Natalia Jakubecki

Implicaciones políticas
del proyecto ético abelardiano (2014)

Statue of Peter Abelard at Louvre Palace - Jules Cavelier
Statue of Peter Abelard at Louvre Palace, Jules Cavelier

Natalia Jakubecki is a professor of History of Medieval Philosophy at Universidad del Salvador and Universidad de Buenos Aires, and a CONICET researcher. Besides publishing numerous academic papers, she has translated some Latin authors into Spanish. Her research is based on thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Gilbert Crispin. Professor Jakubecki is likewise the editorial secretary of Patristica et Mediaevalia, the first journal of Medieval Philosophy studies in Latin America.

In addition to her research, she also stands out for her efforts in organising and participating in academic meetings and lectures. I had the opportunity to listen to her more than once, and it is worth noting her exceptional ability to transmit her work in an utterly dynamic and entertaining way. For all that, and because her work deserves to be better known, I have long wished to translate a text by Professor Jakubecki, and nothing better than an article on Peter Abelard. For anyone who wishes to read more of her works, I recommend visiting her profile (

“Implicaciones Políticas del proyecto ético abelardiano” was originally published in NUEVO PENSAMIENTO. Revista de Filosofía del Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas de la Facultad de Filosofía de la Universidad del Salvador, área San Miguel. ISSN 1853-7596. Volumen IV, Año 4, 2014.

Political implications of Abelard’s ethical project

Although Peter Abelard never wrote any explicitly political texts, it is hardly conceivable that an urban philosopher —and especially one of his stature— would stand completely aside from his own socio-political atmosphere. On the contrary, his ethical theory, mainly developed in two works (Scito te ipsum and Dialogus inter philosophum, iudaeum et christianum), proves to have serious bearings on these matters. In fact, had he developed such ideas in full, Abelard might have set himself against an ecclesiastical power which, in his eyes, was corrupt; a power he had confronted long ago. And this is precisely what we intend to develop here.

Given the scope of this article, we shall only confine ourselves to the two aforementioned works: the first, because it is where the author addresses these problems more clearly; the second, because it adds to certain notions found in the former. We will thereby study four problems here: 1) the distinction between the human and the divine realms; 2) the positive conception of justice; 3) his position on the plenitudo potestatis; and 4) the consequences for the sacrament of Reconciliation.

I. Introduction

It is well known that every human being is permeated by his own time. No one, not even the boldest man, is capable of thinking outside of historically and geographically imposed structures and limits. And Peter Abelard, despite being the most insightful philosopher of his time, was no exception.

In the first half of the 12th century, Western Europe experienced two kinds of political events that would mark this author’s life and thought. The first of them was the larger-scale conflict which historians call the “Investiture Controversy”: a dispute between imperial and papal power that was formally settled by the 1122 Concordat of Worms, but which would take some centuries more to become solved in practice.

The second event places us right in the cities, whose rapid development had begun by the end of the previous century. A series of purportedly isolated events (such as the wars of the Cambrai archdiocese against its feudal lord, bishop Gerard II, or the autonomy achieved by the Cologne merchants after expelling the city’s Archbishop in 1112) are in fact the result of a new political rationale originated in the changes entailed by the new geographical distribution and a flourishing economy.

We should also add a no less important and much more concrete fact: Abelard’s own biography. Although our author’s life was marked by all kinds of misfortune, three moments are particularly relevant to the issue under discussion. Two of these occurred in parallel: his conflicting situation as abbot of the Saint-Gildas religious community, and the difficulties experienced at the same time by the nuns of the Paraclete, the sanctuary he had founded and entrusted to Heloise’s direction. This implies, as Bacigalupo rightly notes, that the two communities the Palatine knew best, and in which he was directly or indirectly involved, were in danger.2 The third is the too well-known dispute he held with Bernard of Clairvaux, which, as we shall see, had a chiefly political motivation.

It is hardly conceivable, then, that an urban philosopher —and especially one of Abelard’s stature— would stand completely aside from his own socio-political atmosphere. Thus, while certainly none of his surviving works —which, we suppose, comprise the entirety of his writings— are strictly political in character, we cannot say that the Magister developed his ethical theory without giving any thought to these affairs.

If Peter Abelard has gained a place in the history of Philosophy, it is first and foremost owing to his logical position on the Medieval dispute par excellence: the attempt to explain the meaning and designation of universal terms. In the second place, but no less important, it is due to his innovative ethical proposal, where we can unquestionably trace some serious political implications. Had Abelard developed them in full,  such ideas would have set him not necessarily on the empire’s side, but certainly against an ecclesiastical power that was corrupt in his eyes; indeed, a power he had confronted long ago.

