Peter Abelard The Essential Theological and Philosophical Works

Peter Abelard’s Autobiography, History of My Misfortunes: How Abelard Related with Heloise

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

The twelfth century was a period of revolutionary changes in religious, cultural, social, and intellectual life in Europe. The movement for the renewal of the marriage institution grew rapidly at that time. People awakened the question of the relevance of sexual and emotional aspects in marriage, and not only legal and religious views in the marital relationships. Peter Abelard was one of the greatest logicians and philosophers of the twelfth-century renaissance. Widely known to modern readers are his autobiographical Historia calamitatum (‘History of my Misfortunes’) and the exchange of letters which followed between him and his young student, Heloise, who became his lover, wife and sister in religion. Abelard focuses on the nature of human and divine love in his writings; also, he shows us problems in relationships that were present in a society at his time in an attempt to find the resolution of the personal tragedy of both characters that are described in Historia calamitatum and personal letters. In general, the relationship between Abelard and Heloise illustrates the urgency of the question of marital values within the society of the twelfth-century. What was more important at that time: marriage or real love? I would say that marriage was more important. As the characters had different views of life from most of the people at that time, their difference brought them to the fatal ending of their relationships. We can analyze the love affair between Abelard and Heloise looking at their writings between each other. Was the feeling that tied the heroes together a real love or lust?

From the beginning of Abelard’s Story of his Calamities he portrays himself as a strong individual. The oldest child in his family his life was intended for a military career, but as he tells us, he abandoned Mars for Minerva, denouncing the popular and glorious profession of arms for that of learning. In writing this he shows his clever and distinct way of thinking by referring to dialectic, the art of examining options or ideas logically, as a weapon of war. “I chose the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war.” (p. 58). So, he became the brilliant student of the liberal arts, and won a fearsome reputation as a debater. He was considered as the smartest philosopher in Paris at that time. He agreed with the public thought that he was brilliant, and his confidence didn’t let him to admit any flaws. He was proud and confident, and that was a reason for a lot of his misfortunes. He thought he could show his disrespect to teachers whose views he did not share. He writes about on of his teachers: “He had a remarkable command of words but their meaning was worthless and devoid of all sense.”(p.62) Abelard decided not to attend lectures regularly because he considered himself smarter than his instructor. As he tells us later, the whole world was at his feet. In the Story of My Calamities, he confesses that at that period of his life he was filled with vanity and pride: “I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh.” (p.65). Abelard was a very popular person at his time, and we can even draw parallels of his personality to today’s celebrities. He knew he was brilliant and used it to get everything what he wanted.

Abelard was in his late thirties when he first met Heloise in Paris. Girl’s knowledge gift for writing letters attracted Abelard to her. Heloise was about seventeen when she met Abelard, but the big difference in age didn’t scare the girls as it was pretty common back then to have a big age difference in marriages. Heloise was considered atypical woman at that time because there were not a lot of educated women in Paris in twelfth century. So, we can understand why Abelard chose Heloise among a lot of other women. She was as superior in her kind as the brilliant professor Abelard was considered among the public. I can say that I admire the character of Heloise because of her strong will and a pretty good sense of logic, and these, at the same time, were the reasons that brought two successful people together. “In the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the realm.” (p.66) This shows that Abelard valued individuality highly in others as well as in himself. Abelard had a deal with Heloise’s uncle to educate her, and at the same time he gained full access to her pleasures. The relationship between two young people encompassed the maximum in personal freedom: “Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of our love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching.”(p.67) In the history of his misfortunes Abelard writes that they were “united first under one roof, then in heart” (p.67) From this passage I can say that the famous philosopher felt something to the young and innocent Heloise. Indeed, at first their love was very passionate. Abelard could not concentrate on his work, but instead he started to write love songs. This means he liked the girl a lot while they had physical pleasures, and, unfortunately, it seems that passionate pleasures were the only thing that tied these two people together. Later Heloise became pregnant in a society that just could not accept a premarital sexual affair. So, Abelard could not successfully sidestep the rules of the society in that situation, and although everything was kept in a secret to the public the thought of the necessity of the marriage came to philosopher’s mind.

Heloise and Abelard enjoyed each other both sexually and intellectually, just as how it’s perceived in today’s world, though Heloise’s beliefs and attitude towards love and marriage were quite different from the other women of the twelfth century. She resisted the idea of marriage because she thought it was more of an economical and political idea than real love and that she would rather be called a whore or a mistress instead of a wife. In a result, Heloise’s reputation was ruined because she was not in marital relationship, and the public found out about her love affair with Abelard. So, Heloise was in despair and made a conclusion: “We shall both be destroyed. All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been”. This shows us her personality in the writings. Heloise went on a lot of risks for Abelard, and she was ready to do everything for him, but it does not seem to me that Abelard would do the same for his wife. We can analyze their relationship deeper by discussing their personal letters.

