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Medieval philosophy

Peripateticus Palatinus: The Story of Abelard, Part I

Bill East

NOTE: This lengthy article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author. Comments engendered by these postings may be accessed through the archives of the discussion list starting in March, 1998.

PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (1) Most of what we know of Peter Abelard's life is to be found in his new autobiography, the Historia Calamitatum, which can be augmented from other sources, notably his correspondence with Heloise, and references to him by other people, such as St Bernard the implacable Abbot of Citeaux, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, and John of Salisbury, who studied under many teachers, including Abelard, and has left us his opinions of them.

Abelard was born in 1079 at Le Pallet, near Nantes. His parents were Bretons, his father was a knight called Berengar and his mother was called Lucie. His nationality may be significant. Brittany was at the time an independent duchy; it did not become part of France until the 15th century. Abelard was not a Frenchman. The Bretons were a Celtic people, akin to the British, speaking a language cognate with Welsh (although Abelard's communication problems when he was Abbot of the Breton monastery of St Gildas suggest that he was not himself a Breton speaker). Abelard tells us himself, 'I owe my volatile temperament to my native soil and ancestry, and also my natural ability for learning.'

He was the eldest son, but renounced his rights of inheritance and military career in order to pursue the life of a scholar. He tells us, 'I began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a true peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard there was keen interest in the art of dialectic.' The original peripatetic philosopher was Aristotle, who got the title from his habit of walking up and down as he taught in his school, the Lyceum. Perhaps Abelard understood the term differently; at all events, he became known as Peripateticus Palatinus, the peripatetic from Le Pallet.

Peripateticus Palatinus (2)

We know that one of Abelard's earliest teachers was Roscelin, who taught at Loches, a few miles south-east of Tours. Abelard does not however mention Roscelin in his autobiography; Roscelin was an embarrassment. He had been condemned in 1093 for his teaching on the Trinity, which was thought to amount to tritheism, the doctrine that there are three gods. Roscelin had been led into this position by his extreme nominalism, that is, the belief that universals, words denoting classes or categories of things, are merely words and do not correspond to anything in reality. Given the reality of the particular persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Roscelin could not comprehend that the word describing the three together, 'Trinity', corresponded to anything with a real existence. He had been opposed by St Anselm, and although he seems to have recanted or given an explanation of his views satisfactory enough to be allowed to continue teaching, he remained suspect.

Abelard does not admit to having been taught by Roscelin, but often what we learn from our earliest teachers remains with us for the rest of our lives. Certainly Abelard was a nominalist; and although he avoided the extremes of Roscelin he was hostile to the realism of his next teacher, William of Champeaux, Archdeacon of Paris and head of the cathedral school at Notre Dame. Abelard was to clash twice with William. He tells us that he stayed for some time in William's school, but that William took a violent dislike to him because of Abelard's habit of arguing with him and proving him wrong in debate. In about 1102 Abelard left to found his own school at Melun, about 30 miles south east of Paris. This apparently was a success, and after a year or two Abelard moved to Corbeil, about half the distance from Paris, where, as he says, he could embarrass William through more frequent assaults in disputation.

Peripateticus Palatinus (3)

Abelard now fell ill and was obliged to some time in his native Brittany; he tells us that he was sorely missed by those eager for instruction in dialectic. On his return to Paris, some years later, he found that William had founded a house of Augustinian Canons at the Abbey of St Victor. He returned to William to hear his lectures on rhetoric, and again clashed with him over his theory of universals. He had maintained, says Abelard, that in the common existence of universals, the whole species was essentially the same in each of its individuals, and among these there was no essential difference, but only variety due to multiplicity of accidents. Thus, if we consider the universal 'man', this, according to William, denoted a species whose individual members - Tom and Dick and Harry - shared a common essence, being distinguished only by accidents - height and weight and colour and so on. This is realism, the belief that universals signify something real, as opposed to nominalism, the belief that they are merely nouns, names, words.

Either position if pushed to its logical conclusion produces difficulties, even absurdities. Abelard himself says, 'This has always been the dialectician's chief problem concerning universals, so much so that even Porphyry did not venture to settle it when he deals with universals in his Isagoge, but only mentioned it as a very serious difficulty.' Extreme realism would deny any reality to individuals - we are all as it were facets of our common humanity, without any individual being of our own; extreme nominalism would deny any real existence to the concept of humanity, so that each of us is an individual without any common bond uniting us, just as Roscelin denied that the concept of divinity had any real existence with relation to the three individual persons of the godhead. Realism tends towards collectivism, nominalism to individualism. One might seek a relationship between the individualism, even egotism, of Abelard, and his nominalist philosophical position; but which came first, which was the chicken and which the egg, is itself an interesting philosophical question.

