Monday, May 02, 2005

Historia Calamitatum, Part III

(Part II)

Peter Abelard, we have seen, had found some consolation in the Oratory of the Paraclete. It was not to last. His former rivals began to stir up against him opponents of a rather more significant nature than he had yet known. Indeed, so formidable were they that they were both later canonized. One was named Norbert of Prémontré, founder of the Premonstratensians. The other was Bernard of Clairvaux, who had become the spearhead of the Cistercian reform of monastic abuses. [Abelard doesn't actually mention names; I'm following the traditional identification, although there is actually some reason for doubting it. Norbert and Bernard fit the description, but we have no independent evidence that Norbert attacked Abelard, and it isn't clear that Bernard would have known of Abelard this early. --ed.] On hearing that a new council was being planned, Abelard sunk into despair, to such an extent that he even considered fleeing to non-Christian lands.

At this period Peter was elected the abbot of a monastery far to the west, and he accepted it in order to escape from his troubles. The abuses of the monastery were almost overwhelming, and, since the area was very barbaric, Peter was afraid that pushing reforms would endanger his life. He was also worried about the Oratory of the Paraclete. As it happened, however, Héloïse and the nuns at Argenteuil were turned out by Peter's former abbot, who had gained control of the convent. They relocated to the Oratory; he made it over to the nuns, and this gift was confirmed by Pope Innocent II. It was a good move:

And this refuge of divine mercy, which they served so devotedly, soon brought them consolation, even though at first their life there was one of want, and for a time of utter destitution. But the place proved itself a true Paraclete to them, making all those who dwelt round about feel pity and kindliness for the sisterhood. So that, methinks, they prospered more through gifts in a single year than I should have done if I had stayed there a hundred.

People, however, began to complain that Peter wasn't doing enough for the nuns; at the very least he could preach to them. So he returned occasionally for precisely that purpose. Then his monks began to murmur that he had really returned because he wanted to engage in fleshly lusts with his wife, despite the fact that they were both under a vow of chastity. Naturally, Peter the eunuch found this slander extremely irritating. The persecution did not relent, but grew more intense. There were even attempts on his life. Peter continued to pursue reforms, using the threat of excommunication as a way of restoring order.

And here the story ends, for it is at this point that Abelard is writing the letter to his friend in which he tells it. As I noted before, his telling of it is not the expression of an idle autobiographical itch; he is building an argument on the basis of his own life:

And now, most dear brother in Christ and comrade closest to me in the intimacy of speech, it should suffice for your sorrows and the hardships you have endured that I have written this story of my own misfortunes, amid which I have toiled almost from the cradle. For so, as I said in the beginning of this letter, shall you come to regard your tribulation as nought, or at any rate as little, in comparison with mine, and so shall you bear it more lightly in measure as you regard it as less.

But Peter goes further, arguing on the basis of his own experience that these tribulations are governed by God's good providence:

We should not doubt that even if they are not according to our deserts, at least they serve for the purifying of our souls. And since all things are done in accordance with the divine ordering, let every one of true faith console himself amid all his afflictions with the thought that the great goodness of God permits nothing to be done without reason, and brings to a good end whatsoever may seem to happen wrongfully. Wherefore rightly do all men say: "Thy will be done." And great is the consolation to all lovers of God in the word of the Apostle when he says: "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom. viii. 28). The wise man of old had this in mind when he said in his Proverbs: "There shall no evil happen to the just" (Prov. xii. 21). By this he clearly shows that whosoever grows wrathful for any reason against his sufferings has therein departed from the way of the just, because he may not doubt that these things have happened to him by divine dispensation. Even such are those who yield to their own rather than to the divine purpose, and with hidden desires resist the spirit which echoes in the words, "Thy will be done," thus placing their own will ahead of the will of God.

Our sufferings, Peter thinks, are for our own good. Either they punish us for our sins or they purify our souls. After so many calamities, Peter Abelard has finally learned to say, "They will be done," and recommends the same resignation to us all, insisting that there is a divine purpose, difficult as it may seem at times. And that is the argument of the Historia Calamitatum, the philosophical autobiography of Peter Abelard.

The idea, I think, is this. When we are (rightly) punished, what happens to us is, in itself, an evil. It's something bad; otherwise, it's not punishment. If, however, this evil is not merely an evil but an-evil-used-for-deserved-punishment, then this evil is also a good. Bad in itself, it is contextually good. Now, we can imagine a similar analysis for what Abelard calls 'purification of the soul'. Thus, what we have in the Historia Calamitatum is a philosophical argument based on Abelard's own experiences with misfortune. We could even call it an argument from religious experience; philosophers of religion tend only to talk about religious experience in the context of God's existence, but (of course) religious experience is not so narrowly confined. Abelard uses his own experience as a case-in-point, a demonstration or example of the thesis that the bad things that happen to us are contextually good, being either for our punishment or for our purification. Because of this, we should never regard the evils that befall as mere evils but as evils that punish or purify. Bad in themselves, there is a context in which they are also good. The forcible castration, the persecution, the murder attempts, the condemnations: Abelard wishes to show us that these, which by any measure are rather terrible misfortunes, can all be seen under a description by which, while they remain as terrible as ever to experience, they turn out to be good as well. And the reaction for which such a perspective calls is patience, not complaint. His autobiography is a philosophical argument for this conclusion.


The Historia Calamitatum should perhaps never be read without also reading the (probably authentic, although disputes have occasionally arisen because of the poor quality of the manuscript tradition) correspondence it provoked between Héloïse and Abelard, which includes Héloïse's moving response, the First Letter. For in it she says something of her griefs; how she fears for Abelard in his danger, and how she is afraid, due to his neglect of her, that his love for her was based on desire rather than affection:

And the greater the cause of grief, the greater the remedies of comfort to be applied. Not, however, by another, but by thee thyself, that thou who art alone in the cause of my grief may be alone in the grace of my comfort. For it is thou alone that canst make me sad, canst make me joyful or canst comfort me. And it is thou alone that owest me this great debt, and for this reason above all that I have at once performed all things that you didst order, till that when I could not offend thee in anything I had the strength to lose myself at thy behest.

For to the end Peter Abelard, despite his good qualities, was a self-centered and self-absorbed person; and although he had learned to accept his calamities as a good in the greater scheme of things, he perhaps never truly understood how much his own life had been a calamity for others. We perhaps see something of this in Peter's response in the Second Letter. Héloïse responded in the Third Letter that he had provided her no consolation; how can she be comforted at his calamities, given her love for him? His response in the Fourth Letter is better; I leave it to you to say whether it is genuinely adequate. In any case, whether authentic or not, and whether Abelard's response is adequate or not, it is a useful reminder that the Historia Calamitatum is pulling a double duty as both autobiography and philosophical argument; while it's fairly obvious that the details of the philosophical argument depend on the autobiography, it is perhaps good to be reminded that the philosophical argument is sometimes subtly modifying the autobiography as well.

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