The personal letters of Abelard and Heloise are considered as not just letters, but as finished literary compositions for the audience. These letters show us the relationship between two characters on a very deep level, because any kind of message can not be more personal and full of feelings than the letter. The personal letters are written in a form of the philosophical dialogue filled with thoughts about love, marriage and religion. Abelard and Heloise were searching the reasons of their misfortunate love by analyzing their personal experience and the universal norms and dogmas. In the styles of writing of both heroes of the story we can distinguish difference in their attitude to their love affair. Abelard tends to buttress his exposition with accumulated Biblical citations when Heloise writes seemingly more spontaneously, and that shows her intimate feelings. From this I consider that Abelard and Heloise had different feelings to each other.

In every Heloise’s letter I see sincerity of her words. She writes about her feelings openly, admits that all what she wanted in life was Abelard: “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.”(p.113) She didn’t want to be Abelard’s wife or get anything from him, but she simply wanted to be with him because she really loved him. “Tell me, I say, if you can–or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love.”(p.116) Heloise question Abelard what did he really feel, but at the same time she knows the answer. It seems that she is asking this and deeply in her mind she wishes him to say that she is wrong, and that it is not true. Unfortunately, I believe that was the exact description why Abelard was with Heloise. He simply used her for his pleasures. Later he even admits it in his letter to Heloise: “My love, which brought us both to sin, should be called lust, not love. I took my fill of my wretched pleasures in you, and this was the sum total of my love.” (p.153) I admire Heloise for her brave and strong character. She was not even afraid to take all blame on her: “At least I can thank God for this: the temper did not prevail on me to do wrong of my own consent, though in the outcome he made me the instrument of his malice.” (p.131) She says that it’s all her own fault: “The sequel is a fitting punishment for my former sins, and an evil beginning must be expected to come to a bad end…I truthfully admit to the weakness of my unhappy soul, I can find no penitence whereby to appease God.”(132) She did not blame Abelard, and did not have any complaints to him–this is an example of true and sincere love of an unselfish person. Heloise was, indeed, very unselfish because she would do anything for her lover not thinking about the risks that could destroy her life.

Abelard letters are different form Heloise’s. He is not open in his letters, and does not answer directly on her questions. He cites a lot of quotes form Bible with an effort to answer on Heloise’s questions. He is going on circles in the explanation of his feelings, and the question arises if he understands himself what he wants to say by his words. Abelard totally wants to trick Heloise, and says her that he still misses her prayers for safety: “But now I am not with you, there is all the more need for the support of your prayers, the more I am gripped by fear of greater peril.” (p.124) I think this shows very selfish character of Abelard. He tries to make an impression that he cares about his wife, and that he wants only good to the woman whose life he destroyed. He says to Heloise not to love him because they are just friends: “There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” (p.152) Abelard calls Heloise a sister and a friend, and that is when they are formally married. We can not consider these people as a family at all. Although they had a son they never really saw or spent time with him, and in the end they all were lonely.

I think it is very simple to understand what kind of relationship was between Abelard and Heloise. Confident and proud philosopher used young innocent girl to get the pleasures that he wanted while the girl felt “honored” to be with such a strong character as Abelard. To my mind, the man with such personality as Abelard did not really need anybody in his life as he had more than enough–himself, perfect and brilliant. In a conclusion, Abelard got what he wanted by lust and his personal charm, and as a result he didn’t only ruin the life of the smart and intelligent woman, but also brought the tragedy of his own life.

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How Peter Abelard Began Individualism in His Young Age

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

What is meant when it is said that someone is an individual? Are not all people individuals, each being perfectly capable of free will and of choosing his or her own path? Does this ability for choice create the individual, or are individuals those who have a more keen understanding of their ability for choice and differentiate themselves from others through its employment? In The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the two title characters reveal much about themselves through their writings. Both Abelard and Heloise show themselves to be individuals, expressing their beliefs even when these beliefs run contrary to social norms. Yet while both begin their lives with individualism, later in life Abelard becomes more of a religious conformist, while Heloise continues to question her place in life.

Abelard starts his individualism at a very young age by choosing the life of a philosopher, and continues to question established norms throughout his schooling. Abelard’s father was a soldier who wished Abelard to carry on his tradition. Instead, Abelard becomes enamored with schooling and knowledge, giving up a life of warfare to follow a life searching for wisdom. I was so carried away by my love of learning, he writes, that I renounced the glory of a soldier’s life, made over my inheritance and rights, … and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to kneel at the feet of Minerva (58). Abelard soaks up knowledge, and finds his calling in the field of dialectic, or the reasoning of truth by logical arguments. He roams the countryside, looking for places where his interest is shared, and eventually ends up studying in Paris, under William of Champeaux, who Abelard says was the supreme master of the subject (58). Yet William’s reputation means nothing to Abelard. In the first of several instances where he refuses to accept teachings merely on the basis of their teachers, Abelard [sets] out to refute some of his arguments and frequently [reasons] against him (58). Later Abelard does the same with another universally respected teacher, Anselm, saying that he owed his reputation more to long practice than to intelligence or memory, and that Anselm could win the admiration of an audience, but he was useless when put to the question (62). Abelard is continually seeking a teacher who can live up to his expectations, but find none that can match his abilities to reason and debate. When Abelard is put on trial his foes refuse to let his plead his case, saying that they could never compete with the ready tongue of a man whose arguments and sophistries could triumph over the whole world (82).

