The intellectual, richly romantic but tragic lives of Abelard and Heloise are expressive of the tension among independence of thought, Church authority, and its unnatural demands of celibacy in an increasingly secular world. One of Abelard’s first teachers was Jean Roscelin who was condemned by the Church for challenging its “nominalism.” Although scholasticism sought rational support for the Church’s creed and doctrine, it started, not from observation, but from a notion that it accepted as authoritative. That irrational and unobserving leap, which the church called Faith, was exposed as such by Roscelin. He challenged the notion that the Church was an independent spiritual entity existing above its individual members; or that the notion of the Trinity had a separate existence: “three persons” must either be an abstraction, not a reality, or they are three separate gods. He was twice condemned for his challenge to the Church doctrine of the Trinity. The Church was defended by Anselm who took up Augustine’s assertion, “I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.”
More broadly, Abelard challenged the scholastic notion that concepts such as “Church,” “man,” and “divine providence” had an existence as such. [In that respect he anticipated the “radical” book of 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson.] Abelard, as do Lakeoff and Johnson, asserted that such concepts were merely descriptive of life in the flesh and in the physical world. He became a leader of the young rebels of the “modern” school. He opened his own school in Paris, where he studied and taught literature and philosophy. There, he became cannon of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Heloise was an orphan and was raised by her uncle, the canon Fulbert. He sent her to a convent where she became known as the best student they ever had. When she was 16, her uncle took Abelard into the home to tutor her. Of that, Abelard later wrote, “the man’s simplicity was nothing short of astounding; I should not have been more surprised if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf.” Not long after his arrival at the home, Heloise found herself pregnant. Abelard was foolish enough to boast of his conquest. After some convoluted intrigue, Abelard tells us that her uncle and kin stole into his room when he was sleeping and “they cut off those parts of my body whereby I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” He urged Heloise to become a nun and he became a monk. Heloise joined a cloister and, in time, became a prioress, much loved by her charges and the religious community. Abelard helped her establish new quarters for the convent. At that time he wrote his autobiography, Historia Calamitatum Mearum, which contained both his confession and a defense of his theology.
Abelard and Heloise in a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9lo%C3%AFse_d%E2%80%99Argenteuil for the source of the above photograph of the manuscript.
Will Durant, the source of the above quotes, writes the following of Abelard in The History of Civilization, The Age of Faith at pages 938-940:
Truth cannot be contrary to truth, Abelard pleads; the truths of Scripture must agree with the findings of reason, else the God who gave us both would be deluding us with the one or the other . . .
Abelard 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 for scriptural or patristic passages which contradict 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.”
[Concerning the divine unity and Trinity, Durrant writes of Abelard’s ideas:] 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….
He pointed out 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. When my father, Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler, attended a Baptist seminary in New Orleans during the late 1940’s, he was taught a similar view of the Trinity as modalities of perception.
Sculpture of Abelard by Jules Cavelier at the Louvre Palace, Paris
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9lo%C3%AFse_d%E2%80%99Argenteuil for the source of the above photograph of the sculpture.
Although some in the Church hierarchy and many philosophers believed his teaching on the Trinity to be appropriate, Church authorities called him to Soissons to defend his book, The Trinity. When he appeared as ordered, he was not permitted to speak in his own defense because of fear that his power of persuasion would be irresistible. Therefore, without hearing, he was condemned to burn his book and to be confined in a monastery cell. A year later, a new Abbott permitted him to be released to establish a hermitage, where he lived and resumed teaching and writing. His teaching was preserved in two books, Theologia Christiana and Theologia.
Will Durrant writes at page 941,
He could not believe that all these wonderful pre-Christian minds had missed salvation; God, he insisted, gives his love to all peoples, Jews and heathen included.… Those who recommend faith without understanding are in many cases seeking to cover up their inability to teach the faith intelligibly… Abelard sought to embrace the most mystic doctrines of the church within the grasp of reason.
Abelard sent a copy of his Historia Calamitatum Mearum to Heloise, to whom history imputes a lengthy reply, including in part:
To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother: his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abelard, Heloise.…
Thou knowest, dearest – all men know – what I have lost in thee.… Obeying thy command, I changed both my habit and my hair, that I might show thee to be the possessor of both my body and mind.…
Tell me one thing only if thou canst: why, after our conversion [to the religious life], which thou alone didst decree, I am falling into such neglect and oblivion with thee that I am neither refreshed by thy speech and presence, nor comforted by a letter in thine absence. . . . Concupiscence joined thee to me rather than affection.…
I deserved more from thee, having done all things for thee….
… Farewell, my all.
See http://www.monadnock.net/poems/eloisa.html for Alexander Popes poem, Eloisa to Abelard.
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