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History of Philosophy|
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)
|Life. The most conspicuous figure in the great dialectical contest
which occupied so large a share of the attention of philosophers during
the twelfth century is Peter Abelard, who was born at Pallet, near
Nantes, in Brittany, in the year 1079. After having studied under
Roscelin he went to Paris, where he attended the lectures of William of
Champeaux. Being, as St. Bernard says, "vir bellator ab adolescentia,"
he quarreled with his master, and, at the age of twenty-two, set up a
rival school, teaching first at Melun and afterwards at Corbeil. When
William retired to the monastery of St. Victor (1108) Abelard returned
to Paris, where he enjoyed the most extraordinary success as a lecturer on dialectic. He first taught
at Ste. Genevieve and later (about 113) at the cathedral school of
Notre Dame. In his autobiography, which he so appropriately styles
Historia Calamitatum, he tells of his love for Heloise, of the
vengeance of the canon Fulbert, of the secret marriage, of his entry
into the Benedictine order at the abbey of St. Denis, of the retirement
of Heloise to the convent of Argenteuil, and of the foundation of the
oratory called the Paraclete. He makes no secret of the pride and
vanity to which he attributed his downfall and the sufferings of his
later life. 
 Hist. Calam., col. 126.
About the time he had attained the greatest eminence as a teacher of
dialectic, Abelard presented himself at the school of the venerable
Anselm of Laon for the purpose of studying theology. At Laon it was the
same story of insubordination as at Paris: Abelard was uneasy until he
had discomfited the Doctor Doctorum (Anselm) as completely as he
had overthrown the Columna Doctorum (William of Champeaux).
After the downfall of Abelard the disciples of Anselm had their day of
revenge. Summoned before the council of Soissons (1121) Abelard was
obliged to recite the Athanasian creed and to burn his book on the
Trinity.  After this he retired to a desert region near Troyes.
Thence he went to the monastery of St Gildas de Rhuys in Brittany. The
monks, however, drove him from the abbey, and after some years spent in
the neighborhood of Nantes he resumed his lectures at Paris. Pupils now
began to flock in such numbers to his school that Anselm's disciples
became alarmed once more, and the intervention of St. Bernard of
Clairvaux was invoked. Abelard treated Bernard and his monks with
characteristic disdain. St. Bernard wrote to Rome, and sent a circular
letter to the bishops of France. The result was, that at Abelard's own
request (so at least it seems) a council was assembled at Sens
(1140).  Abelard, however, refused to defend himself; nevertheless he
was condemned, but, because he appealed to Rome, he was allowed to
accept the hospitality of the venerable Peter of Cluny,  at whose
monastery he spent the last two years of his life in peace. He died, in 1142, at Châlons-sur-Saône,
four leagues distant from Cluny, and was buried at the Paraclete.
 The work condemned and burned on this occasion was the Tractatus
de Unitate et Trinitate Divina. This treatise was discovered and
edited in 1891 by Dr. Stolze of Wurzburg. The Theologia
Christiana, as we now possess it, is a revised form of the original
Tractatus, with some significant omissions and some
amplifications by way of explanation and apology. cf. Poole,
op. cit., p. 150.
Character. Abelard is a type of the fighting dialectician of the
twelfth century, -- vir bellator. He was by disposition a
rationalist, intolerant of restraint, totally devoid of respect for
authority, and so fond of displaying his extraordinary talents that he
appears to have preferred victory to truth.
 Deutsch, Die Synode von Sens, 1141 (Berlin, 1880), maintains
that the Synod was held in 1141. cf. Denifle, Archiv, I,
 Peter, writing under the impressions of these two years'
intercourse with Abelard, describes him as "ever to be named with
honor, the servant of Christ and verily Christ's philosopher"
(Epistola ad Heloissam, Patr. Lat., Vol. CLXX VIII, co]. 66).
That St. Bernard was unfair to Abelard both before and after the
council is the opinion now entertained by many Catholic writers.
cf. Mabillon (Praefatio in Bernardi Opera, 1, note 5);
Pez (Thesaurus Anecdotorum Novissimus, III, dissert. isag.).
cf. also Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, Zweite Aufi., V,
pp. 469, 481, 485.
Sources. In addition to the Historia Calamitatum, we
possess the following works of Abelard (cf. Migne, Patr. Lat.,
Vol. CLXXVIII): Epistolae, Expositio Fidei, Introductio ad
Theologiam, Theologia Christiana, Ethica (or Scite Teipsum),
Sic et Non, Dialogus inter Philosophum Judaeum et Christianum.
