Pierre, the eldest son of Berenger and Lucie (Abelard?) was born at Palais, near Nantes and the frontier of Brittany, in 1079. His knightly father, having in his youth been a student, was anxious to give his family, and especially his favorite Pierre, a liberal education. The boy was accordingly sent to school, under a teacher who at that time was making his mark in the world,--Roscellin, the reputed father of Nominalism. As the whole import and tragedy of his life may be traced back to this man's teaching, and the relation which it bore to the thought of the time, we must pause to consider these.
In the early centuries of our era, the two fundamental articles of the Gentile-Christian creed, the Trinity and the Incarnation, neither of them Jewish, were formulated in terms of Platonic philosophy, of which the distinctive tenet is, that the real and eternal is the universal, not the individual. On this assumption it was possible to say that the same real substance could exist in three, or indeed in any number of persons. In the case of God, the dogma-builders were careful to say, essence is one with existence, and therefore in Him the individuals are as real as the universal. Platonism, having lent the formula for the Trinity, became the favorite philosophy of many of the Church fathers, and so introduced into Christian thought and life the Platonic dualism, that sharp distinction between the temporal and the eternal which be littles the practical life and glorifies the contemplative.
This distinction, as aggravated by Neo-Platonism, further affected Eastern Christianity in the sixth century, and Western Christianity in the ninth, chiefly through the writings of (the pseudo-) Dionysius
Areopagita, and gave rise to Christian mysticism. It was then erected into a rule of conduct through the efforts of Pope Gregory VII., who strove to subject practical and civil life entirely to the control of
ecclesiastics and monks, standing for contemplative, supernatural life. The latter included all purely mental work, which more and more tended to concentrate itself upon religion and confine itself to the clergy. In this way it came to be considered an utter disgrace for any man engaged in mental work to take any part in the institutions of civil life, and particularly to marry. He might indeed enter into illicit relations, and rear a family of "nephews" and "nieces," without losing prestige; but to marry was to commit suicide. Such was the condition of things in the days of Abelard.
But while Platonism, with its real universals, was celebrating its ascetic, unearthly triumphs in the West, Aristotelianism, which maintains that the individual is the real, was making its way in the East. Banished as heresy beyond the limits of the Catholic Church, in the fifth and sixth centuries, in the persons of Nestorius and others, it took refuge in Syria, where it flourished for many years in the schools of Edessa and Nisibis, the foremost of the time. From these it found its way among the Arabs, and even to the illiterate Muhammad, who gave it (1) theoretic theological expression in the cxii. surah of the Koran: "He is One God, God the Eternal; He neither begets nor is begotten; and to Him there is no peer," in which both the fundamental dogmas of Christianity are denied, and that too on the ground of revelation; (2) practical expression, by forbidding asceticism and monasticism, and encouraging a robust, though somewhat coarse, natural life. Islam, indeed, was an attempt to rehabilitate the human.
In Abelard's time Arab Aristotelianism, with its consequences for thought and life, was filtering into Europe and forcing Christian thinkers to defend the bases of their faith. Since these, so far as defensible at all, depended upon the Platonic doctrine of universals, and this could be maintained only by dialectic, this science became extremely popular,--indeed, almost the rage. Little of the real Aristotle was at that time known in the West; but in Porphyry's Introduction to Aristotle's Logic was a famous passage, in which all the difficulties with regard to universals were stated without being solved. Over this the intellectual battles of the first age of Scholasticism were fought. The more clerical and mystic thinkers, like Anselm and Bernard, of course sided with Plato; but the more worldly, robust thinkers inclined to accept Aristotle, not seeing that his doctrine is fatal to the Trinity.
