Chapter 16. The Strength and Weakness of Universities: Abelard

{192} WE can have few more apposite illustrations of at once the strength and weakness of what may be called the University principle, of what it can do and what it cannot, of its power to collect students, and its impotence to preserve and edify them, than the history of the celebrated Abelard. His name is closely associated with the commencement of the University of Paris; and in his popularity and in his reverses, in the criticisms of John of Salisbury on his method, and the protest of St. Bernard against his teaching, we read, as in a pattern specimen, what a University professes in its essence, and what it needs for its "integrity." It is not to be supposed, that I am prepared to show this here, as fully as it might be shown; but it is a subject so pertinent to the general object of these Essays, that it may be useful to devote even a few pages to it.

The oracles of Divine Truth, as time goes on, do but repeat the one message from above which they have ever uttered, since the tongues of fire attested the coming of the Paraclete; still, as time goes on, they utter it with greater force and precision, under diverse forms, with fuller luminousness, and a richer ministration of thought, statement, and argument. They meet the varying wants, and encounter the special resistance of each successive {193} age; and, though prescient of coming errors and their remedy long before, they cautiously reserve their new enunciation of the old Truth, till it is imperatively demanded. And, as it happens in kings' cabinets, that surmises arise, and rumours spread, of what is said in council, and is in course of preparation, and secrets perhaps get wind, true in substance or in direction, though distorted in detail; so too, before the Church speaks, one or other of her forward children speaks for her, and, while he does anticipate to a certain point what she is about to say or enjoin, he states it incorrectly, makes it error instead of truth, and risks his own faith in the process. Indeed, this is actually one source, or rather concomitant, of heresy, the presence of some misshapen, huge, and grotesque foreshadow of true statements which are to come. Speaking under correction, I would apply this remark to the heresy of Tertullian or of Sabellius, which may be considered a reaction from existing errors, and an attempt, presumptuous, and therefore unsuccessful, to meet them with those divinely-appointed correctives which the Church alone can apply, and which she will actually apply, when the proper moment comes. The Gnostics boasted of their intellectual proficiency before the time of St. Irenæus, St. Athanasius, and St. Augustine; yet, when these doctors made their appearance, I suppose they were examples of that knowledge, true and deep, which the Gnostics professed. Apollinaris anticipated the work of St Cyril and the Ephesine Council, and became a heresiarch in consequence; and, to come down to the present times, we may conceive that writers, who have impatiently fallen away from the Church, because she would not adopt their views, would have found, had they but trusted her, and waited, that she knew how to profit by them, though she never could have need to borrow {194} her enunciations from them; for their writings contained, so to speak, truth in the ore; truth which they themselves had not the gift to disengage from its foreign concomitants, and safely use, which she alone could use, which she would use in her destined hour, and which became their stone of stumbling simply because she did not use it faster. Now, applying this principle to the subject before us, I observe, that, supposing Abelard to be the first master of scholastic philosophy, as many seem to hold, we shall have still no difficulty in condemning the author, while we honour the work. To him is only the glory of spoiling by his own self-will what would have been done well and surely under the teaching and guidance of Infallible Authority.

Nothing is more certain, than that some ideas are consistent with one another, and others inconsistent; and, again, that every truth must be consistent with every other truth;—hence, that all truths of whatever kind form into one large body of Truth, by virtue of the consistency between one truth and another, which is a connecting link running through them all. The science which discovers this connection, is logic; and, as it discovers the connection when the truths are given, so, having one truth given and the connecting principle, it is able to go on to ascertain the other. Though all this is obvious, it was realized and acted on in the middle age with a distinctness unknown before; all subjects of knowledge were viewed as parts of one vast system, each with its own place in it, and from knowing one, another was inferred. Not indeed always rightly inferred, because the art might be less perfect than the science, the instrument than the theory and aim; but I am speaking of the principle of the scholastic method, of which Saints and Doctors were the teachers;—such {195} I conceive it to be, and Abelard was the ill-fated logician who had a principal share in bringing it into operation.

