Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

Part III: The Twelfth Century

Chapter III

Peter Abelard

A. The Man and His Work

His name should be spelled "Abailard," but it is as "Abelard" that he is known, Peter Abelard, and just as he was wont to distinguish between vox and res, word and reality, we must take into account the difference between the myth or reputation of Abelard and what the man really was. The tradition of misspelling his name can be taken as almost symptomatic. Abelard has been for a long time a personality, an interesting, even tragic, character; there is a temptation, which few resist, to take sides first and then view the controversies in which he was involved from the vantage point of the parti pris. Was he the victim of William of Champeaux, of Anselm of Laon, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, of the uncle of Heloise? Or was he the victim of his own pride and vanity, of the hubris which seemed to characterize him until his last year? To such questions we should perhaps respond with the title of one of Abelard's works: Sic et non, yes and no. He was an exceedingly complex character, at once congenial and abrasive, and no event of his life seems free of a fundamental ambiguity. Heloise and Abelard have been called the first modern couple -- I believe this is intended as a compliment -- and perhaps they were; perhaps that explains the ambivalence which marks not only their doomed affair but other events of his life as well. There is no label that has been attached to Abelard that cannot be questioned or at least qualified. He may not in this differ from others -- the convenience of labels seems inseparable from their inconvenience -- but here as elsewhere what may be true of many seems particularly true of Abelard. There is an element of exaggeration in the man, no matter how we view him. Always controversial, seldom dull, he seems never to have run out of surprises for his contemporaries. One is tempted to say that his ultimate trick was to end his life in so edifying a way that he elicited the unstinting praise of Peter the Venerable, and one wants to think that St. Bernard of Clairvaux, if not William of St. Thierry, must finally have come to admire his enemy.

Peter Abelard was born in Palais, or Le Pallet, in Brittany in 1079. The stock from which he came was said to produce men good for the clerical life and not much else. Peter was early interested in things of the mind, and it may have been in 1094, at the age of fifteen, that Peter studied under Roscelin. There is reason to believe that he studied under Thierry of Chartres as well, and this too may have occurred while he was still a boy. We are not certain when exactly he first went to Paris. During this first stay he studied under William of Champeaux, at which time a characteristic of his manifested itself in a dramatic way. He began to quarrel with his teacher, to take exception to him, and, by his own account, to get the better of William. The upshot was that Abelard set up his own school, first at Melun, soon after at Corbeil in order to be closer to Paris; for his school, begun around 1104, was intended to rival that of William. Sometime before 1106 Abelard fell ill and returned to Brittany, where he remained for several years.

In 1108 Abelard returned to Paris and to the classroom of William of Champeaux. William was now teaching at St. Victor in Paris, having become a monk. Abelard attended William's lectures on rhetoric, and the old quarrel began anew. Abelard forced William to change his view on the status of universals and, thus triumphant, once more set up his own school, this time just outside Paris at Mont Ste. Genevieve. He continued to teach and to cause consternation among William's loyal students until his mother summoned him home. His father had joined a religious order and his mother intended to do so, and she seems to have wanted him home before she took the step.

Abelard returned from home around 1113, but now he had an entirely different ambition. He had decided at the age of thirty-four to study theology, and for this purpose he went to Laon, where Anselm and his brother Ralph taught. Their reputation was high, and it seemed a good choice, but almost immediately upon arriving at Laon, Abelard began to voice his criticism of Anselm. Taunted by the other students, he offered to comment on the Book of Ezekiel to show them how theology should be taught. They laughed when he sat down to the Bible. And yet, Abelard assures us, he dazzled his putative peers. They came to chortle; they stayed to take notes; they urged him to continue. Anselm was not to be counted among those elated at this outcome and became, in his turn, critical of Abelard.

Predictably, Abelard's next move was to set up his own school of theology. Actually he was offered a chair at the cathedral in Paris, students from Laon followed him, and his career was on the ascendant. Then, as eventually it does to most men, love came to Abelard. He was no callow youth; he was mature in years, he had devoted his life to study and teaching, and his academic and ecclesiastical future looked bright indeed. But Heloise, when he met her, seemed brighter still and certainly preferable. She was the niece of Fulbert, a Canon of Notre Dame, a girl of much talent and some education. Abelard suggested to Fulbert that he, Abelard, move into the house where he could direct the education of Heloise. Abelard's teaching was the first casualty, he tells us. He no longer prepared; he taught only what he had taught before; he wrote poetry. Heloise became pregnant, and Abelard took her off to Brittany, where in the house of his sister their son Astralabe was born. Fulbert, who had been flattered by Abelard's interest in his niece, was infuriated by this turn of events. Abelard wanted to marry Heloise, but she refused. Her reasons came down to this, that a married Abelard could not achieve the heights beckoning to an unmarried Abelard. She was not suggesting a clandestine relationship; she did not propose to be his mistress or his wife; rather, she wanted the affair to end. Heloise emerges as a genuinely selfless young lady, while Abelard in his Historia calamitatum confesses that his own attitude was essentially selfish. Nonetheless, he refused to accept the self-effacing offer of Heloise, insisted they marry, but agreed that it should be kept secret. The marriage seems to have taken place in Paris, to which they had returned, having left little Astralabe in Brittany with his aunt. Fulbert would have nothing to do with a secret marriage, however, and he bruited about that the nuptials had taken place. Heloise and Abelard, for a multitude of reasons, were incensed by this, and Abelard took Heloise to a nunnery at Argenteuil, the abbess of which he knew and where Heloise had been raised. Infuriated by this, Fulbert in company with friends burst into Abelard's room and emasculated him. The uncle's rage is surely curious in its intensity -- and of course its effect on Abelard was decisive and permanent.

