Thursday, April 28, 2005

Historia Calamitatum, Part I

Peter Abelard's Historia Calamitatum is a fascinating autobiographical account that is at the same time a philosophical argument. The work opens:

Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows more by example than by words. And therefore, because I too I have known some consolation from speech had with one who was a witness thereof, am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out of my misfortunes, for the eyes of one who, though absent, is of himself ever a consoler. This I do so that, in comparing your sorrows with mine, you may discover that yours are in truth nought, or at the most but of small account, and so shall you come to bear them more easily.


Abelard tells how he became passionately devoted to learning, and especially to logic, and eventually came to Paris, where he began to study under William of Champeaux, who had a reputation for excellence as a teacher. Abelard regards William as having genuine merit; but Abelard seems to have been one of those undergraduates who go around trying to refute his professors. And, being a very brilliant person, he did so quite well; and, at least according to Abelard, William did not take it too well, particularly from someone as young as Peter. With something of a literary sigh, Abelard reflects that this has pretty much been the story of his life: he goes somewhere, gets a reputation for brilliance, and stirs up envy until people try to destroy him. Eventually, Peter surpasses poor William, and he receives a teaching position -- in fact, the person who held the teaching position gave it to him in order to be his student, which says quite a bit about our good Mr. Abelard. But William would have none of it, and began a campaign against Peter, replacing him in that position with one of Peter's rivals. So Abelard started his own school. And so the battle goes for some time longer.

Eventually Abelard turned his interest to the study of theology. Since the most renowned teacher in theology was Anselm of Laon (a former student of St. Anselm), Abelard went to study under him. Abelard was not impressed by Anselm, saying his reputation was due more to longstanding custom than talent, and that anyone who came to him with doubts went away even more doubtful. Well, you can imagine the result. One day someone asked him what he thought of the lectures on Scripture:

I, who had as yet studied only the sciences, replied that following such lectures seemed to me most useful in so far as the salvation of the soul was concerned, but that it appeared quite extraordinary to me that educated persons should not be able to understand the sacred books simply by studying them themselves, together with the glosses thereon, and without the aid of any teacher.


They challenge him on this, so a test is arranged, and the students picked the prophecy of Ezekial for him to expound. According to Abelard, the lecture was a smashing success, so much so that he started lecturing regularly, and Anselm was smitten with envy. Anselm forbade Peter to lecture, saying that he didn't want the blunders of an inexperienced young man to be attributed to him. So Abelard returned to the school in Paris, and continues lecturing in theology, with great success. Now looms the most famuos episode of Peter's life:

But prosperity always puffs up the foolish and worldly comfort enervates the soul, rendering it an easy prey to carnal temptations. Thus I who by this time had come to regard myself as the only philosopher remaining in the whole world, and had ceased to fear any further disturbance of my peace, began to loosen the rein on my desires, although hitherto I had always lived in the utmost continence. And the greater progress I made in my lecturing on philosophy or theology, the more I departed alike from the practice of the philosophers and the spirit of the divines in the uncleanness of my life.


At this point, Peter says, he was punished, first for his lust, and then for his pride. There dwelt in Paris a young woman named Héloïse, the niece of canon Fulbert. Fulbert wanted to give Héloïse the best education, so Peter, impressed by her, became her tutor in the hopes of seducing her. It worked:

We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it. Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms -- love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text....No degree in love's progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched.


And so with sweet steps the doom of Peter came closer and closer. He became so wrapped up in Héloïse that he began to shun study. His lecturing began to suffer, since he no longer prepared. There just wasn't enough time both to teach and to spend all night in "vigils of love," even in the twelfth century. People began to talk, although Fulbert was apparently still oblivious for some time. Eventually he heard, however, and, grief-stricken and angry, he forced the lovers to separate. Soon afterward Héloïse found out that she was pregnant, and, happy at this news, wrote to Peter asking him what they should do. Peter helped her flee her uncle's house, and sent her to his sister, where she gave birth to a baby boy, called Astrolabe. Needless to say, Uncle Fulbert was furious. Peter went to him to try to make peace, offering to marry Héloïse, on the condition that the marriage be kept secret. Peter had a reputation to keep, after all; he was a priest. Uncle Fulbert, not knowing quite what else to do, agreed. So, the peace established, the doom drew closer.

Peter returned to his own country, and brought back Héloïse with the intention of marrying her. Héloïse, however, was firmly opposed to the marriage. She insisted that her uncle would never be appeased by something so simple, and that the disgrace it would bring to Peter was unacceptable:

She asked how she could ever glory in me if she should make me thus inglorious, and should shame herself along with me. What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light! What curses would follow such a loss to the Church, what tears among the philosophers would result from such a marriage! How unfitting, how lamentable it would be for me, whom nature had made for the whole world, to devote myself to one woman solely, and to subject myself to such humiliation! She vehemently rejected this marriage, which she felt would be in every way ignominious and burdensome to me.


Héloïse argued that it would be better for her to remain Peter's mistress than to burden him with a wife; that way she would always know that his only obligation to her was love. Peter was not to be persuaded, however, and so she grudgingly gave in. Héloïse's family, however, began to leak the story of the marriage, despite her best efforts; and when she began to denounce her family as liars, Uncle Fulbert began to punish her. Peter sent her to a convent at Argenteuil. Uncle Fulbert and the rest of the family became convinced that Peter had backed out of his part of the bargain and rid himself of Héloïse by making her into a nun. So one night they broke into his apartment and castrated him.

Now, to return a moment to the passage with which we began; Abelard had said that he hoped that by telling the story of his sorrows, you might think yours a little less. It's all part of the argument: Abelard is using his castration to make a point. But the point is not fully made yet; the Historia Calamitatum is only half-finished.

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