A year later (1120), at the urging of his students and his abbot, he resumed his lecturing, in a “cell” of the Benedictine priory of Maisoncelle. Presumably we have the substance of his lecture courses in his books. These, however, were composed in hectic installments, and hardly allow dating; they were revised in his final years, when his spirit was quite broken, and there is no telling how much youthful fire was quenched by the flow of time. Four minor logical works circle about the problem of universals; we need not disturb their rest. The Dialectica, however, is a 375-page treatise on logic in the Aristotelian sense: a rational analysis of the parts of speech, the categories of thought (substance, quantity, place, position, time, relation, quality, possession, action, “passion”), the forms of propositions, and the rules of reasoning; the renascent mind of Western Europe had to clarify these basic ideas for itself like a child learning to read. Dialectic was the major interest of philosophy in Abélard’s time, partly because the new philosophy stemmed from Aristotle through Boethius and Porphyry, and only the logical treatises of Aristotle (and not all of these) were known to this first generation of Scholastic philosophy. So the Dialectica is not a fascinating book; yet even in its formal pages we hear a shot or two in the first skirmishes of a Two Hundred Years’ War between faith and reason. How can we, in an age already doubtful of the intellect, recapture the glow of a time that was just discovering “this great mystery of knowledge”?20 Truth cannot be contrary to truth, Abélard pleads; the truths of Scripture must agree with the findings of reason, else the God who gave us both would be deluding us with one or the other.21
Perhaps in his early period—before his tragedy—he wrote his Dialogue Between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian. “In a vision of the night,” he says, three men came to him as a famous teacher, and asked his judgment on their dispute. All three believe in one God; two accept the Hebrew Scriptures; the philosopher rejects these, and proposes to base life and morality on reason and natural law. How absurd, argues the philosopher, to cling to the beliefs of our childhood, to share the superstitions of the crowd, and to condemn to hell those who do not accept these puerilities!22 He ends unphilosophically by calling Jews fools, and Christians lunatics. The Jew replies that men could not live without laws; that God, like a good king, gave man a code of conduct; and that the precepts of the Pentateuch sustained the courage and morality of the Jews through centuries of dispersion and tragedy. The philosopher asks, How, then, did your patriarchs live so nobly, long before Moses and his laws?—and how can you believe in a revelation that promised you earthly prosperity, and yet has allowed you to suffer such poverty and desolation? The Christian accepts much that the philosopher and the Jew have said, but he argues that Christianity developed and perfected the natural law of the one and the Mosaic law of the other; Christianity raised higher than ever before the moral ideals of mankind. Neither philosophy nor scriptural Judaism offered man eternal happiness; Christianity gives harassed man such a hope, and is therefore infinitely precious. This unfinished dialogue is an amazing product for a cathedral canon in the Paris of 1120.
A like freedom of discussion found another medium in Abélard’s most famous work, Sic et non—Yes and No (1120?). The earliest known mention of it is in a letter from William of St. Thierry to St. Bernard (1140), describing it as a suspicious book secretly circulating among the pupils and partisans of Abélard.23 Thereafter it disappeared from history until 1836, when the manuscript was discovered by Victor Cousin in a library at Avranches. Its very form must have made the mitered grieve. After a pious introduction it divided into 157 questions, including the most basic dogmas of the faith; under each question two sets of quotations were ranged in opposite columns; one set supported the affirmative, the other the negative; and each set quoted from the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, the pagan classics, even from Ovid’s Art of Loving (Ars amandi). The book may have been intended as an armory of references for scholastic disputation; but the introduction, purposely or not, impugned the authority of the Fathers by showing them in contradiction of one another, even of themselves. Abélard did not question the authority of the Bible; but he argued that its language was meant for unlettered people, and must be interpreted by reason; that the sacred text had sometimes been corrupted by interpolation or careless copying; and that where scriptural or patristic passages contradicted one another, reason must attempt their reconciliation. Anticipating the “Cartesian doubt” by 400 years, he wrote in the same prologue: “The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning…. For by doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at the truth.”24 He points out that Jesus Himself, facing the doctors in the Temple, plied them with questions. The first debate in the book is almost a declaration of independence for philosophy: “That faith should be founded in human reason, and the contrary.” He quotes Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory I as defending faith, and cites Hilary, Jerome, and Augustine to the effect that it is good to be able to prove one’s faith by reason. While repeatedly affirming his orthodoxy, Abélard opens up for debate such problems as Divine Providence vs. free will, the existence of sin and evil in a world created by a good and omnipotent God, and the possibility that God is not omnipotent. His free reasoning about such questions must have shaken the faith of youthful students enamored of debate. Nevertheless this method of education by the freest discussion became, probably through Abélard’s example,25 the regular procedure at French universities and in philosophical or theological writing; we shall find St. Thomas adopting it without fear and without reproach. In the very birth of Scholasticism rationalism found a place.