In the wake of his maiming, Abelard repaired to the Abbey of St. Denys near Paris, where, he tells us, he reflected on the justice of the punishment that had been inflicted upon him. He made his profession as a monk at St. Denys around 1118, devoted himself to study and prayer -- and became critical of the house. It is generally agreed that this time his criticism had an unequivocal target. Bernard of Clairvaux was also critical of the mode of life at St. Denys. Old students sought out Abelard at the monastery, and he resumed teaching; it was at this time that he wrote his first theological work, in response to student requests and in criticism of Anselm of Laon. In 1121 he was summoned to a council at Soissons, where he expected to engage in public debate with Bernard of Clairvaux but where, to his surprise, he found a tribunal already convinced of his guilt. The charge was Sabellianism, but Abelard insists he was not found guilty of heresy. It was the fact that he had no license to teach theology that seems to have been his undoing, and in the event his book was burnt. As punishment he had to recite the Creed publicly and was entrusted to the abbot of St. Medard. Eventually he was freed by the papal legate and sent back to St. Denys. There he wore out his welcome by assuring the brethren that their St. Denys could not possibly have been Denys the Areopagite. One night he slipped away to Champagne and, once there, petitioned his abbot for permission to lead a monastic life elsewhere than at St. Denys. This was refused, but by the time Abelard got back to Paris there was a new abbot, permission was granted, and Abelard built an oratory at Quincey dedicated to the Paraclete. Once more students sought him out and Abelard resumed teaching, but he seems to have been somewhat nervous about doing so, perhaps mindful that he was again teaching theology without papal authority. In 1125 the monks at St. Cildas invited him to come as their abbot, and he agreed. It is conjectured that sometime during his stay at the Paraclete Abelard was ordained a priest. The monastery of which he became abbot was a literal nightmare. The monks kept concubines, and the place was impoverished. There was reason to suspect that the monks had both imagined that Abelard was a lenient religious and expected that students, with their fees, would follow him to St. Gildas. Abelard at this time gave the Paraclete to Heloise and her nuns. His attempts to reform his monastery put Abelard's very life in danger, and in 1131 he requested a papal investigation of the place. He himself left St. Gildas, in either 1131 or 1132, intending to go to Paris. It is here that the Historia calamitatum ends, and it has been conjectured that Abelard wanted the book to precede him to Paris and pave his way.

Our next firm word about Abelard comes from John of Salisbury, who studied under Abelard at Mont Ste. Genevieve in 1136. Abelard seems to have taught until the convening of the Council of Sens in 1140. William of St. Thierry had written to Bernard of Clairvaux concerning Abelard's teaching, to receive encouragement, and Abelard once more was headed for trouble. There is reason to believe that Abelard and Bernard met to discuss the former's teaching, but Bernard was unsatisfied and Abelard was charged. Abelard appealed immediately from the council to the pope, but the council was upheld. Abelard was condemned and excommunicated, and his works were burnt at St. Peter's in Rome. Abelard set out for Rome to see if he could not reverse the judgment. He never got there. En route, he stopped off at Cluny, where Peter the Venerable was abbot. The abbot persuaded Abelard to make his peace with Bernard, and this was done. Abelard settled at Cluny, where his humility and devotion were a source of edification to the monks and to Peter the Venerable himself. Abelard died on April 21, 1142.

Putting the Historia calamitatum, his poetry and letters to one side, the writings of Abelard fall into two main groups: logical and theological. Reliable editions of Abelard's logical writings are of fairly recent date, all within the present century, some within the decade. They fall into four groups: the so-called Introductiones parvulorum (1114), which are glosses of a fairly close type on Porphyry, Aristotle, and Boethius; the Logica ingredientibus (1120), containing glosses of increasing originality on Porphyry and Aristotle; the Logica nostrorum petitioni (1124), a very elaborate gloss on Porphyry's Isagoge; finally, the Dialectica, which is thought to have achieved its final form while Abelard was at Cluny. The dating of these works is, of course. conjectural and controverted. In 1958 two further works were attributed to Abelard. One of the most fruitful periods for historians of logic is the twelfth century, and for this reason it has been attracting so much attention that we may expect that our knowledge of Abelard's own logical work, and the context in which it was done, is bound to increase.

