Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Life. The most conspicuous figure in the great dialectical contest which occupied so large a share of the attention of philosophers during the twelfth century is Peter Abelard, who was born at Pallet, near Nantes, in Brittany, in the year 1079. After having studied under Roscelin he went to Paris, where he attended the lectures of William of Champeaux. Being, as St. Bernard says, "vir bellator ab adolescentia," he quarreled with his master, and, at the age of twenty-two, set up a rival school, teaching first at Melun and afterwards at Corbeil. When William retired to the monastery of St. Victor (1108) Abelard returned to Paris, where he enjoyed the most extraordinary success as a lecturer on dialectic. He first taught at Ste. Genevieve and later (about 113) at the cathedral school of Notre Dame. In his autobiography, which he so appropriately styles Historia Calamitatum, he tells of his love for Heloise, of the vengeance of the canon Fulbert, of the secret marriage, of his entry into the Benedictine order at the abbey of St. Denis, of the retirement of Heloise to the convent of Argenteuil, and of the foundation of the oratory called the Paraclete. He makes no secret of the pride and vanity to which he attributed his downfall and the sufferings of his later life.{1}

About the time he had attained the greatest eminence as a teacher of dialectic, Abelard presented himself at the school of the venerable Anselm of Laon for the purpose of studying theology. At Laon it was the same story of insubordination as at Paris: Abelard was uneasy until he had discomfited the Doctor Doctorum (Anselm) as completely as he had overthrown the Columna Doctorum (William of Champeaux). After the downfall of Abelard the disciples of Anselm had their day of revenge. Summoned before the council of Soissons (1121) Abelard was obliged to recite the Athanasian creed and to burn his book on the Trinity.{2} After this he retired to a desert region near Troyes. Thence he went to the monastery of St Gildas de Rhuys in Brittany. The monks, however, drove him from the abbey, and after some years spent in the neighborhood of Nantes he resumed his lectures at Paris. Pupils now began to flock in such numbers to his school that Anselm's disciples became alarmed once more, and the intervention of St. Bernard of Clairvaux was invoked. Abelard treated Bernard and his monks with characteristic disdain. St. Bernard wrote to Rome, and sent a circular letter to the bishops of France. The result was, that at Abelard's own request (so at least it seems) a council was assembled at Sens (1140).{3} Abelard, however, refused to defend himself; nevertheless he was condemned, but, because he appealed to Rome, he was allowed to accept the hospitality of the venerable Peter of Cluny,{4} at whose monastery he spent the last two years of his life in peace. He died, in 1142, at Châlons-sur-Saône, four leagues distant from Cluny, and was buried at the Paraclete.

Character. Abelard is a type of the fighting dialectician of the twelfth century, -- vir bellator. He was by disposition a rationalist, intolerant of restraint, totally devoid of respect for authority, and so fond of displaying his extraordinary talents that he appears to have preferred victory to truth.

Sources. In addition to the Historia Calamitatum, we possess the following works of Abelard (cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CLXXVIII): Epistolae, Expositio Fidei, Introductio ad Theologiam, Theologia Christiana, Ethica (or Scite Teipsum), Sic et Non, Dialogus inter Philosophum Judaeum et Christianum. To these are to be added the Summa Dialecticae and perhaps also the fragment De Generibus et Speciebus published by Cousin. Monographs: Rémusat, Abélard (Paris, 1845); Deutsch, Peter Abälard (Leipzig, 1883).


Method. Abelard is primarily a dialectician. Dialectic he defines as the art of discerning the true from the false: it implies the task of discerning or distinguishing thoughts and the subsidiary task of distinguishing words. In the Sic et Non Abelard formulates the principal theses of theology and presents the opinions of the Fathers pro and contra. This idea of philosophic method was further developed by Alexander of Hales, and became the recognized method of the schoolmen of the thirteenth century and of their successors.{5}

Doctrine of Universals. There is nothing more certain than that Abelard was equally opposed to the nominalism of Roscelin and to the realism of William of Champeaux. It is not, however, so easy to determine what was Abelard's own answer to the questions proposed by Porphyry. John of Salisbury, a disciple of Abelard, after mentioning the opinion of Roscelin, speaks of Abelard's doctrine in the following terms:

Alius sermones intuetur et ad illos detorquet quidquid alicubi de universalibus meminit scriptum. In hac autem opinione deprehensus est peripateticus palatinus Abaelardus noster.{6}

Distinguishing between vox and sermo (the word as used in a sentence), Abelard would maintain "est sermo predicabilis." Apparently, therefore, Abelard was a modified nominalist: he is generally classed with the conceptualists, and John of Salisbury's statement that Abelard and his followers "rem de re praedicari monstrum ducunt "{7} seems definitely to exclude them from the ranks of the realists.