As in his education, Abelard’s propensity for questioning the norm again comes out in his views on religion. Abelard found Anselm’s glosses of the Scriptures and authorities superfluous, saying that he found it most surprising that for educated men the writings or glosses of the Fathers themselves were not sufficient for interpreting their commentaries without further instruction (63). On a bet of sorts he agrees to prove his point by providing his own interpretation of a commentary on an obscure passage, and those who heard it commended the lecture warmly (64). Once he enters monastic life Abelard still has no qualm with pointing out the problems he finds. At his first monastery, the Abbey of St. Denis, Abelard is appalled by the behavior of the monks, saying that the abbey was completely worldly and depraved, with an abbott whose pre-eminent position was matched by his evil living and notorious reputation (77). Abelard unabashedly spoke out against their behavior, a practice which made him few friends in the monastery.

Unabashed in all things, Abelard exhibited strong individualism through his self-confidence. Early in his schooling Abelard decides that he must set up a school of his own It ended by my setting my heart on founding a school of my own, young as I was and estimating my capacities too high – and takes no small view of where his school must lie, picking Melun, an important town at that time and a royal residence (59). This high view of his abilities carries over to other aspects of life. While teaching in Paris, Abelard [yields] to the lusts of the flesh (65). Never one to leave his world of the rational, Abelard chooses to pursue Heloise after having considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed (66). Abelard is utterly confident in his youth and exceptional good looks and feared no rebuff from any woman [he] might choose to honour with [his] love (66).

Heloise is in no way just a normal girl. Her uncle, Fulbert, highly valued learning, and was committed to Heloise’s education in letters (67). Heloise’s inclination for learning set her apart from other girls, causing Abelard to write that a gift for letters is so rare in a girl that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the land (66). Indeed, even Peter the Venerable applauds Heloise’s learning, saying that I had not quite passed the bounds of youth and reached early manhood when I knew of your name and your reputation (277). Peter goes on to say that I used to hear at that time of the woman who although still caught up in the obligations of the world, devoted all her application to knowledge of letters, something which is very rare (277).

When Abelard wants to marry, Heloise goes against established norms by arguing against the proposed union. While Abelard is concerned with rectifying the sins they have committed in their fornication, Heloise is more concerned with the detrimental effects a marriage would have on Abelard’s reputation What honour could she win, she protested, from a marriage that would dishonour me and humiliate us both … Think of the curses, the loss to the Church and grief of philosophers which would greet such a marriage! (70). In a letter to Abelard, Heloise defends her position, saying that

The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, … the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation (113).

Heloise also eschews the formality of marriage, preferring the purity of love only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie (74).

Abelard and Heloise both show their individualism by espousing what has been called the ethic of pure intention. Heloise says that It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done, but the spirit in which it is done (115). Abelard, in his Letters of Direction, echoes this sentiment, saying that It is not so much what things are done as the spirit in which they are done that we must consider (175). In this belief they reject the traditional holding that it is the act itself that is what is important, but instead look to the intent of the heart For unless the spirit be first corrupted by evil intention, whatever is done outwardly in the body cannot be a sin (174).

It is following their entrance into religious life that Abelard and Heloise seem to differ in their individualism. After conversion Abelard looks back on his previous transgressions with shame, regarding them as a crime for which he is being justly punished –

After our marriage, when you were living in the cloister with the nuns at Argenteuil and I came one day to visit you privately, you know what my uncontrollable desire did with you there … Even if our other shameful behavior had ended, this alone would deserve far heavier punishment (146).

Abelard has abandoned completely the relationship they had, pouring himself entirely into his work. Looking back, he says that what he felt for Heloise was unbridled lust, not love (147). Abelard regards his mutilation as a gift, rescuing him from the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body (148). Abelard no longer thinks of Heloise as a wife, but instead as a sister in Christ.

The thoughts of Heloise are quite the opposite of the man who was once her husband. Heloise bemoans how at one wretched stroke of fortune, that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you (113). Heloise looks back on the acts they committed not with regret, but with longing In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet – they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts (133). She realizes the sinfulness of what they did I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, – but instead wants them back but I can only sigh for what I have lost (133). She bemoans the hypocrisy of her current situation; she is a respected member of the religious community, and yet she can find no penitence whereby to appease God, whom I always accuse of the greatest cruelty in regard to this outrage (132).

