Historians mark the years 1050 as the beginning of Europe's "High Middle Ages." There was an advance in the use of water wheels, which ground corn, sawed wood and operated bellows. And by now, Europeans were using cranks – one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. There was a rising population, an increase in trade, a growth in the size of towns, and people migrating here and there, often from rural areas to towns, in which there were church schools. Out of these schools and monasteries, schools arose that were to be described as universities. In the late 11th century and the early 1100s they appeared in Italy, France and England for the study of arts, law, medicine, and theology.
Literacy was rising, and by the 1100s the crusades had become more aware of Aristotle, which disturbed some churchmen. When Aristotle was introduced to the West, the Church saw his works as incompatible with Christianity and banned them. The Church found Aristotle's writing in conflict with its belief in the creation described in the Old Testament, Aristotle having believed in the eternity of heaven and earth. The Church accepted Plato rather than Aristotle, including Plato's doctrine that abstractions were "real" in the sense that they were not merely labels.
But Aristotle – the old practitioner of observation, classification and logic – was found interesting. And against Platonism in favor of Aristotle was a French Dominican monk and university lecturer, Peter Abelard (b. 1079) who drew from Aristotle. Abelard gained fame across Europe. Students left other lecturers and came from afar to hear him. They were hungry for new insights and sensation.
Abelard held to a fundamental point in philosophy: that something should be understood before it was believed. He was proposing a division between faith and knowledge. For Abelard, faith alone did not answer the question whether one should be a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu. He claimed that doubting led to inquiry and inquiry led to wisdom, and that by comparing arguments and choosing the best among rival alternatives one could come to truth. Influenced by Europe's recent exposure to Aristotle, he believed in dialogue as the basis of logic – Aristotle having begun his study of logic as lessons in how to succeed in the kind of debates in Plato's writings.
Believing that spotting contradictions was fundamental to logic, to sharpen the minds of his students Abelard found contrary positions to each of 158 propositions drawn from scripture, which were published in a work he called Sic et Non (Thus and Otherwise) – for example the proposition that God can do all things against the limits of God's power suggested elsewhere in scripture.
Abelard not only down played Plato's abstractions, he celebrated the specifics that expressed itself in an interest in individual humans, which set him against Church tradition. The Church saw interest in biography and autobiography as concern with vanities and conceits. But in Christendom biographies and autobiographies were making a comeback, and Abelard wrote an autobiography titled The History of My Calamities, which helped rekindle interest in personality.
Abelard had fallen in love with one of his students, Heloise, the niece of a prominent Parisian clergyman, Fulbert, on the staff at the cathedral of Notre Dame. Abelard married Heloise. Marriage for the member of a religious order was a disgrace, and Abelard tried to keep it secret. Fulbert with a gang of men attacked Abelard and castrated him. Because of the castration Abelard was barred from the priesthood.
Abelard retreated to a monastery in Breton, becoming its abbot, but he left after discovering that its monks were "thugs." He joined the monastery of St. Denis but was restless there. The Church was not happy with Abelard's writings, including a book he wrote on the Trinity, and in 1141 he was condemned as a heretic. His prosecutor was St. Bernard, an abbot from the monastery of Clairvaux, who accused him and others like him of being motivated by vanity. Abelard died the following year at the age of sixty-three, while on his way to Rome to appeal the Church's ruling.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.