Among Abelard's theological writings are De unitate et trinitate divina (about 1120), Sic et non (1122-23), Theologia Christiana, Theologia (1124-1136), Expositio ad Romanos, Scito teipsum (this is Abelard's ethics), and The Dialogue Between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian.

Since it was chronologically his first interest, we will begin our consideration of Abelard's doctrine with his logic and then go on to his theological work. Finally, we will have something to say about the ethical doctrine contained in his Know Thyself.

B. Abelard's Logic

The Nature of Logic. In his Dialectica Abelard tells us that there are seven works which are in common use among the Latins when logic is engaged in. They are the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories and On Interpretation of Aristotle, and four works of Boethius -- the Book on Divisions, the Topics, Categorical Syllogisms, and Hypothetical Syllogisms. Actually the influence of Boethius is very apparent in Abelard's logical works. Even in commenting on Porphyry and Aristotle he follows Boethius closely. It is a matter of curiosity whether Abelard knew any of Aristotle's logical works other than the Categories and On Interpretation. Fairly general agreement can be obtained that Abelard knew the Sophistical Refutations and that he had seen at least some of the Prior Analytics. Through Boethius he, of course, had some indirect knowledge of the complete Organon.

Abelard simply takes over Boethius' solution of the controversy between the Stoic and Peripatetic schools (which Boethius, in turn, probably took from Ammonius). Should logic be regarded as a part of philosophy or only its instrument? The Stoics, who subdivided philosophy into physics, ethics, and logic, felt that logic had as much reason to be regarded as an autonomous part of philosophy as physics and ethics. It had an end of its own which was irreducible to those of physics and ethics. The Peripatetics, on the other hand, insisted on the instrumentality of logic and maintained that its goal was simply to aid us in achieving the goals of speculative and practical philosophy. Boethius, following Ammonius, wanted it both ways. He invoked the analogy of the hand, which is at once a part of the body and its instrument. More often than not, Abelard uses "dialectic" as synonymous with "logic." He is of course aware of the narrow use of the term "dialectic" when it refers to merely probable arguments; when he comments on the Topics he follows Boethius in likening the dialectician in the narrow sense to the rhetor or orator. In its broad sense, when dialectic is logic, it is a science. These two meanings of the term, the broad and the narrow, reflect Stoic and Aristotelian usage, respectively. When Abelard discusses the nature of logic, he appeals to the Stoic tripartite division of philosophy. Physics, or speculative philosophy, is concerned with the nature and causes of things; moral philosophy, or ethics, gives norms for the conduct of life. What does logic do? It treats of the way to construct arguments (de ratione argumentorum compenenda). It may be defined as ratio disserendi, that is, the science of discourse. Its task is to establish the truth or falsity of discourse. Abelard accepts from Boethius the notion that logic comprises both the art of discovering arguments and the art of confirming them, of judging their truth or falsity according to certain rules. These are constitutive parts of logic and not subdivisions of it, he says. What makes an argument true? Two things: the disposition of terms and the nature of things. If the goal of logic is the construction of true or scientific discourse, it is possible to see the task of logic subdivide into a study of names, propositions, the discovery of arguments, and, finally, their confirmation. Abelard goes to some trouble to distinguish logic from metayphysics, from psychology, from grammar and rhetoric, and from the mere ability to formulate arguments without knowing what it is that makes an argument valid or invalid.

The logic of Abelard, whether in the various glosses or in the independent work Dialectica, takes its scope and direction from the authoritative logical works then available in Latin. This is not to say that Abelard was not an independent and interesting logician. For a lengthy analysis of Abelard's Dialectica, the reader is referred to W. and M. Kneale, The Development of Logic, pp. 202-224. To give some flavor of Abelard the logician, we will devote ourselves here to an analysis of one of his glosses on Porphyry, that of the Logica ingredientibus.

The text being glossed is the famous one in which Porphyry states the problem of universals. Abelard lists the three questions raised by Porphyry and adds three of his own: (1) What is the common cause of our imposing universal names? (2) How do we understand universal names in which no particular thing seems to be conceived? (3) Would the name rose continue to have a meaning if all roses were destroyed? Promising to resolve these questions, Abelard notes that he will discuss the problem of universals only from the point of view of genus and species, leaving the other three predicables aside.

A definition of universal is needed at the outset. Abelard invokes the definition given by Aristotle in On Interpretation: a universal is that which is naturally apt to be predicated of many. As for the particular, Porphyry's definition is taken to be accurate enough: the particular is that which is predicated only of one. Not only words but things too are called universals, Abelard says. What he has in mind is Aristotle's remark, "Since of things, some are universals and others are singulars, I call that universal . . . ." So too, Porphyry has located genus and species in the nature of things. From all this Abelard concludes that things themselves are contained in the universal name.