Through their letters Abelard and Heloise leave us a highly personal record of two very remarkable lives. Both are clearly among the brightest minds of their time, and The Letters of Abelard and Heloise gives a fascinating glimpse into their thoughts and desires. Individualism, defined earlier as the use of choice to follow belief regardless of the social norm, is something clearly evident throughout. Both rise above the rest of their generation, pursuing their ideals with drive and passion. It is only late in life that we see some separation, as Heloise continues to hold to what she held so dear in the past, while Abelard becomes immersed in his religion and focuses on that alone, to the exclusion of all they had before.

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Analysing Peter Abelard’s Heloise and Letter of Abelard

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

In The Letters of Abelard and Heloise by Peter Abelard, Heloise joins the convent and many years after their love affair decides to contact Abelard again. Although Abelard hadn’t completely forgotten about Heloise and their relationship, he didn’t even attempt to contact her in that long period of time and it was Heloise that had to contact him first, which shows that perhaps Abelard would have never tried to contact her again. Even after Abelard writes back to Heloise, he makes it clear that he is shameful for a lot of what happened and doesn’t want to talk about their relationship. Unlike Abelard whose love may have actually been lust like he claims in his letters, Heloise claims that her love for him was so strong that she even adored him. It’s possible however, that Heloise may not have actually been in love with Abelard but just admired him given that he was a well-known philosopher who came from nobility, which in turn may have influenced her feelings for him and made it harder to forget about him. Furthermore, after she went into the convent, she no longer had a chance to meet someone else and her memories with Abelard were all she had left, making her unable to forget about Abelard, whether she wanted to or not.

Even if it wasn’t true love it is still evident in Heloise’s letters that she looked up to Abelard as a superior and in a sense was obsessed with him. In addition, since Abelard was a well-known philosopher and scholar who other women also admired and envied Heloise for having a relationship with “And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me”, she may have liked him even more for that. Abelard also came from nobility whereas Heloise was from a lower class, these factors could have contributed to her initial feelings of love and adoration for him. She developed an obsession with Abelard and everything about him which in turn ultimately made it harder to forget about him. This obsession she developed could have blinded her rationality, not letting her see that she actually wasn’t in love with him and neither was he with her. Further evidence that she may have not actually been in love with Abelard was shown when she didn’t want to marry him and states “And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if thou be not ashamed, concubine or whore”, which shows that she may have just lusted over him as did he and only believed she was actually in love with him.

If Heloise wasn’t actually in love with Abelard however, then one would assume Heloise would easily have moved on, but I believe that whether or not Heloise was actually in love with Abelard, she didn’t forget about him because she couldn’t. Being in a convent, Abelard and her memories of Abelard were the only representation of love she had left, so in a sense the moment she accepted going to the convent she gave up the opportunity to meet someone else, which in her mind solidified Abelard as her only ‘true love’. Heloise also states in her letters that her life is miserable without Abelard: “Of all wretched women I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am the unhappiest”. So in a sense Abelard saved her from this and gave her something pleasurable to live for, which was taken away when they had to stop seeing each other and she joined the convent: “The higher I was exalted when you preferred me to all other women, the greater my suffering over my own and yours, when equally I was flung down…”, which shows that Heloise could just be longing for this happiness and excitement that he initially gave her and that she no longer has in the convent.

In conclusion, one can say that Heloise never forgot about Abelard because she was still in love with him and that’s the reason she wrote to him after so many years. While only Heloise and Abelard themselves could say if they were actually in love with each other to begin with, it could be said that the reason Heloise never forgot about Abelard was because of all the favorable assets that he possessed (being renowned and coming from nobility) and her obsession with him and his status. Heloise also went into a convent where she was not allowed to see anyone, and since she was left with just memories of him, it impeded her from moving on and forgetting about Abelard.

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Gender Roles and Sexual Relationship Rules in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil engaged in an illicit relationship over 900 years ago in medieval France. Abelard was a scholastic philosopher of notable prominence in Paris, who was taken in by a canon named Fulbert to educate his niece, Heloise. She had a reputation for being both well-learned and beautiful, two attributes that undoubtedly attracted the older Abelard. Their interactions went from being that of a scholastic nature to an intimate one, whereupon they were discovered by the Canon Fulbert after some time and separated. In time, Heloise discovered she was pregnant, after which she and Abelard made an escape to Brittany and a child named Astralabe was eventually born.

