Theologian Thursday: Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142)

Abelard and Heloise

Peter Abelard was one of the great philosopher-theologians.

Abelard studied the dialectic form of philosophy and was one of the first nominalists, which means he did not believe in universals--things like "love" or "beauty" are only words, not real things. These ideas, along with his tweaking of Boethius's account of identity, clearly influenced how Abelard thought about God, and especially the Trinity--the three Persons are one concrete thing (God), and yet have three distinct definitions.

Besides his philosophy, Abelard is well-known for his relationship with his patron's niece, Heloise, who was also a nun. You may know of their affair from Alexander Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard," (from which the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes its name) or various other accounts. Heloise herself was quite learned, and though their romance was tragic--she was sent away by her uncle when he found out about them, so their affair continued in secret and through letters until she became pregnant and Abelard sent her away for good... and then her uncle had Abelard castrated--it has lived on through legend in art and literature. If you'd like to read a more detailed account than I can describe here, check out this stellar blog post.

What you should read:
  • Sic et Non
  • Theologia christiana

Ratings:(To read more about my rating system, click HERE.)
Gender Equality: 
Though I do not doubt that Abelard's love for Heloise was true, somehow I have a hard time believing that he really respected her or considered her, you know, a person, given his banishment of her once he got her pregnant (even if it was "for her own good").
Environmental Sensibility: 
With the middle ages, it's kind of hard to say. Love for creation was certainly not of the utmost importance to Abelard--he was certainly more concerned with pursuits of the mind.
Heretical Tendencies: 
Because of his use of dialectic philosophy, and his appreciation for mystery and open-ended questions without solid dogmatic answers, he was often accused of heresy. He was tried by Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a mystic and therefore had a lot of issues with Abelard's use of rationality with religion.
General Badassery: 
Dude was super smart, had a pretty badass romance, and stood up to trials of heresy. Pretty cool, but not amazingly so.

"The key to wisdom is this - constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth."