The Moral Philosophy of Pierre Abeilard (Petrus Abelardus)June 27, 2021
“Know Yourself”, which we know as one of the most important phrases of ancient Greek philosophy, is the title of a work of Abelardus, as we mentioned above. Abelardus deals with various moral problems in his work titled “Scito te Ipsum”.
Abelardus, whose place in the discussion of universals is difficult to determine clearly, takes place in a line that we can call more nominalist, which brings the individual to the forefront in his understanding of morality. In this respect, Abelardus, who tried to shape a moral understanding that emphasized the responsibility of the individual and made crime and sin his own problem, can be said to have shaped and guided the moral understanding of the Middle Ages. The moral teaching he put forward is still discussed in the Christian world and sheds light on new studies. This is perfectly normal; because Abelardus greatly benefited from Christianity while establishing his morality (Çotuksöken, 1988: 59). However, it should be noted that he did not reveal an understanding of morality stemming from religion alone. “The sole support of Abelardus can never be reduced to religion and belief, which is the fundamental phenomenon of religion. His valuation of reason, his reliance on reason as much as an ancient thinker, his assertion that the phenomenon of morality can only exist if man is the being of reason, and the great importance he attaches to dialectics clearly show us this. (Çotuksöken, 1988: 63)
The concept that Abelardus initially dealt with is the concept of sin. According to Abelardus, who especially emphasizes the individual aspect of sin, sin is knowingly and willingly going against God himself and his orders (Maurer, 1982: 68). Every mentally self-sufficient adult is aware of the existence of certain prohibitions in every period of history. Among these prohibitions, there are prohibitions valid in every period such as not killing people, not stealing and adultery. Man’s relationship with these prohibitions takes place through his state of consciousness (conscientia). While performing our actions through this consciousness, we have to act according to the voice within us. Therefore, according to Abelardus, what is more important than the situation that occurs as a result of the realization of our actions is the intention within us. In other words, intention is more important than action. For the deepest and most real contact with divine laws takes place within us mentally.
Sin, then, arises as a result of bad intentions. From this point of view, the event that Christians call original sin and that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from heaven is not a situation that will bind all humanity. Since sin is related to man’s individual intention, original sin is the individual sins of Adam and Eve. What Christians share in this regard is not the sin itself; but this is the punishment itself for sin (Maurer, 1982: 69). Because sin itself does not gain a common dimension unless the intention that brought it out is shared.
Abelardus, who understands intent to this degree individually, is still a medieval philosopher and of course has to relate his teaching to the divine. Intention is far more important than the outcome of our actions; but how we decide whether this intention is good or bad is another question. The answer to this question is in God. Because good will cannot be good just because it seems that way. There must be an uncaused (in the sense that it is not the cause of its own existence) that affects it fundamentally. In other words, our intention must be in accordance with God’s will and intent, so as not to fall into a relative position in intention. Since his will and intention are clearly stated in the revelation, according to Abelardus, living in accordance with the revelation means acting in accordance with God’s will and intention.
Abelardus’ moral teaching is a subjective morality, as clearly expressed in the above quote from Çotuksöken. There is only one criterion on the basis of this morality, and that is individual intention. In other words, as far as human actions are concerned, there is no need for any internal moral law based on an objective ground to determine our action. Rather, the actual situation to be seen should be that we judge our actions in harmony with divine intent. True, this subjectivity and the individuality of intention and the clarity of good and evil in our actions on the basis of rationality have done great things for Abelardus.
In his book Christiana Theologia, Abelardus says that God enlightened the pagan philosophers in some way and brought them and their thoughts closer to Christian truth. Thanks to these great Greek/pagan philosophers, pagans too became enlightened about God’s will. Because of this, they came closer to moral well-being and spiritual salvation. According to Abelardus, if a person has no knowledge of God’s will and his actions are contrary to what faith commands, then we cannot say that this person is sinning (Maurer, 1982: 69). In fact, it should be noted that what Abelardus is trying to say here has a Platonic aspect.