Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Peter Abelard and the Natural Law, Introduction

HAVING REVIEWED ST. ANSELM OF LAON AND THE SCHOOL OF LAON and their contribution to the natural law, it would seem reasonable to look at Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and his contributions to the natural law. The natural law was a central feature of Peter Abelard's project to give due emphasis to reason at a time when perhaps reason was not getting its fair share, and so the alliance between faith and reason was being strained. "The idea of law, especially natural law, was central to this project" of Peter Abelard in trying to "give a rationally coherent, ethically centered explanation of the main elements of Christian belief." Marenbon (2007), 271. To begin with, Abelard was convinced that Christian belief was reasonable (which is not, of itself a controversial position), and thus had been anticipated by the best of pagan philosophical reasoning. As part of this vision, Abelard included the practical reason, and thus moral reasoning. Abelard "needed natural law to give a foundation to his ethical theory, which, without it, would have collapsed into unsustainable subjectivism." Marenbon (2007), 271. The controversial aspects raised by Abelard's teaching and innovations were largely the result of improper emphasis and balance on his part, an endemic imprudence and brashness, an injudicious use of language, and his remarkable talent, vastly surpassing his unquestionable intellectual talents, of arousing controversy and attracting enemies.

Bas-Relief of Abelard

Born in the hamlet of Pallet in Brittany, Peter (or Pierre) Abelard was the son of Berengar, the village lord, and his wife, Lucia. You would not have known it from the quiet in the village, but the world was engulfed in the so-called "problem of the universals," and there was an acrimonious debate among the scholars, as the Realist school was on the descendant, and the Nominalist school was on the ascendant. Both of Abelard's parents were of apparently pious disposition, as, after their children reached adulthood, they entered the religious life.

In any event, Peter was the eldest of the children. Groomed for a military career so as to follow in his father's office, he opted instead to devote himself to learning, and had a remarkable aptitude for it, equaled only by his ability to land himself in controversy. Exposed early to the teachings of the monk Roscelin "the Nominalist," the first of that time, Otto of Freisingen states in his chronicles, to institute the "sentiam vocum," primus nostris temporibus sentiam vocum instituit. Mon. Germ. Histor., Script. XX, 376. (The sententiam vocum was one of the anti-Realist's solutions to the problem of the universals, and the precise relationship between genera and species that was bandied about during this debate. What were genera? What were species? Were they a thing (res), or where they mere intellectual constructs, "voices" (voces), as it were? Did only individual humans have real existence, and "humanity" not? Was "humanity" a res, a real thing (hence "Realism") or merely a vox flatus, merely a concept or name (nomen) (hence "Nominalism")? Whether Roscelin was the progenitor of the sententiam vocum or not, it is indisputable that he was a budding anti-Realist, though certainly he did not advance der reine Nominalismus Occams, the pure nominalism, that William of Occam (ca. 1288-ca. 1348) was to advance. But this is not the time or place to discuss Roscelin.) The "problem of universals" aside for the time being, Roscelin headed a school at Locmenach, near Vannes. After spending some time there, Abelard left to study at the Cathedral School in Paris to study dialectic under the Realist William of Champeaux (ca. 1070-1121), the erstwhile pupil of St. Anselm of Laon, the inspiration for the School of St. Victor, and the future bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. (In marked contrast to Roscelin, William of Champeux was an Über-Realist and anti-Nominalist. In the matter of universals, Abelard was to adopt a mean position between Roscelin and William of Champeaux, but whether that teaching could be characterized as a moderate Realism or a moderate Nominalism is hard to tell.) For a time, Abelard tried to found a rival school, at Paris, then at Melun and later at Corbeil, but he eventually returned to Paris to study rhetoric under William of Champeaux. For a period of time he went to Laon to study Scriptural studies or exegesis under St. Anselm of Laon; however, he soon found himself embroiled in controversy, and was forced to leave the School of Laon. Eventually, after William of Champeaux retired to the monastery of St. Victor for a time, Abelard managed to get a position at the Cathedral School in Paris, where he was nominated canon, and taught both dialectic and rhetoric for a decade between 1108 and 1118, a time, he admits in his Historia Calamitatum, was filled with vanity and pride, not unmixed with imprudence and mortal sin.