Now, given the scope of this article, we cannot provide a detailed analysis of each of his writings. For this reason, we shall confine ourselves to the two strictly ethical works: the Ethica seu liber Scito te ipsum, and the Dialogus inter philosophum, iudaeum et christianum;3 the first, because it is where the author addresses these problems more clearly; the second, because it adds to certain notions of the former.

According to scholarship, the Scito te ipsum can be divided into two main parts: the first part goes from the foreword until Chapter XVI and is focused on the knowledge and description of sin. Along these chapters, we can find one of the first historical attempts to separate ethics from law, in what historians currently call the “realm-distinction thesis,” and whose principles are based on the moral indifference of actions, on the one hand, and the conception of justice developed in the Dialogus, on the other hand. The second part of the work, in turn, comprises Chapters XVIII through XXIX, and deals with the different ways to obtain forgiveness for sins and, hence, reconciliation with God, which are: contrition, confession, and satisfaction or penance. Now explicitly and somewhat bluntly, Abelard not only questions one of the pillars of the Church’s power, i.e., confession, but also gives his views on the notion of plenitudo potestatis.4

We will thereby study four problems here:

– The distinction between the human and the divine realms

– The positive conception of justice

– His position on the plenitudo potestatis

– The consequences for the sacrament of Reconciliation

Natalia Jakubecki
Natalia Jakubecki

I.I. General remarks on Abelard’s moral theory

As already noted in the introduction, Abelard’s ethical proposal is absolutely novel for a tradition which, after Augustine, had hardly attended to developing an articulate moral theory. Indeed, until then, this domain had been oriented by a virtue ethics strictly linked to action and, thus, to the very exteriority presupposed by every act. On the one hand, this accounted for a certain realism in the ontological sphere and, on the other hand, for a heteronomous conception in the moral sphere: the good and the evil were “something” which had to be attained or avoided, while human beings were only required to follow concrete rules stipulated without any regard to the context of such action. These rules were simply those commands of the divine will which no one but the Fathers and the Church hierarchs could fathom, through an oft-contradictory biblical exegesis. This was most eloquently reflected in penitential books, which contained instructions for priests, specifying a certain satisfaction for each sinful and/or criminal action which, in the end, seemed to be the same.5

In this context, the Abelardian theory is put forward as the first High Medieval ethical reflection of an eminently philosophical character. For Abelard, the rules that govern man’s moral conduct can only be derived from the agent’s inwardness,6 insofar as the good-evil duality is determined wholly independently of concrete actions.

I.II. The role of actions

The Palatine master considered that sin occurs in the very instant when the will agrees to do what is illicit, or not to cease to do it. This entails that actions, regarded in themselves, are stripped from any moral connotation. On this point, Abelard makes no positive construction, as the action’s neutrality is barely a consequence of his definition of sin. In any case, we should reconstruct the criticisms anticipated by the author himself, as therein he points to the reasons why actions should not be taken as moral standards.7

The first possible objection is that, even accepting that sin occurs by the soul’s consent, perpetrating the action is understood as an aggravating factor, given that the sinful act “is followed by a certain delight.”8 However, Abelard makes clear that this can only be asserted if we presuppose that sin consists in carnal delight. But, in the first place, these imaginary objectors have already admitted that sin does not lie in carnal delight but in the soul’s consent. In the second place, it would follow that no one who experienced some carnal delight would be free from sin, as “not even the spouses themselves would be free from sin when enjoying the carnal delight that is licit for them, nor someone who feeds on a delicious food of his own harvest.”9

Otherwise, we should admit a malicious God who created us in such a way that sinning would be unavoidable even when doing what is licit, for we cannot avoid delighting in these things. Furthermore, Abelard adds that committing some illicit act cannot possibly aggravate the sin already born in us, since the soul, which is where it resides, cannot be tainted by anything that is not its own. Hence, the flesh can by no means affect the animus10 if the latter has not assented to it.

Another objection he could pre-empt was the following: given that the same action is considered to be potentially licit or illicit depending on when it is performed —for instance, coitus with the same person before or after marriage—, sin would consist in committing such action at that moment, when it is illicit for us. For Abelard, this simply shows that actions, considered in themselves, are neutral. Our act, then, is not qualified by the action itself but by what knowledge we might have about its circumstances, as well as the intention with which it is performed. Such is the case of whoever marries his sister unknowingly: incest is certainly illicit, but lack of knowledge regarding its circumstances necessarily excuses the spouses.

