Kevin A. McMahon (Saint Anselm College)
The Saint Anselm Journal, 6.2 (Spring 2009)
Peter Abelard is perhaps best known for having taken the role of master in the schools to celebrity status. Yet dramatically public as his life was, the analyses he develops in his commentary on the letter to the Romans (c. 1134) and in the Ethica (c. 1138) of moral action, sacramental efficacy, even the atonement, center on interior subjectivity. The rightness of an act is determined in the first instance by the agent’s intention, and ultimately by God’s. The sacraments, such as baptism and penance, represent what God is accomplishing through his relation to the recipient, independently of the actions themselves or the work of the priest. Further, just as sin involves a turning away from God, so our redemption consists in the love aroused in us by the sacrifice of his Son. All of this displays Abelard’s capacity for analytic nuance; but it foreshadows, too, the shift that will divide Christian theology in the sixteenth century.
Of the many individuals in the twelfth century whose fame in their own time has reached down to ours, figures like Thomas Becket, Frederick Barbarossa and Bernard of Clairvaux, there is no one whose fame surpassed that of Master Peter Abelard and no figure more public. Indeed, fame was something Abelard coveted, something he consciously built. It was for the sake of fame, he tells us in his History of My Calamities, that he first took up arms and entered the lists of dialectics; and, having defeated all comers in this, he then undertook the even more noble challenge of theology. It was a wound, he writes, far more grievous than what he had received at the hands of Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, when he was forced to publicly burn his book, On the Unity and Trinity of God, at the council of Soissons. Given this penchant for life in the public eye, it is all the more interesting that Abelard’s theology is marked by a consistent emphasis on what is private.