Prominent among these was a Breton, Roscellin, the early instructor of Abelard. From him the brilliant, fearless boy learnt two terrible lessons: (1) that universals, instead of being real substances, external and superior to individual things, are mere names (hence Nominalism) for common qualities of things as recognized by the human mind; (2) that since universals are the tools and criteria of thought, the human mind, in which alone these exist, is the judge of all truth,--a lesson which leads directly to pure rationalism, and indeed to the rehabilitation of the human as against the superhuman. No wonder that Roscellin came into conflict with the church authorities, and had to flee to England. Abelard afterwards modified his nominalism and behaved somewhat unhandsomely to him, but never escaped from the influence of his teaching. Abelard was a rationalist and an asserter of the human. Accordingly, when, definitely adopting the vocation of the scholar, he went to Paris to study dialectic under the then famous William of Champeaux, a declared Platonist, or realist as the designation then was, he gave his teacher infinite trouble by his subtle objections, and not seldom got the better of him.
These victories, which made him disliked both by his teacher and his fellow-pupils, went to increase his natural self-appreciation, and induced him, though a mere youth, to leave William and set up a rival school at Melun. Here his splendid personality, his confidence, and his brilliant powers of reasoning and statement, drew to him a large number of admiring pupils, so that he was soon induced to move his school to Corbeil, near Paris, where his impetuous dialectic found a wider field. Here he worked so hard that he fell ill, and was compelled to return home to his family. With them he remained for several years, devoting himself to study,--not only of dialectic, but plainly also of theology. Returning to Paris, he went to study rhetoric under his old enemy, William of Champeaux, who had meanwhile, to increase his prestige, taken holy orders, and had been made bishop of Chalons. The old feud was renewed, and Abelard, being now better armed than before, compelled his
master openly to withdraw from his extreme realistic position with regard to universals, and assume one more nearly approaching that of Aristotle.
This victory greatly diminished the fame of William, and increased that of Abelard; so that when the former left his chair and appointed a successor, the latter gave way to Abelard and became his pupil (1113). This was too much for William, who removed his successor, and so forced Abelard to retire again to Melun. Here he remained but a short time; for, William having on account of unpopularity removed his school from Paris Abelard returned thither and opened a school outside the city, on Mont Ste. Genevieve. William, hearing this, returned to Paris and tried to put him down, but in vain. Abelard was completely victorious.
After a time he returned once more to Palais, to see his mother, who was about to enter the cloister, as his father had done some time before. When this visit was over, instead of returning to Paris to lecture on dialectic, he went to Laon to study theology under the then famous Anselm. Here, convinced of the showy superficiality of Anselm, he once more got into difficulty, by undertaking to expound a chapter of Ezekiel without having studied it under any teacher. Though at first derided by his fellow-students, he succeeded so well as to draw a crowd of them to hear him, and so excited the envy of Anselm that the latter forbade him to teach in Laon. Abelard accordingly returned once more to Paris,
convinced that he was fit to shine as a lecturer, not only on dialectic, but also on theology. And his audiences thought so also; for his lectures on Ezekiel were very popular and drew crowds. He was now at the height of his fame (1118).
The result of all these triumphs over dialecticians and theologians was unfortunate. He not only felt himself the intellectual superior of any living man, which he probably was, but he also began to look down upon the current thought of his time as obsolete and unworthy, and to set at naught even current opinion. He was now on the verge of forty, and his life had so far been one of spotless purity; but now, under the influence of vanity, this too gave way. Having no further conquests to make in the intellectual world, he began to consider whether, with his great personal beauty, manly bearing, and confident address, he might not make conquests in the social world, and arrived at the conclusion that no woman could reject him or refuse him her favor.