A secret marriage was proposed to appease Fulbert and prevent scandal, however, Heloise argued that disgrace was inevitable and Fulbert would not be satisfied. The marriage did occur, but only after some coercion on Abelard’s part. Heloise refuted being married to him after Fulbert’s public unveiling of the marriage. Fearing Fulbert’s retribution, Abelard had Heloise sent away to a nunnery in Argenteuil, northwest of Paris. Fulbert’s reaction to this relocation was that of anger, as he thought it was done by Abelard in an effort to extricate himself from Heloise. His response was violent as he ordered the castration of Abelard. Soon after, Abelard became a monk at Saint-Denis, north of Paris, while Heloise became a nun in Argenteuil. The correspondence between the two main characters entailed in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise took place approximately a decade and a half after their separation. Nearly every action taken by the two lovers as detailed in the letters was powerfully influenced by religion since it was of tremendous importance in the 11th and 12th centuries. Religion shaped the rules of living in every facet of people’s lives from birth to death. Gender roles and sexual relationship rules were both strictly molded by the Christian faith, as interpreted by the church, and this unquestionably comes through in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. I will discuss many examples in the upcoming paragraphs.

Cristina Nehring in a New York Times review said it best when she stated that Heloise was no feminist heroine. The fact that Heloise was a very well-educated woman of the times did not mean she evolved beyond the submissive, weak female role. She was the ward of her uncle, Fulbert, and he was both possessive and protective of her as she was staying in his care while the Abelard affair developed. As Letter 1, the Historia Calamitatum, details Fulbert’s revenge upon Abelard in the form of castration, it is a rather patriarchal response, for he has been scandalized and a victim of shame due to his female ward being taken without permission; Fulbert’s power was taken from him and the castration was a way to take some power back. It could be argued that Heloise’s role in this scenario was that of weak, female property.

Both Abelard and Heloise made multiple references to women being the weaker sex in their letters to each other. Detailed in Historia Calamitatum, Abelard describes them as being “more pitiable in a state of need” (p.36) and “needs the help of the stronger” (p.39). Further, in Letter 5, Abelard discusses having power over Heloise due to her “weaker nature”, using “threats and blows” to coerce her into sexual activities (p.81). However, in Letter 7, Abelard does state “their virtue is more pleasing to God and more perfect” in spite of their weakness, for which he faults Eve (p.118). As for Heloise, her references to women being the weaker sex are frequent, particularly when asking for direction of the Paraclete. She cited Pope St. Gregory in Letter 6, saying “men are to be admonished in one way, women in another; for heavy burdens may be laid on men and great matters exercise them, but lighter burdens on women, who should be gently converted by less exacting means” (p.96).

Heloise also reflects in Letter 6 how canon law has also taken into consideration the alleged female weakness and that women should not be deaconesses before the age of 40, unlike men, who can be deacons at age 20 (p.99). She does not appear to question this age gap’s legitimacy but does note that women cost less to maintain since they consume less food and alcohol and are far less likely to be gluttonous due to this fact. Overall, both Abelard and Heloise both appear to have the notion imbedded in their minds that the female sex is weaker and therefore only able to accomplish certain things.

In the twelfth century, female sexuality was highly regulated by the Church. The sacredness of virginity was of immense importance for one, as were the rules of sexual relations. Both aspects had one focal point and that was God. In Letter 3, Abelard states “The more God is pleased by the abstinence and continence which women have dedicated to him, the more willing he will be to grant their prayers” (p.59). In Letter 4, Heloise has a slightly different view of chastity, saying “They (men) consider purity of the flesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul” (p.69). Their opinions differ in having lustful thoughts as well. Abelard’s opinion in Letter 5 is that “foolish virgins who pride themselves on purity of the flesh or an outward show of self-denial, and then wither in the fire of temptation” (p.74). This line seems directed at Heloise as she admits openly to lustful thoughts in her letters.

As for the church’s stance on sexual relations: they were only acceptable within marriage and not during certain holy days. There were many sources of guilt between Abelard and Heloise, but their pre-marital sexual relations were likely the greatest source and they expected punishment. In Letter 5, Abelard agonizes over their transgressions, particularly since some them occurred on the holy days of Lent (p.81). He felt that he deserved castration since this part of his anatomy was the source of lust and removal would end that insatiable desire. In Letter 4, Heloise also agonizes over their transgressions, saying “I yielded long before to the pleasures of carnal desires, and merited then what I weep for now” and “the sequel is a fitting punishment for my former sins, and an evil beginning must be expected to come to a bad end” (p.67). However, Heloise protests in Letter 4 that it was strange that punishment did not occur before they were married, but after, stating “when we amended our unlawful conduct by what was lawful, and atoned for the shame of fornication by an honourable marriage, then the Lord in his anger laid his hand heavily upon us, and would not permit a chaste union though he had long tolerated one which was unchaste” (p.65).