From the texts furnished by Rémusat and Cousin, it is clear that the traditiohal opinion which regarded Abelard as the founder of conceptualism must he abandoned. Abelard nowhere teaches that the universal existing in the mind has no objective value. On the contrary, while he does not succeed in discovering a neat and concise formula in which to express his doctrine of realism, he maintains principles which justify us in classing him not only among the anti-realists, who opposed exaggerated realism (the antiqua doctrina), but even among the moderate realists, although his moderate realism is naturally undeveloped. Among the principles to which we refer are the following:

1. The universal has no existence apart from the individual: "Cum nec ipsae species habeant nisi per individua subsistere."{8}

2. The universal is not a mere word: the word becomes universal by means of the mode of predication which it assumes on being made part of a sentence. It is therefore, presumably, the mind which confers universality, on account of the essential similarity of different individuals. This thought is not, however, explicitly enunciated by Abelard: it is merely contained in his distinction of vox and sermo.

3. The difference of genera and species is founded on a difference of things: "Diversitas substantim diversitatem generum et specierum facit."{9}

Relation of Philosophy to Theology. In the Introductio ad Theologiam Abelard lays down certain principles which seem to remove all distinction between philosophy and theology by reducing the latter to the level of the former. Faith must be based on reason:

Si enim, cum persuadetur aliud ut credatur, nil est ratione discutiendum, utrum scilicet credi oporteat vel non, quid restat nisi ut aeque tam falsa quam vera praedicantibus acquiescamus.{10}

Again, he says: "Nec quia Deus id dixerat creditur, sed quia hoc sic esse convincitur accipitur,"{11} a -- a principle which, it is said, offended St. Bernard's sense of orthodoxy and constituted the real reason of Abelard's second condemnation.

The Credo ut intelligam and the Intelligo ut credam are equally essential to the Scholastic doctrine of the relation between philosophy and theology. By neglecting the former altogether, and by insisting on the latter exclusively, Abelard unduly emphasizes the rationalistic element in Scholasticism. Like Erigena, he identifies philosophy with theology. But, while Erigena understood the identity in one sense, Abelard understands it in another: Erigena's point of view was that of a mystic; Abelard's point of view is that of a rationalist. Erigena raised philosophy to identification with theology, because God, the object of theology, is the only reality, and is therefore the object of philosophy. Abelard lowers theology to identification with philosophy, because the principle that in order to believe we must first understand is by him extended to mean that reason can comprehend even the mysteries of faith. It was in this spirit of rationalism that Abelard, according to Otto of Freising, compared the Holy Trinity to a syllogism. In a similar spirit. he affirmed the moral precepts of the Gospel to be merely a reformation of the natural law observed by pagan philosophers, and said and wrote many things which, though they were not heretical, gave offense by reason of their total disregard for authority.

We are not here concerned with the theological doctrines for which Abelard was twice condemned. It is sufficient to note that the sum of the accusations brought forward by St. Bernard was that Abelard regarded the Trinity as a mere trinity of names, or, at most, of attributes.

Origin of the Universe. Abelard's account of the origin of things is characterized by necessitarianism and optimism. Whatever God made, He made necessarily; for, whatever He made is good, and to say that He could abstain from doing what is good is to accuse Him of jealousy or of downright malice.{12} God therefore made everything that He could make: "Ergo ubi non est velle Dei deest posse,"{13} and the world is the best possible world, for the evil which exists is such as God could not prevent. In a certain sense, however, God created freely, because in the act of creation He was constrained by no external agent but only by His own nature.{14}

Psychological Doctrines. The soul, although in itself simple and spiritual, yet, inasmuch as it is included in the body, is corporeal. For this reason Abelard{15} says that all creatures are corporeal; the angels, because they are circumscribed by place, and the human soul because it is included in the body. The soul is the principle of life: it makes the body to be what it is.

