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Calamitatum Of The Individual
In the realm of critical thinking, Abelard undoubtedly ranked highly in his day. He was an expert dialectician, philosopher and theologian, and as a result led a movement towards individual thinking. He traveled a lonely path of individuality, and when his ideas were suppressed, he found different ways to express his individuality. The beginning of his life was marked by extreme personal freedom. As his journey through life continued, he found himself compounded with innumerable restrictions. The role of monk could not change Abelard, and his individuality brought him even greater misfortune. He may forewarn others against the risks of such extreme individualism, but his life clearly shows that Abelard thought his individuality was a natural part of him, a part that was as inseparable as his faith.
From the beginning of Abelard s Story of my Calamities he portrays himself as an individual. The as oldest child in his family his life was intended for a military career, but as he tells us, he abandoned Mars for Minerva, denouncing the popular and glorious profession of arms for that of learning. In writing this he shows his clever and distinct way of thinking by referring to dialectic, the art of examining options or ideas logically, as a weapon of war. “I chose the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war.” (p. 58, ll. 7-9). This is remarkable for the son of a soldier to make such a choice – even renouncing his inheritance – and pursue only intellectual advancement. Leaving home, he traveled off to school in Paris. He was welcomed for a short while, but soon found disfavor with his teacher Champeaux, the grand master of dialectic at the time, by refuting his arguments and proving himself several times to be the superior in debate. This shows Abelard s superior intellect at a very early age. This is no doubt a major reason for his individuality. One of his intellectual rank finds it hard to conform to others standards, and naturally becomes a spectacle when showing his skills. This early conflict caused Abelard to leave and start his own school. Unfortunately, he could not maintain it and had to return home.
Years later he was teaching in Paris again, he tells us how pupils flocked to him from every country in Europe, a statement which is more than corroborated by the authority of his contemporaries. He was, In fact, the idol of Paris, eloquent, vivacious, handsome, full of confidence in his own power to please. As he tells us, the whole world at his feet. In the Story of My Calamities, he confesses that at that period of his life he was filled with vanity and pride. “I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh.” (p.65, ll.13-15). The first part of this statement is a window into what made Abelard an individual. He felt that he did not have to follow the same rules that other people did because he was superior to them. The result was a man that did things differently, for better or for worse. The second part of that statement lead Abelard down his next path of individuality, the first to cause him physical pain. To these faults he attributes his downfall, which was as swift and tragic as was everything, seemingly, in his dazzling career. He tells us in graphic language the tale of how he fell in love with Heloise, niece of Canon Fulbert.
In the midst of his exploits he met Heloise, and in the first time writing about her in The Story of My Calamities he describes her individuality. “…in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the realm.” (p.66 ll.15-17). This shows that Abelard valued individuality highly in others as well as in himself. He arranged an agreement with Heloise s uncle to educate her, and gained access to Heloise. Their relationship encompassed the maximum in personal freedom and experimentation. They had a premarital sexual affair of unparalleled proportion. The whole affair was entirely against the rules of society at the time, and was the culmination of the progressive pattern of freedoms, turned into the abuse of opportunity.
Soon after Abelard s individuality and superiority caught up to him. Heloise became pregnant, and Abelard could not successfully sidestep the ethics of society again. To appease her uncle, Abelard offered him “satisfaction in a form he could never have hoped for: I would marry the girl I had wronged.” (p.70, ll.6-7). In this offer, Abelard showed that he was out of touch, because to marry in secret was really just an insult, and he considered it a complement of the highest magnitude. As a result of this final insult, the uncle could not contain his rage any longer, and had Abelard castrated. This very profoundly caused him pain for the rest of his life.
Then Abelard embarked down his last path, but still as an individual. He made the decision to become a monk. About this decision he writes, “I admit that it was shame and confusion in my remorse and misery that rather than any devout wish for conversion which brought me to seek shelter a monastery cloister.” (p.76, ll.15-17). Abelard is distinguishing himself from others by demonstration that while he made a choice that others had also made, he made the choice for special reasons, reasons that are different from anyone else s.
Of course, as soon as he was positioned in this monastery, he started making waves with the head of the monastery, and doing things not expected of a monk:
“I applied myself mainly to the study of the Scriptures as being more suitable to my present calling, but I did not wholly abandon the instruction of the profane arts in which I was better practiced.” (P. 77, l.31) – “This aroused the envy and hatred of the other heads of school against me.” (P.78, l.5)
It would seem that Abelard s extreme individuality led him into trouble no matter where he turned, or what endeavour he undertook. When he did apply himself to religion, he got himself into more trouble than even he expected. In his most unpopular argument he says that even though there is only one God, God did not beget Himself, even though there is the Son, the Father, and the Holy Ghost. This sets off a multitude of enemies against Abelard, and is the beginning of a very bad reputation for him. He refuses to recant anything he has said, and is forced to his own book burned. This attack on his pride was the one to cause him the most pain.
Abelard is harassed at every step by enemies, and eventually he moved to the wilderness. Abelard lived there in an “oratory of weeds and thatch” (p.88, l. 22), while other his peers surely would have thought of him as uncivil. This shows that Abelard really just doesn t even care what anyone thinks. Soon, many eager student appeared at the wilderness spot, and a school was eventually created. Being an irrepressible individual, Abelard titles the school controversial name of “Paraclete” as a way of reemphasizing his beliefs about God, causing enemies to attack him. He is again forced to leave for fear of injury or death.
His refusal to conform to the certain norms of society was consistent even when his life was endangered. It comes to the point where he states, “But now Satan has put so many obstacles in my path that I can find nowhere to rest, or even to live; a fugitive and wanderer, I carry every where the curse of Cain” (p.102, ll.15-17).
With standing all adversity Abelard proves himself definitely a true individual Through good times and bad, that is maybe his only constant. Even though in closing Abelard says, “This is my experience all the time; a poor monk raised to be an abbot, the more wretched as I have become more wealthy, in order that my example may curb the ambition of those who have deliberately chosen a similar course.” (p.104, ll. 18-21), it is painfully clear that the lone path of individuality was the only route for him.
Betty Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Penguin Books Ltd.: Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England. 1974.
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