Peter Abelard

I’m about 200 pages into Arthur Herman’s book, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.  I’m really enjoying it.  Yesterday I read about Peter Abelard.  I remember learning about him in college, but I do not remember his story.  He was an incredibly gifted man who was born in 1079.  His father, Lord Abelard of Le Pallet had a passion for learning in a time when most lay persons were illiterate.  He sent his seven year old Peter for lessons with a local grammaticus (a cleric who taught Latin).

Peter was brilliant debater and eventually opened his own school for learning logic, and at twenty nine years old he became the dominant intellectual figure in the city of Loches.  Young men came from across France to attend his classes.  He encouraged his students to collate the Church Fathers’ different opinions on specific passages from the Bible and to compare them with scripture to figure out which Church Fathers were right and which were wrong.  One of Peter’s famous sayings was, “By doubting we come to question, and be questioning we perceive the truth.”

Peter Abelard

Peter’s life had a tragic twist that I never remember learning about.  He fell in love with a 17 year old student of his named Heloise.  Peter was 40 at the time.  Heloise became pregnant, Peter offered to marry her and the father accepted.  However, after a secret marriage Peter insisted that Heloise enter a nunnery because he was afraid that if the truth became known it would ruin his career as France’s most glamorous philosopher.  After Peter was found to be visiting her at the nunnery and having sex again, her father sent a group of thugs to castrate Peter.  Such a sad story about a man that seemed to be an intellectual giant.

Peter’s legacy was that he opened the Middle Ages in new ways by giving the name of Aristotle and his logic a glamour that it never lost.  I think it would be interesting to read a biography of Peter’s tragic life.

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