It was just at this unfortunate juncture that he went to live in the house of a certain Canon Fulbert, of the cathedral, whose brilliant niece, Heloise, had at the age of seventeen just returned from a convent
at Argenteuil, where she had been at school. Fulbert, who was proud of her talents, and glad to get the price of Abelard's board, took the latter into his house and intrusted him with the full care of Heloise's
further education, telling him even to chastise her if necessary. So complete was Fulbert's confidence in Abelard, that no restriction was put upon the companionship of teacher and pupil. The result was that Abelard and Heloise, both equally inexperienced in matters of the heart, soon conceived for each other an overwhelming passion, comparable only to that of Faust and Gretchen. And the result in both cases was the same. Abelard, as a great scholar, could not think of marriage; and if he had, Heloise would have refused to ruin his career by marrying him. So it came to pass that when their secret, never very carefully guarded, became no longer a secret, and threatened the safety of Heloise, the only thing that her lover could do for her was to carry her off secretly to his home in Palais, and place her in charge of his sister. Here she remained until the birth of her child, which received the name of Astralabius, Abelard meanwhile continuing his work in Paris. And here all the nobility of his character comes out. Though Fulbert and his friends were, naturally enough, furious at what they regarded as his utter treachery, and though they tried to murder him, he protected himself, and as soon as Heloise was fit to travel, hastened to Palais, and insisted upon removing her to Paris and making her his lawful wife. Heloise used every argument which her fertile mind could suggest to dissuade him from a step which she felt must be his ruin, at the same time expressing her entire willingness to stand in a less honored relation to him. But Abelard was inexorable. Taking her to Paris, he procured the consent of her relatives to the marriage (which they agreed to keep secret), and even their presence at the ceremony, which was performed one morning before daybreak, after the two had spent a nightof vigils in the church.
After the marriage, they parted and for some time saw little of each other. When Heloise's relatives divulged the secret, and she was taxed with being Abelard's lawful wife, she "anathematized and swore that it was absolutely false." As the facts were too patent, however, Abelard removed her from Paris, and placed her in the convent at Argenteuil, where she had been educated. Here she assumed the garb of a novice. Her relatives, thinking that he must have done this in order to rid himself of her, furiously vowed vengeance, which they took in the meanest and most brutal form of personal violence. It was not a time of fine sensibilities, justice, or mercy; but even the public of those days was horrified, and gave expression to its horror. Abelard, overwhelmed with shame, despair, and remorse, could now think of nothing better than to abandon the world. Without any vocation, as he well knew, he assumed the monkish habit and retired to the monastery of St. Denis, while Heloise, by his order, took the veil at Argenteuil. Her devotion and heroism on this occasion Abelard has described in touching terms. Thus supernaturalism had done its worst for these two strong, impetuous
If Abelard had entered the cloister in the hope of finding peace, he soon discovered his mistake. The dissolute life of the monks utterly disgusted him, while the clergy stormed him with petitions to continue his lectures. Yielding to these, he was soon again surrounded by crowds of students--so great that the monks at St. Denis were glad to get rid of him. He accordingly retired to a lonely cell, to which he was followed by more admirers than could find shelter or food. As the schools of Paris were thereby emptied, his rivals did everything in their power to put a stop to his teaching, declaring that as a monk he ought not to teach profane science, nor as a layman in theology sacred science. In order to legitimatize his claim to teach the latter, he now wrote a theological treatise, regarding which he says:--
"It so happened that I first endeavored to illuminate the basis of our faith by similitudes drawn from human reason, and to compose for our students a treatise on 'The Divine Unity and Trinity,' because they kept asking for human and philosophic reasons, and demanding rather what could be understood than what could be said, declaring that the mere utterance of words was useless unless followed by understanding; that nothing could be believed that was not first understood, and that it was ridiculous for any one to preach what neither he nor those he taught could comprehend, God himself calling such people blind leaders of the blind."Here we have Abelard's central position, exactly the opposite to that of his realist contemporary, Anselm of Canterbury, whose principle was "Credo ut intelligam" (I believe, that I may understand). We must not suppose, however, that Abelard, with his rationalism, dreamed of undermining Christian dogma. Very far from it! He believed it to be rational, and thought he could prove it so. No wonder that the book gave offense, in an age when faith and ecstasy were placed above reason. Indeed, his rivals could have wished for nothing better than this book, which gave them a weapon to use against him. Led on by two old enemies, Alberich and Lotulf, they caused an ecclesiastical council to be called at Soissons, to pass judgment upon the book (1121). This judgment was a foregone conclusion, the trial being the merest farce, in which the pursuers were the judges, the Papal legate allowing his better reason to be overruled by their passion. Abelard was condemned to burn his book in public, and to read the Athanasian Creed as his confession of faith (which he did in tears), and then to be confined permanently in the monastery of St. Medard as a dangerous heretic.
