Peter Abelard

French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician
Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.

Peter Abelard [also Petrus Abaelardus or Abailardus, or Pierre Abélard] (107921 April 1142) was a French scholastic philosopher and theologian. His tragic affair with his pupil Héloïse became a legendary love story.

Contents

QuotesEdit

When the same thing is done by the same man at different times, by the diversity of his intention, however, his action is now said to be good, now bad.
The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.
  • Bonam quippe intentionem, hoc est, rectam in se dicimus, operationem vero non quod boni aliquid in se suscipiat, sed quod ex bona intentione procedat. Unde et ab eodem homine cum in diversis temporibus idem fiat, pro diversitate tamen intentione eius operatio modo bono modo mala dicitur.
    • In fact we say that an intention is good, that is, right in itself, but that an action does not bear any good in itself but proceeds from a good intention. Whence when the same thing is done by the same man at different times, by the diversity of his intention, however, his action is now said to be good, now bad.
      • Ethica, seu Scito Teipsum, Bk. 1; translation by D E Luscombe from Peter Abelard's Ethics (1971) p. 53
  • O quanta qualia
    sunt illa sabbata,
    quae semper celebrat
    superna curia.
    • How mighty are the Sabbaths,
      How mighty and how deep,
      That the high courts of heaven
      To everlasting keep.
      • "Sabbato ad Vesperas", line 1; translation from Helen Waddell Mediaeval Latin Lyrics ([1929] 1933) p. 163
  • The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.
    • As quoted in "The Abelardian Doctrine Of The Atonement" (1892), published in Doctrine and Development : University Sermons (1898) by Hastings Rashdall, p. 138

Sic et Non (1120)Edit

The fathers did not themselves believe that they, or their companions, were always right. Augustine found himself mistaken in some cases and did not hesitate to retract his errors.
Translated as Yes and No or Yea and Nay
  • There are many seeming contradictions and even obscurities in the innumerable writings of the church fathers. Our respect for their authority should not stand in the way of an effort on our part to come at the truth. The obscurity and contradictions in ancient writings may be explained upon many grounds, and may be discussed without impugning the good faith and insight of the fathers. A writer may use different terms to mean the same thing, in order to avoid a monotonous repetition of the same word. Common, vague words may be employed in order that the common people may understand; and sometimes a writer sacrifices perfect accuracy in the interest of a clear general statement. Poetical, figurative language is often obscure and vague.
    Not infrequently apocryphal works are attributed to the saints. Then, even the best authors often introduce the erroneous views of others and leave the reader to distinguish between the true and the false. Sometimes, as Augustine confesses in his own case, the fathers ventured to rely upon the opinions of others.
    • Prologue as translated in Readings in European History, Vol. I (1904) edited by James Harvey Robinson, p. 450
  • Doubtless the fathers might err; even Peter, the prince of the apostles, fell into error: what wonder that the saints do not always show themselves inspired? The fathers did not themselves believe that they, or their companions, were always right. Augustine found himself mistaken in some cases and did not hesitate to retract his errors. He warns his admirers not to look upon his letters as they would upon the Scriptures, but to accept only those things which, upon examination, they find to be true.
    All writings belonging to this class are to be read with full freedom to criticize, and with no obligation to accept unquestioningly; otherwise they way would be blocked to all discussion, and posterity be deprived of the excellent intellectual exercise of debating difficult questions of language and presentation.
    • Prologue as translated in Readings in European History, Vol. I (1904) edited by James Harvey Robinson, p. 450
  • I have ventured to bring together various dicta of the holy fathers, as they came to mind, and to formulate certain questions which were suggested by the seeming contradictions in the statements. These questions ought to serve to excite tender readers to a zealous inquiry into truth and so sharpen their wits. The master key of knowledge is, indeed, a persistent and frequent questioning. Aristotle, the most clear-sighted of all the philosophers, was desirous above all things else to arouse this questioning spirit, for in his Categories he exhorts a student as follows: "It may well be difficult to reach a positive conclusion in these matters unless they be frequently discussed. It is by no means fruitless to be doubtful on particular points." By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth.
    • Introduction as translated in Readings in European History, Vol. I (1904) edited by James Harvey Robinson, p. 451
    • Variant translation:
    • Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.
      • Prologue as translated in A History of Education During the Middle Ages and the Transition to Modern Times (1918) by Frank Pierrepont Graves; 2005 edition, p. 53
  • Q1 Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?
  • Q2 Does faith deal only with unseen things, or not?
  • Q3 Is there any knowledge of things unseen, or not?
  • Q4 May one believe only in God alone, or not?
  • Q5 Is God a single unitary being, or not?