Peripateticus Palatinus (4)

Abelard was offered a post at Notre Dame, but was driven from Paris by William's enmity, and set up his school again in Melun; but when William moved his own school to a village outside Paris, Abelard returned and began to teach on the Mont Ste-Geneviève. This is on the left bank of the= Seine, outside the bounds of the city, on the site of the present University of= Paris.

He then returned to Brittany at the request of his mother Lucie. His father Berengar had entered the monastic life and Lucie was preparing to enter a convent; she needed some help to wind up her affairs. It was by no means unusual at the time for elderly people to enter the religious life, any more than it is now unusual for elderly people to enter nursing homes; indeed religious houses to some extent fulfilled that function.

We need to remember as we consider the subsequent actions of Abelard and Heloise that his mother and father by this time were a monk and a nun; that entering the religious life would have seemed to him a perfectly viable option when circumstances grew difficult; that he had performed a pious duty in helping his mother move into a convent and may have thought his father negligent in failing to make this provision for his wife before entering a monastery himself (of course, we know nothing about Berengar's health at the time he embraced the religious life; he may have been quite gaga).

Peripateticus Palatinus (5)

His duty performed, Abelard returned to France, with the special purpose, as he tells us, of studying theology. We do not know what brought about this change of direction in Abelard's intellectual life. It may be merely coincidental that it followed on immediately from his spending time with his mother, who had undergone at least a form of religious conversion. It may be worth mentioning that unlike St Anselm or St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard so far as we can tell enjoyed a good relationship with his parents and family. He tells us, 'My father had acquired some knowledge of letters before he was a soldier, and later on his passion for learning was such that he intended all his sons to have instruction in letters before they were trained to arms. His purpose was fulfilled. I was his first-born, and being specially dear to him had the greatest care taken over my education.'

Abelard's decision to be a scholar rather than a soldier is thus presented not as a rebellion against his father's manner of life, but rather as a following in the footsteps of his role-model. It may be that Abelard was in a curious way able to combine the two strings of his father's bow, the military and the scholarly. It should be pointed out that Benengar was a most unusual man. People were either knights or scholars, but not both. Knights were usually good at knocking other knights off horses, but not gifted with intellectual eminence, or scholarship sublime. Clerks, on the other hand, did not commonly engage in warfare.

As we have seen, Abelard wandered about from school to school seeking instruction wherever it was to be found, and ascribed this to his desire to be a peripatetic philosopher. But Aristotle derived his nickname from his habit of walking up and down as he taught, not from moving from place to place. A philosopher does not usually move from place to place. A knight errant moves from place to place, from tournament to tournament, shattering lances with all who dare to oppose him. Abelard set about his scholarship in this spirit. His attitude to his teachers was combative; his element was the disputation, the debate.

Peripateticus Palatinus (6)

His language is distinctively military. For example, on moving his school to Corbeil he describes it as castrum Corbolii. Castrum, usually found in classical Latin in the plural, castra, is a military camp. He does not call the town an oppidum or an urbs. The purpose of setting up this camp is to embarrass William 'through more frequent assaults (assultus) in disputation.' Assultus means an attack, an assault; it had never before been used to describe an academic encounter.

On returning to Paris and finding his post at the cathedral school occupied by an intruder, Abelard says, 'I took my school outside the city to Mont Ste Geneviève, and set up camp there in order to lay siege to my usurper' (extra civitatem in monte S. Genovefæ scholarum nostrarum castra posui, quasi eum obsessurus, qui locum occupaverat nostrum). William is said to have hurried back to the city, 'apparently to deliver from my siege the soldier whom he had abandoned' (quasi militem suum, quem deseruerat, ab obsidione nostra liberaturus). Abelard goes on, 'The bouts of argument (conflictus disputationum) which followed William's return to the city between my pupils and him and his followers, and the successes in these wars which fortune gave my people (et quos fortuna eventus in his bellis dederit nostris), myself among them, are facts which you have long known.' And he concludes his account of this campaign with the words of Ajax from Ovid's Metamorphoses :

. . . si quæritis hujus Fortunam pugnæ, non sum superatus ab illo.

'If you ask the result of this battle, I was not defeated by him.'