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A Combined Analysis of Abelard’s Accounts of Sin and Atonement

May 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout his tumultuous career, Peter Abelard faced a series of vehement backlashes against his theological work as well as the manner in which he conducted his personal life; indeed, his affair and secret marriage to Heloise famously culminated in a physical castration, and his conflicts with Bernard and William of St. Thierry, a theological one. Abelard’s controversial stance regarding the Trinity and the rights of the devil lead to his condemnation at the Council of Sens in 1141 and, after a failed attempt to win favour with the Pope, he was excommunicated and his works burned. The viciousness of Bernard’s polemic against Abelard has branded him and his theology with the stamp of heresy, but Abelard was a talented thinker and debater, as the Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him, “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”[1] and, especially given the rise of the moral theory of atonement within our more liberal modern context, Abelard’s theology, especially his soteriology, deserves to be revisited. Having disregarded the ransom and satisfaction theories of atonement, ubiquitous in medieval soteriology, Abelard embarked upon a consideration of the true role of Christ and the crucifixion within God’s model of salvation. He does so in relation to his specific conception of sin. In this essay, I will aim to examine whether Abelard’s account of sin sheds any light on his account of the atonement. I will seek to sustain the line of argument that Abelard’s conception of sin is inextricably linked to his understanding of atonement; his belief in the inherited punishment of original sin renders Christ’s death necessary for our freedom from this punishment. Simultaneously, however, we find in Abelard a shift from this bloody, sacrificial salvation towards an atonement of love; his understanding of sin as entirely intentional necessarily means that salvation, for Abelard, must occur at the level of the intention- Christ’s death works in a subjective sense to ensure the redirection of our intentions from concupiscence to purity and from fear to love. This is not to argue that Abelard is a proto-modern moral atonement theorist since he does still seem to subscribe to the idea of the objective sacrifice. However, in Abelard, we find a definite movement towards a soteriology spinning on the axis of love; Abelard’s conception of righteousness is defined in terms of loving God and, in turn, his conception of sin is defined in terms of a lack of this love. Atonement, therefore, hinges on the rekindling of lost love.

In order to assess the extent to which Abelard’s conception of sin sheds light on his theory of the atonement, it is first of all necessary to explore what sin looks like for Abelard; as Williams notes, ‘Abelard’s understanding of the power that sin has over us will be crucial to understanding what he thinks Christ accomplished for us on the Cross.'[2] Abelard seems to be espousing a dual-level understanding of sin whereby he argues that we are bound by the punishment for original sin (‘the objective dominion of sin’)[3], on the one hand, and bound by personal sin (‘the subjective dominion of sin’)[4] on the other. I will turn to the latter type first. I think it is fair to say that Abelard’s understanding of sin is inextricably linked to his idea of righteousness which, as Williams observes, ‘is simply to love God for his own sake and to act rightly out of love for him.'[5] This love Abelard refers to as ‘charity’; it exists both in us and in God with God’s own charity sparking charity in his creation towards him. Given that righteousness and justice hinge on loving God, it follows that ‘our sin is scorn for the creator, and to sin is to scorn the creator- not to do for his sake what we believe we ought to do for his sake, or not to renounce for his sake what we believe ought to be renounced.'[6] Acting against God’s will is tantamount to acting against God, therefore acting outside of perfect love for him. Abelard postulates a highly individualistic conception of sin; guilt is located in the soul of each individual and they therefore have sole responsibility for the management of it and, in turn, their relationship with the creator since, as Kemeny points out, ‘the object of sin is God; sin interrupts harmonious relations between Creator and creature.'[7]

Abelard espouses a somewhat complex view of the location of sin, the point at which sin actually takes place. Contrary to the thought of many of his contemporaries, Abelard rejects the notion that actions themselves can have an ethical value irrespective of intention; he writes that ‘there is no substance to a sin; it consists of non-being rather than of being. It is as if we define shadows by saying they are the absence of light where light did have being.'[8] In addition, Abelard rejects the notion that the vices of the mind and body which make an individual prone to sin are not, in and of themselves, sinful since some vices of the mind do not lead to sin ; as Kemeny writes,’ …some vices of the mind- for example, dullness- do not make people prone to sin. Others, like irascibility, do.'[9] Through overcoming these vices, one can nurture merit and virtue but they are not inherently sinful themselves. Instead, these morally neutral vices make the will inclined to act in an unfitting way. It is in the intention that Abelard locates sin; actions have a derivative ethical value from the intentions with which they are committed. As Marenbon writes, ‘actions are rightly described of good or bad, but only by virtue of the intentions from which they spring. But intentions, although they belong to the life of the mind, are sinful only in relation to a definitely intended (although perhaps prevented) action.'[10] Any intention to act against the will of God shows contempt for God and any intention which seeks to do what the individual believes to be good/ in accordance with God’s will is demonstrating love. There is no fault in acting in accordance with a good intention but to be morally good, the belief to which the intention is aiming must be correct. For Abelard, consent is giving into one’s intention. The intention is what understands the action- the reasons for committing it, the moral value of the action etc. Though for Abelard, an agent is not responsible for their natural inclinations, they are responsible for what they consent to in order to satiate their appetites. Abelard maintains that much of our immoral behaviour is actually involuntary- we cannot help but consent to satiate our desires- but this does not excuse them nor mean we are not morally responsible for these involuntary actions. Consenting to act against the will of God, irrespective of natural inclination, is tantamount to refusing God the love he is due from his creation.

