Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was an influential philosopher, writer, teacher, and abbot in the Middle Ages. His wit was praised, but his unorthodox approach to theology and his criticism of many of his contemporaries kept him in near-constant trouble.
Peter Abelard (or Abailard) was born near Nantes, Brittany (in modern-day France), to a knight. Abelard forsook his inheritance and his own chance to be a knight to pursue training in philosophy and later in theology and rhetoric. Throughout his training, Abelard often found himself at odds with his teachers, some of whom he had sharp disagreements with.
In Paris, Peter Abelard began teaching at a couple of schools, and he became well-known as an eloquent scholar and brilliant philosopher. Students flocked to his classroom from all over Europe. By his own admission, Abelard became lifted up with vanity and pride during his tenure as teacher, and he grew to see himself as the only “undefeated” philosopher in the world, having publicly shown the fallacies of the other learned men of his day.
At the height of his fame, Peter Abelard fell in love. Héloïse was the niece of a clergyman at the Notre Dame Cathedral, and Abelard became her private tutor and eventually her lover. Their affair was doomed from the start, as Abelard had his eyes set on the priesthood, and Héloïse’s uncle was disapproving, to say the least. When Héloïse became pregnant, she left Paris until after her child was born. Upon her return, she and Abelard were secretly married, but the union further enraged Héloïse’s family, and she fled to a convent outside of Paris. In an act of brutal revenge, Héloïse’s uncle and some other men broke into Abelard’s house one night and castrated him. After the attack, Abelard left teaching and became a Benedictine monk at the royal abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris. Héloïse, still in her teens, became a nun.
In the monastery, Peter Abelard wrote Theologia, a collection of his theological lectures; and Sic et Non (“For and Against”), a compilation of 158 seemingly contradictory statements from the writings of church leaders. Again, Abelard was surrounded by conflict; in 1121 he was charged with Sabellianism by a local church council, made to burn his book Theologia, forced to recite the Athanasian Creed, and kept under house arrest in Soissons. Upon his release, Abelard tried the life of a hermit, but students still came to hear him teach in the wilderness. In 1125, he became the abbot of the Abbey of St. Gildas de Rhuys, on the coast of Lower Brittany. Héloïse, meanwhile, became the abbess at a religious community that Abelard himself had founded. Héloïse and Abelard took up a correspondence that has since become famous.
The monks at St. Gildas de Rhuys found Peter Abelard too strict as an abbot and after ten years were successful in driving him away. Abelard returned briefly to Paris, where he began teaching again in 1136. There, Abelard ran afoul of Bernard of Clairvaux, a powerfully influential monk. Bernard taught a mystical, unquestioning faith, and Abelard taught a rational faith mixed with Aristotelean logic, so a conflict was inevitable. Bernard condemned Abelard’s writings before a council of bishops. Abelard appealed to the Pope and was on his way to Rome when he received word that Pope Innocent II had taken Bernard’s side and upheld the censure of the bishops.
Peter Abelard spent the last years of his life as a monk in Saône-et-Loire, France, and taught in the school at the Cluny Monastery. He died in 1142; Héloïse died in 1164 and was buried beside him.
The primary legacy of Peter Abelard is his contributions to philosophy, ethics, and theology. His work in dialectics (the study of logic, the philosophy of language, and metaphysics) includes Dialectica, which presented a novel approach to logic and helped introduce Aristotle to theologically minded thinkers. Many consider Abelard to be the greatest logician of the Middle Ages.
Abelard’s stance on ethics, contained in Ethica, was that human actions are neither good nor bad in themselves; what makes something sinful is a wrong intention behind the action. Thus, except for God, no one can objectively categorize any action as either right or wrong. This view can be seen as an attempt on Abelard’s part to justify his affair with Héloïse—if his intentions were right, then his affair with his pupil cannot be called wrong.
In his theological works, Abelard spent much time analyzing the Trinity from a philosophical standpoint, and he was continually rewriting and revising in order to update his lecture notes and, after his censure by the church, bring them into greater conformity with orthodoxy. Abelard taught that the purpose of Christ’s death was not to satisfy God’s justice or appease God’s wrath; rather, Christ died to demonstrate God’s love and induce us to love God and become better people in return. This unbiblical doctrine is now called the moral influence theory of the atonement. Besides his straight theological treatises, Abelard wrote commentaries on Romans, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and Genesis 1–2. His life story is told in the autobiographical Historia Calamitatum (“History of My Troubles”), and he also wrote poetry, composed the words and music for over a hundred hymns and love songs, and of course penned letters to Héloïse.
Peter Abelard was a highly gifted man with a natural magnetism and a fierce intellect. His teaching set the course of philosophical thought for the remainder of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Abelard’s pride was his downfall, and his theology was questionable. His conflicts with the Catholic Church were not based so much on theology or practice as on philosophy and the place human reason holds in the discussion of theological matters.