Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard was a medieval French philosopher, logician, theologian and poet. He is known as the finest academic brain of 12th century by a number of historians.

Peter earned a lot of acclaim for his use of dialectics and his solutions of problems of universals, a subject of metaphysics.

Peter’s real life love affair with French nun, writer and scholar, Heloise d’Argenteuil was widely celebrated and their correspondence received much approbation.

Peter Abelard

Early Life: Peter was originally called ‘Pierre le Pallet’. He was born in 1079, in le Pallet, a town near Nantes, Brittany. Peter belonged to a minor noble family. His father, Berengar was a knight. He encouraged Peter to pursue his scholarly leanings.

Peter decided to give up a career in military and his inheritance to become an academic. He was particularly interested in liberal arts and did extremely well in dialectics (a branch of philosophy). Peter wandered throughout France to learn and seek knowledge. He first studied in Loire under the tutelage of Roscellinus of Compiegne, a famous French theologian and philosopher who is considered founder of nominalism. In 1100, Peter reached Paris and started studying in cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris under the guidance of William of Champeaux.

According to his own account, Peter had several heated arguments with William and Roscellinus during his stay with both of them. Peter thought that his ability to beat his masters in argument was the reason behind their contempt for him. William however; considered Peter to be arrogant. Peter established his own school in Corbeil near Paris.

He gained fame and respect for his teaching and a few years later he again challenged William over his theory of universals and soundly defeated him every time. William however; made sure that Peter could not teach in Paris and moved to Mulen. In 1110 he again moved to Paris. Peter then got more interested in theology and shifted to Laon where he attended lectures of Anselm. Here again, Peter had a conflict with Anselm and returned to Paris. In 1115, he became Master of Notre-Dame. During his stay in Notre-Dame, Peter began a torrid affair with French nun and writer Heloise d’Argenteuil, niece of secular canon Fulbert.

Their affair saw them getting married secretly and severe opposition from Fulbert. Peter sent Heloise to a convent in Argenteuil to save her from her uncle and later became a monk himself in the monastery of St Denis. At St Denis he continued to study theology and religious texts and was critical of the way of life of other monks. In early 1130s, Peter and Heloise composed a collection of their love letters which became very popular.

Later in his life, Peter faced the biggest crisis of his life when William of St Thiery, another French theologian accused him of heresy in his writings. As a result, Peter fell from favor with church and papacy. He thereafter stopped teaching and writing and spent his last days at priory of St Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saone.

Work: Peter Abelard’s prominent pieces of philosophical work are Logica Ingredientibus (Logic for Beginners), Dialectica (Dialectics), Sic et Non (Yes or No), Tractatus de Intellectibus (A Treatise of Understanding) and Ethica or Scito Te Ipsum (Ethics or Know Yourself).

Abelard’s autobiographical work in Latin called Historia Calamitum (A History of My Troubles) also became very popular. It also carried the love letters exchanged between Peter and Heloise d’Argenteuil.

Later Life: Peter Abelard spent the last few months of his life in St Marcel, where he died on April 21, 1142. He was suffering from fever and skin disorder.

Peter was initially buried in St Marcel but soon his remains were taken to Paraclete and given to Heloise, the love of his life. Heloise herself was buried next to Peter when she died in 1163.