We do not know when or how Abélard escaped from the dignities and trials of his abbacy. We find John of Salisbury reporting that in 1136 he had attended Abélard’s lectures on Mont Ste.-Geneviève. Nor do we know by what license he had resumed his teaching; perhaps he had asked none. It may be that some flouting of Church discipline set ecclesiastics against him, and by a devious route led to his final fall.
If emasculation had unmanned him there is no sign of it in the works that have transmitted to us the substance of his teaching. It is difficult to find explicit heresy in them, but easy to discover passages that must have made churchmen fret. In a book of moral philosophy entitled Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself) he argued that sin lies not in the act but in the intention; no act—not even killing—is sinful in itself. So a mother, having too little clothing to warm her babe, pressed it against her bosom and unwittingly suffocated it; she killed the thing she loved, and was properly punished by the law to make other women more careful; but in the eyes of God she was sinless. Furthermore, that there should be sin, the agent must violate his own moral conscience, not merely that of others. Hence the killing of Christian martyrs was not a sin in Romans who felt such persecution necessary to the preservation of their state or of a religion which seemed to them true. Nay, “those even who persecuted Christ or His followers, whom they considered it their duty to persecute, are said to have sinned in action; but they would have committed a graver fault if, contrary to their conscience, they had spared them.”44 All this might be logical as well as irritating; but on such a theory the whole doctrine of sin as a violation of God’s law threatened to go up in a haze of casuistry about intentions; who but a few Pauls would admit that he had acted against his own conscience? Of the sixteen excerpts for which Abélard was condemned in 1141, six were taken from this book.
What disturbed the Church more than any specific heresy in Abélard was his assumption that there were no mysteries in the faith, that all dogmas should be capable of rational explanation. Was he not so drunk with the lees of logic that he had dared to connect it with the Logos, the Word of God, as a science almost divine?45 Granted that this seductive teacher arrived by unorthodox methods at orthodox conclusions; how many immature minds, infected by him with the logic-chopping germ, must have been, by his specious pros and cons, unsettled on the way! If he had been the only one of his kind he might have been left untouched, in the hope that he would not take too long to die. But he had hundreds of eager followers; and there were other teachers—William of Conches, Gilbert de la Porrée, Bérenger of Tours —who were also summoning the faith to trial by reason. How long, on this procedure, could the Church maintain that unity and fervor of religious belief on which the moral and social order of Europe seemed to rest? Already one of Abélard’s pupils, Arnold of Brescia, was fomenting revolution in Italy.
Probably it was considerations like these that finally brought St. Bernard into open war with Abélard. The eager watchdog of the faith scented the wolf at the flock, and led the pack to the hunt. He had long looked with distrust upon the prowling, invading, audacious intellect; to seek knowledge except as ministering to sanctity seemed to him plain paganism; to attempt to explain the sacred mysteries by reason was impiety and folly; and the same rationalism that began by explaining those mysteries would end by desecrating them. The saint was not truculent; when (1139) William of St. Thierry, a monk of Reims, called his attention to the dangers in Abélard’s teaching, and begged him to denounce the philosopher, he put the monk off and did nothing. Abélard himself precipitated matters by writing to the archbishop of Sens, asking that at the coming church council there he should be given an opportunity to defend himself against the charges of heresy that were being circulated about him. The archbishop agreed, not unwilling to have his see become the cynosure of the Christian world; and to ensure a good fight he invited Bernard to attend. Bernard refused, saying that in the dialectical game he would be “a mere child” against an Abélard trained in logic through forty years. But he wrote to several bishops, urging them to attend and defend the faith:
Peter Abélard is trying to make void the merit of Christian faith when he deems himself able by human reason to comprehend God altogether. He ascends to the heavens and descends even to the abyss; nothing may hide from him!… Not content to see things through a glass darkly, he must behold all things face to face…. He savors of Arius when he speaks of the Trinity, of Pelagius when he speaks of grace, of Nestorius when he speaks of the person of Christ.‘ … The faith of the righteous believes, it does not dispute. But this man has no mind to believe what his reason has not previously argued.46
Bernard’s allies, pleading their own weakness, prevailed upon him to attend. When Abélard arrived at Sens (June, 1140) he found the public mood, as at Soissons nineteen years before, so set against him by the mere presence and hostility of Bernard that he hardly dared appear in the streets. The archbishop realized his dream; for a week Sens seemed the center of the world; the king of France was present with his ceremonious court; scores of church dignitaries were on hand; and Bernard, crippled with rheumatism and stern with sanctity, overawed all. Some of these prelates had felt the sting, in person or collectively, of Abélard’s attacks upon the shortcomings of the clergy, the immorality of priests and monks, the sale of indulgences, the invention of bogus miracles. Convinced that the judgment of the council would condemn him, Abélard appeared at its first session, announced that he would accept none but the Pope as his judge, and left the assembly and the town. The council was not sure, after this appeal from it, that it could legally try Abélard; Bernard reassured it; and it proceeded to condemn sixteen propositions from Abélard’s books, including his definition of sin, and his theory of the Trinity as the power, wisdom, and love of the one God.