To these are to be added the Summa Dialecticae and perhaps also
the fragment De Generibus et Speciebus published by Cousin.
Monographs: Rémusat, Abélard (Paris, 1845);
Deutsch, Peter Abälard (Leipzig, 1883).
Method. Abelard is primarily a dialectician. Dialectic he
defines as the art of discerning the true from the false: it implies
the task of discerning or distinguishing thoughts and the subsidiary
task of distinguishing words. In the Sic et Non Abelard
formulates the principal theses of theology and presents the opinions
of the Fathers pro and contra. This idea of philosophic method was
further developed by Alexander of Hales, and became the recognized
method of the schoolmen of the thirteenth century and of their
 Cf. Picavet, Abélard et Alexandre de Hales,
créateurs de la methode scholastique (brochure).
Doctrine of Universals. There is nothing more certain than that
Abelard was equally opposed to the nominalism of Roscelin and to the
realism of William of Champeaux. It is not, however, so easy to
determine what was Abelard's own answer to
the questions proposed by Porphyry. John of Salisbury, a disciple of
Abelard, after mentioning the opinion of Roscelin, speaks of Abelard's
doctrine in the following terms:
Alius sermones intuetur et ad illos detorquet quidquid alicubi
de universalibus meminit scriptum. In hac autem opinione deprehensus
est peripateticus palatinus Abaelardus noster. 
 Metal., II, Cap. 17.
Distinguishing between vox and sermo (the word as used in
a sentence), Abelard would maintain "est sermo predicabilis."
Apparently, therefore, Abelard was a modified nominalist: he is
generally classed with the conceptualists, and John of Salisbury's
statement that Abelard and his followers "rem de re praedicari monstrum
ducunt " seems definitely to exclude them from the ranks of the
From the texts furnished by Rémusat and Cousin, it is clear that
the traditional opinion which regarded Abelard as the founder of
conceptualism must he abandoned. Abelard nowhere teaches that the
universal existing in the mind has no objective value. On the contrary,
while he does not succeed in discovering a neat and concise formula in
which to express his doctrine of realism, he maintains principles which
justify us in classing him not only among the anti-realists, who
opposed exaggerated realism (the antiqua doctrina), but even among the
moderate realists, although his moderate realism is naturally
undeveloped. Among the principles to which we refer are the following:
1. The universal has no existence apart from the individual: "Cum nec
ipsae species habeant nisi per individua subsistere."
 Summa Dialectica, Ouvrages inéd., p. 204.
2. The universal is not a mere word: the word becomes universal by
means of the mode of predication which it assumes on being made part of
a sentence. It is therefore, presumably, the mind which confers
universality, on account of the essential similarity of different
individuals. This thought is not, however,
explicitly enunciated by Abelard: it is merely contained in his
distinction of vox and sermo.
3. The difference of genera and species is founded on a
difference of things: "Diversitas substantim diversitatem generum et
specierum facit." 
 Sum. Dial., Ouvrages inéd., p. 418.
Relation of Philosophy to Theology. In the Introductio ad
Theologiam Abelard lays down certain principles which seem to remove
all distinction between philosophy and theology by reducing the latter
to the level of the former. Faith must be based on reason:
Si enim, cum persuadetur aliud ut credatur, nil est ratione
discutiendum, utrum scilicet credi oporteat vel non, quid restat nisi
ut aeque tam falsa quam vera praedicantibus acquiescamus. 
 Introductio ad Theologiam, col. 2049.
Again, he says: "Nec quia Deus id dixerat creditur, sed quia hoc sic
esse convincitur accipitur,"  a -- a principle which, it is said,
offended St. Bernard's sense of orthodoxy and constituted the real
reason of Abelard's second condemnation.
 Op. cit., col. 1050.
The Credo ut intelligam and the Intelligo ut credam are
equally essential to the Scholastic doctrine of the relation between
philosophy and theology. By neglecting the former altogether, and by
insisting on the latter exclusively, Abelard unduly emphasizes the
rationalistic element in Scholasticism. Like Erigena, he identifies
philosophy with theology. But, while Erigena understood the identity in
one sense, Abelard understands it in another: Erigena's point of view
was that of a mystic; Abelard's point of view is that of a rationalist.
