Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The History of Peter Abelard’s Calamities

Peter Abelard, born in Brittany in 1079, was a poet, logician, and Aristotelian philosopher of the middle ages. He is known for his use of dialectics and for his solution to the problem of universals. Nominalism gets its name from his claim that only words (nomen) are universal. He was the first to formulate the central nominalist tenet: only particulars exist.

Abelard arrived in Paris in 1100 and after wandering from school to school to get himself taught, he opened his own school and within a couple of years he was attracting a large number of students. By 1108, he had gained the reputation of a leading intellectual figure in the city and a popular teacher of logic.

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell notes that Abelard used to teach that the word “logic” comes from the “Logos,” the divine word in St. John’s Gospel. He taught his students that by using logic and dialectic they could have a deeper understanding of theology. He is credited with being the first to coin the term “theologia” (logic plus “theos”, or God). He developed the techniques for making theology a rational and logically disciplined branch of philosophy—the technique later flowered under the banner of “Scholasticism.”

Russell says that Abelard created a great controversy by teaching that nothing that is of this world is infallible and that it is was for the students to judge each case on the basis of evidence and their own reason. In one of his lectures, Abelard told his students, “You are Gods!” His students cheered him and hosting him on their shoulders they carried him through the streets.

David Knowles, in his book The Evolution of Medieval Thought, says that when Abelard was told that penetrating logical analysis might become the breeding ground for skepticism, he replied, “Careful and frequent questioning is the basic key to wisdom.” He also delivered what is regarded as his most famous maxim, “By doubting we come to question, and by questioning we perceive the truth.”

Abelard’s downfall came when, at the age of forty, he entered into a relationship with seventeen year old Héloïse d’Argenteuil, the niece of Canon Fulbert, a member of the clergy of the cathedral of Paris. Fulbert was furious, but he relented when Abelard got married to Héloïse in a secret ceremony. They had a son whom they called Astrolabe. But Abelard was not ready to publicly acknowledge his marriage with Héloïse because he believed that it would ruin his career.

Héloïse withdrew into the convent of Argenteuil outside Paris, but when her uncle Fulbert learned that Abelard was still seeing her secretly, he hired some thugs to castrate him. After this Héloïse became a nun, and Abelard embraced monistic life. They continued to write letters to each other. Their very interesting letters are collected in the book The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.

In my opinion, Abelard’s best writing is his book Historia Calamitatum (The Story of my Calamities) and the letters that he has written to Héloïse. Sic et Non is also a famous book, but I have not read it. In Historia Calamitatum, Abelard describes his rise to fame and his fall and gives an account of his interactions with Héloïse. Her letters to Abelard and religious correspondence have earned Héloïse a special place in literary history.

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