Peter Abelard
Fr.: Pierre Abélard

b. 1079. Pallet, Brittany
d. April 21, 1142

Breton philosopher and courter of controversy.

The son of a noble Breton family, Abelard was more interested in scholastic pursuits than that of a soldier. He bounced from school to school, finally coming to Paris where he was enrolled at Notre-Dame de Paris.

During his years at Notre-Dame, his debates with the Realist school of philosophy lead him to embrace Nominalism (similar to Conceptualism), which denied the Platonic ideals, the "universals" of Realism, and instead declares that our experiences are entirely within our own minds. Most know of Conceptualism via Kant, but it was Abelard who brought it to the fore.

Abelard's popularity led his rival and former teacher, William of Champeaux, to bar him from teaching. The ban was unable to last; by 1115, Abelard was a canon at Notre-Dame

Abelard is best known today for his relationship with Héloïse, the niece of Fulbert, a canon at Notre-Dame, who employed Abelard as her tutor. He seduced her, impregnated her, and brought her back to Brittany, where their son Peter Astrolabe was born. They were secretly married, so as not to damage Abelard's reputation (non-celibacy was an obstacle to advancement in the church-run universities). Héloïse joined the convent of Argenteuil at Abelard's urging.

It is during this period that the famous letters of Abelard and Héloïse were written; while Abelard councils her as a priest to a parishoner, Héloïse emphasizes her unrequited love for him.

Fulbert, seeing this as Abelard's attempt to rid himself of Héloïse, extracted revenge in the form of castration--at which point, the priesthood and thus the academic world was now closed to him.*

Abelard turned to the world of the monk. He openned a new school, but by 1121 was charged with heresey by his enemies, and was forced to burn his own book. Such events continued through his life, until he was forced to flee to Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Lower Brittany. Here he stayed, until he heard of the dissolution of Héloïse' convent. At this time, he has the deserted house of Paraclete restored, placing Héloïse there as abbess.

At this time, Abelard had yet another powerful rival, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who despised Abelard's rationalism. Bernard had Abelard condemned by Rome for heresey (again), prompting Abelard to travel to Rome. He never made it, however, collapsing at Cluny. He died at St. Marcel, where he was buried.

After two other burials, Abelard and Héloïse were finally buried together at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery at Paris.

*(Indeed, how can one be truely celibate if one can't even--well, never mind.)

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Mary Jones © 2009