Historia Calamitatum (c. 1132)Edit

Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows, more by example than by words.
Historia Calamitatum : An Autobiography by Peter Abélard (1922) as translated by Henry Adams Bellows
  • Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows, more by example than by words. And therefore, because I too have known some consolation from speech had with one who was a witness thereof, am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out of my misfortunes, for the eyes of one who, though absent, is of himself ever a consoler. This I do so that, in comparing your sorrows with mine, you may discover that yours are in truth nought, or at the most but of small account, and so shall you come to bear them more easily.
    • Foreword
  • St. Jerome, whose heir methinks I am in the endurance of foul slander, says in his letter to Nepotanius: "The apostle says: 'If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.' He no longer seeks to please men, and so is made Christ's servant" (Epist. 2). And again, in his letter to Asella regarding those whom he was falsely accused of loving: "I give thanks to my God that I am worthy to be one whom the world hates" (Epist. 99). And to the monk Heliodorus he writes: "You are wrong, brother, you are wrong if you think there is ever a time when the Christian does not suffer persecution. For our adversary goes about as a roaring lion seeking what he may devour, and do you still think of peace? Nay, he lieth in ambush among the rich."
    Inspired by those records and examples, we should endure our persecutions all the more steadfastly the more bitterly they harm us. We should not doubt that even if they are not according to our deserts, at least they serve for the purifying of our soul. And since all things are done in accordance with the divine ordering, let every one of true faith console himself amid all his afflictions with the thought that the great goodness of God permits nothing to be done without reason, and brings to a good end whatsoever may seem to happen wrongfully. Wherefore rightly do all men say: "Thy will be done." And great is the consolation to all lovers of God in the word of the Apostle when he says: "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom. viii, 28). The wise man of old had this in mind when he said in his Proverbs: "There shall no evil happen to the just" (Prov. xii, 21). By this he clearly shows that whosoever grows wrathful for any reason against his sufferings has therein departed from the way of the just, because he may not doubt that these things have happened to him by divine dispensation. ///Even such are those who yield to their own rather than to the divine purpose, and with hidden desires resist the spirit which echoes in the words, "Thy will be done," thus placing their own will ahead of the will of God. Farewell.
    • Ch. XV

Letters of Abelard and HeloiseEdit

Sometimes I grieve for the house of the Paraclete, and wish to see it again. Ah, Philintus! does not the love of Heloise still burn in my heart? I have not yet triumphed over that happy passion. In the midst of my retirement I sigh, I weep, I pine, I speak the dear name of Heloise, pleased to hear the sound, I complain of the severity of Heaven.
Quotes of Abelard from various translations of his letters
  • Sometimes I grieve for the house of the Paraclete, and wish to see it again. Ah, Philintus! does not the love of Heloise still burn in my heart? I have not yet triumphed over that happy passion. In the midst of my retirement I sigh, I weep, I pine, I speak the dear name of Heloise, pleased to hear the sound, I complain of the severity of Heaven. But, oh! let us not deceive ourselves: I have not made a right use of grace. I am thoroughly wretched. I have not yet torn from my heart deep roots which vice has planted in it. For if my conversion was sincere, how could I take a pleasure to relate my past follies? Could I not more easily comfort myself in my afflictions? Could I not turn to my advantage those words of God himself, If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if the world hate you, ye know that it hated me also? Come Philintus, let us make a strong effort, turn our misfortunes to our advantage, make them meritorious, or at least wipe out our offences; let us receive, without murmuring, what comes from the hand of God, and let us not oppose our will to his. Adieu. I give you advice, which could I myself follow, I should be happy.
    • Letter I : Abelard To Philintus, as translated by John Hughes
  • When love has once been sincere, how difficult it is to determine to love no more? 'Tis a thousand times more easy to renounce the world than love. I hate this deceitful faithless world; I think no more of it; but my heart, still wandering, will eternally make me feel the anguish of having lost you, in spite of all the convictions of my understanding. In the mean time tho' I so be so cowardly as to retract what you have read, do not suffer me to offer myself to your thoughts but under this last notion. Remember my last endeavours were to seduce your heart. You perished by my means, and I with you. The same waves swallowed us both up. We waited for death with indifference, and the same death had carried us headlong to the same punishments. But Providence has turned off this blow, and our shipwreck has thrown us into an haven. There are some whom the mercy of God saves by afflictions. Let my salvation be the fruit of your prayers! let me owe it to your tears, or exemplary holiness! Tho' my heart, Lord! be filled with the love of one of thy creatures, thy hand can, when it pleases, draw out of it those ideas which fill its whole capacity. To love Heloise truly is to leave her entirely to that quiet which retirement and virtue afford. I have resolved it: this letter shall be my last fault. Adieu.
    If I die here, I will give orders that my body be carried to the house of the Paraclete. You shall see me in that condition; not to demand tears from you, it will then be too late; weep rather for me now, to extinguish that fire which burns me. You shall see me, to strengthen your piety by the horror of this carcase; and my death, then more eloquent than I can be, will tell you what you love when you love a man. I hope you will be contented, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me. Your cold ashes need then fear nothing, and my tomb will, by that means, be more rich and more renowned.
    • Letter III : Abelard to Heloise, as translated by John Hughes

Quotes about AbelardEdit

Abélard would find most of his old problems sensitive to his touch today. Time has settled few or none of the essential points of dispute. ~ Henry Adams
It makes perfect sense for Abelard to talk about forms, but the form is not a part of the individual. This is the hallmark of Abelard's reductivism; "form" is a name for an objectively discernable feature of the individual, not for an ontologically distinct item.
Individuals thus created are discreet from all others; they share no matter or form, yet they are similar. ~ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Almost a thousand years ago, a teacher fell in love with his student. Almost a thousand years ago, they began a torrid affair. …They weren't equally strong or passionate or generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious — a surprising, splendid, fractured reality. ~ Cristina Nehring
  • Abélard would find most of his old problems sensitive to his touch today. Time has settled few or none of the essential points of dispute. Science hesitates, more visibly than the Church ever did, to decide once for all whether Unity or Diversity is ultimate law; whether order or chaos is the governing rule of the Universe, if Universe there is; whether anything except phenomena exists. Even in matters more vital to society, one dares not speak too loud. Why, and for what, and to whom, is man a responsible agent? Every jury and judge, every lawyer and doctor, every legislator and clergyman has his own views, and the law constantly varies. Every nation may have a different system. One court may hang, and another may acquit for the same crime, on the same day; and Science only repeats what the Church said to Abélard, that where we know so little, we had better hold our tongues.
    • Henry Adams, in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), Ch, XIV : Abélard
  • Abelard's best known writings are his autobiography the Historia Calamitatum (The Story of my Misfourtunes), the letters he exchanged with Heloise, and the Sic et Non. The Historia, written after Abelard's escape from St. Gildas, details Abelard's rise to fame and the misfortunes of his fall. It is addressed to an unidentified friend with the hope that this friend will feel better about his own suffering after reading of Abelard's. The real purpose was likely to remind people of Abelard's past fame and to pave the way for a return to Paris. The letters of Abelard and Heloise discuss issues ranging from their relationship to theological and philosophical matters affecting Heloise's nuns at the Paraclete.
    • "Peter Abelard (1079—1142)" at Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • The fundamental commitment behind Abelard's nominalism, that there is nothing that is not individual (or at least particular), is the conceptual core of all his metaphysical thought. Abelard held that the individual is primary, ontologically basic, and requires no explanation. It is notoriously difficult to prove such a claim. If Abelard could be said to have a metaphysical project it would be to show that other "items" that more promiscuous philosophers would add to their ontology can be reductively explained in terms of individuals (or at least of particulars).
    Abelard asserts that individuals are integral wholes, and he adopts the language of form-matter composites to describe individuals, but the form is nothing other than the arrangement of the parts that comprise the whole. … Abelard holds a doctrine of double creation. God first created the four basic elements and then combined the four basic elements into various individuals according to the exemplars in his mind …. Only God has this power to assemble parts into a single discrete individual substance. Only God can impose form on matter … It makes perfect sense for Abelard to talk about forms, but the form is not a part of the individual. This is the hallmark of Abelard's reductivism; "form" is a name for an objectively discernable feature of the individual, not for an ontologically distinct item.
    Individuals thus created are discreet from all others; they share no matter or form, yet they are similar.
    Abelard will explain this in terms of natures or substantial forms, but again prefers a reductive account. Individuals have a certain nature because they have a certain substantial form, but this substantial form is not a part of the individual or any item that could be shared by two individuals. In contemporary terms Abelard would be a resemblance nominalist. Individuals created by God according to the same exemplar will be naturally similar in the way that houses made according to the same blueprint are similar. This similarity is real, not conventional, but nothing in addition to the individuals is required to explain this fact. The individuals that populate the world fall into natural kinds. Natures themselves do not need to be posited to explain this fact about the world.
    • "Peter Abelard (1079—1142)" at Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Almost a thousand years ago, a teacher fell in love with his student. Almost a thousand years ago, they began a torrid affair. They made love in the kitchens of convents and in the boudoir of the girl's uncle. They wrote hundreds of love letters. When the girl bore a child, they were secretly married, but the teacher was castrated by henchmen of the enraged uncle. At her lover's bidding, the girl took religious orders. He took the habit of a monk. They retreated into separate monasteries and wrote to each other until parted by death.
    The story of Abelard and Heloise hardly resonates with the spirit of our age. Not least, its origins in the classroom offend: teachers, we know, are not supposed to fall in love with their students. Heloise, moreover, is no feminist heroine, despite having been one of the best educated women of her age and writing some of its most affecting prose. Nobody who takes the veil on the command of her husband and swears "complete obedience" to him can hope to sneak into the bastion of feminism. Today, even the high romance of the couple's liaison strikes us as foreign: all that sacrifice and intensity! … The notion that passion might comprise not only joy but pain, not only self-realization but self-abandonment, seems archaic. To admire, as an early-20th-century biographer of Abelard and Heloise does, the "beauty of souls large enough to be promoted to such sufferings" seems downright perverse.
    And yet there's a grandeur to high-stakes romance, to self-sacrifice, that's missing from our latex-love culture — and it's a grandeur we perhaps crave to recover. How else to account for the flurry of new writing on these two ill-fated 12th-century lovers? … Only recently — and miraculously — has a new cache of material turned up, fragments of 113 letters that many scholars believe Abelard and Heloise exchanged before Abelard's castration. Copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, discovered in 1980 by Constant J. Mews and finally published as The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, these short but eloquent missives present two people vying — with no coyness or gender typecasting whatever — to outdo each other in expressions of adoration. … The love stories that touch us most deeply are punctuated by human frailty. Look at them up close and you see the fault lines, compromises and anticlimaxes. At the beginning of Shakespeare's play, Romeo is just as intemperately in love with a girl called Rosaline as he is later with Juliet. Tristan and Isolde's passion could well be the fruit of substance abuse, of a love potion they drank unknowingly. And Abélard and Heloise? They weren't equally strong or passionate or generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious — a surprising, splendid, fractured reality. "There is a crack," the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, "a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

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