Abelard and Helo'i'se (Writer)

(12th century)theologian, philosopher, poet; student, abbess

Pierre Abelard (1079-1142) is remembered as the most important philosopher and logician of 12th-century France, and Heloise as his most famous student. Abelard was born to a noble Breton family but gave up the life of a knight for the life of a scholar, devoting himself to the study of philosophy, rhetoric, and logic, or dialectic. Education in Abelard’s day was administered by the Church, and he most likely studied plato and Aristotle through the work of boethius. He was an enormously popular teacher due to his technique of disputatio, or argumentation, and he traveled widely, attracting students from all over the world.

Around 1113, Abelard decided to study theology under Anselm of Laon, then returned to the school at Notre Dame to teach. For Abelard, logic was the only way to reach understanding. Around 1105 he began writing his Glosses on Logic, which were separated into Greater and Lesser volumes and completed about 1130. In Paris he began working on two of his most influential treatises, Sic et Non (Yes and No) and Theologica Summi Boni (On the Divine Unity), written between 1118 and 1120. Sic et Non, structured as a list of questions with both yes and no answers, outlines Abelard’s scholastic method and its tools of argumentation, inquiry, and example.

The years following Abelard’s entry into St. Denis were his most productive in terms of writing; he published several commentaries, Treatise on Understandings (1122-25), Introduction to Theology (1125-30), and a disposition on Dialectic, which he worked on continuously between 1130 and 1140. During this time, Abelard, always a controversial figure, came under suspicion of heresy for certain points in his Theologica. The public condemnation and the burning of his topics proved to be the second most calamitous event of Abelard’s life.

The three most important works of his later life were his Theologica Christiana (Christian Theology, 1134-38); Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Christian, and a Jew; and his Ethics, or Know Thyself, both written between 1138 and 1142. While the later Theologica shows Abelard’s intimacy with Christian doctrine, the Dialogue, structured as a discussion between three voices on the nature of good and the necessity of virtue to happiness, shows his familiarity with Judaism and Islam. In Ethics, he daringly proposes that virtue or sin lie in the intention behind an act and not in the act itself. This ethic of intention, which he shared with Heloise, unsettled traditional theologians but has kindled the imagination of many subsequent scholars.

Abelard’s contributions as a teacher and logician are frequently overshadowed by his doomed love affair with Heloi’se, whom he began to tutor at Paris sometime before 1119. She had been previously educated at the convent of Argenteuil and had developed a reputation for intelligence and beauty, and the two quickly began a passionate affair. At the insistence of her uncle, they married, but when Heloise returned to Argenteuil, her uncle, believing she had been abandoned, had Abelard beaten and castrated. The assault prompted Heloise to take vows as a nun, and in 1128 she became prioress of the Paraclete, the religious institution that Abelard had founded.

The surviving correspondence between Abelard and Heloi’se begins in 1132, after she had read his History of My Calamities. The first four letters of the collection, called the “personal letters,” discuss their love affair from all angles and reveal Heloise as a passionate and highly intelligent woman as skilled in the art of rhetoric as her teacher. Within these letters, both lovers cite the bible as often as they quote scholars like Augustine or Latin writers like ovid, and they logically analyze their beliefs on marriage, human and divine love, and spirituality. The “letters of direction,” which complete the collection, include deeply philosophical contemplation, outlines for a reformed religious order, and poems and prayers Abelard writes that the nuns may say on his behalf.

Despite Abelard and Heloise’s rhetorical sophistication and philosophical skills, later writers Jean de Meun and Petrarch remembered them as doomed lovers similar to Anthony and Cleopatra of Julius caesar’s time or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet Heloise’s service as prioress made her widely beloved in her community, and Abelard has been called the first modern thinker, whose philosophy formed the basis of empiricism.

English Versions of Works by Abelard and Heloi’se

Abelard, Peter. Ethical Writings. Translated by Paul Vincent Spade. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995. Abelard and Heloise. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin, 1974.

Works about Abelard and Heloi’se

Clanchy, M. T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers , 1999.

Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Meade, Marion. Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Soho Press, 1994.

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