How can the universal definition be applied to a thing? It would seem that no one thing, or no collection of things, is predicated of many things taken one by one. Yet that seems to be the characteristic of the universal. How is one thing, or a collection of things, called universal? Abelard proposes to examine all the available opinions on the matter.

(1) First Opinion. Some have tried to resolve the difficulty by saying that things which differ from one another in form nonetheless have essentially the same substance. This is the material essence of the individuals in which it is; moreover, it is one in itself and diverse only through the forms of its inferiors. Were these forms removed, there would be absolutely no difference between the things, for their diversity is due simply to forms: the matter is in essence absolutely the same. Thus, the same substance is made to be Plato by these accidents and Socrates by those.

Abelard thinks Porphyry would agree to this solution since he had written, "By participation in the species many men are one, but in particulars the one and common is many." Boethius too would seemingly agree, for he maintained that the same universal is at the same time entirely present in the different things of which it constitutes the substance materially; though universal in itself, it is individual thanks to advening forms, without which it subsists naturally in itself. Apart from such forms it by no means exists actually; in actuality it is always individual, although by nature it is universal. According to Boethius, Abelard concludes, individuals subsist, whereas universals are understood.

We need not be terribly concerned with the degree of accuracy with which Abelard ascribes positions to his predecessors; our present interest is in his reaction to the position as he has formulated it. He objects to it by saying that it is contrary to nature. Consider this one nature which is said to be essentially the same beneath diverse forms. Where is it? It is in individuals and individuals are many, and that entails that some one thing which is affected by certain forms be another thing which is affected by other forms. For example, animal is a genus, a species of universal. All right. Animal is essentially the same thing as it takes on the form of rationality and as it takes on the form of irrationality. But this is tantamount to saying that the irrational animal is the rational animal.

One might reply to Abelard by saying that irrational animal and rational animal can be identified to the extent that they are animal, but not insofar as they are rational and irrational. Abelard is ready. If substance is said to be the same and different only because of different qualities, we are merely postponing the problem. Quality too is a genus, and this would seem to entail that all qualities are the same. Finally, Abelard says, if difference is always something other than substance, how can we possibly talk about a plurality of substances? The import of that question is clear. If there are not many substances, there will not be many individuals for a universal to be common to.

(2) Second Opinion. Another opinion, one Abelard feels is close to the truth, would have it as follows. Individual things do not differ from one another because of forms; rather they are discrete personally in their essences. That which is in one is in no way to be found in another, whether it be matter or form. Even were all their forms removed, things would not subsist less discrete in their essences. Their personal differentness, that thanks to which this one is not that one, does not come from forms. It is the diversity itself of essence, just as the forms themselves are diverse one from another in themselves. If we do not say this, the diversity of forms would have to proceed ad infinitum, appeal always being made to further forms to explain the difference between these forms. Well, if forms can just simply differ from one another, why cannot individuals?

Abelard reacts to this opinion by wondering how those who hold it, hold namely that things are utterly different from one another, can admit universals at all. They do so by a distinction. True enough, they hold, things are not essentially the same, but they can be said to be indifferently so. Thus, individual men, different from one another in themselves, as individuals, are the same in man, that is, they do not differ (are indifferent) with respect to humanity. The universal is grounded on this indifference.

There is a subdivision of this second opinion. (a) Some hold that the universal is simply a collection of many individuals, for example, all men taken together are the species. Abelard thinks that Boethius would be in agreement with this. He quotes Boethius as follows, "Species must be considered to be nothing other than the thought collected from the substantial likeness of individuals, and genus from the likeness of species." That collected likeness, Abelard suggests, amounts to a collecting of many. (b) Others hold that the species is not only men brought together but the individuals also insofar as they are men. When it is said that what Socrates is is predicated of many, this has to be understood figuratively, that is, many are the same as he. This means that there will be as many species and genera as there are individuals, but because of likenesses of nature those who hold this position would assign a smaller number of universals than there are individuals.

In replying or reacting to (a) Abelard asks how the whole collection of men together can be called the species if the species is predicated of each of them? The species is not predicated partially of an individual; what it expresses must be wholly in each one of them. Furthermore, why would not small groups of men constitute a species, with the result that the species, man, would contain a great number of species? And what happens to the species if one member of the collection is removed?

As for (b), Abelard asks how we are to distinguish the universal from the particular in terms of "predicated of many" if Socrates like man can be said of many things? That is, if what Socrates is as man is said of many because they are the same as he, why cannot other men be called Socrates for the same reason? To the possible retort that to say Socrates agrees with Plato "in man" means that he does not differ from him in man, Abelard replies that we could just as easily say that Socrates does not differ from Plato in stone.