Bas-Relief of Héloïse

It was here where he met, and fell in love, and had an improper and highly irregular dalliance with the bright, young Héloïse, niece of canon Fulbert, whom he was supposed to tutor, but instead seduced and impregnated with a child, his son, who would eventually be born and given the name Astrolabius (meaning "Astrolabe," a scientific instrument for measuring the position of stars), a name perhaps rivaled only by Frank Zappa naming his daughter Moon Unit. They were secretly married, but that did not stop canon Fulbert from exercising self-help to stop the relationship. He had Abelard forcibly castrated, and with that operation Abelard became an unwilling eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven. Both the scandal and the mutilation caused by the castration effectively ended Abelard's career at the Cathedral School in Paris. Héloïse retired to Argenteuil where she donned the nun's habit.
No, fly me, fly me, far as pole from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!

Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,

Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
(Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard").

Detail of Abelard and Héloïse by Vignaud

Abelard found refuge in the Abbey of St. Denis, where he took the Benedictine habit, a habit which did not fit him well. He soon found himself at odds with the monks there and was relegated to a priory or cella, a sort of branch of the monastery. He soon shortly found himself embroiled again in controversy, this time because of his quarrels with followers of the School of Laon, who accused him of unorthodox, Sabellian opinions regarding the Trinity. He was summoned to appear before a council at Soissons which was presided over by Kuno, Bishop of Praneste, who acted also as papal legate. Although he was not condemned by the Council, he was ordered to recite the Athanasian Creed, and to burn his book on the Trinity. As a result of the activities of his Abbot, Adam, he was also sentenced to imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Médard. He fled to Troyes where he founded an oratory, named after the Paraclete. After Abbot Adam's death, his successor, Suger, absolved Abelard from his predecessor's censure, and Abelard resumed the life of a Benedictine monk. In 1125, he was elected Abbot of the Abbey of St. Gildas de Rhuys on the coast of Brittany. Héloïse took over the Oratory of the Paraclete at Troyes and became Abbess of that institution. Communication between Abelard and Héloïse continued throughout their life, and that infelicitous love affair, as well as Abelard's struggles against authority, has made Abelard the darling of all Romantics and Rebels, from the medieval Roman of the Rose authored by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun to the Romantic-styled paintings of Abelard and Héloïse by the Frenchman Jean Vignaud (1775-1826) and the Englishman Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922). It is telling that the remains of Abelard and Héloïse escaped the cultural iconoclasm of the French Revolution. In fact, they seemed to have been honored by the spirit of the Jacobin in that in 1817, these citizens of the ancien régime were given a place of honor at the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris.
They were effectively revered as romantic saints, mythologized as forerunners of modernity, at odds with the ecclesiastical and monastic structures of their day. They became celebrated more for rejecting the traditions of the past than for any particular intellectual achievement.
Constant J. Mews, Abelard and Heloise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 4.

Abelard and His Student Héloïse by Edmund Blair Leighton

Abelard's tenure as Abbot of St. Gildas was not particularly felicitous. Faced with recalcitrant monks, who viewed him as overly strict, he found himself constantly battling their efforts to be rid of him. Ultimately, around 1136 he returned to Paris where he resumed his career as a teacher, and where he taught, among many others, John of Salisbury.

A Decidedly Byronic Abelard
(Whether before or after castration is difficult to tell)

Once again, Abelard's teachings on the Trinity were called into question. This time, however, his adversary was the redoubtable and influential St. Bernard. Ultimately, the dispute resulted in a council at Sens in 1141, which condemned a number of propositions that were contained in his writings. Abelard appealed to Rome. The sentence of the council of Sens was confirmed by Innocent II. However, here the Venerable Peter of Cluny stepped in (beati pacifici!), and, as a result of his efforts, obtained a mitigation of the sentence against Abelard, reconciled Abelard and St. Bernard, and offered Abelard respite at Cluny. Eventually, Abelard became a member of that monastic community, and taught at that monastery's school. He died in 1142 at Chalôn-sur-Saône, and was buried at the oratory he founded in Troyes. We may perhaps hope that in his death he finally found the peace he mentioned in his hymn O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata:
That heavenly city is truly Jerusalem,
Whose peace is forever, whose pleasure's supreme,
Where desire never goes beyond its object
And reward is not despised as short of its goal.

