The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 5 Peter Abelard: How not to Make Friends and Still Influence People

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Peter Abelard: How not to Make Friends and Still Influence People

There are, scattered throughout history, a few characters of such peculiar and innate humanity that, no matter how hard they consciously tried to strengthen the Christian Citadel, what they ultimately accomplished was the fostering of a nascent humanism that would ultimately tear the Church asunder. They felt themselves to be the most orthodox of Catholics, and yet every sentence they produced tended to speak for the basic merit and dignity of human faculties as against the quizzical fallibility of theology. Few fit the model of holy heretic more completely than the twelfth century’s enfant terrible, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142).

Abelard is one of those fantastic figures in intellectual history about whom just about anything may be said, and all of it is mostly true. He was an ultra-orthodox hyper-revolutionary. He was a debauched celibate. The most naïve and most cunning of men, Abelard attracted passionate adherents far and wide through the sheer force of his personal improbability.

AbelardThe eldest son of a knight, medieval custom seemed to destine him for the martial life, and yet young Peter proved so adept, so quick of wit and insight, in his early schooling that a life of letters called him. Renouncing his right to inherit his father’s title and lands, at the age of fourteen he learned at the feet of Roscelin, a brilliant theologian suspected of, and eventually tried for, heresy. Roscelin taught Abelard the ways of logic, and how they might be applied to theological argumentation, and thereby set the young man down a road that would lead from tragedy to tragedy to tragedy.

Pumped up with a youthful sense of his logical infallibility, Abelard made his way to Paris in 1100 and sought out the greatest master of dialectic there to test his strength against. This was William of Champeaux, one of the mighty minds of his time. Not one to suffer insolent students indefinitely, William chased him out of Paris, after which Abelard studied under Anselm of Laon, whom he also routinely insulted and from whom he eventually had to flee.

Through all the intellectual sparring, Abelard had made a name for himself as a brilliant logician and attracted a steady stream of students eager to gain his secrets of disputation. What they learned from him was the duplicity of words, how they changed meaning when used by different people, and how rhetorical tricks might be played in the space between something’s substance and its name. Those ideas might seem tiny, but they open up the possibility for a world of doubt when applied to something claiming as absolute a unity in thought as the Catholic Church.

In 1113, William of Champeaux became a bishop, and Abelard was able to return to Paris to become a master at Notre Dame. And it was in that capacity that he met Heloise.

Now, it’s easy from our modern, enlightened standpoint to be critical of his behavior with regard to her.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Essentially, he impregnated her and then, when he realized that her family had a legal right to castrate and blind him for the offense, he kidnapped her and brought her to live with his family, holding her there as a hostage during his negotiations with her uncle. The two of them decided, without her consent, that he and Heloise would get married, but, to preserve Abelard’s budding career, it had to be kept a secret. When some of her family went public with the marriage, she denied it, and Abelard panicked, sending her off to the convent at Argenteuil for safe-keeping.  Her family thought he was trying to force her to become a nun in order to back out of his marriage, and sent a posse to castrate him (the procedure, as Abelard described it later, was remarkably painless and sanitary). And so, emasculated and jealous lest she take on another lover, he compelled Heloise to become a nun against her will, then left her in silence for a decade.

It doesn’t look good, even if you take into consideration that Heloise herself wanted him to do whatever was necessary to preserve his career, regardless of its impact on her life and happiness.

One would think that, after castration and public disgrace, Abelard would have done his level best to keep his head low and coast his way back to respectability. But that is to underestimate Abelard’s remarkable sense of self-worth and limitless ego-driven resilience. Finding refuge as a monk at the monastery of St. Denis, he no sooner arrived than started criticizing his fellow monks for being lax and irreligious. Having thoroughly pissed off everybody there, they sent him off to a place where he could have a few students, continue his teaching, and not get in everybody’s way.

At this point Abelard started writing a book of theology claiming that the pagan philosophers could be just as moral as Christians, and that all religious ideas had to be approached through reason and logic if they were to be truly understood. “By doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive the truth,” was his maxim, and a more dangerous idea could hardly have been floated at that time in ecclesiastical history.