Abelard feels that the discussion has brought us to a point where it seems clear that things cannot be called universals, whether things be taken singly or collectively. The only alternative is to ascribe universality to words alone. The grammarian distinguishes appellative from proper nouns, Abelard observes, and the logician has a similar distinction to make between universal and particular words. By a universal word is meant one that can he predicated of many, for example, the term "man" can be conjoined with the particular names of men because of the nature of the subject things on which it is imposed. Particular words, a proper noun like "Socrates," are predicable only of one thing unless it be used equivocally, in which case it is no longer one word but many. Abelard does not mean to equate the grammatical and logical distinctions. He points out that a construction satisfies the grammarian if it makes sense, even though it does not show the status of a thing. Thus, "Man is a stone" is good grammar; it clearly indicates a meaning, but it does not truly demonstrate the status of man. The universal is never just the appellative, for the appellative includes oblique cases which are of little interest to the logician, who is primarily concerned with the proposition.

Having defined words as universal and particular, we must inquire into the properties of universal words. The thing about universal words is that they seem to stand for no one thing and to constitute no clear meaning of anything. For it is clear that a universal word does not apply to something, insofar as it differs from something else to which the same universal word is applicable. Thus, it might seem that universals do not derive their meaning from things. "Man," for example. does not stand for Socrates or any other individual or for the collection of individuals. We cannot infer from the proposition "A man sits in the house" that Socrates or any other particular man is sitting there. "Man," then, seems to signify no one thing, or even nothing. Where does it get its meaning? Abelard suggests the following. Universal words signify different things by naming them. Take the word "man." It names individual things for a common reason, namely, that they are men, and that is why it is called a universal. It also forms a certain conception which is common, not proper, and which pertains to the individuals in which it conceives the common likeness. Abelard considers this sufficient preparation for answering the three questions he has added to those of Porphyry. First, what is the common cause of the imposition of the universal word? Abelard says that individual men are discrete in essence as well as in accidents, but are united insofar as they are men. He does not mean to say that they are united in man, since nothing is man except a discrete thing. They are united in being man. To be man is not the same as man or indeed as anything. "Not to be in a subject," one of the characteristics of substance, is not itself something; the same can he said of "not to undergo contrariety" and "not to he subject to more or less." Yet these phrases express what Aristotle says is true of substance. What Abelard is trying to avoid is the position according to which individuals are said to be the same because of some other individual thing. Socrates and Plato are alike in being man; horse and ass are alike in not being man. Consequently, for different things to agree is for the individuals to be the same or not to be the same, as to be white or not to he white, to be man or not to be man. Abelard is not desirous of avoiding the issue by appeal to negative phrases. When we say of two things that they agree in the status of man, we are saying that they are alike in being men, that in this they do not differ in the least. Abelard adds that we can make that assertion without any appeal to essence. We call it the status itself of man to be man and that is not some further thing. To be a man -- that is the common cause of the imposition of the universal term "man" on individuals. It is in being man that the individuals agree with one another. What is Abelard saying here? Is he denying that Socrates and Plato have the same nature? Is he denying that they agree in essence? Or is he simply saying that it is not human nature as it exists in Socrates or as it exists in Plato that is signified by "man"? And what does he mean by status? We shall return to these questions.

Abelard's second question had to do with the understanding of universal words. He begins by distinguishing understanding and sense. The former does not make use of a corporeal organ, and it bears on the likeness of things constructed by the mind for itself. Thus, if a tower we saw is destroyed, we can no longer see it, but we still have the mental likeness formed of it. And, as seeing does not constitute the tower, neither is understanding the form or likeness. Abelard goes on to disagree with Aristotle, who, Abelard feels, equated an operation of the soul with the form by saying that the passiones animae are likenesses of things. Abelard prefers to call the image the likeness of the thing. Nonetheless, he concedes that understanding too can be called a likeness since it conceives what is properly called the likeness of the thing. Actually there is no disagreement with Aristotle here; the phrase "passions of the soul" which occurs in On Interpretation does not mean, as Abelard thinks, mental acts, but concepts. Abelard maintains that universal words are common and confused images of many things. Universality is achieved at the expense of distinctness. "Man" stands vaguely for this man, that man, and so on, and does not evoke a sharp image in the way "Socrates" does. Abelard would seem to have answered his third question as well: although the conception of rose would depend upon existent roses, once the mental image is formed, it can be retained and "rose" will preserve its meaning even if all roses should cease to exist.

Abelard's conclusion is that universal words signify the common form which is present to the mind, although he notes that the most forceful explanation of universals is that they are caused by a common conception formed in accord with the nature of things. Abelard feels that solution is closed to him, and he is left with the view that the universal word signifies a fuzzy, indistinct image which is formed by the mind.

