« Abel Abelard Abelites »


ABELARD, ab´e-lɑ̄rd.

I. Life.

Student Life and Lecturer on Philosophy (§ 1).

Heloise (§ 2).

Monk and Abbot (§ 3).

Second Condemnation for Heresy (§ 4).

Last Days (§ 5).

II. System.

Philosophy (§ 1).

Theology (§ 2).

III. Writings.

Abelard is a name used as the common designation of Pierre de Palais (Petrus Palatinus), the first notable representative of the dialectico-critical school of scholasticism founded by Anselm of Canterbury, but kept by him within the limits of the traditional orthodoxy. The meaning as well as the original form of the by-name is uncertain; it has been connected with the Latin bajulus, “teacher,” and with the French abeille, “bee.” The ending “-ard” is Frankish, and the entire name may be.

I. Life:

1. Student Life and Lecturer on Philosophy.

Abelard was born at Palais (Le Pallet), a village of Brittany, about 12 m. e. of Nantes, in 1079; d. in the Priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saône (36 m. n. of Mâcon), Apr. 21, 1142. He voluntarily renounced his rights as first-born son of the knight Berengar, lord of the village, and chose a life of study. His first teacher was Roscelin, the Nominalist, at Locmenach, Brittany, now Locmine, 80 m. s. w. of Brest. Then he wandered from one teacher to another until he came to Paris, where William of Champeaux, the Realist, was head of the cathedral school and attracting great crowds. Young as he was, Abelard was bold enough to set himself up as William’s rival; he lectured, first at Melun (27 m. s.s.e. of Paris), then at Corbeil (7 miles nearer Paris), and, after a few years, in Paris itself at the cathedral school. His success was sufficient to make William jealous, and he compelled Abelard to leave the city. About 1113 he betook himself to Anselm of Laon at Laon (86 m. n.e. of Paris) to study theology, having hitherto occupied himself wholly with dialectics. His stay at Laon was short and was followed by a few years at Paris, where crowds flocked to hear his lectures and brought him a considerable income.

2. Heloise.

This brilliant career was suddenly checked by the episode of Heloise, a young girl of eighteen, said to have been the natural daughter of a canon of Paris, living with her uncle, Canon Fulbert of Paris. Her education was confided to Abelard, and a passionate love sprang up between them. When Fulbert attempted to separate them, they fled toward Brittany, to the home of Abelard’s sister, Dionysia, where Heloise bore a son, Astralabius. To satisfy Fulbert the lovers were married, Abelard asking that the marriage be kept secret out of regard for his ecclesiastical career. Fulbert disregarded this request and also treated his niece badly when she returned to his house. Abelard accordingly removed her to the Benedictine nunnery of Argenteuil (11 m. n.e. of Versailles), where she had been brought up, and where later she took the veil, a step which Fulbert interpreted as an attempt by her husband to get rid of her. In revenge he had Abelard attacked by night in his lodgings in Paris and mutilated, with the view probably of rendering him incapable of ever holding any ecclesiastical office. Abelard retired to the Benedictine abbey of St. Denis in Paris (probably about 1118), where he became a monk and lived undisturbed for a year or two, giving instruction in a secluded place (the “cella”).

3. Monk and Abbot.

He received much sympathy and had many pupils. In 1121 a synod at Soissons pronounced heretical certain opinions expressed by him in a book on the Trinity (De unitate et trinitate divina; discovered by R. Stolzle and published, Freiburg, 1891). He was required to burn the book, and to retire to the monastery of St. Medard, near Soissons. In a short time, however, he was allowed to return to St. Denis, but was ill received there; and his assertion that the patron saint of the monastery and of France was not the same as Dionysius the Areopagite (see Denis, Saint) made more trouble with the abbot, the monks, and the court. He fled, but was compelled to return and recant his opinion concerning St. Denis. Afterward he was allowed to retire to Champagne, near Nogent-sur-Seine (60 m. s.e. of Paris) where he built an oratory to the Trinity. Pupils again gathered about him and the original building of reeds and sedges was replaced by one which he called the Paraclete. But he was still under the jurisdiction of the abbot of St. Denis and suffered much annoyance. He accepted the election as abbot of the monastery of St. Gildas in Brittany (on the peninsula of Ruis, 10 m. s. of Vannes), and stayed there ten years, but he found it impossible to control the unruly monks and they tried to poison him. He found refuge 9 from time to time at the Paraclete, which he had presented to Heloise after the nunnery of Argenteuil was closed (c. 1127); but his visits as spiritual director of the nuns who gathered about his wife caused scandal, and he had to give them up. Another attempt was made on his life; and once more he sought safety in flight, whither is not known.

