Now in Paperback: Abelard in Four Dimensions
by John Marenbon
The cover of John Marenbon’s richly thoughtful study Abelard in Four Dimensions is more apt than it at first appears. It features a detail from a beautiful painting called Heloise and Abelard, done by a noted Victorian painter and philanthropist named Robert Bateman, and although you will recognize that name, you’ll immediately think, “Gosh, I didn’t realize Robert Bateman was so old.” This is because you will have confused the Victorian painter Robert Bateman with the 20th century painter Robert Bateman, hugely successful Canadian wildlife-illustrator. This mental prioritizing, though a bit unfair, is completely understandable: the Canadian Robert Bateman is a contemporary, after all, and his mist-softened birds and beasts are a lot more accessible to modern audiences than the historical-allegorical subjects the Victorian Robert Bateman preferred.
It’s the same way with Peter Abelard, the hyper-charismatic 12th-century scholar and teacher who is the focus of this book by Marenbon, now out in paperback from the University of Notre Dame Press. John Marenbon is the world’s foremost authority on the mind and work of Peter Abelard; he’s the author of a quiet little masterpiece on the subject, 1997’s discussion-resetting The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, toward which Abelard in Four Dimensions acts as both a kind of sequel and a kind of dramatization, an engaging and readable companion volume. But Abelard the philosopher and proto-humanist will always suffer from Robert Bateman-style mental prioritizing; Peter Abelard, the attractive and eloquent teacher who could mesmerize huge audiences and bring alive as never before the arid and pointillist logic-debates of medieval philosophy, will forever be in the shadow of “Abelard and Heloise,” the authors of a series of introspective and oddly compelling devotional letters that have been printed, reprinted, adapted, distorted, and filmed hundreds of times, retold in books, poems, plays, and songs. Say the name “Abelard” to any reasonably well-educated person, and they’ll instantly say “Heloise.” Ask them about Abelard’s philosophical views and they’ll stare at you in blank terror for a moment and then faintly repeat, “Heloise?”
Nevertheless, that other Abelard, the lightning-bolt teacher, the captivating writer and thinker, the dashing rhetorical enemy of some of the finest speakers and writers of his time, is if anything more fascinating than the impetuous and misunderstood lover of Heloise (‘misunderstood’ about as thoroughly as it’s possible to be, since on the strength of this particular misunderstanding he was held down by some henchmen of Heloise’s uncle and castrated). It’s that other Abelard who is the subject of this book, which began life as a series of Conway Lectures the author gave at the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and are here presented in a fleshed-out and fully-annotated form.
That other Abelard, in addition to being a firebrand lecture and logician, was a prolific author, though layman audiences would never know it. Penguin Classics has been reprinting a paperback of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise for over forty years, but the great works of Abelard’s life, his weird, tangled epic Scito te ipsum, or his towering Theologia christiana, or even his melodramatic Historia calamitatum (supposedly the work that first prompted Heloise, by then living in a convent, to write to him and thereby get the whole “Abelard and Heloise” ball rolling), remain untouched by any present-day mainstream publishing house, unknown to popular paperback editions, untaught in classrooms except those lucky enough to be presided over by John Marenbon and a handful of his colleagues. Marenbon has studied these works, and in these pages he presents his insights on them and the historical questions underpinning them, and it’s always interesting to watch:
For all but the last ten years of his life, the major source for the events of Abelard’s life is a letter he wrote early in the 1130s, the Historia calamitatum. Supposedly addressed to an unnamed friend, whom Abelard sets out to console by showing that, however bad his misfortunes, his own have been worse, it seems clearly intended by Abelard, who was a well-known, indeed somewhat notorious figure, to present to his contemporaries the events of his life and his present attitude toward them. Since Abelard wants to appear in the best light, at once a properly repentant sinner and a man much wronged, it is only to be expected hat he will often distort the account of his own views and intentions and perhaps also omit facts that he finds unimportant or awkward. Yet there would be no point in his telling lies about external events themselves, such as when and where he taught, since these facts would have been widely known.
Abelard was well-known in his own day as what we might call an intentionalist, holding that since the thought is father to the deed, it’s the thought that counts, as Marenbon writes:
Abelard held that intentions, rather than acts or their consequences, are the proper object of moral evaluation. He took this view to the extreme, by insisting that, in themselves, acts are indifferent. As he put it in the Collationes: ‘Actions are judged good or evil only according to the root of the intention., but they are all in themselves indifferent.’
Marenbon has mastered Abelard’s historical contexts perhaps better than any scholar before him, but he does a consistently interesting job throughout his latest work of giving readers an Abelard who’s very much still current, and he does it by always remembering that elusive ‘fourth dimension’ of the thinker in his own time:
To understand Abelard as a philosopher, his modern readers need to think about him philosophically, and in consequence they need to begin from ideas and questions familiar to philosophers today. But if they are to understand what Abelard thought and wrote, this philosophical attention needs to be recaptured and redirected by his own lines of discussion, priorities and developing ideas.
Abelard in Four Dimensions accomplishes that recapturing and redirecting with a low-key and thorough mastery. No student of philosophy should be without it.