These preliminaries done, Abelard turns to Porphyry's questions. He feels he can say, first of all, that universal words name existent things, but only in the way explained above. They owe their universality to the operation of our mind; the universality is not something existent in the sense of extramental. Are universals corporeal or incorporeal? This question, like the foregoing one, is ambiguous, Abelard observes. Some universal words may signify incorporeal substances, others corporeal substances. In the latter case, does the name common to many corporeal things signify something incorporeal? Sic et non, Abelard replies. It signifies individual corporeal things in a common fashion which presupposes an incorporeal image in our mind. The third question, whether universals exist in corporeal things, is answered by noting that the universal concept or image does not exist in corporeal singulars, although it represents what is in them. As for the dispute between Plato and Aristotle on this matter, Abelard has a swift reconciliation. Aristotle correctly maintained that what universals signify exists actually only in singulars; Plato just as correctly maintained that there is nothing to prevent their existing apart.

What, in sum, is Abelard maintaining with respect to universals? Few scholars discern an absolutely clear-cut doctrine emerging from Abelard's several discussions of the problem. Perhaps the two outstanding difficulties with Abelard's position are (1) the view that the universal word signifies something vague and (2) that this vague something is the status rather than the essence of individuals. As for the first, are not we able to have a very distinct notion of what "house" or rose means without at the same time asserting that those meanings are snapshots of individual houses or roses? When Abelard discusses Boethius' treatment of universals, it becomes clear that Abelard sees no way in which things named by the same universal word can be said to have a common essence. And yet, what can he mean by his status theory if not something pertaining to the substance -- that is, the essence -- of individual men? He has emphatically excluded the view that this man is this one thanks to his accidents; by the same token, it would seem, he cannot maintain that 'many' signifies a similarity among individual men based on their accidents. What is left save to say that they are essentially similar? At this point, Abelard hits on the notion that human nature is one and predicable of many due to our mental image; what the name stands for is the common conception, the result of understanding. But again we must ask, what does the common conception stand for, of what is it a conception? Abelard, it is true, admits that something other than the common conception causes the imposition of the universal word, but he is far from clear as to what this something is -- except that it is the status of the individuals.

C. Faith and Reason

In the controversy between dialecticians and antidialecticians Abelard must of course be counted among the dialecticians. It would indeed have been curious if one who had devoted himself to logic as long and profoundly as Abelard had did not, when he turned to theology, seek some relation between his new interest and his previous one. He was convinced of the utility of logic for theology because he wanted, not to reduce faith to the level of reason, but rather to defend and understand the faith with a most powerful weapon. Abelard's difficulties with ecclesastical authorities should not lead us to think that he questioned authority or that he had an inadequate sense of the harmful effects of heresy. Indeed, much of his theological work was prompted by a desire to refute heresy. He wrote that he had no desire to be a philosopher if that entailed turning away from St. Paul; indeed, if it meant separation from Christ, he would not care to be Aristotle himself. But he had little patience with those who warned against the study of dialectic. In the prologue to the fourth tractate of his Dialectica Abelard gives a strong defense of logic in relation to faith. He asks why he should be forbidden to read authors by men who apparently read them assiduously themselves. More seriously, he observes that logic offers strong weapons against the sophisms of heretics. He adds that many are foes of logic because they have not the talent to understand it.

Besides its defensive role, logic has a more positive part to play with respect to faith. Not only is its study useful in order that the believer may dispute well with those who attack the faith but logic also has a constructive role to play, insofar as the believer strives for an understanding of his faith. If Abelard finds it fairly easy to argue in favor of a conjunction of reason and authority when it is a matter of defending the faith, he is somewhat less clear on the constructive understanding of faith. Before considering this further, we must look at what Abelard had to say on the nature of faith.

Against the view that faith can be explained solely in terms of a voluntary assent to what is not understood, Abelard defines faith first in terms of intellectual assent: id quod mente firmiter tenemus. We must, he insists, know the meaning of what we believe. In writing to his son he says that faith comes not from force but from reason (ratione). To sustain this point, he will cite the persuasive efforts of apostolic and patristic writers. On another occasion Abelard defined faith as an existimatio of things unseen, and this drew fire from critics who felt that he was maintaining that belief is merely an opinion. How, they asked, can this square with the certainty of belief? Abelard may seem to have argued himself into a strange position here, holding both that we must understand what we believe and that faith is opinion. He makes a number of distinctions which make it clear that he is consistent with himself and is maintaining a position that is far from dangerous.