The disputation became the characteristic mode of intellectual enquiry in the Middle Ages, and remained the characteristic mode of intellectual enquiry in universities until quite modern times. In the Divinity School at Oxford two pulpits still stand facing each other across the room. Until the nineteenth century you would earn your degree by arguing with your opponent, maintaining or attacking a thesis, until the moderator was satisfied that you had proved your skill at argument.

This mode of intellectual discourse seems to be something new in Abelard. It was not the classical mode; although Plato expressed his teaching in dialogue form, the dialogues are a bloodless affair; nobody ever disagrees with Socrates. Nor was it the Benedictine mode; Boso came to Anselm to learn, not to argue. It was not the mode that Abelard's teachers were used to; William of Champeaux was most put out when Abelard answered back. It may be that this new mode of discourse, the academic disputation, owes something to Abelard's upbringing at the hands of his remarkable father.

Peripateticus Palatinus (7)

William of Champeaux had by now been made Bishop of Châlons, and in order to learn his theology Abelard turned to Anselm of Laon, who had himself taught William. Anselm had probably studied under his namesake, Saint Anselm, at Bec. His brother, Ralph, had conducted the school at Laon, which is about 80 miles north east of Paris. Ralph had written the book Cur Deus Homo containing the traditional account of the Atonement which Boso found so unsatisfactory, thus giving occasion to Saint Anselm's book of the same title. [There's an interesting study of Boso in R.W. Southern's book, 'Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape']. The Glossa Ordinaria was begun in the school of Anselm at Laon, and Anselm taught theology there with far greater distinction that Abelard would allow. Abelard says of him, 'Anselm could win the admiration of an audience, but he was useless when put to the question. He had a remarkable command of words but their meaning was worthless and devoid of all sense.'

Anselm fared better than William in that Abelard, rather than barracking, merely cut his lectures. But this annoyed some of his leading pupils, who took it, correctly enough, as a sign of contempt for their master. One day the other students asked Abelard what he thought of the study of the scriptures, having hitherto studied only philosophy. He replied that concentration on such reading was most beneficial for the salvation of the soul, but that he found it most surprising that for educated men the writings or glosses of the Fathers themselves were not sufficient for interpreting their commentaries without further instruction.

They challenged him to produce a lecture of his own on the scriptures, and he immediately agreed to lecture the following day on a particularly obscure passage of Ezekiel. The lecture, Abelard assures us, was a great success, but not surprisingly provoked the jealousy of Anselm, who forbade him to continue to lecture on the subject.

Peripateticus Palatinus (8)

Abelard now returned to the post at Notre Dame from which he had been driven by the enmity of William. He taught both philosophy and the scriptures, continuing with the commentary on Ezekiel which he had begun in Laon. He held this post for several years, and it was here that he encountered the astonishing Heloise. Abelard tells us that she was the niece of one Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, 'and so much loved by her that he had done everything in his power to advance her education in letters.' That is a very curious statement. Many fathers, uncles and guardians must have loved their daughters, nieces and wards, but we do not find many devoting their resources to their education in letters. Nothing in Abelard's (admittedly highly biased) account of Fulbert suggests that he was particularly enlightened or far-sighted in his attitude to the education of women.

Abelard's affair with Heloise is one of the best-known stories in the history of the Middle Ages, and we need do no more than recall the chief events: he became her tutor, they became lovers, she became pregnant, he abducted her and carried her off to Brittany, where she gave birth to their son, whom she named Astralabius, Astralabe. The name has never been explained. It is the name of a scientific instrument; but one would not now name one's child Electron Microscope or Hubble Telescope. My suggestion, for what it is worth, is that it is an anagram: 'Astralabius, Puer Dei' is an anagram of 'Petrus Abaelardus II'. [Cf my article, 'Abelard's Anagram' in Notes and Queries, New Series Vol. 42, No 3, September 1995, p. 269]

Abelard made an offer to marry Heloise, which was accepted by Fulbert but strongly opposed by Heloise herself, whose arguments against marriage occupy a considerable portion of the Historia Calamitatum. Despite Heloise's reservations, they were in fact married in Paris, in the presence of Fulbert, who had agreed to keep the marriage a secret. Fulbert failed to keep his part of the bargain, spread the news of the marriage and heaped abuse on Heloise on several occasions. Abelard removed her to a convent in Argenteuil, where she had been brought up and received her early education. Fulbert, believing that Abelard was planning to get rid of Heloise by making her a nun, sent some ruffians and had him castrated.

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Copyright (C) 1998, Bill East. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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