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: Problems Raised by Heloise

ABELARD HAD A DISTINCTIVE VIEW ON THE GOLDEN RULE, and this is exhibited in his response to the twentieth problem raised by Heloise in the Problemata Heloissae (Problems Raised by Héloïse). The problem raised by Héloïse in Question 20 relates to the Golden Rule: She wants to know how the Golden Rule, as formulated by Christ in Mathew 7:12, should be applied when there is one who consents to have evil done to him. If there is someone who has no qualms in having evil done to him, will that justify him doing evil to others?

Quaerimus et illud, quod in sequentibus adjungit: "Omnia ergo quaecunque vultis ut faciant vobis homines, et vos facite illis. Haec est enim lex et prophetae." Si quis enim vult ut in malo sibi quisquam consentiat, nunquid debet illi praebere consensum in re consimili?
What is Abelard's solution? How shall the Golden Rule be applied if someone desires something evil? Does that justify doing evil to others?

A Medieval Disputatio between Four Persons

In response to such a question, Abelard notes that there are two formulations of the Golden Rule, an affirmative formulation, such as we find in Matthew, and a negative formulation, such as we find in the Book of Tobit (4:15). However formulated, the Golden Rule presupposes an evil or good as approved or sanctioned by conscience, quod approbatis in conscientia vestra vobis ab aliis debere fieri. A disordered desire, or an evil desire, one not in accord with the judgment of conscience, is not countenanced by the Golden Rule under either formulation. Conscience will not secure any approval that evil be done, whether to oneself or to others. Rather, conscience defines or assesses the good, and posits it as what ought to be desired. And it is this way that the Golden Rule ought to be understood. Abelard continues by suggestion that this distinction between a disordered urge and conscience is suggested by St. Paul when he says (in Romans 7:19) "I do that which I do not will to do." The will he speaks of is that associated with what would be approved in conscience.
There are two precepts of the natural law concerning the love of one's neighbor: the one referred to in this place and the other we read in in Tobias (4:15). Here he says to his son, "Do to no one what you yourself dislike." What is true of the bad is true also of the good. Just as we do not want bad things to happen to us and so do not inflict them on others, the contrary is also true that, just as we would like others to give us good things, we should be ready to give them in return.

So when it is said, "What you would have others do to you," it means, what you know in your conscience that others should do to you. For nothing in our conscience approves of our consenting to wrongdoing, but only doing those things it considers good and worthy of being done. So, too, the Apostle, in saying (Rom. 7:15): "I do not act as I intend to" understands by the words "I intend to" that which I approve of being done.

Duo legis naturalis praecepta sunt circa dilectionem proximi: unum scilicet, quod hoc loco ponitur; alterum, quod in Tobia legimus, ipso ad filium dicente: " Quod ab alio odis fieri tibi, vide ne alteri tu aliquando facias. " Sicut ergo id malis, ita illud de bonis accipiendum est. Ut videlicet, sicut mala nolumus nobis inferri, sic nec aliis inferamus, et e contrario, bona, quae nobis ab aliis volumus conferri, aliis impendere simus parati.

Quum ergo dicitur: "Quae vultis ut faciant vobis homines," tale est: Quod approbatis in conscientia vestra vobis ab aliis debere fieri. Nullus enim in conscientia approbat, sibi consentiendum esse in malo, sed in his, quae bona aestimat, et fieri digna. Sic et Apostolus quum ait: "Non quod volo, hoc ago:" volo dixit pro fieri approbo.
Abelard continues by expanding on both formulations of the Golden Rule. He first addresses the affirmative formulation by tackling what is meant by "whatever you would have them do to you." Specifically, he attends to issues that arise from diverse stations in people, and the obvious inequality that arises among and between them as a result of their stations in life. Next, he discusses the meaning of the Golden Rule in its negative formulation, specifically, addressing the situation confronting an executioner, who is confronted with the seeming ethical conundrum that he is doing something to another which he undeniably would hate having done to himself.

Abelard recognizes that there is a variety of beliefs entertained by people as to what ought to be done to them, and what their obligations are to others. There is also significant inconsistency in practical application of the Golden Rule arising from different stations, or offices, that a person has. For example, a prince would hardly expect to have to do to his subjects what he would expect his subjects to do to him. Abelard suggests that the Golden Rule, as applied, must take into consideration the inequality of station:
But what is meant by saying "whatever you would have them do to you"? For many people, on account of the dignity or diversity of persons, believe that many things should be done for them that they hardly recognized as their own obligation to do for others. We can see this with respect to prelates and those subject to them, when they require others to do many things for them that they would never feel obliged to do for others. But, in fact, we should understand the matter in this way, that whatever we believe should be done for us by others, we should be prepared to do for them, too, not necessarily each and everyone, but those who are like ourselves, that is, who are worthy to receive these things from us that we are worthy to receive from them.

Sed quid est, quod ait: "Omnia quaecunque vultis?" Multi quippe pro dignitate, vel diversitate personarum, multa sibi debere fieri censent, quae nequaquam aliis se debere recognoscunt: ut in praelatis videmus et subjectis, quum isti multa exigant ab illis, ut sibi fiant, quae nequaquam illis facere debent. Sed profecto sic est accipiendum, ut quaecunque fieri debere nobis ab hominibus credimus, parati essemus et illis facere, non quidem quibuscunque, sed nostri similibus, hoc est, qui haec a nobis suscipere digni essent, sicut nos ab illis.
For Abelard, the problem of station is particularly poignant in respect to the lowest office in the affairs of men, the executioner. The executioner must be excepted from the rule, not as a person, but in the capacity of executioner. One's office, it would seem, would exclude one from the rule. This is because the executioner does not execute his victim in his own name, but in the name of God or the law. The Golden Rule, then applies when one acts on behalf of oneself, and not in the name of law or by power or authority given by God and of which one merely mediates.
In the case of Tobias (4:15): "Do to no one what you yourself dislike," there is posed something of a question, when a person who executes another in the service of justice does not wish to undergo the same experience as the other person. When someone exercises justice on behalf of God, it is God who does the action rather than the person, as we said some time ago. Therefore it can be prescribed that one should not do to another what he would hate to have done to himself, for when someone punishes another justly, it is God or the Law rather than the human agent who performs the act.

Illud quoque Tobiae: "Quod ab alio odis fieri tibi, vide ne alteri tu aliquando facias," nonnihil habet quaestionis, quum is scilicet, qui alium propter justitiam occidit, nunquam ab alio id sustinere velle possit. Sed quia quum quis justitiam propter Deum exercet; Deus potius id quam ille facit, sicut dudum superius diximus, praecipitur ut quod odit fieri sibi, ipse alteri ne faciat: quia quum aliquem recte punit, Deus hoc potius, vel lex, quam homo facit.

Peter Abelard

As might be expected from the parsing, edgy mind of Abelard, "he thought that the golden rule needed qualifying." Marenbom (2007), 274. One wonders, however, if, in his selection of prelates and executioners, Abelard may not have been surreptitiously, implicitly, inter linea criticizing the priestly and ecclesiastical authorities and the practice of capital punishment. Is there a budding anarchist or opponent of capital punishment lurking behind the scholarly show of the peripatetic from Le Pallet?


English translation of Problema XX of the Problemata Heloissae is from Marty Martin McLaughlin, The Letters of Heloise and Abelard (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009), 244-45.

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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