4. Second Condemnation for Heresy.

For several years his life is obscure; it is only known that in 1136 John of Salisbury heard him lecture in the school on the hill of St. Genevieve in Paris, and that during this period he wrote his autobiography, the Historia calamitatum. In 1141 a council, instigated mainly by Bernard of Clairvaux, a man thoroughly antipathetic to Abelard, who had long considered his teaching wrong and his influence dangerous, met at Sens (61 m. s.s.e. of Paris). Certain extracts from Abelard’s writings were pronounced erroneous and heretical (June 4, 1141). Abelard declined to defend himself; he appealed to the pope, and with his followers left the council. His former pupil, Cardinal Guido de Castello (afterward Pope Celestine II.), took his part at Rome; but Bernard wrote a letter denouncing Arnold of Brescia, another pupil, as one of the champions of Abelard, and thereby influenced the decision of Pope Innocent II., who condemned Abelard to silence, excommunicated his followers, ordered him and Arnold to retire to a monastery, and their books to be burned (July 16, 1141). Abelard wrote an apology defending himself against the action of the council, and sent a letter to Heloise maintaining his orthodoxy. He wrote a second apology submitting to the Church, and made peace with Bernard.

5. Last Days.

By the friendly intervention of Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, permission was given him to spend the rest of his days at Cluny. He continued his studies, “read constantly, prayed often, gladly kept silence.” But, broken by his sufferings and misfortunes, he did not live long there. With a view to his physical betterment Peter sent him to the neighboring priory of St. Marcel, at Chalons and there he died. His body was taken to the Paraclete; and on the death of Heloise (May 16, 1164) her body was placed in the same coffin. In 1817 their remains were removed to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, Paris, and a monument was erected of stone from the ruins of the Paraclete.

II. System:

1. Philosophy.

Abelard belonged to the school of Anselm of Canterbury, but he did not follow him slavishly; and he was more critic than apologist of any system. He borrowed much from Augustine, Jerome, and older Church Fathers, as well as from Agobard, Claudius of Turin, Erigena, and Fredegis. His originality is seen in his doctrine of the Trinity and the Atonement and, as a philosopher, particularly in his teaching concerning the principia and his position toward the question of universalia. The latter is not quite clear; but it appears that he was neither nominalist, realist, nor conceptualist. William of Champeaux, the extreme realist, declared the universalia to be the very essence of all existence, and individuality only the product of incidental circumstances. To this Abelard objected that it led to pantheism; and he pursued his criticism so keenly that he forced William to modify his system. He rejected nominalism also, according to which the universalia are mere names, declaring that our conceptions must correspond to things which occasion them. This view is not conceptualism in so far as it does not in one-sided fashion emphasize the assertion that the general ideas are mere conceptus mentis, mere subjective ideas.

2. Theology.

As theologian Abelard is noteworthy for his doctrine of revelation, his attitude toward belief on authority, and his conception of the relation between faith and knowledge. Concerning revelation he emphasizes the inner influence on the human spirit rather than its external manifestation, and does not limit inspiration to the writers of the Scriptures, but holds that it was imparted also to the Greek and Roman philosophers and to the Indian Brahmans. He teaches that the Scriptures are the result of the cooperation of the Spirit of God with the human writers, recognizes degrees of inspiration, and admits that prophets and apostles may make mistakes. He does not hesitate to disclose the contradictions in tradition, and distinguishes like a good Protestant between the authority of the Scriptures and that of the Fathers. Faith means to him a belief in things not susceptible to sense which can be grounded on rational demonstration or satisfactory authority. He opposes the compulsion of authority, will have free discussion of religious things, and everywhere follows his own conviction; but he sets narrow limits to what can be known. An adequate knowledge of the unity and trinity of God he declares impossible, as well as a scientific proof that shall compel belief in the existence of God and immortality. Here he asserts merely a possibility of belief. He condemns the acceptance of formulas of belief without knowing what they mean, and will have no one required to believe anything contrary to reason; he found nothing of the kind himself in the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church, and does not mean to exclude the supernatural. The doctrine of the Trinity he always treats in connection with the divine attributes; and in spite of all precautions the Trinity always becomes in his thought one of the attributes. He qualifies omnipotence by teaching that God does everything which he can, and therefore he could not do more than he has done. He can not prevent evil, but is able only to permit it and to turn it to good. As for his ethics, he teaches that moral good and ill inhere not in the act but in the motive. The evil propensity is not sin; it is the pœna merely, and not the culpa, which has passed from Adam upon all. His theory of the Atonement is moral. The aim of the incarnation and sufferings of Christ was to move men to love by this highest revelation of the divine love. The love thus awakened frees from the bondage of sin, enables to fulfil the law, and impels to do the will of God, no longer in fear, but in the freedom of the sons of God. By law he understands the natural law which Christ taught and fulfilled, giving thereby 10 the highest example. By his love, faithful to death, Christ has won merit with God; and because of this merit God forgives those who enter into communion with Christ and enables them to fulfil the law. It is in personal communion with Christ, therefore, that the real Atonement consists. Only such as let themselves be impressed with the love of Christ enter into this communion. By the curse of the law from which Christ frees, Abelard understands the Mosaic religion with its hard punishments. Inasmuch as Christ made an end of the Mosaic religion, he abolished its punishments also.

