The Career of Peter Abelard

I have just finished Heloise and Abelard (1970) by the celebrated French scholar Régine Pernoud. It is interesting to compare it with Etienne Gilson’s book, which also details the lives of these famous twelfth century lovers and religious figures. Gilson’s work is primarily an intellectual study while Pernoud’s historically focused narrative provides more details about the culture and people of the time.

In contemporary terms, Peter Abelard was a celebrity. Both handsome and charismatic he was a champion at rhetoric, the fashionable occupation of the period’s scholars.  Abelard was also an intensely vain man. He helped invent the science of theology, but believed his system of thought was the solution to all intellectual difficulties. The medieval philosopher was wedded to the view that “A man can believe only what he has first understood.” This is an inversion of Anselm’s dictum: “I believe in order that I may understand.” Bernard of Clairvaux’s impassioned opposition to Abelard was based on the idea that faith comes by love, not by mere knowledge. It is easy to see the strength of both arguments. We do not accept any proposition, even a religious one, without some deliberation. Yet what moves us to submit to  certain truths requires not just brains but humility and good will.

Abelard’s life was filled with turmoil, yet it achieved an unexpected and poignant resolution when the wandering philosopher (as Pernoud calls him) was forced to travel to Rome to defend himself against charges of heresy. On the way he stopped at the great monastery of Cluny where he was received by Peter the Venerable whose own modesty and patience succeeded where the hostility of Abelard’s many opponents did not.

According to Pernoud, when Abelard wrote his famous memoir (Historia Calamitatum), at the peak of his intellectual prowess and fame, he “must have been exceptionally hard to get on with. He seems to have been entirely lacking in empathy and to have shown no concern for others.” Two things changed this. One was his renewed relationship with Heloise, when he became her sympathetic spiritual director through a series of letters that have survived to this day. The other was the friendship and mediation of Peter the Venerable, who encouraged Abelard to renounce his contentious views and adopt a peaceful life of prayer and instruction.

Peter counseled him that the “sages of Antiquity wore themselves out looking for happiness,” but that there was a simpler, surer way. Abelard would declare at the end of his life: “I have no wish to be a philosopher if it means rebelling against Paul. I have no wish to be Aristotle if it means severing myself from Christ.” After so many restless years he found a real home at Cluny, that would prepare him for his final spiritual dwelling.

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