Abélard was now at the height of his fame. He stepped into the chair at Notre-Dame, being also nominated canon, about the year 1115.

Distinguished in figure and manners, Abélard was often seen surrounded by crowds. It is said thousands of students were drawn to him from all over Europe by the fame of his teaching. Enriched by the offerings of his pupils, and entertained with universal admiration, he came 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.

His love, Héloïse

Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, was a girl named Héloïse, born about 1101. She is said to have been beautiful, but still more remarkable for her knowledge, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. Abélard fell in love with her. He sought and gained a place in Fulbert's house. Becoming tutor to the girl, he used his power for the purpose of seduction, and she returned his devotion. Their relations interfered with his public work but were not kept a secret by Abélard himself. Soon everyone knew of the affair except the trusting Fulbert.

Once her uncle found out, the lovers were separated, but continued to meet in secret. Héloïse became pregnant, and was carried off by Abélard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son. To appease her furious uncle, Abélard proposed a secret marriage, in order not to mar his prospects of advancement in the church, but Héloïse opposed the idea. She appealed to him not to sacrifice the independence of his life for her , but reluctantly gave in to pressure from her uncle and Abelard.

The secret was not kept by Fulbert and when Héloïse boldly denied it, life was made so difficult for her that she sought refuge in the convent of Argenteuil. Immediately, Fulbert (who believed that Abelard, who had helped her run away, wanted to be rid of her) plotted revenge. He and a few others broke into Abélard's chamber by night and castrated him. The priesthood and ecclesiastical office were thereafter canonically closed to him. Héloïse, not yet twenty, completed her self-sacrifice at Abélard's insistence and became a nun.

Later life

It was in the abbey of Saint-Denis that Abélard, now aged forty, sought to bury himself as a monk. Finding no respite in the cloister, and having gradually turned again to study, he reopened his school at the priory of Maisonceile in 1120. His lectures, now framed in a devotional spirit, were once again heard by crowds of students and his old influence seemed to have returned. However, he still had many enemies. No sooner had he published his theological lectures than his adversaries picked up on his rationalistic interpretation of the Trinitarian dogma. Charging him with the heresy of Sabellius in a provincial synod held at Soissons in 1121, they obtained an official condemnation of his teaching Abelard was made to burn his book and was then confined in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons.

It was, for Abelard, a very bitter experience. The life in his own monastery proved no more congenial than it had before. Abélard was partly responsible for this turn of events. He took a sort of malicious pleasure in irritating his fellow monks. As an example, he cited Bede to prove that Dionysius the Areopagite had been Bishop of Corinth, while his fellow monks relied upon the statement of the Abbot Hilduin that he had been Bishop of Athens. When his historical heresy led to the inevitable persecution, Abélard wrote a letter to the Abbot Adam in which he repeated his claim. Life in the monastery was intolerable for Abélard, and he was finally allowed to leave. In a deserted area near Nogent-sur-Seine, he built a cabin of stubble and reeds, and lived the life of a hermit. When his retreat became known, students flocked to him from Paris, and covered the wilderness around him with their tents and huts. When he began to teach again he found consolation, and in gratitude he consecrated the new Oratory of the Paraclete at his hermitage.

Abélard, fearing new persecution, left the Oratory to find another refuge. He acceped an invitation to preside over the abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, far away in Lower Brittany. The region was inhospitable, the domain a prey to outlaws, the house itself savage and disorderly. Yet for nearly ten years he continued to struggle with fate before he left. The misery of those years was lightened because he had been able, on the breaking up of Héloïse's convent at Argenteuil, to establish her as head of a new religious house at the deserted Paraclete, and in the capacity of spiritual director he often was called to revisit the spot thus made doubly dear to him.

All this time Héloïse had lived respectably. Living on for some time apart (we do not know exactly where), after his flight from the Abbey of St Gildas, Abélard wrote, among other things, his famous Historia Calamitatum, and thus moved her to write her First Letter, which remains an unsurpassed example of human passion and womanly devotion. It was followed by two other Letters, in which she finally accepted the role of resignation which, now as a brother to a sister, Abélard commended to her. He soon returned to the site of his early triumphs, lecturing on Mount St. Genevieve in 1136, but it was only for a brief period: a last great trial awaited him.

As far back as the days in Paraclete , his chief enemy had been Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard personified the principle of fervent and unhesitating faith, from which rational inquiry like Abélard's was a clear revolt. Bernard was moved to crush what he saw as the the growing evil represented bu Abelarde. A council met at Sens in 1141, before which Abélard was formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges. When Bernard opened the case, Abélard suddenly appealed to Rome.

Bernard did not rest until a second condemnation was procured at Rome in the following year. Abelard, on his way to Rome to make his plea in person collapsed at the abbey of Cluny. There he lingered only a few months before his death. He was taken by friends to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, where he died. First buried at St. Marcel, his remains were soon moved secretly to the Paraclete, and given over to the loving care of Héloïse, who in time came herself to rest beside them. The bones of the pair were moved more than once afterwards, but they were preserved even through the French Revolution, and now are presumed to lie in the well-known tomb in the cemetery of Père Lachaise in eastern Paris, though there seems to be some dissent as to their actual resting place. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims he and Héloïse are buried on their site and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument. According to Père-Lachaise, the remains of both lovers were transferred from the Oratory in the early 1800's and reburied in the famous crypt on their grounds. There are still others who believe that while Abélard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.

Reputation And Recognition

Abélard was an enormous influence on his contemporaries and on the course of medieval thought, but he has been known in modern times mainly for his connection with Héloïse. It was not till the 19th century, when Cousin in 1836 issued the collection entitled Ouvrages inedits d'Abélard, that his philosophical performance could be judged at first hand. Of his strictly philosophical works only one remains:, the ethical treatise Scito te ipsum, having been published in 1721. Cousin's collection, besides giving extracts from the theological work Sic et Non ("Yes and No") , includes the Dialectica, commentaries on the logical works of Aristotle, Porphyry and Boethius, and a fragment, De Generibus et Speciebus. This last work, and the psychological treatise De Intellectibus, published separately by Cousin, are now considered not to be by Abélard himself, but only to have sprung from his school. A genuine work, the Glossulae super Porphyrium, from which Charles de Rémusat, in his classical monograph Abélard (1845) has given extracts was published in 1930.

 
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