His enemies seemed to have triumphed and to have silenced him forever. Soon after, however, the Papal legate, ashamed of the part he had taken in the transaction, restored him to liberty and allowed him to return to his own monastery at St. Denis. Here once more his rationalistic, critical spirit brought him into trouble with the bigoted, licentious monks. Having maintained, on the authority of Beda, that Dionysius, the patron saint of the monastery, was bishop of Corinth and not of Athens, he raised such a storm that he was forced to flee, and took refuge on a neighboring estate, whose proprietor, Count Thibauld, was friendly to him. Here he was cordially received by the monks of Troyes, and allowed to occupy a retreat belonging to them.
After some time, and with great difficulty, he obtained leave from the abbot of St. Denis to live where he chose, on condition of not joining any other order. Being now practically a free man, he retired to a
lonely spot near Nogent-sur-Seine, on the banks of the Ardusson. There, having received a gift of a piece of land, he established himself along with a friendly cleric, building a small oratory of clay and reeds to the Holy Trinity. No sooner, however, was his place of retreat known than he was followed into the wilderness by hosts of students of all ranks, who lived in tents, slept on the ground, and underwent every kind of hardship, in order to listen to him (1123). These supplied his wants, and built a chapel, which he dedicated to the "Paraclete,"--a name at which his enemies, furious over his success, were greatly scandalized, but which ever after designated the whole establishment.
So incessant and unrelenting were the persecutions he suffered from those enemies, and so deep his indignation at their baseness, that for some time he seriously thought of escaping beyond the bounds of Christendom, and seeking refuge among the Muslim. But just then (1125) he was offered an important position, the abbotship of the monastery of St. Gildas-de-Rhuys, in Lower Brittany, on the lonely, inhospitable shore of the Atlantic. Eager for rest and a position promising influence, Abelard accepted the offer and left the Paraclete, not knowing what he was doing.
His position at St. Gildas was little less than slow martyrdom. The country was wild, the inhabitants were half barbarous, speaking a language unintelligible to him; the monks were violent, unruly, and dissolute, openly living with concubines; the lands of the monastery were subjected to intolerable burdens by the neighboring lord, leavingthe monks in poverty and discontent. Instead of finding a home of God-fearing men, eager for enlightenment, he found a nest of greed and corruption. His attempts to introduce discipline, or even decency, among his "sons," only stirred up rebellion and placed his life in danger. Many times he was menaced with the sword, many times with poison. In spite of all that, he clung to his office, and labored to do his duty. Meanwhile the jealous abbot of St. Denis succeeded in establishing a claim to the lands of the convent at Argenteuil,--of which Heloise, long since famous not only for learning but also for saintliness, was now the head,--and she and her nuns were violently evicted and cast on the world. Hearing of this with indignation, Abelard at once offered the homeless sisters the deserted Paraclete and all its belongings. The offer was thankfully accepted, and Heloise with her family removed there to spend the remainder of her life. It does not appear that Abelard and Heloise ever saw each other at this time, although he used every means in his power to provide for her safety and comfort. This was in 1129. Two years later the Paraclete was confirmed to Heloise by a Papal bull. It remained a convent, and a famous one, for over six hundred years.
After this Abelard paid several visits to the convent, which he justly regarded as his foundation, in order to arrange a rule of life for its inmates, and to encourage them in their vocation. Although on these occasions he saw nothing of Heloise, he did not escape the malignant suspicions of the world, nor of his own flock, which now became more unruly than ever,--so much so that he was compelled to live outside the monastery. Excommunication was tried in vain, and even the efforts of a Papal legate failed to restore order. For Abelard there was nothing but "fear within and conflict without." It was at this time, about 1132, that he wrote his famous 'Historia Calamitatum,' from which most of the
above account of his life has been taken. In 1134, after nine years of painful struggle, he definitely left St. Gildas, without, however, resigning the abbotship. For the next two years he seems to have led a retired life, revising his old works and composing new ones.
