CHAPTER XXXV

Abélard

1079–1142

I. DIVINE PHILOSOPHY

LET us give a separate chapter to Abélard. Not merely as a philosopher, nor as one of the creators of the University of Paris, nor as a flame that set the mind of Latin Europe afire in the twelfth century; but as, with Héloïse, part and personification of the morals and literature and highest fascination of their time.

He was born in Brittany, near Nantes, in the village of Le Pallet. His father, known to us only as Bérenger, was the seigneur of a modest estate, and could afford to give his three sons and one daughter a liberal education. Pierre (we do not know the origin of his surname Abélard) was the oldest, and could claim the rights of primogeniture; but he felt so lively an interest in studies and ideas that, on growing up, he surrendered to his brothers his claim and share in the family property, and set out to woo philosophy wherever a philosophic battle raged, or some famous teacher taught. It meant much for his career that one of his first masters was Jean Roscelin (c. 1050–c. 1120), a rebel who prefigured Abélard by drawing down upon his head the condemnation of the Church.

The controversy that Roscelin had aroused stemmed from what seemed the most harmless problem of the driest logic—the objective existence of “universals.” In Greek and medieval philosophy a universal was a general idea denoting a class of objects (book, stone, planet, man, mankind, the French people, the Catholic Church), actions (cruelty, justice), or qualities (beauty, truth). Plato, seeing the transitoriness of individual organisms and things, had suggested that the universal is more lasting, therefore more real, than any member of the class it describes: beauty more real than Phryne, justice more real than Aristides, man more real than Socrates; this is what the Middle Ages meant by “realism.” Aristotle had countered that the universal is merely an idea formed by the mind to represent a class of like objects; the class itself exists, he thought, only as its constituent members. In our time men have debated whether there is a “group mind” apart from the desires, ideas, and feelings of the individuals composing the group; and Hume argued that the individual “mind” itself is only an abstract name for the series and collection of sensations, ideas, and volitions in an organism. The Greeks did not take the problem too much to heart; and one of the last pagan philosophers—Porphyry (c. 232–c. 304) of Syria and Rome—merely phrased it without offering a solution. But to the Middle Ages the question was vital. The Church claimed to be a spiritual entity additional to the sum of her individual adherents; the whole, she felt, had qualities and powers beyond those of its parts; she could not admit that she was an abstraction, and that the endless ideas and relations suggested by the term “the Church” were nothing but ideas and feelings in her constituent members; she was the living “bride of Christ.” Worse yet: if only individual persons, things, actions, and ideas existed, what became of the Trinity? Was the unity of the three Persons a mere abstraction; were they three separate gods? We must place ourselves in his theological environment to understand the fate of Roscelin.

We know his views only through the reports of his opponents. We are told that he considered universals or general ideas to be mere words (voces), mere winds of the voice (flatus vocis); individual objects and persons exist; all else is names (nomina). Genera and species and qualities have no independent existence; man does not exist, only men; color exists only in the form of colored things. The Church would doubtless have let Roscelin alone had he not applied this “nominalism” to the Trinity. God, he is reported to have said, is a word applied to the three Persons of the Trinity, just as man is applied to many men; but all that really exists is the three Persons—in effect, three gods. This was to admit the polytheism of which Islam implicitly accused Christianity five times a day from a thousand minarets. The Church could not allow such teaching in one who was a canon of the cathedral at Compiègne. Roscelin was summoned before an episcopal synod at Soissons (1092), and was given a choice between retraction and excommunication. He retracted. He fled to England, attacked clerical concubinage there,1 returned to France, and taught at Tours and Loches. It was probably at Loches that Abélard sat impatiently at his feet.2 Abélard rejected nominalism, but it was for doubts about the Trinity that he was twice condemned. It deserves also to be noted that the twelfth century called realism “the ancient doctrine,” and gave to its opponents the name of moderni—moderns.3

The Church was ably defended by Anselm (1033–1109) in several works that seem to have deeply moved Abélard, if only to opposition. Anselm came of a patrician family in Italy; he was made Abbot of Bec in Normandy in 1078; under his rule, as under that of Lanfranc, Bec became one of the major schools of learning in the West. As perhaps ideally described by his fellow monk Eadmer in a loving biography, Anselm was a gentle ascetic who wished only to meditate and pray, and reluctantly emerged from his cell to govern the monastery and its school. To such a man, whose faith was his life, doubt was impossible; faith must come long before understanding; and how could any finite mind expect ever to understand God? “I do not seek to understand in order to believe,” he said, following Augustine, “I believe in order to understand.” But his pupils asked for arguments for use against infidels; he himself considered it “negligent if, after we are confirmed in our faith, we should not aim to understand what we have believed”;4 he accepted the motto fides quaerens intellectum—faith in quest of understanding; and in a series of immensely influential works he inaugurated Scholastic philosophy by attempting a rational defense of the Christian faith.