He also adds that both licit and illicit actions can be equally committed by good and evil people. The example he gave might have been quite controversial but undoubtedly convincing:

“…in the same act whereby we see God the Father and Jesus Christ, we see Judas, the traitor, as well. The Son gave himself and was likewise handed over both by God the Father and the traitor. […] Thus, the traitor did the same as God…”11

Although the action of handing over Jesus was performed at the same time by Jesus himself, God, and Judas, only Judas did something wrong, since the intention that motivated the same action was evil; and although Judas willed the same as God —handing over Jesus—, he did not will it as God did, that is, conforming his will to the divine will.12

Now, it could be objected that “handing over” someone is an action that is not always licit; but some actions, however, cannot be illicit in any way, and so it would be impossible to commit sin whenever performing them. Such is the case of hanging a criminal. Yet even then may sin be committed: one executioner might act moved by a desire for justice; another one, by hatred and old grudges.13 This proves conclusively that the same action, regardless of its permissibility, must be judged morally on the basis of the intention that stirred it.

The last objection takes the opposite direction by arguing that good works add to the goodness of good intentions. However, we could imagine two people with the same good intention to build houses for the poor. One of them achieves what charity has inspired him to do, while the other is thwarted in his attempt because the money assigned for such work has been stolen. It is evident that carrying out the action cannot be that which adds merit, for the conclusion would be that men could be made better by mere abundance of riches —as a means to materialise charity through works— or sheer good luck.

This is why Abelard dedicates Chapter X to explaining that “only the goodness of the intention is taken into account.”14 There he notes that, just like an evil action adds nothing to previously incurred guilt, neither does a good action —which can only be so considered if it is born out of a good intention— add good to goodness.

Having determined the moral irrelevance of actions, the sole basis of morality cannot be attributed to anything but intention.

Abelard and his Pupil Heloise - Edmund Blair Leighton
Abelard and his Pupil Heloise, Edmund Blair Leighton

II. The distinction between the human and the divine realms

If the act’s exteriority is irrelevant, if only God is capable of righteously examining man’s kidneys and heart,15 the question becomes unavoidable: how should we behave here, in the temporal realm; here, in the community life where most of man’s actions have an impact on someone else?

We have presented in some detail the so-called thesis of indifferent acts, as it inevitably entails a second thesis, viz., the distinct realms. This is the first of the outrightly political consequences derived from Abelardian ethical thought and will answer the question under discussion.16

To better explain its meaning, let us take the example given by Abelard himself:

“Imagine, for instance, a poor woman, the mother of a suckling child, who does not have enough clothes either for the baby in the cradle or for herself. Pitying the little one, she holds him against herself to warm him up with her own rags, to the point that, led by her natural inclinations, she unwillingly suffocates whom she hugs so lovingly.”17

Considered as a whole, we cannot say that such action is good. We would all agree that she was reckless and, indeed, harmful. However, from the standpoint of the woman’s intention, we could not state by any means that she has committed sin, i.e., that she has willed to do what is not licit, for the intention that guided her action was undoubtedly good. Here, the realm distinction proposed by the Palatine becomes clear, as there are two perfectly distinguishable levels of attribution.

Abelard, following the logical evolution of his definition of sin, admits that in the effort to qualify an action in moral terms the judgment of men is ineffectual, since no one but the agent himself and God can measure the true guilt of man’s behaviour. Consequently, we find a first level, the moral, which remains entirely out of human jurisdiction. This is the divine realm, whose ruling operates on morality and, hence, on the attainment of eternal bliss.

But we said that, regardless of the woman’s intention, her action was in fact harmful to someone else. Such recklessness must be evaluated according to a second level of attribution: the political level. Thus, the woman in our example must be judged by a human magistrate according to the seriousness of her action; a fair punishment should be imposed if only by way of example and deterrence, both for herself and for anyone else.

Thereby, although actions are morally indifferent, they deserve to be punished, but only following a practical coexistence criterion which aims, in any case, not at salvation but at the common good.

“We are incapable of judging such things; that is why we fundamentally limit our judgments to our works or actions, and we do not punish guilt but rather works. And thereby we seek to vindicate not so much what is harmful to each one’s soul, but what is detrimental to others.”18

Hence, when some action puts other community members at risk, whether by harming them directly or by setting a bad example, it must be punished wholly independently of the intention that precedes it. But a punishment that is always and in every case political should not be taken for a moral one. A peaceful coexistence depends not on the agent’s intentions —which are inscrutable to us— but on effectively obeying the law.

For Abelard, the public sphere is the environment where basic peace and justice conditions should be guaranteed for individuals to lead a Christian life. This can be achieved through a sound political reason with justice at its foundation.

