Peter Abelard, the most famous and the most controversial teacher of his age, was a logician, moral philosopher, and theologian. He was also a gifted and original poet, the founder of a famous convent for women, and the tragic lover of Heloise. He was twice condemned for heresy by ecclesiastical councils in France.
The outline of Abelard’s career is well-known, largely because he described so much of it in his famous Historia calamitatum (“History of Troubles”) he was born the son of a knight in 1079 at Le Pallet in Brittany south of the Loire River. He sacrificed his rights of inheritance and the prospect of a military career in order to study philosophy, particularly logic, in France. He provoked bitter quarrels with two of his masters, Roscelin of Compiegne and William of Champeaux.
The two men represented opposite poles of philosophy. Roscelin was a Nominalist who asserted that universals are nothing more than mere words; William in Paris upheld a form of Platonic Realism according to which universals exists. Abelard in his own logical writings brilliantly elaborated an independent philosophy of language. While showing how words could be used significantly, he stressed that language itself is not able to demonstrate the truth of things (res) that lie in the domain of physics.
Abelard was a peripatetic both in the manner in which he wandered from school to school at Paris, Lelun, Corbell and elsewhere and as one of the exponents of Aristotelian logic who were called the Peripatetics. In 1113 or 1114 he went north to Laon to study theology under Anselm of Laon, the leading biblical scholar of the day. He quickly developed a strong contempt for Anselm’s teaching, which he found vacuous, and returned to Paris. – (D.E.L)
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