As others had before him, Abelard distinguishes three modes of faith which can be expressed by three phrases: credere Deum, credere Deo, credere in Deum. It is not easy to find English equivalents for these nuanced expressions. The first (credere Deum) covers acceptance of the existence of God, and this as a kind of minimal assent. The second (credere Deo) involves trust in God's words and promises. The third (credere in Deum) involves loving and cherishing God. As Sikes points out, the progression Abelard has in mind here is not unlike the distinction Aquinas will employ between fides informata and fides formata, the latter a faith informed by charity. Abelard is willing to say that faith in its minimal sense can be possessed by one who does not love God, one who is in a state of sin. This indicates that Abelard does not think of faith as some abstract, merely mental assent to what God has revealed. Beyond revealed truth is the revealing Truth, and we must convert ourselves to him by means of love. Thus, Abelard can speak of the primordia fidei, the beginnings of faith, which one has when one accepts the truth of Christian doctrine. But the term of faith is not a dialectical exercise on the contents of faith; it is a loving union with God.

As for the meaning of existimatio, we must take into account a distinction Abelard makes when he says that we must understand what we believe. The understanding referred to is contrasted with comprehension; Abelard, no more than any other medieval theologian, is not suggesting that we can comprehend what God has revealed. Since the understanding of faith falls short of comprehension, it is not altogether surprising that Abelard speaks of it as an existimatio. Later writers like Aquinas will say of faith that it is less than science and more than opinion. Since Abelard is not suggesting that what we believe is probable and is insisting that it is less than comprehension, his existimatio could be taken to foreshadow the view of Aquinas.

Abelard is thought to he a very important figure in the history of theology, particularly from the point of view of method. De Chellinek writes, "The prologue as well as the content of the Sic et non had an enduring influence on the theological movement, even on the canonical." (Le mouvement théologique du XIIe siècle , p. 164) The method of Sic et non is to set before the reader conflicting authoritative texts on a variety of points, a device calculated to stimulate the student to effect a resolution of seeming contradictions. Many of the passages brought into seeming contradiction are from Scripture, and in the prologue to the work Abelard has things to say about the language of Scripture. We must, he points out, take into account that copyists' errors may present us with difficulties. Beyond that, his view of the inspiration of Scripture is that it consists of an indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the sacred writer, an indwelling which does not amount to the dictation of what is to be written. Rather, thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, the sacred writer expresses in his own words and in his own way what he has learned. Scripture is extremely important for Abelard as the vehicle of what is to be believed, but he sees a need for interpretation and critique of it. And, after all, Abelard is a Catholic, and will insist on the role of tradition and of the Church in defining the content of faith.

We have already said that Abelard must be numbered among the dialecticians. Actually, his position may seem a little ambiguous on this controversy. In the Theologia Christiana we read: "Is God subjected to the rules established by philosophy? No, he breaks them and shows their vanity by every miracle. Is not the healing of a blind man in contradiction to that rule of Aristotle, 'For neither will one made blind see again'? And does not the divine maternity of Mary contradict this other rule: 'If she gives birth, she has been with a man'?" (PL, 178, 1245C-D) Furthermore, "It should suffice for human reason to know that human intelligence cannot comprehend him who so far surpasses all things and completely exceeds the powers of human discussion and comprehension." (1124B) It would be easy to multiply such texts in which Abelard sounds as negative as any antidialectician. However, in the Introductio a different view is taken. Commenting on a remark of St. Gregory to the effect that faith loses its merit if grounded on reason, Abelard replies to those who would use this remark to counsel against thinking on what is believed: "If the interpretation given were true, St. Gregory would be in opposition to himself and to all the holy Doctors who have recommended the use of reason to establish and defend the faith. Moreover, St. Gregory opposes with arguments those who doubted the fact of the resurrection, although precisely on this question he had said 'Faith loses its merit if reason gives an argument for it.' Does not his procedure go contrary to the opinion attributed to him, namely, that one ought not to reason concerning the faith? No more has he said that it loses all its merit when it was engendered by rational argumentation rather than by divine authority and when one believes not because God has said it but because reason has been convinced." Those who condemn reasoning about faith are seeking an excuse for their own ignorance. "I think no one can ignore the fact that it is rational study rather than sanctity which has caused progress in those instructed in divine science."

The ambivalence here disappears when we consider the purpose of the two works. The Theologia Christiana was written to counter the abuses of Roscelin; in the Introductio Abelard is countering the abuses of the antidialecticians. Moreover, in the former work Abelard speaks of the utility of the arts, especially dialectic, for reading Scripture, and in the latter insists on the incomprehensibility of mysteries. There does not seem to be any strong basis for arguing that Abelard's thought developed on this point. Rather, we must consider his main target of the moment and the balance he strives to maintain.