III. Positive conception of justice

This leads us to formulate another question: what kind of justice is proper to the human realm? To answer this, we must pay attention to the words pronounced by the Dialogus‘s philosopher as he devises a taxonomy of virtues. Speaking about the virtue of justice, he says:

“Philosopher: … We can distinguish, indeed, between a natural justice (ius naturale) and a positive justice (ius positivum). Natural justice is properly that which reason itself, being inside each of us by nature, induces us to obey, and thereby remains solid in us all, such as worshipping God, loving our parents, or punishing the wicked. Abiding by these natural precepts is so necessary for everyone that no merit can be obtained without them.”19

Given the specified characteristics, he is clearly alluding here to what he calls lex naturalis elsewhere in the text.20 According to the philosopher, then, in the natural order all men have the same precepts dictated by reason. These are, in a way, analogous to the commandments given to Moses. Now, on the one hand, their fulfilment is a necessary condition to acquire moral merit; on the other hand, they seem to govern exclusively the sphere of morality, that is, they do not command anything that pertains to other spheres of life.

And the argument continues:

“Philosopher: … Positive justice, in turn, is that which men have instituted to reinforce everyone’s usefulness and honesty more safely, or else to improve them. […] Thus, we are also obliged to respect, along with natural law, the laws laid down by those among whom we live.”21

Through the philosopher, Abelard distinguishes again between morality and law, as he had done previously in the Scito te ipsum: the former is given to us naturally; the latter, instead, by human institutions. Hence, the function of positive justice —which, being coercive, we are “obliged to respect”— is to reinforce and supplement what is already prescribed by natural law. In clear contrast to natural justice, positive justice bears upon the exterior sphere of strictly civil legality, while the former intervenes in the inner sphere of conscience. Positive law, then, would more properly tend to preserve a social rather than individual order which, in any case, should reflect the divine order as much as possible. Even so, we know that the human and the divine realms do not always fully coincide.

“…All those whose actions may cause common downfall or public misfortune shall be punished more severely. […] For that reason, the greater scandal caused to men deserves the greater punishment, even when such scandal is preceded by lesser guilt […] And not because the preceding guilt is measured according to equitable justice, but because we attend to the harm that might befall therefrom if the punishment were less severe”.22

Still, we agree with Bacigalupo on affirming that while political rationale is shown to be subsidiary to moral rationale, rendering both laws perfectly harmonious de iure, it is necessary to delimit their respective jurisdictions de facto.23

Moreover, Abelard adds that we must respect “the laws laid down by those among whom we live (quibusque vivendum)”. This means that if an action contravenes the law of the people, it ought to be punished solely in the political sphere. This clarification is of the utmost importance to understand what he holds here:

“Philosopher: … Likewise, those same laws you call ‘divine’, that is, the Old Testament and the New, transmit certain natural precepts you call ‘moral’, such as loving God and one’s neighbour, not committing adultery, not stealing, not killing; others, in fact, could be called ‘positive laws’: among them, those linked to particular circumstances, such as circumcision for the Jews and baptism for you, as well as many other precepts you call ‘symbolic’”.24

According to this brief excerpt, revealed laws include two kinds of components: on the one hand, those precepts called moral, which are none other than natural law; on the other hand, a series of additional symbolic precepts comparable to positive law, which are binding only for those who are under their purview, i.e., quibusquem vivendum. In a sense, then, these laws would function as a sort of hinge between natural and positive law, although the Dialogus philosopher notably places them within the latter.25

Ultimately, speaking in modern terms, while in the moral sphere Abelard adheres to formal ethics —and hence aprioristic, but not completely autonomous26—, in the political sphere he presents a material, even outright consequentialist view.

IV. Plenitudo potestatis

The sole effect of this strict distinction between realms is the separation of morality and law, but this should not be taken as a motion to separate State and Church affairs. Or should it?

Any insightful reader of the Abelardian writings will note an open suggestion to diminish the latter’s jurisdiction. William of Saint-Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux understood this too well. Although the scandal roused by Abelard owes first and foremost to a methodological issue —the systematic use of dialectic in matters of faith—, the most alarming and precise consequence is the split in jurisdictions, as we shall see now. Representing the Papal policy, Bernard and William found it inconceivable that humankind’s salvation should not depend on the Church’s intervention in temporal affairs, since it is here in the world where the soul becomes guilty and punishable. It was imperative, then, to transform the earthly sphere into an extension of the heavenly realm. But by setting morality apart from law, the claim that ecclesiastical authority should govern both spiritual and public life became untenable.

In any case, even admitting such a vexing consequence, the authority over spiritual life would still be an eminently ecclesiastical privilege. The problem is that Abelard could not restrain his quill in time; in the last chapter of the Scito te ipsum, he attempts to strip away even that privilege.

