the logic of ethics - abelard; with commentary on Abelard's ethical teaching
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the logic of ethics
— abelard

with commentary on the ethical teaching of Abelard le Pallet


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The logic of ethics is one in a series of documents showing how to reason clearly, and so to function more effectively in society.
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Ways of viewing the world: cause, chance and choice Responsibility and mental set
  1) cause past orientation or determinism
  2) chance future orientation or probabilistic
  3) choice present orientation or free will
Abelard’s teaching on ethics with a gloss on his categories
  1) God and his providential ordering of the universe
  2) of human ethical acts in general
    Box 1: The error of the Excluded middle
      Judging what is ‘right’
      Mind reading— mad, bad or sad
      Excluded middle
      The subsidiary error of either/or (also described as the on/off or the yes/no error)
    Box 2: Groups—This box is for emphasis
  3) of practical ethics
Dogmatism and tolerance
The link between ethics and the ‘Tragedy of the commons’
Tolerance as a necessary social imperative
Negotiation and iteration
The trial of Abelard for heresy at Sens, 1140
Capitulum 7 [1] Power
Capitulum 6 Grace
Capitulum 9 Nature of sin and the place of ignorance
Capitulum 12, 19, 8     Neutrality of acts – intentions
Capitulum 4 Redemption
Capitulum 11 Powers of clergy


return to index

Ways of viewing the world: cause, chance and choice

Skinner said, “reality is as it is, no analysis changes that”. Skinner was incorrect. The ways in which we think about the world effect the manner in which we respond to the world and the ways in which we act. Our acts change reality.

Dependence on models and inter-related words has become so widespread as to become a near universal mental disease, a widespread insanity reinforced by a near universal human proclivity for escapism in the face of difficulties. It has become ‘normal’ practice to attempt to force reality to fit the cultural models and language, instead of making the communication system fit the facts.

The advance of science has been marked by a removal of humans from the centre of the stage. Each step in this direction marked by squeals of protest from the arrogant ape. Copernicus and Galileo forced the retreat of the superstitious and arrogant apes from their place at the centre of the physical universe. Darwin further pursued the ape from its claim to take up centre stage in the animal kingdom, to the accompaniment of the usual howls of outrage.

It is now necessary to disarm the arrogance of regarding the world as centring around our descriptions. We needs must accept the universe as existing of itself, independent of our descriptions or wishes.

‘All’ systems that attempt to describe the world are not somehow ‘equally valid’ or value free. Unless we are cautious, our descriptions, or worse our ‘theories’, block and destroy our sanity, and may even threaten our survival.

We have considerably pushed religion and superstition out of physics and biology - we must now drive it out of its remaining bastions of so-called ‘philosophy’, ‘mathematics’, ‘psychology’, ‘economics’, ‘politics’ and ‘sociology’.

It is not the way of science and sanity to impose a head-trip upon reality. return to indexIt is the way of science to allow reality to impose itself upon (our) awareness, thus increasing our competence and realism.

Responsibility and mental set

I hold a stone in my hand. I release it. It falls to the ground.

The inclination to disregard the temporal (time) elements in logic or analysis generates rigid, unrealistic, simplistic communication and ‘logic’. This leads to much confusion and mental malfunction. I assert that there are essentially three possible temporal modes of description available. The three modes are:

1) cause  past orientation or determinism  
2) chance  future orientation or probabilistic  
3) choice  present orientation or free will  

1) cause : past orientation or determinism

I may describe the movement of the stone in terms of cause (past tense) e.g. the stone fell ‘because’ of 'gravity' (whatever that may be) or moves ‘because’ I moved it or ‘because’ it was hit by another stone. If I am so unaware as to confuse the description with reality, I may even start to ‘think’, this or that, ‘caused’ this stone to move or change direction. Then the easy step for the unwary, that the world functions in a determined manner of cause and effect.

A stream of garbage, which may end up with the escapism such as “I mug old ladies because I was dropped on my head as a baby”, “because the government did not pay me enough charity money”, or even perhaps “because there is a plot to get me”. All this just from observing a stone to move!

Alternatively, we have poor old ‘causation’ used as a support for ‘god’ For instance, from Einstein we have ‘god does not play dice’; at least it is comforting that we have Einstein’s authority for ‘god’s’ attributes. Again, every half-educated cleric will tell us that there is a ‘reason’ for the earth to circle the sun, therefore there must be a reason for ‘everything’. Cue: enter ‘god’ again, of course.

The development of the maths of cause by Galileo, Newton and many others laid the foundations for modern mechanical science. These problems of physics are the simplest problems of science and they generated the simplest maths. This mathematics provides useful and sometimes workable solutions to problems we wish to solve. return to index The mathematical descriptions do not however provide ‘explanations’ of this wondrous world, merely convenient communication tools. To make a leap from description to ‘understanding’ is wholly illusory.

2) chance : future orientation or probabilistic

I may instead choose to describe the stone in terms of its (present) relationships (the cradle of relativity) with other stones, or in terms of its average size, weight, structure, etc.; but the stones are already formed (past tense). From a collection of such data, I may guess at the probability of finding another stone within a given range of sizes or weights among a flock of stones. If this ‘induction’ works, I learn to trust my guesses a little more (>) each time, or if they do not work (sufficiently for my purposes), to trust my guesses in that ‘sort’ of situation a little less (<).

