Abelard

NickOtani's picture
Submitted by NickOtani on Thu, 2007-08-02 03:16

One very colorful figure in medieval philosophy was Peter Abelard, 1079-1142.

He was extremely handsome, atheletic, and intellegent. However, as is the case with many beautiful and bright people, Peter Abelard was also a bit arrogant and prone to show-off. He often drew attention to himself by eloquently arguing with his teachers. Ultimatetly, he became so skilled at this that he won his points. He discredited one of his very famous religion teachers and started a new school of thought on the subject of universals.

At this time in the history of the church, the problem of universals, a trivial concern today, was crucially important.

Abelard's first teacher was a Nominalist named Roscelin. A Nominalist believes that only individual things exist outside the mind. Socrates and Plato existed as individuals, but the concept of "man" is just a "snort of the voice." Roscelin held that genera and specis, unlike specific individuals, don't have independent, concrete existence.

This position could get one into trouble with the church, and, indeed, Roscelin's writings were condemned as heretical. He was forced to retract and abjure them. His Nominalism allowed the existence of the Father, Son, and holy Spirit; but the "Trinity" would be only a snort.

Opposed to this position was Abelard's second teacher, William of Champeaux, an extreme Realist. A Realist believes those terms we use in Aristotle's syllogisms are about universals. We say, in the major premise of a deductive argument, something like "All men are mortal." If "men" doesn't have independent existence, then knowledge is impossible. We wouldn't be able to conclude that Socrates is a man if Socrates is mortal. This is what a later Nominalist philosopher, David Hume, also concluded; that if all things are entirely loose and separate, then reasoning must be ultimatly a delusion. William of Champeaux, however, held that man has a nature, an essence or substance which is the same, and individual men differ only in their accidental forms.

This can get one into trouble with the church also. If all men share the same divine substance, this is Pantheism, another heresey.

Is there a common nature that all men share? Is it form or substance? Is it like cooky dough being cut with molds? Are we all cut with the same mold, or does it differ slightly with each of us but we share the same dough, the same substance? Is it the same mold but the dough is a little different in some places, perhaps a bit dryer or thicker or something? Or, do each of us have a unique substance and form? Is essence or nature just a meaningless snort? Is there nothing we share in common with other individuals? We do seem different than rocks and plants and other animals and insects.

(Plato thought this form was an other worldly real thing, but Aristotle thought it could be found in the natural world. Existentialists claim we make our own nature. It doesn't pre-exist us.)

Well, Abelard concluded maybe there isn't a humanness separated from particular humans that happen to exist. It is, in a sense, insensible, but that doesn't mean humaness is just a "snort." It is a meaningful noise. It signifies something that is predicated of many, to use Aristotle's phrasings. The problem of universals is just a problem of explaining how terms have meaning. We pay attention to the respects in which creatures and things are similar while neglecting individual differences. Humans are more than "featherless bipeds." They could be deformed and missing limbs, but still be human if they have the potential to reason, to volitionally manipulate symbols. (Abelard didn't say these last two sentences. I'm putting in my own two cents.)

Anyway, after Abelard discredited William of Champeaux, he became a religion teacher, himself, and charmed his students with wit and personality. He was popular and had a great following, especially among females, even if he did make enemies of some teachers and religious leaders.

Abelard could have had his pick of any of the young women who flocked to him in his classes. He had it all; the looks, the body, the intellegence, and the charm. He used it all on Heloise, the young, virginal child whom Peter Abelard choose.

He approached her uncle, who was her guardian, to arrange private tutoring sessions for Heloise. Her uncle agreed to the arrangement thinking Peter was a fine, upstanding teacher whose personal concern for Heloise's education was fortunate. For Peter, however, the shepherd had relinquished his prize sheep to the wolf. Heloise had no chance. She fell in love with Peter, and during their private tutoring sessions, they could not keep their hands off each other.

When Heloise became pregnant, Peter approached her understandably upset uncle again, this time with the intention of making things right. He offered to marry Heloise.

Heloise refused him. She did not wish to hurt his chances of promotion to priesthood within the church. She decided, instead, to move to a distant small town, separating herself from Peter, to have his child.

Heloise's uncle, more concerned with his own humiliation than with Heloise's welfare, hired thugs to seek revenge on Peter Abelard. They entered his room one night while he was sleeping. They grabbed him and castrated him.

These thugs were soon caught and, themselves, castrated, but this did not help Peter Abelard.

When Heloise heard about what happened to Peter, she entered a convent and remained faithful to him. From the convent, twelve years later, she wrote several passionate love letters to which Peter could only respond with coldness. He still loved her, but he urged her to forget him and turn her affection to Christ. His heart was broken.

Peter Abelard continued to teach. He still had the talent for teaching, and he still had the intellegence for examing church dogma. When others said they believed in order to understand, Abelard said he had to understand in order to believe. His writings got him into some trouble with factions of the church leadership who considered his thoughts heresy.

Peter Abelard died, still out of favor with powerful factions. Heloise, when she died, was buried beside him.

bis bald,

Nick


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