Plenitudo potestatis is the formula that designates a passage in Matthew XVI, 18-19, where Christ himself grants Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, so that “whatsoever” (quodcumque) he should bind or loose on earth shall also be bound or loosed in Heaven. As Ullman points out, this quodcumque covers everything and every Christian, rendering the Petrine power boundless.27 In the 5th century, during the Council of Chalcedon, Leo I’s papacy made this potestas extensive to every heir of Peter—first and foremost, the Pope. Although the successor did not inherit either the merits or the personal characteristics of the first pontiff, he did become the legitimate heir to the official authority and functions granted by Christ, definitely validating the powers of Christ, Peter, and the Pope. By derivation, this authority was gradually passed on to bishops as well.

Now, young Abelard had witnessed what may have been the fiercest political quarrel in the Middle Ages: the conflict led by Henry IV and Gregory VII, known as the Investiture Controversy. And though formally settled in 1122 by the Concordat of Worms, its almost novelesque developments were still latent in the atmosphere.28

We should also add that, regardless of his theory, Abelard was openly distrustful of an ecclesiastical hierarchy which, among other things, had condemned one of his theological works, De unitate et trinitate divina, in 1121. This apprehension is patent in many passages of the Scito te ipsum, for instance: “Some priests who deceive their subjects are led not so much by error as by greed, as when they impose or absolve some penance as satisfaction in exchange for money.”29 And in the Dialogus he writes very frankly: “Roman pontiffs and synods also issue new decrees or agree to some exemptions each day, and accordingly you might think that what had been hitherto licit has now become illicit, or vice versa…”30

Consequently, although Abelard never developed an articulate theory on the issue, his unfaltering answer to the old question of the inheritance of the Kingdom keys is that Peter’s authority does not belong to prelates:

“Does God impose His punishment following the whim of the bishop who punishes more severely than is due, and vice versa, considering that the cause’s justice is to be sought above and beyond the will of men? […] It seems, then, that what the Lord told the Apostles: ‘Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,’ was said referring to the Apostles themselves, not the bishops in general.”31

In fact, this was one of the theses condemned during the Council of Sens. For Abelard, the correct exegesis of the Keys passage is that of Jerome. The power directly bequeathed to Peter is only meant for the Apostles. In turn, what the rest of the priests, bishops, and even the Pope have is a ministry whereby they may know clearly who shall be condemned or not by the one true judge: God. He makes clear that they have “…a judgement whereby they can discern who shall be bound and who shall be loosed by God, distinguishing the pure from the impure.”32

In any case, continues the Palatine —now following Origen—, if this power has been effectively granted by the Lord, it belongs only to those who imitate Peter in the dignity of his merits, not to all those who barely occupy his sublime chair.33

Be that as it may, the point of interest here is that if his moral doctrine had already made clear that the Church has no jurisdiction whatsoever over temporal issues, his position on this passage also reduces whatever authority it might have over spiritual affairs. We can easily understand the motives behind Bernard’s harsh reaction against Abelard: the edge of the celestial sword was being questioned by the dialectician.34

Heloise et Abeilard - Jean-Baptiste Goyet - 1830
Héloïse et Abailard, Jean-Baptiste Goyet

 V. Confession and penance

Contrition, confession, and satisfaction are the three parts that comprise the intricate sacrament of Reconciliation. Chenu rightly states that this sacrament’s complexity, coupled with its obligatory status, not only granted the Church an enormous power but also barred, in a way, “the emancipation of conscience and personal judgement.”35 However, the Abelardian theory would make a substantial contribution to such emancipation, with the previously discussed issues bearing directly on this particular point.

Let us sum up. In the moral sphere, Abelard has shown that the intentio animi,36 the sole strictly meritorious instance, can only be examined by God. This is somehow reflected in his position on the plenitudo potestatis conflict: at most, the Church can know what is praiseworthy and what is not, and thus advise on the satisfaction it sees fit for reconciliation. What the Church cannot do with causal efficacy is absolving; even less when the prelate does not imitate Peter’s merits, something apparently exceptional in those times, considering Abelard’s harsh, insistent declarations: “And since often the priests are no less greedy than the common folk […], many are seduced by the covetousness of the priests who offer vain security”.37 Or else: “…Among the prelates of the Church, there are many who are neither benign nor discreet. On the contrary, they are quick to discover the sins of those who make their confession”.38 Furthermore: “Ignorant of what is established in the canons, neither are they moderate in imposing penance.”39