Others will consider the great St. Anselm and the school of Bec, as the proper source of Scholasticism; I am not going to discuss the question; any how, Abelard, and not St. Anselm, was the Professor at the University of Paris, and it is of Universities that I am speaking; any how, Abelard illustrates the strength and the weakness of the principle of advertising and communicating knowledge for its own sake, which I have called the University principle, whether he is, or is not, the first of scholastic philosophers or scholastic theologians. And, though I could not speak of him at all without mentioning the subject of his teaching, yet, after all, it is of him and of his teaching itself, that I am going to speak, whatever that might be which he actually taught.

Since Charlemagne's time the schools of Paris had continued, with various fortunes, faithful, as far as the age admitted, to the old learning, as other schools elsewhere, when, in the eleventh century, the famous school of Bec began to develop the powers of logic in forming a new philosophy. As the inductive method rose in Bacon, so did the logical in the medieval schoolmen; and Aristotle, the most comprehensive intellect of Antiquity, as the one who had conceived the sublime idea of mapping the whole field of knowledge, and subjecting all things to one profound analysis, became the presiding master in their lecture halls. It was at the end of the eleventh century that William of Champeaux founded the celebrated Abbey of St. Victor under the shadow of St. Geneviève, and by the dialectic methods which he introduced into his teaching, has a claim to have commenced the work of forming the University out of the Schools of Paris. For one at least, out of the two {196} characteristics of a University, he prepared the way; for, though the schools were not public till after his day, so as to admit laymen as well as clerks, and foreigners as well as natives of the place, yet the logical principle of constructing all sciences into one system, implied of course a recognition of all the sciences that are comprehended in it. Of this William of Champeax, or de Campellis, Abelard was the pupil; he had studied the dialectic art elsewhere, before he offered himself for his instructions; and, in the course of two years, when as yet he had only reached the age of twenty-two, he made such progress, as to be capable of quarrelling with his master, and setting up a school for himself.

This school of Abelard was first situated in the royal castle of Melun; then at Corbeil, which was nearer to Paris, and where he attracted to himself a considerable number of hearers. His labours had an injurious effect upon his health; and at length he withdrew for two years to his native Britanny. Whether other causes cooperated in this withdrawal, I think, is not known; but, at the end of the two years, we find him returning to Paris, and renewing his attendance on the lectures of William, who was by this time a monk. Rhetoric was the subject of the lectures he now heard; and after awhile the pupil repeated with greater force and success his former treatment of his teacher. He held a public disputation with him, got the victory, and reduced him to silence. The school of William was deserted, and its master himself became an instance of the vicissitudes incident to that gladiatorial wisdom (as I may style it) which was then eclipsing the old Benedictine method of the Seven Arts. After a time, Abelard found his reputation sufficient to warrant him in setting up a school himself on Mount St. Geneviève; whence he waged {197} incessant war against the unwearied logician, who by this time had rallied his forces to repel the young and ungrateful adventurer who had raised his hand against him.