For Abelard God is the source of all knowledge of faith. There is, however, much ambiguity in his position on the Trinity. Is the Trinity a mystery which can be attained only on the basis of faith or is it accessible to natural reason? Abelard says at least that the Trinity of Persons has been revealed by God through the Jewish prophets and through Gentile philosophers. He says explicitly that Plato came closest to the Christian faith in this matter. It is true that he makes this claim on the basis of what he has read in the Fathers. What is more important, however, is Abelard's insistence that if pagan philosophers possessed knowledge of the Trinity, this was because God had revealed it to them. But what does he mean by revelation? In commenting on the Epistle to the Romans 1:20, a passage where Paul says that the invisible things of God were available to the Romans through the visible things of this world, Abelard seems to mean by revelation that God's nature and the Trinity of Persons can be known by reflecting on God's effects. Scholars are at odds on the significance of such assertions. Some see here an explicit contradiction with Abelard's teaching elsewhere that a mystery cannot be comprehended; others try to distinguish between factual awareness of the mystery and comprehension of it. The defender of Abelard's orthodoxy on this point has his work cut out for him.

D. Abelard's Ethics

Abelard was more impressed by the pagan philosophers in the area of morals than in divinity, however, and it is in their ethical concern that he sees the center of their philosophical effort. Indeed, the pagan philosophers were far closer to Christianity than were the Jews, because Jewish law is largely an external matter, whereas pagan philosophers saw the importance of interior justice, of chastity, of contempt for this world. This assessment of pagan moral philosophy betrays the salient feature of Abelard's own moral teaching.

In his Ethics, the subtitle of which is Know Thyself, Abelard insists on the priority of the interior in morals. It is our inner intention, our consent, that makes an external act good or bad and not vice versa. The measure of morality thus firmly located in the interior act, in intention and consent, Abelard had opened himself to the charge of subjectivism. And indeed among the propositions condemned at the Council of Sens was the contention that those who crucified Christ did not sin because they acted in ignorance, and we cannot ascribe guilt to those who know not what they do. Another stated that a man is not made good or bad by his acts, presumably his external actions.

Is Abelard's ethical position subjectivistic? He appears to be maintaining, not that our interior intention constitutes what is good or bad, but rather that one must personally recognize what is good and bad. The emphasis, nevertheless, is on the inner man. Purity of heart is what must be striven for, since, once it is had, perception of the true end is possible. Abelard will distinguish between vice and sin. Vice is a tendency to perform bad actions, but sin consists in consenting to the tendency and acting in accord with it. What this distinction enables Abelard to do is to separate himself from the position that sin resides in the will. This is not so, he maintains; it is possible to sin while having a good will or disposition and not to sin while having a bad will. The nub of the matter lies in consent and intention.

Abelard's ethical doctrine, with its strengths and weaknesses, has always been regarded as remarkable and as a further sign of his genius. It would not be long before ethical discussions would be carried on within the framework of the Nicomachean Ethics, something which will enable them to advance rapidly beyond the tentative steps Abelard took. And yet, when it is considered that Abelard's work on ethics was composed in the almost complete absence of a model, we must marvel at his accomplishment. This is not to say, of course, that Abelard did not draw on previous authors. The point is rather that, surprising as it may seem, there is a case that can be made for the contention that Abelard was more original in ethics than in logic. His logical writings consist either of glosses or commentaries on the writings of others or, in his Dialectica, a more or less independent presentation of the contents of the works which had been previously commented on and largely in the same order as the commentaries. The Dialectica is, so to speak, a commentary without the text. The Ethics is Abelard himself, from beginning to end: the form is his, the problems and their order are his. If, as is charged, he emphasized the subjective in such a way that he seems to cut it adrift from adequate criteria of good subjectivity and bad subjectivity (a charge which is surely an exaggeration), it would have to be added that such an emphasis is always a salutary balance to the tendency to an excessive exteriorization of the criteria for good and bad action.

Bibliographical Note

A critical edition of the Historia calamitatum by J. T. Muckle in Mediaeval Studies, 12 (1950), pp. 175-211. The Logica ingredientibus and Logica nostrorum petitioni in Philosophische Schriften, ed. Geyer (Munster, 1919-1933); Introductiones parvulorum in Scritti Filosofici, ed. Mario Dal Pra (Rome, 1954); Dialectica, ed. De Rijk (Assen, 1956); Abaelardiana inedita, ed. Minio Paluello (Rome, 1958). See M. T. Beonio-Brocchieri Fumagalli, La logica di Abelardo (Florence, 1964); W. and M. Kneale, The Development of Logic; Boehuer, Medieval Logic (Chicago, 1952); E. A. Moody, Truth and Consequence in Medieval Logic (Amsterdam, 1953); Otto Bird, "The Logical Interest of the Topics as Seen in Abelard," The Modern Schoolman, 37 (1959), pp. 53 -- 57; Meyrick Carre, Realists and Nominalists (Oxford, 1946). Abelard's theological works can be found in Migne's Patrologia latina, vol. 178. Abelard, Christian Theology, trans. J. Ramsay McCallum (Oxford, 1948). J. G. Sikes' Peter Abailard, first published in 1932, reissued in 1965, is still the best general work. Maurice de Gandillac's introduction to his edition of Oeuvres choisies d'Abelard (Paris, 1945) is brief, delightful, and informative. A must is É. Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (Chicago, 1951).

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