Erigena raised philosophy to identification with theology, because God,
the object of theology, is the only reality, and is therefore the
object of philosophy. Abelard lowers theology to identification with
philosophy, because the principle that in order to believe we must
first understand is by him extended to mean that reason can comprehend
even the mysteries of faith. It was in this
spirit of rationalism that Abelard, according to Otto of Freising,
compared the Holy Trinity to a syllogism. In a similar spirit. he
affirmed the moral precepts of the Gospel to be merely a reformation of
the natural law observed by pagan philosophers, and said and wrote many
things which, though they were not heretical, gave offense by reason of
their total disregard for authority.
We are not here concerned with the theological doctrines for which
Abelard was twice condemned. It is sufficient to note that the sum of
the accusations brought forward by St. Bernard was that Abelard
regarded the Trinity as a mere trinity of names, or, at most, of
Origin of the Universe. Abelard's account of the origin of
things is characterized by necessitarianism and optimism.
Whatever God made, He made necessarily; for, whatever He made is good,
and to say that He could abstain from doing what is good is to accuse
Him of jealousy or of downright malice.  God therefore made everything
that He could make: "Ergo ubi non est velle Dei deest posse,"  and the
world is the best possible world, for the evil which exists is such as
God could not prevent. In a certain sense, however, God created freely,
because in the act of creation He was constrained by no external agent
but only by His own nature. 
 Theologia Christiana, Lib. V, col. 2324.
Psychological Doctrines. The soul, although in itself simple and
spiritual, yet, inasmuch as it is included in the body, is corporeal.
For this reason Abelard  says that all creatures are corporeal; the
angels, because they are circumscribed by place, and the human soul
because it is included in the body. The soul is the principle of life:
it makes the body to be what it is.
 Cf. op. cit., coll. 1329-1330.
 Introd. ad Theol., Lib. III, Cap. 6.
Abelard speaks of free judgment (liberum arbitrium) rather than
of free will. Judgment is free because there is no
compulsion, and freedom consists in the power to act or abstain from
 Introd. ad Theol., Lib. III, Cap. 7.
Ethical Doctrines. In his ethical treatise  Abelard
distinguishes between vitium, peccatum, and mala actio.
Vitium is the inclination to sin, -- "id quo ad peccandum proni
efficimur, hoc est ad consentiendum ei quod non convenit."
Peccatum is not mere mala voluntas: it is "contemptus
Dei, sive consensus in eo quod credimus propter Deum dimittendum."
Mala actio is the external act, the opus peccati, which
is not, properly speaking (that is, formally), a sin at all, but merely
the matter of sin.
 Ethica, Cap. 3.
From this distinction it follows that all external actions are, in
themselves, morally indifferent: it is the intention that causes them
to be good or evil: "Opera omnia in se indifferentia, nec nisi pro
intentione agentis bona vel mala dicenda sunt."  God looks not to the
deed, but to the intention, and He punishes the intention rather than
the act, -- "non enim Deus ex damno, sed ex contemptu offendi
potest." Finally, where ignorance blinds or force coerces there is no
sin, sin being essentially something contrary to conscience: "Non est
peccatum nisi contra conscientiam."  Conscience must, therefore, be
our guide, since it corresponds to the external norms of conduct.
 Op. cit., Cap. 7.
Historical Position. Abelard was acknowledged to be the foremost
dialectician of an age in which dialectic was cultivated as it never
has been cultivated since. "Huic soli," says an epitaph, written by a
contemporary, "patuit scibile quidquid erat." He appeared in the
twelfth century like a brilliant comet which dazzled for a moment but
failed to shed permanent light. His was a highly gifted mind, but it
was a mind whose prominent quality was brilliancy rather than
profundity. He discussed many questions but exhausted none. His career,
however, brought out the many-sidedness of the Scholastic movement, by
exhibiting in exaggerated form the rationalistic element of
Scholasticism. Abelard was condemned, not because he advocated the
rights of reason, nor because he applied dialectic to the discussion of
the Trinity, -- St. Augustine had done this without incurring reproach,
-- but because of the extravagant claims which he urged on behalf of
reason, and because of the heresy into which he fell in his discussion
of the Trinitarian mystery. 
 Op. cit., Cap. 13.
 The work De Generibus et Speciebus which Cousin includes
among Abelard's works was written, according to Ritter, by Joscelin
(Gauslenus) of Soissons (bishop of Soissons from 1122 to 1151), of
whom John of Salisbury makes mention in his Metalogicus (II,
17). Ritter's conjecture is not, however, accepted by Stöckl and
others, who are content with assigning the treatise in question to some
writer belonging to the first half of the twelfth century. The author
of the treatise is equally opposed to nominalism and to that form of
realism which maintains the physical unity of that which corresponds to