Great things are done by devotion to one idea; there is one class of geniuses, who would never be what they are, could they grasp a second. The calm philosophical mind, which contemplates parts without denying the whole, and the whole without confusing the parts, is notoriously indisposed to action; whereas single and simple views arrest the mind, and hurry it on to carry them out. Thus, men of one idea and nothing more, whatever their merit, must be to a certain extent narrow-minded; and it is not wonderful that Abelard's devotion to the new philosophy made him undervalue the Seven Arts out of which it had grown. He felt it impossible so to honour what was now to be added, as not to dishonour what existed before. He would not suffer the Arts to have their own use, since he had found a new instrument for a new purpose. So he opposed the reading of the Classics. The monks had opposed them before him; but this is little to our present purpose; it was the duty of men, who abjured the gifts of this world on the principle of mortification, to deny themselves literature just as they would deny themselves particular friendships or figured music. The doctrine which Abelard introduced and represents was founded on a different basis. He did not recognize in the poets of antiquity any other merit than that of furnishing an assemblage of elegant phrases and figures; and accordingly he asks why they should not be banished from the city of God, since Plato banished them from his own commonwealth. The animus of this language is clear, when we turn to the pages of John of Salisbury and Peter of Blois, who were champions of the {198} ancient learning. We find them complaining that the careful "getting up," as we now call it, "of books," was growing out of fashion. Youths once studied critically the text of poets or philosophers; they got them by heart; they analyzed their arguments; they noted down their fallacies; they were closely examined in the matters which had been brought before them in lecture; they composed. But now, another teaching was coming in; students were promised truth in a nutshell; they intended to get possession of the sum-total of philosophy in less than two or three years; and facts were apprehended, not in their substance and details, by means of living and, as it were, personal documents, but in dead abstracts and tables. Such were the reclamations to which the new Logic gave occasion.

These, however, are lesser matters; we have a graver quarrel with Abelard than that of his undervaluing the Classics. As I have said, my main object here is not what he taught, but why and how, and how he lived. Now it is certain, his activity was stimulated by nothing very high, but something very earthly and sordid. I grant there is nothing morally wrong in the mere desire to rise in the world, though Ambition and it are twin sisters. I should not blame Abelard merely for wishing to distinguish himself at the University; but when he makes the ecclesiastical state the instrument of his ambition, mixes up spiritual matters with temporal, and aims at a bishopric through the medium of his logic, he joins together things incompatible, and cannot complain of being censured. It is he himself, who tells us, unless my memory plays me false, that the circumstance of William of Champeaux being promoted to the see of Chalons, was an incentive to him to pursue the same path with an eye to the same reward. Accordingly, we {199} next hear of his attending the theological lectures of a certain master of William's, named Anselm, an old man, whose school was situated at Laon. This person had a great reputation in his day; John of Salisbury, speaking of him in the next generation, calls him the doctor of doctors; he had been attended by students from Italy and Germany; but the age had advanced since he was in his prime, and Abelard was disappointed in a teacher, who had been good enough for William. He left Anselm, and began to lecture on the prophet Ezekiel on his own resources.

Now came the time of his great popularity, which was more than his head could bear; which dizzied him, took him off his legs, and whirled him to his destruction. I spoke in my foregoing Chapter of those three qualities of true wisdom, which a University, absolutely and nakedly considered, apart from the safeguards which constitute its integrity, is sure to compromise. Wisdom, says the inspired writer, is desursum, is pudica, is pacifica, "from above, chaste, peaceable." We have already seen enough of Abelard's career to understand that his wisdom, instead of being "pacifica," was ambitious and contentious. An Apostle speaks of the tongue both as a blessing and as a curse. It may be the beginning of a fire, he says, a "Universitas iniquitatis;" and alas! such did it become in the mouth of the gifted Abelard. His eloquence was wonderful; he dazzled his contemporaries, says Fulco, "by the brilliancy of his genius, the sweetness of his eloquence, the ready flow of his language, and the subtlety of his knowledge." People came to him from all quarters;—from Rome, in spite of mountains and robbers; from England, in spite of the sea; from Flanders and Germany; from Normandy, and the remote districts of France; from Angers and {200} Poitiers; from Navarre by the Pyrenees, and from Spain, besides the students of Paris itself; and among those, who sought his instructions now or afterwards, were the great luminaries of the schools in the next generation. Such were Peter of Poitiers, Peter Lombard, John of Salisbury, Arnold of Brescia, Ivo, and Geoffrey of Auxerre. It was too much for a weak head and heart, weak in spite of intellectual power; for vanity will possess the head, and worldliness the heart, of the man, however gifted, whose wisdom is not an effluence of the Eternal Light.