Before a Church corrupted by ignorance, greed and even indiscretion, incapable of effectively forgiving sins; before an ethical theory that promotes self-knowledge, that is, knowing both one’s own intentions and the moral contents of one’s own conscience —as sin consists precisely in deciding against them40—; it seems fitting to ask, then, what use there is in such an essential step of Reconciliation as is confession. The answer is clear: little, if any, since “taking this into consideration, many could defer or omit confession altogether without sin.”41 Indeed, the Church’s mediation no longer seems entirely necessary, given that, referring to sinners, the Palatine affirms: “…their repentance had previously reconciled them with God, that is, before coming to make their confession and receiving a fitting penance.”42

Hence, contrition would be the true instance of the soul’s reconciliation with God, precisely because the guilt of sin resides there, not in exterior works. In other words, just like nothing can taint the soul that is not its own, so the soul is redeemed by repentance and the pain it causes, not by imposing some external punishment:

“Philosopher: … What should be understood by the expression ‘forgiveness of sins’, if not that the punishment, whether corporal or capital, is forgiven? And yet, it is true that the soul’s sin, which is the will’s fault, is soon forgiven, and no longer leads in any way to damnation, when the heart is contrite and there is true repentance… ”43

Thus, we see Abelard reinforcing the introspective moment of Reconciliation, while diminishing the effective act of confession and even penitence, though not dismissing them altogether. We should not believe him to have been so bold or reckless. He is not fully exempting us from confession: bearing in mind the previous caveats, he insists on their functionality, if only to delay the temptation of sin due to the shame caused by having to recount our sins to someone else.44 Besides, as we have pointed out, it is always good to do the penance imposed by the priest, regardless of the moral merits of whoever has imparted it.45

But then, in terms of penance, should we not infer that actions are not wholly indifferent after all, as they seemed to be? This is what De Vecchi holds,46 but I do not agree in full. It is true that satisfaction is not simply cancelled by repentance but, in any case, this is a necessary consequence; it is the exteriorisation of the pain produced by admitting that one has spurned God. This bitterness of the soul is what Abelard calls fructuosa poenitentia,47 as opposed to any other kind of action not born out of the heart’s inner affliction.

“With the heart’s moan and contrition —what we call ‘fruitful penance’— there can no longer remain sin—what we call rejecting God or consenting to evil […]. In this state of contrition, we are instantly reconciled with God, being granted forgiveness for past sins…”48

This is clearly deduced from his theory, but also the Palatine is unequivocally targeting the monetary burdens imposed by some priests as penance. That is why, in a way, Abelard contributes to eliminating the practice of poenitentia solemnis,49 which consisted in enforcing a public penalty.50 At any rate, in cases of grave sin —such as murder— the penalty or penance will fall under the human sphere, and its purpose, as we said, will be setting an example both for whoever has committed it and for the rest of the community.

“Philosopher: … Once the sinner has decided to accuse himself in an intimate confession, by the very fact of admitting the guilt of his perverse will, whereby he sinned, he is no longer guilty and his eternal punishment is forgiven, even if the temporal punishment is upheld for the correction of present life…”51

Another of the sacraments affected by the theory of interiority is Baptism, given that true sin is strictly that which entails the soul’s guilt.52 Abelard does admit that original sin is one of the connotations of sin, but it would be unnecessary to purge it, as it is called “sin” only in a broad sense. Although we shall not expand on this here (as neither does Abelard in the works under discussion), what we intend to show —as, I think, we have sufficiently done— is that his ethical doctrine has not only dogmatic but also political consequences, by rendering the Church’s mediation almost useless right where most of its power resided

VI. Conclusions

Believing that in the Middle Ages ethics and politics were two separate fields of study is one of the errors into which some unprepared reader might fall. The division of philosophical knowledge, at least in the 12th century, was much simpler. Abelard himself teaches so in Logica Ingredientibus, coinciding with Boethius, who

“…distinguishes three species [in philosophy]: speculative, which studies the nature of things; moral, which considers honesty in life; and rational, which organises argumentation rationally, called ‘logic’ by the Greeks.”53

Hence, however brilliant and innovative Abelard was, no clear-cut distinction between both disciplines can be expected from his writings. On a doctrinal level, then, ethics and politics are inextricable and can be united under the more general concept of practical philosophy. After all, their primary foundation is the same: the Good, whether considered individually or collectively.

Thus, having made this journey, we can reread the introduction of this work and understand why we speak of the Abelardian moral theory’s “political implications,” rather than a “political theory”. The fact that it does not exist as such does not mean that Abelard was unconcerned about politics. Quite on the contrary, the cancellation of the Church’s jurisprudence on temporal affairs by the thesis of realm distinction and a conception of justice that distinguishes between law and morality; and the fact that its spiritual jurisprudence is deeply maimed by withdrawing the authority of the keys —and sacramental efficacy with it— are both very telling of the author’s personal stance. Finally —and perhaps more importantly here— it reveals how, for a proto-Scholastic mind, the moral and political principles are at once united and branched by the same train of thought.