If the Sic et non offended only a few because its circulation was limited, Abélard’s attempt to apply reason to the mystery of the Trinity could not so narrowly confine its influence and alarm, for it was the subject of his lectures in 1120, and of his book On the Divine Unity and Trinity. He wrote this, he says,
for my students, because they were always seeking for rational and philosophical explanations, asking rather for reasons they could understand than for mere words, saying that it was futile to utter words which the intellect could not possibly follow, that nothing could be believed unless it could first be understood, and that it was absurd for anyone to preach to others a thing which neither he himself, nor those whom he sought to teach, could comprehend.26
This book, he tells us, “became exceedingly popular,” and people marveled at his subtlety. He pointed out that the unity of God was the one point agreed upon by the greatest religions and the greatest philosophers. In the one God we may view His power as the First Person, His wisdom as the Second, His grace, charity, and love as the Third; these are phases or modalities of the Divine Essence; but all the works of God suppose and unite at once His power, His wisdom, and His love.27 Many theologians felt that this was a permissible analogy; the bishop of Paris rejected the appeal of the now aged and orthodox Roscelin to indict Abélard for heresy; and Bishop Geoffroy of Chartres defended Abélard through all the fury that now fell upon the reckless philosopher. But in Reims two teachers—Alberic and Lotulphe—who had quarreled with Abélard at Laon in 1113, stirred up the archbishop to summon him to come to Soissons with his book on the Trinity, and defend himself against charges of heresy. When Abélard appeared at Soissons (1121) he found that the populace had been roused against him, and “came near to stoning me… in the belief that I had preached the existence of three gods.”28 The Bishop of Chartres demanded that Abélard be heard by the council in his own defense; Alberic and others objected, on the ground that Abélard was irresistible in persuasion and argument. The council condemned him unheard, compelled him to cast his book into a fire, and bade the abbot of St. Médard to confine him in that monastery for a year. But shortly thereafter a papal legate freed him, and sent him back to St. Denis.
After a turbulent year with the unruly monks there, Abélard secured permission from the new abbot, the great Suger, to build himself a hermitage in a lonely spot halfway between Fontainebleau and Troyes (1122). There, with a companion in minor orders, he raised with reeds and stalks a little oratory or place of prayer, which he called by the name of the Holy Trinity. When students heard that he was free to teach again they came to him and made themselves into an impromptu school; they built huts in the wilderness, slept on rushes and straw, and lived on “coarse bread and the herbs of the field.”29 Here was a thirst for knowledge that would soon make and crowd universities; now, indeed, the Dark Ages were a nightmare almost forgotten. In return for his lectures the students tilled the field, raised buildings, and built him a new oratory of timber and stone, which he called the Paraclete, as if to say that the affection of his disciples had come like a holy spirit into his life just when he had fled from human society to solitude and despair.
The three years that he spent there were as happy as any that he could now know. Probably the lectures that he gave to those eager students are preserved and reshaped in two books, one called Theologia Christiana, the other simply Theologia. Their doctrine was orthodox, but an age still a stranger to most of Greek philosophy was a bit shocked to find in them so many laudatory references to pagan thinkers, and a suggestion that Plato too had in some degree enjoyed divine inspiration.30 He could not believe that all these wonderful pre-Christian minds had missed salvation;31 God, he insisted, gives His love to all peoples, Jews and heathen included.32 Abélard impenitently returned to the defense of reason in theology, and argued that heretics should be restrained by reason rather than by force.33 Those who recommend faith without understanding are in many cases seeking to cover up their inability to teach the faith intelligibly:34 here was a barb that must have pierced some skins! In attempting a rationale of Christianity Abélard might seem to have dared no more than what Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas would essay after him; but whereas even the brave Thomas would leave the Trinity, and the creation in time, to a faith beyond or above reason, Abélard sought to embrace the most mystic doctrines of the Church within the grasp of reason.
The audacity of the enterprise, and the sharpness of his reviving wit, brought him new enemies. Probably referring to Bernard of Clairvaux, and Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian Order, he writes:
Certain new apostles in whom the world put great faith ran hither and yon… shamelessly slandering me in every way they could, so that in time they succeeded in drawing down upon my head the scorn of many having authority…. God is my witness that whensoever I learned that a new assemblage of the clergy was convened, I believed that it was done for the express purpose of my condemnation.35
Perhaps to silence such criticism he abandoned his teaching, and accepted an invitation to be the abbot of the monastery of St. Gildas in Brittany (1125?); more likely the politic Suger had arranged the transfer in the hope of quieting the storm. It was at once a promotion and an imprisonment. The philosopher found himself amid a “barbarous” and “unintelligible” population, among monks “vile and untamable,” who openly lived with concubines.36 Resenting his reforms, the monks put poison in the chalice from which he drank at Mass; this failing, they bribed his servant to poison his food; another monk ate the food and “straightway fell dead”;37 but Abélard is our sole authority here. He fought this battle bravely enough, for, with some interruptions, he remained in this lonely post for eleven years.