In tandem with his subjective understanding of personal guilt and sin, Abelard espouses a specific understanding of original sin and the burden which post-lapsarian humanity carries. Firstly, the conditions which incline human beings towards evil desires were generated during the fall; the fall disrupts the ability of the rational soul to rule the body and there exists a void between humanity and God. Thus, after the fall, humanity inherits certain bodily and mental weaknesses, the morally neutral ‘vices’ which Abelard speaks of. It is these vices, however, which give rise to the evil desires which lead to sin. In addition, the fall generated sin-inducing conditions in making the world less bearable; as Williams observes, ‘because of original sin, we are subject to temporal misfortune as well as eternal damnation. The hardships of this present life in turn incline us to look for security in worldly goods, and the Law, by promising us such goods, makes our desire for them all the more fervent.'[11]

With regards to original sin proper, Abelard takes a very different stance to the majority of his contemporaries. He argues not that humanity has inherent sin by virtue of its relation to the first parents, Adam and Eve, but that it possesses an inherent punishment for that sin. As Abelard writes, ‘and so, since we say that people are procreated and born with original sin, and that they contracted this original sin from their first parents, it seems that this ought rather to be related to the punishment for sin…than to the guilt of the soul and contempt of God.'[12] Original sin, or the punishment for it, is transmitted through sexual intercourse, in the loose sense that it is transmitted from parent to offspring, but the sexual act itself is not sinful and adds nothing to the punishment of original sin.

It seems, then, that Abelard is espousing a two-level approach to sin- original punishment is inherited by every human being but, separate from this, every human being gathers their own personal guilt based on their succumbing to evil intentions. As we shall see, this two-fold understanding of sin feeds into a distinctly twofold understanding of atonement. In addition, it will become clear that with regards to personal guilt, Abelard’s focus on sin as the lack of love towards God will become the focus of his atonement theory.

Abelard emphasizes the transformative power of Christ on the cross as the sole mechanism for atonement for personal sin. Abelard focuses on what the death of Christ did in us. Undergirding Abelard’s thought is the fundamental idea that Christians should never serve God out of fear but only out of love; theories such as the ransom or satisfaction models make us unwilling to express love for God on account of the bloody act we have witnessed in the death of Christ- it is not the product of love. For Abelard, if we serve God out of fear, we do not truly love God and without this love we cannot hope to achieve salvation. Alternatively, Abelard wants to argue that through the atonement, God generates a love in us that allows us to do good works. The mechanism of salvation from personal guilt is at the level of the human heart. This makes sense when one considers Abelard’s aforementioned understanding of sin as individualistic and intentional. Through a newly revived love for God inspired by the passion and a desire to imitate the perfect love manifested in Christ, our intentions are once again pointed towards acting in accordance with God’s will and thus away from concupiscence (the lusts and desires of the heart). As Abelard writes, …through this unique grace that he displayed to us- namely that the Son assumed our nature and taught us through his words and his example, unto death- he has bound us closer to him in love…therefore, the true love of anybody who is the recipient of such a favor of divine grace will not recoil from suffering (tolerare) for his sake[13] However, although it is undeniable that Abelard heavily espouses this subjectivist understanding of atonement and does seek to move atonement theology more in the direction of transformation through love rather than fear, I think that Abelard’s status as a mere ‘exemplarist’ can sometimes be over-emphasized. Nieuwenhove summarizes the response of many to Abelard’s soteriology: ‘Abelard’s understanding of salvation is utterly subjectivist (it is something that happens to us) while a balanced soteriology should be objectivist as well.'[14] Abelard’s contemporaries condemned him for a similar reason, arguing that his theory of atonement was on the side of heretical Pelagianism; for example, ‘the Pelagian danger Bernard fears is that Abelard has rendered Christ’s atoning work unnecessary for our salvation. On such a view, we are in principle capable of earning worthiness of salvation on our own.'[15]

It is clear, however, that these Pelagian/ mere exemplarist accusations are ill-founded. Abelard does clearly accept the objective transaction occurring at the crucifixion of Christ. Firstly, it is through this objective transaction that the inherited punishment for original sin is absolved. Abelard clearly is not rejecting the notion of bloody transaction or payment; as he writes in his commentary on Romans seven, …we had the power to sell ourselves into slavery, but we do not have the power to buy ourselves back. Innocent blood was given for us. Nor can we free ourselves from the dominion of sin by our powers, but only by the grace of the redeemer.[16] As Williams notes, ‘…Christ is our redeemer. the one who buys us back. The price he paid was his blood- in other words, his life. One could hardly ask for a clearer affirmation of an “objective transaction.”…Christ bore the punishment for our sins so that we don’t have to….the punishment to which we would otherwise have been subject is cancelled.'[17] In this sense, then, Abelard is espousing a version of the penal substitution model whereby Christ dissolves our punishment for Adam’s sin.