Abelard and Heloise - 14th c. manuscript
Abelard and Heloise, 14th c. manuscript


[2] Cf. BACIGALUPO, Luis, “Las principales ideas políticas de la Theologia Christiana”, unpublished.

[3] Henceforth cited as Dialogus.

[4] Plenitude of power.

[5] The distinction between what was sin proper and what was a crime would be progressively developed as of the Gregorian Reformation.

[6] Cf. FUMAGALLI, Maria Teresa, “Sull’ unita dell’opera abelardiana,” in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, N°34 (1979), p. 432.

[7] Actio should be distinguished from operatio. While the former is directly related to interiority, the latter may or may not be interior. Thus, sin would be an operatio animi. For further analysis, see Van den BERGE, R. J., “La qualification morale de l’acte humain. Ébauche d’une réinterprétation de la penseé abélardienne,” in Studia Moralia, Rome, N°13 (1975), pp. 143-73.

[8] “…quaedam delectatio sequatur…,” PETER ABELARD, Ethica seu Scito te ipsum, (ed. and English tr. LUSCOMBE, David), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1979, II, p. 18. The Spanish translation is my own and page numbering corresponds to the Latin text herein. [Translator’s note: The English versions are my own translation of the author’s Spanish version, but following the original Latin text as well.] Henceforth cited as Ethica.

[9] Ethica, p. 18.

[10] The term’s literal translation is “soul,” but since this is a technical term that acquired specific anthropological connotations —especially in the Middle Ages—, we should take it to mean, at least in Abelard —who clearly follows Augustinian thought—, “the superior aspect of the rational soul.” To avoid this kind of discussions, we have chosen to use the Latin term. For further information, however, see the entry “animus” in MAGNAVACCA, Silvia, Léxico técnico de Filosofía Medieval, Buenos Aires, Editorial Miño y Dávila, 2005.

[11] Ethica, p. 28.

[12] Cf. De VECCHI, Gaia, L’etica o Scito te ipsum di Pietro Abelardo. Analisi critica di un progetto di teología morale, Rome, Editorial Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 2005, p. 164 and ss.

[13] Cf. Ethica, p. 24.

[14] Ethica, p. 52.

[15] “Probator et cognitor cordis et renum dicitur Deus,” Ethica, op. cit., p. 40, belonging to Jr., XX, 12. For a deeper analysis of this subject, see KRAMER, Susan, “‘We Speak to God with Our Thoughts’: Abelard and the Implications of Private Communication with God,” in Church History, American Society of Church History, Vol. 69, N°1, (2000), pp. 18-40.

[16] Both phrases, that is, “Thesis of indifferent acts” and “Thesis of the distinct realms,” were applied by commentators and are nowhere to be found in Abelard’s own terminology.

[17] Ethica, p. 38.

[18] Ethica, p. 42.

[19] PETER ABELARD, Diálogo entre un filósofo, un judío y un cristiano, (trans. Magnavacca, Silvia), Bs. As., Editorial Losada, 2003, p. 229.

[20] Natural law. On Abelard’s use of ius (law) and lex (command) and their relationship, see MARENBON, John, “Abelard’s Concept of Natural Law,” in Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Mensch und Natur im mittelalter, Berlin-New York, N°21/2 (1992), p. 614.

[21] Dialogus, pp. 229-231.

[22] Ethica, p. 42-44.

[23] Cf. BACIGALUPO, Luis, Las principales ideas políticas de la Theologia Christiana. The same author analyses the distinction of realms more fully, albeit focusing on the moral rather than the political, in Intención y conciencia en la ética de Abelardo, Peru, Univ. Pontificia Católica del Perú, 1992, pp. 188-192.

[24] Dialogus, p. 231.

[25] Although it is true that such distinction is drawn by the philosopher character, the Christian makes no effort to refute it. Regardless of who is the real voice these characters purport to represent —which would call for a separate article—, this silence seems to suggest that Abelard himself is speaking through the philosopher.

[26] We should recall Chapter XII of the Ethica, where he establishes that intention may be wrong, thus introducing the heteronomous component implied by divine will.

[27] Cf. ULLMAN, Walter, Principios de gobierno y política en la Edad Media, Madrid, Editorial Alianza, 1985, p. 40.

[28] In fact, in 1152, barely a few years after the Palatine’s death, Frederick Barbarossa ascended to the throne, beginning yet another major episode of the conflict between Empire and Papacy; while in England, almost simultaneously, Henry II Plantagenet and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, reproduced the same battle in their own way.

