Peter Abelard

1079-1142. Scholastic philosopher and theologian. Born in Pallet, Brittany, he studied successively under the Nominalist Roscellinus, the extreme Realist William of Champeaux (whom he made appear inconsistent on the issue of universals), and Anselm of Laon. A brilliant debater and lecturer, Abelard attracted large numbers of enthusiastic students, first in dialectics and later in theology. His arrogance, however, and his celebrated love affair with the beautiful and talented Héloïse almost ruined his professorial career. About 1115, Abelard was in Paris where he lived in the home of Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame, whose teenage niece Héloïse he had agreed to tutor; but the relationship became too personal, and they had a son whom they named Astrolabe. To pacify Fulbert, Abelard secretly married Héloïse after the son's birth. When calumnious rumors began to circulate, Héloïse agreed to retire to the convent of Argenteuil rather than further damage Abelard's teaching career. Fulbert in anger hired a band of men who broke into Abelard's quarters one night and castrated him.

After this humiliation Abelard entered the monastery of St.- Denis, at the age of forty. In 1121 he was condemned unheard by the Council of Soissons for his view of the Trinity, and his book on the subject was burned. Pursued from place to place by both the authorities and large numbers of students, Abelard finally became abbot of the secluded monastery of St. Gildas in Brittany in 1125. Conditions at St. Gildas were unbearable, and he soon went back to Paris where he once again became a popular lecturer.

At about the same time he incurred the animosity of Bernard of Clairvaux* because of alleged heretical statements about the Trinity in his writings. In 1141, several propositions selected from his works were condemned at the Council of Sens. On his way to Rome to appeal his case, Abelard stopped at Cluny where he was convinced by Peter the Venerable of the hopelessness of any further attempts to defend himself. He died at a Cluniac priory.

He left a considerable body of works on logic and theology, including his famous Sic et Non (1122), in which he arranged contradictory statements from the Scriptures and the Church Fathers to force students to reconcile them; his autobiography, Story of My Misfortunes, personal letters, and a number of poems, sermons, and letters. His influence lived on through his students, among whom were a number of future popes and cardinals, John of Salisbury, and Otto of Freising.

A century ago historians generally hailed Abelard as the precursor of modern free thought, but recent scholarship has challenged this view, emphasizing rather that he was an intellectual who approached his faith with new methods and who sought to understand faith by the use of reason. Although he is best remembered for his affair with Héloïse, his greatest contribution to medieval Christian history was to help initiate the task of reconciling faith and reason. He held to the existence of individual things, but added that man had a mental idea of common elements in things as well as the existence of ultimate universals in the mind of God.

See Atonement concerning his “moral theory” of that doctrine.

J.G. Sikes, Peter Abailard (1932); J.R. McCallum, Abelard's Christian Theology (1949); E. Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (tr. L.K. Shook, 1951); R. Pernoud, Héloïse et Abelard (1970).