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Contending Ideas in Western Europe

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Peter Abelard

In the late 11th century and early 1100s, schools to be called universities arose in Italy, France and England for the study of arts, law, medicine, and theology. Literacy was rising, and the crusades made Europeans 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.

In England, Anselm (1033-1109), born into a noble family, became a Benedictine monk and then Archibishop of Canterbury. He was a supporter of the Church in its disputes with the English monarchy, and he was to be considered the founder of scholasticism and a major influence in Western theology. Scholasticism, writes Wikipedia, dominated teaching in medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to1700. Anselm's brand of scholasticism held that thinking of a Most Perfect Being or idea made it so. It was Anselm's argument for God, employed by Avicenna before him. Anselm wasn't just employing faith, he was trying to apply reason and has been described as influenced in this by Aristotle and a thinker during Ostrogoth rule in Rome in the early 500s.

Saint Anselm

Anselm of Canterbury

Peter Abelard

Abelard at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Jastrow)

A scholar a generation or two later than Anselm and also described as a scholastic was Peter Abelard (b. 1079), a French Dominican monk and university lecturer who also 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, on one hand there was the propostion that God can do all things, and on the other hand were 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.


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