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.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Peter Abelard and the Natural Law: Know Yourself, Scito Teipsum

ABELARD'S NOTIONS OF THE NATURAL LAW were, as might be expected, intimately tied to his views on moral theology or moral philosophy (ethics). For Abelard, all sin is ultimately, that is, in radice, contempt for God, and this translates to contempt (contemptus) of God's law, which is manifestive of his desire or will. "We show contempt for God, [Abelard] says, by acting or intending to act in a way that we believe is forbidden by God." Marenbon (2007), 273. I Therefore, intention of the actor is an extremely important concept to Abelard, as it is definitive of the actor's contempt. For this reason, in his Theologia Christiana, Abelard states that "the whole quality of deeds should be taken according to the root of intention (radix intentionis)." 369: 696-8 (quoted in Marenbon (1997), 252. Similarly, in his Collationes, (160:3161-3), Abelard states: "Actions are not judged good or bad except according to the root of intention: in themselves, they are all indifferent." Marenbon (1997), 252. For Abelard, it would seem, intentionality, then, is in the mind, and not in the act itself, and in fact, not in the act at all, since all acts are morally indifferent when prescinded from intent. Crowe suggests that this "insistence upon the interiority of moral life" was "Abelard's most considerable contribution to to ethics." Crowe, 114. Indeed, Crowe states that "the leitmotiv of [Abelard's] Ethics or Scito teipsum is that intention or consent, and not external action, makes morality." Crowe, 114 (citing Luscombe, ed., Peter Abelard's Ethics, esp. 4-36).

A Medieval Disputatio between Four Persons

In emphasizing intent to the degree that he did, Abelard appears to have rejected the "defect of justice" theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury (or the similar theory of William of Champeaux), wherein sin is defined as a failure to accord with justice. Under such a "defect of justice" theory, neither the will nor the desire which provides the impetus for the action are sinful; will and desire are good. Rather, sinful is found in the desire or the will's failure to conform to the standard that is required by justice. Marenbon (1997), 253.

According to Marenbon, Abelard also rejected the "stages" theory, such as that proposed by St. Anselm of Laon. In analyzing whether and when something constituted sin, this theory looks at all the stages of a human act--from incipient thought to final action. Thus, analysis of a moral act requires review and assessment of the entire concatenation of moral events from initial thought to final act. In such a view, the initial suggestion (suggestio), leads to the taking of pleasure (delectatio), which may lead to consent (consensus) which increases the pleasure, and may ultimately lead to the final consent required for the act (opus). Marenbom (1997), 254 & nn. 8-11 (quoting Lottin, passim) The first stage (suggestio) was not considered sinful, but perhaps disordered and part of concupiscence. Sin begins to creep in when the suggestio reaches to the area of delectatio. Because delectatio could be disordered and intended, the advocates of the "stages" theory believed that intention alone could result in sin. As an example, indulging in mental pleasure (delectatio) in a sinful act (say committing adultery with another's wife), though the act itself is not intended perhaps even positively rejected, is sufficient to constitute sin. The advocates of the "stages" theory also believed that there were certain acts that, regardless of intention, were sinful. There were some moral absolutes, the violation of which no good intention could excuse. Marenbom (1997), 254.

Peter Abelard

From Abelard's vantage point, sin is the discrepancy or lack of integrity between what a person does and what he believes God's command to be, which raises the issue of contempt. Marenbon (2007), 273. An act in defiance of the what one believes the Other wants, even if that belief is wrong, is contemptuous of the will of the Other. There is a clear danger of subjectivity in this view of moral right and wrong, in that, if this concept is stressed to the exclusion of all other markers of right and wrong, then it is exclusively the actor's belief or perception relative to his act or omission that determines the morality of his act. This would be sheer subjectivism. As John Marenbon explains in his The Philosophy of Peter Abelard:
Moralities of intention are . . . ones where the agent's own evaluation of his moral choice is preferred to any external criterion as the basis for moral judgement. Such moralities are--to use another description which has sometimes been applied to Abelard's ethics--subjective rather than objective. According to such a moral position, I do wrong if and only if I do what I believe I should not do or I do not do what I believe I should do. Abelard's theory of sin (which is formulated in the context of a supreme God) would be subjective, therefore, if (for instance) it held that someone sins if and only if, in performing an action or failing to perform one, he is not doing what he believes he should do for God.
Marenbon (1997, 265. Abelard attempts to avoid the fall into the subjective chasm while emphasizing this morality of intention by recruiting the natural law as the source of objective norms that all men would know and by which they must govern their acts. "As a result of the natural law," Abelard insists, "every mentally capable adult knows the fundamental moral laws that are laid down by God." Marenbon (2007), 273. As a consequence, no one can have the reasonable belief that adultery, murder, theft, perjury, and other such acts that violate the natural law, are commanded by God.


John Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) (herein Marenbon (1997)

John Marenbon, ""The Rise of Scholastic Legal Philosophy," A History of the Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics (Fred Miller, Jr., and Carrie-Ann Biondi, eds.) (Springer, 2007) (herein Marenbon (2007).

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