Last week, we began this series with a biographical sketch of Anselm of Canterbury. Today, we continue the series with a sketch of the life of Peter of Abelard.
Peter of Abelard, the Peasant Philosopher
Unlike Anselm, Peter Abelard was not born into a noble family. His family were Bretons, living in the town of Le Pallet – about ten miles east of Nantes in Brittany.
Also unlike Anselm, Abelard has no contemporary records of his life. All we know about his life is found in his writings and in the writings of those who opposed him. His autobiographical Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Downfall) is our primary source for his personal life.
Strictly speaking, the two were only barely contemporaries. Peter Abelard was born in 1079, when Anselm was already in his mid forties. Still, as we will see next week, no two thinkers better embodied the differences of the theologies which emerged from the medieval period.
Peter ‘s father was a soldier by trade, which means he was more than likely a mercenary. We know nothing about his mother.
Encouraged by his quick intellect, Peter’s father provided him with a basic liberal education, perhaps thinking that his son could become something of an officer in the roaming corps of soldiers who worked in Europe.
Instead, Peter pursued philosophy. Particularly, he excelled at dialectics and became immersed in the thinking of Aristotle. He abandoned his home and wandered France, looking for intellectual challenges. He spent some time learning from Roscellinus of Compiegne before he moved to Paris and became a student at the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Lecturing in Philosophy
In Paris, Peter changed his last name to Abelard. He began his studies under William of Champeaux and very shortly was outshining his teacher. Before too long, William and Peter were debating fiercely, with William taking the prevailing view of platonic Realism while Peter began to develop his own views based on Aristotelian Nominalism (more on these terms later).
In 1115, at the age of thirty-six, Peter had bested most of the greatest minds of his age and become the chair of the school of Notre-Dame. Unfortunately, he had also begun an affair with the young daughter of one of the canons.
The object of his affection was an intelligent woman named Heloise. Abelard claims to have fallen in love with her at first sight and expended tremendous effort to be made part of her father Fulbert’s household. Once in the household, he eventually won Heloise’s affection and they were secretly married.
Heloise and Abelard had a child named Astrolabe, and for some reason Fulbert publicly revealed their relationship. When she was forced to deny their marriage, Heloise was exiled to a nunnery, and Fulbert sent a group of local troublemakers to kidnap and castrate Abelard.
With his child under the care of a family member and his body maimed such that he could never be with Heloise again, Abelard abandoned his public career and joined a monastery. Heloise became a nun and eventually an abbotess.
Abelard and Heloise maintained a correspondence until their deaths. Their letters can only be described as eroticism of the theological. They wrote theological questions and answers as passionately as any couple ever wrote about intimacy and romance.
Nominalism and Aristotle
This was possible because Abelard’s nominalism freed him from the medieval philosophy of realism. Simply put, realism holds that everything in the world has itness. For example, all trees have a form of treeness that makes them trees. There is this central idea in the mind of God that is a tree.
When the neo-Platonists of the last couple centuries of the period before Christ taught this, they applied to the entire world. Thus, what we observe in the real world is a faulty reflection of the true itness. This was picked up by the Gnostics and extended to the idea that what we observe here – the material world – is corrupt and sinful. This idea, in its essentials, was carried into the medieval period by most philosophers of the day.
Nominalism however says that these ideas of itness, these universal realities, are created in the mind of man. Trees are all trees only because we human beings recognize the similarities and name them as treeness.
By the same token, what we define as “love” is only defined as love because we choose to define it that way. Thus, deprived of the physical acts we refer to as love and intimacy, Abelard and Heloise simply defined their theological conversations as intimacy and expressed their love that way.
In this Abelard followed Aristotle’s philosophy while the rest of the thinkers around him (or at least the majority) followed the realism of Plato, as interpreted by the neo-Platonists.
Life in the Monasteries
As you can imagine, Abelard’s view of the world were enough of an irritant to the people around him. But deprived of Heloise, he seems to have turned to intentionally irritating people. In the monasteries, he would apply his encyclopedic knowledge of church doctrine to question everything.
Eventually, he was pushed out of the monastery and became a hermit. From his simple hermitage at Nogent-sur-Seine, he build a hermitage known as the Oratory of the Paraclete. Driven again into exile by his enemies, he fled to southern Brittany. And yet, he managed to install Heloise as the abbotess at the Paraclete.
During his time at the Paraclete, Abelard’s teaching (and he was something of a rockstar in his day) attracted the attention of another popular teacher – Bernard of Clairveaux. Bernard would later become the instrumental preacher of the Second Crusade, but in 1136, he became enraged over Peter’s teaching and actively opposed him. He summoned a church trial and had Peter arrested.
The fifty-seven year old Peter stood trial and argued so convincingly that he was released. But Bernard was not easily deterred. He summoned a second court and had Peter imprisoned again. This time, Peter protested to Rome. In 1141, on his way to the Holy See, he died at the prior or St. Marcel. His last words were reportedly, “I don’t know.”
His body was initially buried at St. Marcel but was later transferred to Heloise’s care at the Paraclete. When Heloise died in 1163, she was buried next to her beloved Abelard. Their bodies still rest next to one another.
Contrasting Abelard with Anselm
The differences between Abelard and Anselm should be immediately obvious if you have read these brief sketches of their lives. Anselm – landed nobility, chaste until death – had little in common with Abelard – Breton peasant turned teacher, castrated for his affair with a younger woman. There are three things to remember about Peter Abelard:
- Not a landowner, Abelard had no sense of fealty or vassalage. He was a free agent, no matter what he did.
- Abelard knew love and passion. He embraced love as the defining attribute of God.
- Abelard valued the human mind over ‘ultimate reality.’