In a little treatise, Monologion, he argued for the objective existence of universals: our notions of goodness, justice, and truth are relative, and have meaning only by comparison with some absolute goodness, justice, and truth; unless this Absolute exists we have no certain standards of judgment, and our science and our morality alike are baseless and void; God—objective goodness, justice, and truth—is this saving Absolute, the necessary assumption of our lives. As if to. carry this realism to the utmost, Anselm proceeded in his Proslogion (c. 1074) to his famous ontological proof of the existence of God: God is the most perfect being that we can conceive; but if He were merely an idea in our heads He would lack one element of perfection—namely, existence: therefore God, the most perfect being, exists. A modest monk, Gaunilo, signing himself Insipiens (Fool), wrote to Anselm, protesting that we cannot pass so magically from conception to existence, and that an equally valid argument would prove the existence of a perfect island; and Thomas Aquinas agreed with Gaunilo.5 In another brilliant but unconvincing tract—Cur Deus homo?—Anselm sought some rational ground for the fundamental Christian belief that God had become man. Why was this incarnation necessary? An opinion defended by Ambrose, Pope Leo I, and several Fathers of the Church6 held that by eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve had sold themselves and all their progeny to the Devil, and that only the death of God become man could ransom humanity from Satan and hell. Anselm proposed a subtler argument: the disobedience of our first parents was an infinite offense, because it sinned against an infinite being, and disturbed the moral order of the world; only an infinite atonement could balance and wipe out that infinite offense; only an infinite being could offer such infinite atonement; God became man to restore the moral balance of the world.

The realism of Anselm was developed by one of Roscelin’s pupils, William of Champeaux (1070?-1121). In 1103 William began to teach dialectics in the cathedral school of Notre Dame at Paris. If we may believe Abélard, who was too good a warrior to be a good historian, William out-Platoed Plato, and held not only that universals are objectively real, but that the individual is an incidental modification of the generic reality, and exists solely by participating in the universal; so humanity is the real being, which enters into, and thereby gives existence to, Socrates. Moreover (William is reported to have taught) the whole universal is present in every individual of its class; all humanity is in Socrates, in Alexander.

To William’s school Abélard came after much scholarly wandering (1103?), aged twenty-four or twenty-five. He had a fine figure, a proud carriage, good looks,7 an imposing breadth of brow; and the vivacity of his spirit gave life and charm to his manners and speech. He could compose songs and sing them; his lusty humor shook the cobwebs in the dialectical halls; he was a gay and joyous youth who had discovered at the same time Paris and philosophy. His defects were those of his qualities: he was conceited, boastful, insolent, self-centered; and in the exhilaration of his conscious talent he rode with young thoughtlessness over the dogmas and sensibilities of his masters and his time. He was drunk with the “dear delight” of philosophy; this famous lover loved dialectic more than he loved Héloïse.

He was amused by the exaggerated realism of his teacher, and challenged him in open class. All humanity present in Socrates? Then, when all humanity is in Alexander, Socrates (included in all humanity) must be present in Alexander. Presumably William had meant that all the essential elements of humanity are present in each human being; we have not received William’s side of the argument. In any case Abélard would have none of it. To William’s realism, and to Roscelin’s nominalism, he opposed what came to be called conceptualism. The class (man, stone) physically exists only in the form of its constituent members (men, stones); qualities (whiteness, goodness, truth) exist only in the objects, actions, or ideas that they qualify. But the class and the quality are not mere names; they are concepts formed by our minds from elements or features observed to be common to a group of individuals, objects, actions, or ideas. These common elements are real, though they appear only in individual forms. The concepts by which we think of these common elements—the generic or universal ideas by which we think of classes of like objects—are not “winds of voice,” but the most useful and indispensable instruments of thought; without them science and philosophy would be impossible.

Abélard remained with William, he tells us, “for some time.” Then he himself began to teach, first at Melun, later at Corbeil, the one forty, the other twenty-five, miles from Paris. Some criticized him for setting up his own shop after too brief an apprenticeship, but a goodly number of students followed him, relishing his quick mind and tongue. Meanwhile William became a monk at St. Victor, and “by request” continued his lectures there. To him, after a “grievous illness,” Abélard returned as a pupil; apparently there was more meat on the bones of William’s philosophy than a hasty reading of Abélard’s brief autobiography suggests. But soon their old debates were resumed; Abélard (in Abélard’s report) forced William to modify his realism, and William’s prestige waned. His successor and appointee at Notre Dame now (1109?) offered to yield his place to Abélard; William refused consent. Abélard resumed lecturing at Melun, then on Mont Ste.-Geneviève, just outside Paris. Between him and William, and between their students, a war of logic ran its wordy course for years; and Abélard, despite his rejection of nominalism, became the leader and hero of the moderni, the ardent young rebels of the “modern” school.

While he was so embattled, his father and mother entered religious orders, presumably as a viaticum, and Abélard had to return to Le Pallet to bid them Godspeed, and perhaps to settle some problems of property. In 1115, after a term of studying theology at Laon, Abélard returned to Paris, and, apparently without opposition, established his school, or lecture course, in those very cloisters of Notre Dame where he had squatted as a student some twelve years before. He became a canon of the cathedral,8 though not yet a priest, and might look forward to ecclesiastical dignities if he could hold his tongue. But it was a hard condition. He had studied literature as well as philosophy, and was a master of lucid and graceful exposition; like any Frenchman he acknowledged a moral obligation to be clear; and he was not afraid to let some humor lighten the burden of his speech. Students came from a dozen countries to hear him; his classes were so large that they brought him considerable money as well as international fame.9 A letter written to him a few years later by the Abbé Foulques bears witness:

Rome sent you her children to instruct…. Neither distance nor mountains nor valleys nor roads infested with brigands prevented the youth of the world from coming to you. Young Englishmen crowded to your classes across a dangerous sea; all quarters of Spain, Flanders, Germany sent you pupils; and they were never tired of praising the power of your mind. I say nothing of all the inhabitants of Paris, and the most distant parts of France, which were also thirsty for your teaching, almost as if no science existed which could not be learned from you.10

From that height and splendor of success and renown why should he not move on to a bishopric (as William had done), then to an archbishopric? Why not to the papacy?

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