The contents of Abelard’s book, Theologia, became known, and Abelard was duly commanded to report to the papal legate for judgment. After a mockery of a trial in which Abelard was not allowed to defend his opinions, he was forced to publicly burn his book and read aloud the creed he had supposedly violated through his disturbing notions about how the Trinity might possibly, sort of, be made sensible.

Returning to the monastery of St. Denis, Abelard did a typical Abelard thing and started making jokes about the doubtful official origin story of the historical St. Denis. This was a grave insult to the monks who already didn’t like him much, and to France itself, which considered the St. Denis monastery as its pure beating heart. Abelard was kicked out, again, and told to be a hermit for a while. Which he did, summoning his students to him in the wilderness while he set to work rewriting his Theologia (he had, of course, kept a secret spare copy) as along with a slew of other theological texts of similar rationalistic intent, including Sic et Non, his collection of contradictory quotes from Church fathers about all of the big questions in Christianity.

Throughout the 1120s and 1130s, he was a man divided between several contradictory goals. He was made abbot of St. Gildas (whose monks he immediately insulted and who, in turn, tried to kill him on more than one occasion), with responsibility for ensuring a steady flow of contributions into its coffers on the strength of the absolute orthodoxy of its monastic practice, while writing works that argued strenuously for a complete re-evaluation of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. The legalistic official interpretation of the redemption, for example, whereby Christ had to be crucified in order to pay off a debt to the devil, Abelard declared to be flatly ridiculous and replaced it with an explanation based in redemption through love. In fact, for all of his pretense towards complete rationality, the theme of love overcoming dogma appears a number of times in his works, leading to the very verge of the conclusion that, as long as you live a life devoted to the love of your fellow humans, you can’t go wrong. Even heavyweight notions like sin don’t apply, so long as your heart and intentions are pure, under Abelard’s new system of ethics.

Of course, the Catholic Church could have none of that, and brought Abelard up on charges of heresy again in 1140, this time ordering that all of his books be burned and that Abelard submit to a life of absolute silence until the end of his days. Practically speaking, none of those things ended up happening. The papacy was still recovering from the 1130 split between pope and anti-pope, and the inquisitional ferocity that would strike terror into Europe in the thirteenth century and beyond was in its bumbling youth in 1140. As it happened, one of Abelard’s friends, the influential abbot of Cluny, offered him protection, and the pope accepted the offer as a reasonable solution to everybody’s problems.

Abelard was at that time old and in failing health.  He was, however, writing up to the end, preparing yet another edition of Theologia every bit as heretical as the first two, but confident somehow that the next trial would be different. That work remained incomplete when he died in 1142, just two years after his absolute condemnation by Pope Innocent II. Had he lived one more year, he would have seen his good friend installed as Pope Celestine II, and most likely would have, at long last, earned the official recognition he felt due to his boundless genius. As it is, he left behind a legacy of daring rationalism that couldn’t help but be dangerous even when it was pressed into the service of justifying orthodox concepts. That same insistence led just as much to the high scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas as it did to the emerging skepticism of the fifteenth century.

Perhaps more importantly, he was an example of steadfast individualism that couldn’t be bound by any single institution or body of thought, and who directly inspired the first organized assaults against Catholic hegemony in the form of his student Arnold of Brescia’s democratic, anti-papal Commune of Rome, launched just one year after Abelard’s death. And that too-crazy-to-not-be-true event will be the subject of the next episode of A Cartoon History of Humanism.

Further Reading

The source for Abelard is entirely M.T. Clanchy’s Abelard: A Medieval Life. Yes, it repeats itself all the time (fun drinking game: take a shot every time Clanchy mentions the fact that Guy of Castello never burned his copy of Sic et Non) but you won’t find any better in terms of a vibrant account of Abelard’s pronounced personal faults mixed with a profound respect for his intellectual accomplishments.