In addition to Abelard advocating the idea of an objective transaction as the mechanism for absolution from the punishment for original sin, it also seems to be the case that without the ‘objective transaction’, there would be nothing to enkindle the love necessary for atonement in the subjective sense. It is through the imitation of Christ’s perfect sacrificial love that we are saved; as McGrath observes, ‘Abailard is an exemplarist if, and only if, it can be shown that he understands Christ to be our example, through whose imitation we are redeemed- whereas it is clear that he understands Christ to be out example in the sense that, because we are redeemed by him, we now wish to imitate him.'[18] Without Christ’s gift of redemption and the selflessness necessary for the achievement of it, we are not only inspired to imitate Christ but also grateful for his grace. It seems, then, that Abelard cannot be categorized a mere exemplarist since, firstly, he espouses a dual-level theory of atonement, and, secondly, the example necessary for the exemplarist position was only provided by an objective transaction. I think that Quinn’s assessment of Abelard as a ‘hierarchical pluralist'[19] is an accurate one; he argues that ‘like Aquinas, he offers an account of the Atonement that has a dominant motif to which others are subordinated.'[20] Indeed, Abelard does have an objective and subjective element to his atonement theory but I think it is also true to say that the objective elements are underdeveloped in comparison to the subjective. Abelard wants to emphasize the transformative power of love in his atonement ‘hierarchy’ against the backdrop of sacrificial, satisfaction theories and, thus, perhaps emphasizes the subjectivist side of his theory to a greater extent. This does not, however, mean that the objective side of his understanding should be forgotten. I think that Williams offers a useful summary of the working relationship between Abelard’s objective and subjective elements: the objective dominion of sin is our being liable to the punishment for sin, namely, eternal damnation; the Passion releases us from that dominion by way of the objective transaction that…Abelard must in consistency affirm. The subjective dominion of sin is our inability to withstand the power of concupiscence; the Passion releases us from that dominion by way of the subjective transformation that the exemplarist reading of Abelard has taken as central.[21]

It seems that Abelard’s conception of sin is inextricably linked to his theory of atonement. His postulation of a dual level sin- original sin (punishment), which is inherited, and personal sin, which is individually accumulated- is mapped onto his soteriology, original punishment being absolved by an objective sacrificial transaction, and personal sin being dissolved through a redirection of the human will towards God and his love. In addition, the internalism present in Abelard’s conception of sin is also present in his account of atonement; since sin is located in the intent, freedom from personal sin comes from an alteration at the level of the intent/will/ heart through the transformative power of love. The entire framework of Abelard’s soteriological theory is love; righteousness being defined in terms of loving God and, in turn, sin being characterized in terms of a lack of this love. Atonement, therefore, hinges on the rekindling and reviving of love between the creator and his creatures.

[1] The Chambers Biographical Dictionary [2] Brower, J. E., and Guilfoy, K., The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.263 [3] ibid. p.265 [4] ibid. [5] ibid. p. 261 [6] Abelard, Scito te ipsum, trans. by P. V. Spade, Peter Abelard, Ethical Writings: His Ethics or ‘Know Yourself’ and his Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1995), p.3 [7] Kemeny, P. C., ‘Peter Abelard: An Examination of his Doctrine of Original Sin’, Journal of Religious History, 16.4 (1991). p.381 [8] Abelard, Scito te ipsum, trans. by P. V. Spade, Peter Abelard, Ethical Writings: His Ethics or ‘Know Yourself’ and his Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1995), p.3 [9] Kemeny, P. C., ‘Peter Abelard: An Examination of his Doctrine of Original Sin’, Journal of Religious History, 16.4 (1991). p.381 [10] Marenbon, J., The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 256. [11] Brower, J. E., and Guilfoy, K., The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.268 [12] Commentaris, p.64. Cited in Kemeny, P. C., ‘Peter Abelard: An Examination of his Doctrine of Original Sin’, Journal of Religious History, 16.4 (1991). p.375 [13] Commentary on Romans 3.26 [14] Van Nieuwenhove, R., An Introduction to Medieval Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) [15] Quinn, P. L., ‘Abelard on Atonement: Nothing Unintelligible, Arbitrary, Illogical or Immoral about it’, in E. Stump, ed., Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.293 [16] Commentary on Romans 205 [17] Brower, J. E., and Guilfoy, K., The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.263 [18] McGrath, A., ‘The Moral Theory of the Atonement: An Historical and Theological Critique’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 38.2 (1985), p.209 [19] Quinn, P. L., ‘Abelard on Atonement: Nothing Unintelligible, Arbitrary, Illogical or Immoral about it’, in E. Stump, ed., Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.291 [20] ibid. [21] Brower, J. E., and Guilfoy, K., The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.265

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