Abelard speaks of free judgment (liberum arbitrium) rather than of free will. Judgment is free because there is no compulsion, and freedom consists in the power to act or abstain from acting.{16}

Ethical Doctrines. In his ethical treatise{17} Abelard distinguishes between vitium, peccatum, and mala actio. Vitium is the inclination to sin, -- "id quo ad peccandum proni efficimur, hoc est ad consentiendum ei quod non convenit." Peccatum is not mere mala voluntas: it is "contemptus Dei, sive consensus in eo quod credimus propter Deum dimittendum." Mala actio is the external act, the opus peccati, which is not, properly speaking (that is, formally), a sin at all, but merely the matter of sin,

From this distinction it follows that all external actions are, in themselves, morally indifferent: it is the intention that causes them to be good or evil: "Opera omnia in se indifferentia, nec nisi pro intentione agentis bona vel mala dicenda sunt."{18} God looks not to the deed, but to the intention, and He punishes the intention rather than the act, -- "non enim Deus ex damno, sed ex contemptu offendi potest." Finally, where ignorance blinds or force coerces there is no sin, sin being essentially something contrary to conscience: "Non est peccatum nisi contra conscientiam."{19} Conscience must, therefore, be our guide, since it corresponds to the external norms of conduct.

Historical Position. Abelard was acknowledged to be the foremost dialectician of an age in which dialectic was cultivated as it never has been cultivated since. "Huic soli," says an epitaph, written by a contemporary, "patuit scibile quidquid erat." He appeared in the twelfth century like a brilliant comet which dazzled for a moment but failed to shed permanent light. His was a highly gifted mind, but it was a mind whose prominent quality was brilliancy rather than profundity. He discussed many questions but exhausted none. His career, however, brought out the many-sidedness of the Scholastic movement, by exhibiting in exaggerated form the rationalistic element of Scholasticism. Abelard was condemned, not because he advocated the rights of reason, nor because he applied dialectic to the discussion of the Trinity, -- St. Augustine had done this without incurring reproach, -- but because of the extravagant claims which he urged on behalf of reason, and because of the heresy into which he fell in his discussion of the Trinitarian mystery.{20}

{1} Hist. Calam., col. 126.

{2} The work condemned and burned on this occasion was the Tractatus de Unitate et Trinitate Divina. This treatise was discovered and edited in 1891 by Dr. Stolze of Wurzburg. The Theologia Christiana, as we now possess it, is a revised form of the original Tractatus, with some significant omissions and some amplifications by way of explanation and apology. cf. Poole, op. cit., p. 150.

{3} Deutsch, Die Synode von Sens, 1141 (Berlin, 1880), maintains that the Synod was held in 1141. cf. Denifle, Archiv, I, 603, 606.

{4} Peter, writing under the impressions of these two years' intercourse with Abelard, describes him as "ever to be named with honor, the servant of Christ and verily Christ's philosopher" (Epistola ad Heloissam, Patr. Lat., Vol. CLXX VIII, co]. 66). That St. Bernard was unfair to Abelard both before and after the council is the opinion now entertained by many Catholic writers. cf. Mabillon (Praefatio in Bernardi Opera, 1, note 5); Pez (Thesaurus Anecdotorum Novissimus, III, dissert. isag.). cf. also Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, Zweite Aufi., V, pp. 469, 481, 485.

{5} Cf. Picavet, Abélard et Alexandre de Hales, créateurs de la methode scholastique (brochure).

{6} Metal., II, Cap. 17.

{7} Ibid.

{8} Summa Dialectica, Ouvrages inéd., p. 204.

{9} Sum. Dial., Ouvrages inéd., p. 418.

{10} Introductio ad Theologiam, col. 2049.

{11} Op. cit., col. 1050.

{12} Theologia Christiana, Lib. V, col. 2324.

{13} Cf. op. cit., coll. 1329-1330.

{14} Ibid.

{15} Introd. ad Theol., Lib. III, Cap. 6.

{16} Introd. ad Theol., Lib. III, Cap. 7.

{17} Ethica, Cap. 3.

{18} Op. cit., Cap. 7.

{19} Op. cit., Cap. 13.

{20} The work De Generibus et Speciebus which Cousin includes among Abelard's works was written, according to Ritter, by Joscelin (Gauslenus) of Soissons (bishop of Soissons from 1122 to 1151), of whom John of Salisbury makes mention in his Metalogicus (II, 17). Ritter's conjecture is not, however, accepted by Stöckl and others, who are content with assigning the treatise in question to some writer belonging to the first half of the twelfth century. The author of the treatise is equally opposed to nominalism and to that form of realism which maintains the physical unity of that which corresponds to the universal.

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