Vere Ierusalem est illa civitas
Cuius pax iugis est, sum iucunditas
Ubi no praevenit rem desiderium
Nec desiderio minus est praemium.
(English translation from James J. Wilhelm, ed., Lyrics of the Middle Ages (1990))

Abelard's opera may be divided into philosophical works and theological works. His philosophical works include the Dialectica, a treatise on logic, the Scito Teipsum or Ethica, a treatise on moral philosophy, and glosses on Porphyry, Boëtius, and the Categories of Aristotle. His theological works include the famous Sic et Non (Yes and No), the condemned Tractatus de Unitate et Trinitate Divina (Treatise on the Divine Unity and Trinity), an updated and enlarged version of that same treatise under the title Theologia Christiana, the Dialogus inter Philosophum, Judaeum, et Christianum, the famous Sententia Petri Abaelardi (Sentences of Peter Abelard) also known as the Epitomi Theologiae Christianae. There are a scattering of exegetical works, hymns, and sequences also attributed to Abelard. In addition, Abelard wrote an autobiographical work entitled Historia calamitarum (History of my Misfortunes), and is famous for his correspondence to Héloïse.

Abelard and Héloïse from a Manuscript of the Roman de la Rose

Ironically, in the area of the natural law, Abelard predicated his thinking on the ideas of the School of Laon, which he otherwise excoriated. Specifically, he adopted its view, which was consistent with received teaching from the Church Fathers, that the old law, the vetus lex, and the new law, lex nova, were distinct. The Bible presented the situation of Abel (as well as others) that lived virtuous lives before the law of Moses, indeed, before Abraham was given the rite of circumcision. How was this to be explained other than by a better understanding of law? The notion of the natural law seemed the ideal vehicle for understanding how this could be. The ultimate justification was found in St. Paul's invocation of this "law of the heart" in Romans 2:14-15. Thus, the natural law was the sort of constant in all law, including both the Mosaic law and the law of the Gospel, and accordingly also governed the Patriarchs who came before the revelation of the old law to Moses at Mount Horeb. "Abelard adopted his basic structure of thinking about law from the School of Laon." Marenbon (2007), 272. However, given the Laudinensian scholars' emphasis on the Scriptures, they did not focus on the pagan evidences of the natural law. "The writers of the School of Laon had not been at all concerned with Greek antiquity in their discussion of natural law." Marenbon (2007), 272. That is, the Laudiensian school did not analyze the natural law from the vantage point of reason. Though he was criticized for it by his contemporaries, Abelard departed from the theologians of the School of Laon by emphasizing the philosophical overlap between the Scriptural notion of the natural law and the philosophical notions. The Abelardian emphasis allowed the natural law to be viewed as something suprahistorical, in that, wrested from the scriptural history, "natural law [was] no longer restricted to a particular chronological period," nor, for that matter, to a particular people. Marenbon (2007), 272. This shift in emphasis by Abelard resulted in a greater appreciation for the natural law in guiding all men and all cultures in all history. In the next series of blog entries, we shall review some of the more important Abelardian works that discuss his concept of the natural law. We will first look at his Collationes (Comparisons or Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian), a work celebrated for the clear distinction between natural law and positive law, perhaps the first, most clear distinction of the kind in legal thought. Following that, we will look at his Scito Teipsum (Know Yourself), a work sometimes entitled Ethica (Ethics). Abelard's moral teachings, which influence his view of law, are significant for their emphasis on intention of the actor in analyzing the morality of acts, or at least the actor's culpability. We shall also review Abelard's unusual take on the Golden Rule in reviewing his Problemata Heloissae, as well as his Commentary on Romans. In discussing all these matters, we will rely very heavily on the excellent guidance of John Marenbon, whose many works on Peter Abelard are superlative.

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