III. Writings:

A practically complete edition of the works of Abelard (including certain writings which are spurious or of doubtful origin) was furnished by Victor Cousin in the Ouvrages inédits d’Abélard (Paris, 1836) and Petri Abelardi opera nunc primum in unum collecta (2 vols., 1849-59); the Opera, from the edition of A. Duchesne and F. Amboise (Paris, 1616), with Opuscula published later, are in MPL, clxxviii. (lacks the Sic et non, that brilliant piece of skeptical writing). Particular works have been published as follows: the Theologia Christiana and the Hexameron, ed. Martène and Durand, in the Thesaurus novus anecdotorum, v. (Paris, 1717); the Ethica (Scito te ipsum), ed. B. Pez, in the Thesaurus anecdotorum novissimus, iii. (1721); the Dialogus and the Epitome or Sententiæ, ed. F. H. Rheinwald (Berlin, 1831,1835); the Sic et non, ed. T. Henke and G. S. Lindenkohl (Marburg, 1851; incomplete in Cousin’s edition, 1836); the Historia calamitatum, ed. Orelli (Zurich, 1841); the Planctus virginum Israel super filia Jeptæ Galaditæ, ed. W. Meyer and W. Brambach (Munich, 1886); the Hymnarius paraclitensis, ed. G. M. Dreves (Paris, 1891); the Tractatus de unitate et trinitate divina, ed. R. Stölzle (Freiburg, 1891). The letters have been often published in the original Latin and in translation (Latin, ed. R. Rawlinson, London, 1718; Eng., ed. H. Mills, London, 1850; ed. H. Morton, New York, 1901; Germ., with the Historia calamitatum, ed. P. Baumgärtner, Reclam, Leipsic, 1894; French, with Latin text, ed. Grérard, Paris, 1885); and selections will be found in some of the works cited in the bibliography below.

Bibliography: J. Berington, . . . Lives of Abeillard and Heloisa, with . . . Their Letters, 2d ed., Birmingham, 1788; C. de Rémusat, Abélard, 2 vols., Paris, 1845 (the standard biography); J. L. Jacobi, Abelärd and Heloise, Berlin, 1850; F. P. G. Guisot, Lettres d’Abailard et d’Héloise, précédées d’un essai historique, Paris, 1839, 1853; C. Prantel, Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande, ii. 160-204, Leipsic, 1861; O. W. Wight, Abélard and Heloise, New York, 1861; E. Bonnier, Abélard et St. Bernard, Paris, 1862; Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, v. 321-326, 399-435; A. Stöckl, Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, i. 218-272, Mainz, 1864; H. Reuter, Geschichte der religiösen Aufklärung im Mittelalter, i. 183-259, Berlin, 1875; E. Vacaudard. Abélard et sa lutte avec St. Bernard, sa doctrine, sa méthode, Paris, 1881; S. M. Deutsch, Peter Abälard, Leipsic, 1883; A. S. Richardson, Abélard and Heloise, with a Selection of their Letters, New York, 1884; J. G. Compayré, Abelard and the . . . History of Universities, London, 1893; A. Hausrath, Peter Abälard Leipsic, 1895; Jos. McCabe, Peter Abélard, New York, 1901 (an excellent book); Hauck, KD, iv. 409 sqq.

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