True wisdom is not only "pacifica," it is "pudica;" chaste as well as peaceable. Alas for Abelard! a second disgrace, deeper than ambition, is his portion now. The strong man,—the Samson of the schools in the wildness of his course, the Solomon in the fascination of his genius,—shivers and falls before the temptation which overcame that mighty pair, the most excelling in body and in mind.

Desire of wine, and all delicious drinks,
Which many a famous warrior overturns,
Thou couldst repress; nor did the dancing ruby
Sparkling outpour'd, the flavour or the smell,
Or taste that cheers the heart of gods and men,
Allure thee from the cool crystalline stream.
But what avail'd this temperance, not complete,
Against another object more enticing?
What boots it at one gate to make defence,
And at another to let in the foe,
Effeminately vanquished?

In a time when Colleges were unknown, and the young scholar was commonly thrown upon the dubious hospitality of a great city, Abelard might even be thought careful of his honour, that he went to lodge with an old ecclesiastic, had not his host's niece Eloisa lived with him. A more subtle snare was laid for him than {201} beset the heroic champion or the all-accomplished monarch of Israel; for sensuality came upon him under the guise of intellect, and it was the high mental endowments of Eloisa, who became his pupil, speaking in her eyes, and thrilling on her tongue, which were the intoxication and the delirium of Abelard ...

He is judged, he is punished;—but he is not reclaimed. True wisdom is not only "pacifica," not only "pudica;" it is "desursum" too. It is a revelation from above; it knows heresy as little as it knows strife or licence. But Abelard, who had run the career of earthly wisdom in two of its phases, now is destined to represent its third.

It is at the famous Abbey of St. Denis that we find him languidly rising from his dream of sin, and the suffering that followed. The bad dream is cleared away; clerks come to him, and the Abbot,—begging him to lecture still, for love now, as for gain before. Once more his school is thronged by the curious and the studious; but at length a rumour spreads, that Abelard is exploring the way to some novel view on the subject of the Most Holy Trinity. Wherefore is hardly clear, but about the same time the monks drive him away from the place of refuge he had gained. He betakes himself to a cell, and thither his pupils follow him. "I betook myself to a certain cell," he says, "wishing to give myself to the schools, as was my custom. Thither so great a multitude of scholars flocked, that there was neither room to house them, nor fruits of the earth to feed them," such was the enthusiasm of the student, such the attraction of the teacher, when knowledge was advertised freely, and its market opened.

Next he is in Champagne, in a delightful solitude near Nogent in the diocese of Troyes. Here the same phenomenon presents itself, which is so frequent in his {202} history. "When the scholars knew it," he says, "they began to crowd thither from all parts; and, leaving other cities and strongholds, they were content to dwell in the wilderness. For spacious houses they framed for themselves small tabernacles, and for delicate food they put up with wild herbs. Secretly did they whisper among themselves: 'Behold, the whole world is gone out after him!' When, however, my Oratory could not hold even a moderate portion of them, then they were forced to enlarge it, and to build it up with wood and stone." He called the place his Paraclete, because it had been his consolation.

I do not know why I need follow his life further. I have said enough to illustrate the course of one, who may be called the founder, or at least the first great name, of the Parisian Schools. After the events I have mentioned he is found in Lower Britanny; then, being about forty-eight years of age, in the Abbey of St. Gildas; then with St. Geneviève again. He had to sustain the fiery eloquence of a Saint, directed against his novelties; he had to present himself before two Councils; he had to burn the book which had given offence to pious ears. His last two years were spent at Clugni on his way to Rome. The home of the weary, the hospital of the sick, the school of the erring, the tribunal of the penitent, is the city of St. Peter. He did not reach it; but he is said to have retracted what had given scandal in his writings, and to have made an edifying end. He died at the age of sixty-two, in the year of grace 1142.

In reviewing his career, the career of so great an intellect so miserably thrown away, we are reminded of the famous words of the dying scholar and jurist, which are a lesson to us all: "Heu, vitam perdidi, operosè nihil agenda." A happier lot be ours!

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