Ethics or Know Thyself
Peter Abelard was born in 1079 in Le Pallet in Britain and took his last breath in 1142.1 He was called ‘the Socrates of Gaul,2 and with his death the abbot of the monastery in Cluny honoured him by calling him ‘a many sided genius, subtle and sharp’.3 Among his created philosophical works is also his ethical work that carries the title ‘Know Thyself’ [‘Scito teipsum’], probably written in the period that he lectured in Paris.4 This work is by the way also known with the title ‘Ethics’.5 Now are works on ethics on themselves always interesting to consider. The more interesting it becomes when such a work is considered to have flowed from the pen of a many sided genial, subtle and sharp philosopher. Whether Abelard carries such a status rightfully can be set aside for the moment, however such words must motivate enough to consider attentively with an open and curious attitude Abelard’s ethical work. Let us therefore take up his work ‘Know Thyself’ and see what Abelard wants to pass us on the subject of ethics.
So the title of the text is ‘Ethics’ or ‘Know Thyself’, whereby the first title probably is the most fitting one. For Abelard’s work is indeed an ethical work, in which however not explicitly to the commandment of the second title is referred. So an ethical work, and it is logical that Abelard as monk in the Christian middle ages lets his work take place against the background of very Christian themes like ‘God’ and ‘sin’. It is then also against this background that Abelard comes to a sketch of his central theme in ethics, namely; intention. How this background and this central theme make themselves known in his text should become clear by the consideration of the text. To preserve the originality of the text as much as possible is chosen to keep the line which Abelard handles. This line could certainly have been set more structured by him, but by leaving out repetitions and minor details can Abelard’s line still serve as an excellent guideline to come to a concise consideration of his text.
Peter Abelard begins the text in the prologue and in chapter I with the bordering of what he means with the term ‘defect’ or ‘defect of the mind’.6 In the prologue he makes it clear that with ‘defect’ he does not refer to a bodily defect but does he state that we in the study of ethics have to deal with the defects or qualities of the mind which make us tend to evil or good actions.7 Hereby are the defects of the mind opposed to the qualities.8 Following in chapter I he makes clear that with the concept ‘defect of the mind’ he also wants leave out of consideration those defects or merits that have no relation with ethics, such as for instance the case with a good or bad memory, or with ignorance or knowledge.9
Thus having bordered the term ‘defect of the mind’ he continues in chapter II with the defects that make us tend to evil. His answer to the question how these differ from sin is in this chapter implicitly found in the positions which he lets sin, defect and action take in relation to each other. First he points out the separate position of sin in relation to defect of mind and in relation to action.10 Then he points out that a defect may be present, also when this does not show in action.11 From these arguments he can postulate the meaning of a defect. For this is on itself not sinful but delivers the material for a battle whereby one may triumph over oneself.12
In chapter III, by far the longest chapter of the text, does Abelard start with a definition of ‘defect’, namely: “that whereby we are disposed to sin”.13 After that follows a description in which intention (consent) as central theme in relation to the background of God and sin is excellently brought to expression: ““We are,[…], inclined to consent to what we ought not to do, or to leave undone what we ought to do. Consent of this kind we rightly call sin. Here is the reproach of the soul meriting damnation or being declared guilty by God”.14 Following is sin then again clearly defined as the despising of God, what boils down to the refraining of what we believe that we should do for him, or the not refraining of something of which we believe that we should refrain for God.15
From the now sketched clarity regarding defect of the mind and sin Abelard continues with elaborating the will and desire in relation to sin. He gives an example of a servant who kills his master to save his own life, although he actually did not have the wish to kill his master. Although thus the wish was not evil did he nevertheless choose to kill his master, which as choice thus still is a sin.16 Now if without an evil will sometimes still can be sinned then sin can according to Abelard not be defined as ‘will’.17 Thus it is not the point to have no wishes but to follow the will of God.18 By the way is sin never on itself wished for. Because although we may wish to do that of which we know that it deserves punishment we still wish not to be punished. And how can we wish to despise God, which actually is sin?19
Hereby having considered the will as being not sinful in itself Abelard continues with the consideration of actions as being not sinful on themselves. Abelard can recognize in the undergoing of the pleasures of life on itself no sin.20 For were in the sinless paradise also not enjoyed pleasures, and would God not be guilty in a certain sense by placement of to sin leading appetite in those who use this appetite ignorantly?21 Abelard comes subsequently to the conclusion that an action cannot increase sin. For this would mean that the consent of the soul would reach beyond her own nature, and that is not possible. So it is only the consent, which is own to the nature of the soul, that can besmirch it.22 A prohibition then is not about action but about consent.23
Abelard continues at the end of this chapter with the sketching of God’s attitude regarding the above discussed. God does not consider the action but the intention.24 This is underlined with the example from the Bible where God commands Abraham to offer his son.25 An interesting though not further explicitly worked out remark in this context regards the place of the ratio in Abelard’s ethics: “God, we know, permits nothing, and does not himself consent to achieve anything apart from rational cause. Thus it is the pure intention of the command, not the execution of the action which justifies God in wisely commanding what would not in actual fact be good.”26 It is thus in the ratio that a consent, and therefrom dependent a sin or not, takes place.
In chapter VII Abelard enlarges upon the difference between public and divine judgement. Public judgement is only directed at the effect of the judgement on public interest, and the question of guilt is here in principle not relevant. About guilt and sin is judged in divine judgement.27 By the way denies Abelard in chapter VIII not that good and evil deeds should not be rewarded or punished. For this stimulates the doing of good deeds and people can thus also profit from the examples of others.28
In chapter XII conclusively Abelard makes again clear that good intentions lie at the basis of good actions. He comes to that supposition from a Biblical expression: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”.29 This means according to Abelard that if the intention is good (if the eye is single) the action is worthy for the light, or also good.30 The text is then ended with the again naming of that what Abelard’s ethics are all about: the intention to please God. For would this be different then would the heathens (who thus don’t have that intention), like Christians, be able to count their good deeds with the faith that they would be redeemed or would have pleased God with their actions.31
From the text shows that Peter Abelard draws a clear line between what is and what is not sin. Shortly summarized it could be said that sin in Abelard’s ethics is only in the intention to either do or not do God’s will. Now although against the background of our time Abelard’s Know Thyself shall perhaps not be judged as genial, subtle and sharp does his work here however deserve the credits to be contentual a consequent and argumentative story. All the more credits does the text deserve when held against the background of the Christian middle ages, for Abelard knows how to excellently adjust his philosophy argumentatively to Biblical themes of that time. Although perhaps richly exaggerated need the words of the abbot of the monastery in Cluny, placed in a middle aged context, thus not fully unfit Abelard.