Almost penniless, Abélard set out for Rome to lay his case before the Pope. Age and infirmity retarded him. Reaching the monastery of Cluny in Burgundy, he was received with compassion and solicitude by Peter the Venerable, and rested there a few days. Meanwhile Innocent II issued a decree confirming the sentence of the council, imposing perpetual silence upon Abélard, and ordering his confinement in a monastery. Abélard wished nevertheless to continue his pilgrimage; Peter dissuaded him, saying that the Pope would never decide against Bernard. Weary to physical and spiritual exhaustion, Abélard yielded. He became a monk at Cluny, and hid himself in the obscurity of its walls and its ritual. He edified his fellow monks by his piety, his silence, and his prayers. He wrote to Héloïse—whom he never saw again—a touching profession of faith in the teachings of the Church. He composed, probably for her, some of the most beautiful hymns in medieval literature. One “Plaint” ascribed to him is formally a Lament of David for Jonathan, but any reader will catch tender overtones in it:
Vel confossus pariter
cum, quid amor faciat,
maius hoc non habeat,
et me post te vivere
mori sit assidue;
nec ad vitam anima
satis sit dimidia….
Do quietem fidibus;
vellem ut et planctibus
sic possum et fletibus
Laesis pulsu manibus,
raucis planctu vocibus,
deficit et spiritus.47
If I might lie in one same grave with thee,
Happily would I die,
Since of all gifts that earthly love can give
No greater boon know I.
That I should live when thou art cold and dead
Would be unceasing death;
Nor in my wraith would half a soul suffice
To life, or half a breath.
I let the harp lie still.
Would that I might
So still my tears and plaints!
My hands are sore with striking,
Sore my throat
With grief. My spirit faints.
Soon thereafter he fell ill, and his kindly Abbot sent him to the priory of St. Marcel near Châlons for a change of air. There, on April 21, 1142, he died, aged sixty-three. He was buried in the priory chapel; but Héloïse reminded Peter the Venerable that Abélard had asked to be interred at the Paraclete. The good Abbot brought the body to her himself, tried to comfort her by speaking of her dead lover as the Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of his time, and left with her a letter rich in Christian tenderness:
Thus, dear and venerable sister in God, him to whom you were united, after your tie in the flesh, by the better and stronger bond of divine love, and with whom… you have served the Lord, him the Lord now takes in your stead, or as another you, and warms in His bosom; and for the day of His coming, when shall sound the voice of the archangel and the trumpet descending from heaven, He keeps him to restore him to you by His grace.48
She joined her dead lover in 1164, having lived to equal his age, and almost his fame. She was buried beside him in the gardens of the Paraclete. That oratory was destroyed in the Revolution, and the graves were disturbed and perhaps confused. What were reasonably believed to be the remains of Abélard and Héloïse were transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1817. There, even till our time, men and women might be seen, on a summer Sunday, bringing flowers to adorn the tomb.