[29] Ethica, p. 108.

[30] Dialogus, p. 231.

[31] Ethica, p. 112.

[32] Ethica, p. 114.

[33] Cf. Ethica, p. 118.

[34] The conflicting relationship between Bernard and Abelard has been widely studied. To tackle this issue in particular, I suggest reading ZERBI, Piero, “Philosophi” e “Logici”. Un ventennio di incontri e scontri: Soissons, Sens, Cluny (1121-1141), Milano, Editorial Vita e Pensiero, 2002, ch. VI.

[35] CHENU, Marie Dominique, Il risveglio della conscienza nella civilità medievale, Milano, Editorial Jaca Book, 1982, p. 42.

[36] The soul’s intention.

[37] Ethica, p. 84.

[38] Ethica, p. 104.

[39] Ethica, p. 104.

[41] Ethica, p. 102.

[42] Ethica, p. 108.

[43] Dialogus, p. 145.

[44] Cf. Ethica, p. 98.

[45] Cf. Ethica, p. 108.

[46] Cf. De Vecchi, op. cit., p. 136 and ss.

[47] Fruitful penance. Cf. Ethica, ch. XIX.

[48] Ethica, p. 88.

[49] Solemn penance.

[50] Cf. CHENU, Marie Dominique, Il risveglio della conscienza nella civilita medievale, p. 44.

[51] Dialogus, p. 145.

[52] The Abelardian exposition contemplates sin in a wide sense, as that which, coming from ignorance or error, entails no guilt for the soul. See, for instance, chapter XIV of the Scito te ipsum. For further detail, a particularly interesting commentary is that by De GANDILLAC, Maurice, “Intention et loi dans l’étique d’Abélard,” in Pierre Abélard – Pierre le Vénérable. Les courants philosofiques littéraries et artistiques en Occident au milieu du XII siècle, Colloque international du centre national de la recherche scientifique, Abbaye de Cluny, July 2-9, 1972, pp. 595-610.

[53] PETER ABELARD, Logica ingredientibus, ed. GEYER, Bernhard, Peter Abaelardus, Philosophische Schriften, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Münster, Editorial Westfalia, 1919, p. 1, 8-11. The translation is my own.



Peter Abelard, Ethica seu Scito te ipsum, (Ed. LUSCOMBE, David.), Oxford, Editorial Clarendon Press, 1979.

___________ , Diálogo entre un filósofo, un judío y un cristiano, (tr.

MAGNAVACCA, Silvia), Bs. As., Editorial Losada, 2003.

___________ , Logica ingredientibus, ed. GEYER, Bernhard, Peter Abaelardus, Philosophische Schriften, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Münster, Editorial Westfalia, 1919.

Further reading

BACIGALUPO, Luis, Intención y conciencia en la ética de Abelardo, Perú, Editorial Univ. Pontificia Católica del Perú, 1992.

______________ , “Las principales ideas políticas de la Theologia Christiana”, unpublished.

CHENU, Marie Dominique, Il risveglio della coscienza nella civilità medievale, Milano, Editorial Jaca Book, 1982.

De GANDILLAC, Maurice, “Intention et loi dans l’étique d’Abélard,” in Pierre Abélard- Pierre le Vénérable. Les courants philosofiques littéraries et artistiques en Occident au milieu du XII siècle, Colloque international du centre national de la recherche scientifique, Abbaye de Cluny, July 2-9, 1972, pp. 595610.

De VECCHI, Gaia, L’etica o Scito te ipsum di Pietro Abelardo. Analisi critica di un progetto di teología morale, Rome, Editorial Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2005.

FUMAGALLI, Mariateresa, “Sull’ unità dell¿opera abelardiana,” in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, N°34 (1979), pp. 429-438.

KRAMER, Susan, “‘We Speak to God with Our Thoughts’: Abelard and the Implications of Private Communication with God,” in Church History, Vol. 69, N°1 (2000), pp. 18-40

MARENBON, John, “Abelard’s Concept of Natural Law,” in Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Mensch und Natur im mittelalter, N°21/2 (1992), pp. 609- 621.

Van den BERGE, R.J., “La qualification morale de l’acte humain. Ébauche d’une réinterprétation de la penseé abélardienne,” in Studia Moralia, Rome, N°13 (1975), pp. 143-73.

ULLMAN, Walter, Principios de gobierno y política en la Edad Media, Madrid, Editorial Alianza, 1985.

ZERBI, Piero, “Philosophi” e “Logici”. Un ventennio di incontri e scontri: Soissons, Sens, Cluny (1121-1141), Milano, Editorial Vita e Pensiero, 2002.

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