Monday, May 06, 2013

Abelard's Early Humanist Reasoning

by Gary Berg-Cross

At a recent conference a lunchtime conversation turned to examples of sound reasoning and the scholar Peter Abelard was raised as an interesting example.  Abelard is better known to most of us as a tragic love story.  Abelard and Heloise remain one of the more a celebrated couples of all time, in part from their writing and in part from the classic tragic events that eventually separated them:

1.    two well-educated people, brought together by their passion they fell in love;

2.    Heloise became pregnant, so

3.    they married secretly in 1118.

4.    Her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Paris,  had Abelard castrated by thugs believing that he had abandoned Heloise,

5.    after which he became a monk and

6.    Sent to a convent by her uncle, Heloise later became a nun
In a letter to Abelard, Heloise reflected on her loss:

"You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you."

This part of the history I knew a bit, but Peter Abelard (1079-1142) as an12th century medieval French philosopher, theologian, and logician I had heard less about.  After all these are the Middle Ages, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn the history and form of his thinking.
It goes something like this. A bright boy he rapidly jumped from school to school gaining an easy rise to fame. He wound up in a pre-University of Paris setting to study under William of Champeaux, head of the cathedral school and archdeacon of Notre Dame. Along the way his brilliant reasoning and debate were matched by a Chris-Hitchens-like arrogance. As with Hitch he generated many foes as wells as admirers. His mentor William, for example, was famous for a realist stance on the nature of universals, while pupil Peter took a nominalist and soundly won a series of debates. This success lead to a following, among students who provided a core for what was late to become the great University in Paris. Abélard's deep understanding of Aristotle's theory of knowledge surpassed anything widely available in 12th century Europe, which he cultivated in his Paris students. His was an example of great teaching that came to live as a Liberal Arts curriculum and style of teaching when universities were formally founded.
One of his important contributions was a work on ethics which took as its title the Socratic admonition, "Know thyself." In this work Abelard veered from the established course of strict commandments to stress the importance of intention in evaluating the moral/immoral character of an action. This was a step towards more nuanced reasoning about moral action.

Some of his early persuasive arguments swayed leaders like Pope Innocent III, who accepted Abelard's Doctrine of Limbo – children are innocent before the age of reason. But reasoned debate about reason itself was his real forte and passion - outside of Heloise. A famous debate was with Bernard of Clairvaux over the conflicts of reason and religion.  This conflict that made him a hero of the Enlightenment.

In Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian Abelard plays a combination of a Socrates and Swift like character as he debated religious dogma. Abélard juxtaposes apparently contradictory quotations from the Church Fathers & the Bible on many of the traditional topics of Judeo-Christian theology (he was the first to use ‘theology’ in its modern sense) only to “discover(ed) the Jews to be stupid and the Christians insane.”  As you can imagine making common folks reasoning look foolish does get noticed. His teachings backed by sound reasoning were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. His book on the Trinity was condemned to be burnt at Soissons in 1121.

One can see the controversy in one his works on Logic Reasoning "Sic et Non," an early scholastic teaching text whose title translates from Medieval Latin into a simple “Yes and No" dichotomy (for more on limitations of dichotomy see my article on Binary Thinking). As in his previous “Dialog” we see what happens when we apply reason to the teaching of revelation or at least questions that come out of revealed truths.

In the Prologue, Abélard outlines logical rules for reconciling contradictions but the core of the book is a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions.  The first five questions give a sense of these:

  1. Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?
  2. Does faith deal only with unseen things, or not?
  3. Is there any knowledge of things unseen, or not?
  4. May one believe only in God alone, or not?
  5. Is God a single unitary being, or not?

  • Use systematic doubt and question everything
  • Learn the difference between statements of rational proof and those merely of persuasion
  • Be precise in use of words, and expect precision of others
  • Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture (danger Will Robinson!!)
Wonderful advice even today.  Maybe especially today.
One can why Peter got in trouble as the rational arguments on the non-doctrinaire side seem as good as the Church’s position. And rational argument is still getting freethinkers in trouble.
Abelard was probably not the forerunner of modern atheism as some have argued. He seems more comfortably fit into a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates. He takes a  bold Medieval step towards human centering in ethics by taking moral authority and responsibility away from gods and their servant. Intentions and reasoning make it our responsibility.  Bravo Peter A for your love of reason and balance along with the worthy Heloise.




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