Meanwhile, by some chance, his 'History of Calamities' fell into the hands of Heloise at the Paraclete, was devoured with breathless interest, and rekindled the flame that seemed to have smoldered in her bosom for thirteen long years. Overcome with compassion for her husband, for such he really was, she at once wrote to him a letter which reveals the first healthy human heart-beat that had found expression in Christendom for a thousand years. Thus began a correspondence which, for genuine tragic pathos and human interest, has no equal in the world's literature. In Abelard, the scholarly monk has completely replaced the man; in Heloise, the saintly nun is but a veil assumed in loving obedience to him, to conceal the deep-hearted, faithful, devoted flesh-and-blood woman. And such a woman! It may well be doubted if, for all that constitutes genuine womanhood, she ever had an equal. If there is salvation in love, Heloise is in the heaven of heavens. She does not try to express her love in poems, as Mrs. Browning did; but her simple, straightforward expression of a love that would share Francesca's fate with her lover, rather than go to heaven without him, yields, and has yielded, matter for a hundred poems. She looks forward to no salvation; for her chief love is for him. Domino specialiter, sua singulariter: "As a member of the species woman I am the Lord's, as Heloise I am yours"--nominalism with a vengeance!
But to return to Abelard. Permanent quiet in obscurity was plainly impossible for him; and so in 1136 we find him back at Ste. Genevieve, lecturing to crowds of enthusiastic students. He probably thought that during the long years of his exile, the envy and hatred of his enemies had died out; but he soon discovered that he was greatly mistaken. He was too marked a character, and the tendency of his thought too dangerous, for that. Besides, he emptied the schools of his rivals, and adopted no conciliatory tone toward them. The natural result followed. In the year 1140, his enemies, headed by St. Bernard, who had long regarded him with suspicion, raised a cry of heresy against him, as subjecting everything to reason. Bernard, who was nothing if not a fanatic, and who managed to give vent to all his passions by placing them in the service of his God, at once denounced him to the Pope, to cardinals, and to bishops, in passionate letters, full of rhetoric, demanding his condemnation as a perverter of the bases of the faith.
At that time a great ecclesiastical council was about to assemble at Sens; and Abelard, feeling certain that his writings contained nothing which he could not show to be strictly orthodox, demanded that he should be allowed to explain and dialectically defend his position, in open dispute, before it. But this was above all things what his enemies dreaded. They felt that nothing was safe before his brilliant dialectic. Bernard even refused to enter the lists with him; and preferred to draw up a list of his heresies, in the form of sentences sundered from their context in his works,--some of them, indeed, from works which he never wrote,--and to call upon the council to condemn them. (These theses may
be found in Denzinger's 'Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum,' pp. 109 seq.) Abelard, clearly understanding the scheme, feeling its unfairness, and knowing the effect of Bernard's lachrymose pulpit rhetoric upon sympathetic ecclesiastics who believed in his power to work miracles, appeared before the council, only to appeal from its authority to Rome. The council, though somewhat disconcerted by this, proceeded to condemn the disputed theses, and sent a notice of its action to the Pope. Fearing that Abelard, who had friends in Rome, might proceed thither and obtain a reversal of the verdict, Bernard set every agency at work to obtain a confirmation of it before his victim could reach the Eternal City. And he succeeded.
The result was for a time kept secret from Abelard, who, now over sixty years old, set out on his painful journey. Stopping on his way at the famous, hospitable Abbey of Cluny, he was most kindly entertained by its noble abbot, who well deserved the name of Peter the Venerable. Here, apparently, he learned that he had been condemned and excommunicated; for he went no further. Peter offered the weary man an asylum in his house, which was gladly accepted; and Abelard, at last convinced of the vanity of all worldly ambition, settled down to a life of humiliation, meditation, study, and prayer. Soon afterward Bernard made advances toward reconciliation, which Abelard accepted; whereupon his excommunication was removed. Then the once proud Abelard, shattered in body and broken in spirit, had nothing more to do but to prepare for another life. And the end was not far off. He died at St. Marcel, on the 21st of April, 1142, at the age of sixty-three. His generous host, in a letter to Heloise, gives a touching account of his closing days, which were mostly spent in a retreat provided for him on the banks of the Saone. There he read, wrote, dictated, and prayed, in the only quiet days which his life ever knew.
The body of Abelard was placed in a monolith coffin and buried in the chapel of the monastery of St. Marcel; but Peter the Venerable twenty-two years afterward allowed it to be secretly removed, and carried to the Paraclete, where Abelard had wished to lie. When Heloise, world-famous for learning, virtue, and saintliness, passed away, and her body was laid beside his, he opened his arms and clasped her in close embrace. So says the legend, and who would not believe it? The united remains of the immortal lovers, after many vicissitudes, found at last (let us hope), in 1817, a permanent resting place, in the Parisian cemetery of Pere Lachaise, having been placed together in Abelard's monolith coffin. "In death they were not divided."
Abelard's character may be summed up in a few words. He was one of the most brilliant and variously gifted men that ever lived, a sincere lover of truth and champion of freedom. But unfortunately, his extraordinary personal beauty and charm of manner made him the object of so much attention and adulation that he soon became unable to live without seeing himself mirrored in the admiration and love of others. Hence his restlessness, irritability, craving for publicity, fondness for dialectic triumph, and inability to live in fruitful obscurity; hence, too, his intrigue with Heloise, his continual struggles and disappointments, his final humiliation and tragic end. Not having conquered the world, he cannot claim the crown of the martyr.
Abelard's works were collected by Cousin, and published in three 4to volumes (Paris, 1836, 1849, 1859). They include, besides the correspondence with Heloise, and a number of sermons, hymns, answers to questions, etc., written for her, the following:--(1) 'Sic et Non,' a collection of (often contradictory) statements of the Fathers concerning the chief dogmas of religion, (2) 'Dialectic,' (3) 'On Genera and Species,' (4) Glosses to Porphyry's 'Introduction,' Aristotle's 'Categories and Interpretation,' and Boethius's 'Topics,' (5) 'Introduction to Theology,' (6) 'Christian Theology,' (7) 'Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,' (9) 'Abstract of Christian Theology,' (10) 'Ethics, or Know Thyself,' (11) 'Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian,' (12) 'On the Intellects,' (12) 'On the Hexameron,' with a few short and unimportant fragments and tracts. None of Abelard's numerous poems in the vernacular, in which he celebrated his love for Heloise, which he sang ravishingly (for he was a famous singer), and which at once became widely popular, seem to have come down to us; but we have a somewhat lengthy poem, of considerable merit (though of doubtful authenticity), addressed to his son Astralabius, who grew to manhood, became a cleric, and died, it seems, as abbot of Hauterive in Switzerland, in 1162.
Of Abelard's philosophy, little need be added to what has been already said. It is, on the whole, the philosophy of the Middle Age, with this difference: that he insists upon making theology rational, and thus may truly be called the founder of modern rationalism, and the initiator of the struggle against the tyrannic authority of blind faith. To have been so is his crowning merit, and is one that can hardly be overestimated. At the same time it must be borne in mind that he was a loyal son of the Church, and never dreamed of opposing or undermining her. His greatest originality is in 'Ethics,' in which, by placing the essence of morality in the intent and not in the action, he anticipated Kant and much modern speculation. Here he did admirable work. Abelard founded no school, strictly speaking; nevertheless, he determined the method and aim of Scholasticism, and exercised a boundless influence, which is not dead. Descartes and Kant are his children. Among his immediate disciples were a pope, twenty-nine cardinals, and more than fifty bishops. His two greatest pupils were Peter the Lombard, bishop of Paris, and author of the 'Sentences,' the theological text-book of the schools for hundreds of years; and Arnold of Brescia, one of the noblest champions of human liberty, though condemned and banished by the second Council of the Lateran.
The best biography of Abelard is that by Charles de Remusat (2 vols., 8vo, Paris, 1845). See also, in English, Wight's 'Abelard and Eloise' (New York, 1853).