1079 - 1142 AD


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PETER ABELARD (Fr. Abélard or Abailard; Lat. Abćlardus), a scholastic philosopher and theologian, the boldest thinker of the 12th century, was born near Nantes, in 1079, at Palet, a village which belonged to his parents. An irrepressible thirst for knowledge, and a special pleasure in scholastic logic, moved him to resign his rights of primogeniture in favour of his younger brothers. He left Bretagne for Paris, in order to hear the prelections of William of Champeaux, but soon incurred the hatred of his master, whom he puzzled by his wonderful subtlety. He fled to Melun, and afterwards to Corbeil, persecuted and admired wherever he went. He then returned home for the restoration of his health. With renewed strength, he returned to Paris, reconciled himself with his opponents, and moulded, by his influence as a lecturer, some of the most distinguished men of his age, amongst whom were the future Pope Celestine II.; Peter Lombard; Berengar, his future apologist; and Arnold of Brescia. At this time, there lived in Paris, Heloise, the niece of the Canon Fulbert, then seventeen years of age, and already remarkable for her beauty, talents, and knowledge. She soon kindled in the breast of Abelard, then thirty-eight years old, a violent and overwhelming passion, which was returned by Heloise with no less fervour. By means of Fulbert, Abelard became teacher and companion of Heloise, and the lovers were happy together until Abelard's ardent poetical effusions reached the ears of the canon. He sought to separate the lovers; but it was too late. They fled together to the country, where Heloise bore a son, and was privately married to Abelard, with the consent of her uncle. Not long after, Heloise returned to Fulbert's house, and denied the marriage, that her love might be no hinderance to Abelard's advancement in the church. Enraged at this, and at a second flight which she took with her lover, Fulbert, in order to make him canonically incapable of ecclesiastical preferment, caused Abelard to be emasculated. In deep humiliation, Abelard entered as a monk the abbey of St. Denis, and induced Heloise to take the veil at Argenteuil. But the lectures which he began to give soon exposed him to new persecutions. The Synod of Soissons (1121) declared his opinions on the Trinity to be heretical. He left St. Denis, and built at Nogent-on-the-Seine a chapel and hermitage called Paraclete, which, after being enlarged by his scholars to a monastic foundation, he, on his appointment as abbot of St-Gildas-de-Ruys, in Bretagne, gave over to Heloise and her sisterhood for a dwelling. His residence in St-Gildas was imbittered by a continued struggle against his love, and by the hatred of the monks; till at last, in 1140, his doctrine was condemned by Pope Innocent III., and he was ordered to be imprisoned. But Peter the Venerable, abbot of Clugny, after Abelard had retracted his opinions on the Trinity and Redemption, reconciled him to his enemies. Abelard died with the reputation of a model of monastic propriety, on April 21, 1142, in the abbey of St. Marcel, not far from Chalons-on-the-Saone. Heloise had him interred at the Paraclete, hoping one day to lie at his side. She survived Abelard twenty years. The ashes of both were taken to Paris in 1808, and in 1828 were buried in one sepulchre in Pere la Chaise. - The doctrines advanced by Abelard in his controversy with St. Bernhard, have a decidedly rationalist tendency; and he, and his predecessor Erigena, may be looked upon as the first avowed representatives of that school. Abelard laid down the principle, that nothing is to be believed but what has been first understood; while the church held that we must believe in order to understand; and Bernhard was for banishing inquiry altogether from the province of religion. In judging of Abelard's merits, we are not to look so much to his writings, as to the influence which his wonderful power of public disputation enabled him to exercise on his age. His character, no less than his doctrine, gave great offence. Until recently, it is chiefly the romantic history of his love that has occupied attention. The chief biographies that have appeared are that by Remusat (2 vols., Par. 1845), and that by Wilkens (Gott. 1855). The Latin writings and letters of Abelard and Heloise were collected by Amboise, and published by Duchesne (Par. 1616). Some works of Abelard have been recently discovered; among others, Sic et Non, a collection of doctrinal contradictions from the Fathers. Cousin, who published the hitherto unedited works in 1836, has given us a complete edition of Abelard's works (2 vols., Par. 1849-59).


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UPDATED: 18 April 2014

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