I will try of course to pick my next stone ‘at random’, that is, I try to pick it without picking it! If I am incautious enough, I can, in due course, convince myself that the whole world is in accord with my merely useful description, that the world ‘is’ random. From this the next step becomes “therefore we are but the tools of chance or ‘chaos’ ”, that the world is a ‘joke’ visited by the gods; this can then stumble to the student vanity of “how do we know that we know?”

As the world is random, so with a determined world, I cannot be held responsible for my acts, let alone my genes, for all is but chance. With ‘statistics’ I ‘predict’ the future, albeit only probabilistically: therefore I only predict that the sun may rise tomorrow. So (and here the lunacy re-appears) I cannot be ‘sure’ of any-thing. Uncertainty extends only to a future ‘prediction’. The sun will rise, if it rises, whether I ‘predict’ it or not; I may be quite sure enough for my purposes, in that I choose to act upon my predictions.

In planting corn, I act upon the likelihood (prediction) of a crop. As I do the real task of planting the corn, I can be certain sure that I am planting corn, for at this time I can see and feel the real corn.

Planck and Heisenberg, fired with enthusiasm as they discovered the effectiveness of probability as a means of describing atomic phenomena, ‘discovered’ that, as we could not know ‘everything’, therefore there must be a ‘god’ who does ‘know everything’. Thus they allied themselves with Einstein’s enlightenment via another road. A whole ‘school’ of such non-sense has arisen, originally centred on Vienna, which still spreads this particular mental disease or disorientation in the western world.

If I am ‘too’ certain, if I should express myself with more (>) certainty than the person with whom I communicate would wish, that person is liable to fling the stone ‘dogma’. Our language is, I insist, too rigid and the ‘thinking’ it thereby carries too rigid (‘dogmatic’) to accord with reality or with the sensible use of words. In as much as you understand this, rigid or dogmatic mental frameworks of language are not fully tenable for some complex communication. The words and culture can carry messages of ‘too’ great a ‘certainty’, messages which may not be those intended to be sent. People often imagine that (relative) over rigidity is being proposed, without perhaps the speaker showing sufficient humility or deference, or without first investigating supposed ‘facts’. Hence, the ‘stone’ is thrown. The language itself, the cultural framework and common expectations must develop if such irritating consequences are to be avoided.

The invention of probabilistic maths allowed development in biology and some tentative gathering of data for psychological and social studies. Further, there was a knock-back effect into our understanding of physics through quantum ‘theory’. The probabilistic maths is more complex than the causal maths indicated above, for it tackles problems that are more complex. Such maths grew out of demands for greater rigour from the time of Gauss onwards. As with return to index causal maths, the descriptions or mathematics of probability have proved very successful, so successful that many have often embraced it to the exclusion of all thought.


3) choice  : present orientation or free will

I may describe the stone in terms of a choice or present orientation. The movements of the stone are chosen relative to the stone: the movements just happen, they ‘are’. The person or the stone chooses its actions, the person chooses to move their hand forward with the stone encapsulated, the person then decides to open their hand and the stone chooses to continue on its path. The stone chooses to fly through the air.

This may seem a bit strange to a person conditioned into western culture. It might seem to some as a form of animism, that is attributing characteristics extra to those normally understood. This not my intention. My intention is to set up a language structure that may be used consistently when describing individual actions or experiences, and when describing the actions or experiences of what many choose to call ‘inanimate’ ‘objects’. It can be argued that the treating of humans as somehow ‘different’ from other ‘objects’ is a bit of a cheek. Remembering that we have no idea what is in the ‘mind’ of another, it might be sensible to our environment to follow the wisdom of Francis of Assisi, and refer to brother wind and sister moon. ‘Speaking’ in this mode has the added advantage of not pre-judging the consciousness of other ‘parts’ of our world.

This orientation has similarities to the ‘religious’ ideas of free will and individual responsibility, while it admits to a world which we do not ‘understand’ and which we can not explain, but a world which we can describe, experience and at least partially control. That is, a realistic or empiric worldview that relates language to the world as it is without escapism, unlike Thomist[1a] religious ideas of cause or pseudo-scientific irresponsibility.

From such a standpoint we become realistic about both our abilities and our limitations. By examining all three modes of ‘description’ and, above all, by allowing reality to be the final court of appeal, we increase our awareness of our potentials and our current limitations. With a more realistic understanding, we can more effectively run our puny lives and pursue ambitions with dignity.

If you train/teach primarily in a choice mode, you will inculcate empiric habits and a self-identity which views the self as primarily responsible for their own acts. If you teach in primarily ‘objective’ (past) terms, the individual will relate first to its history and lose touch with the self and the present. For if the individual sees its behaviour as ‘caused’ by a past over which it naturally has no control, an attitude of irresponsibility is fostered.

If the future is a major orientation of teaching, as the future is only predictive; irresponsibility is fostered via a another route, an attitude of nervous ‘hope’ or ‘despair’ or constant tension replaces realism and self-awareness. If the predictions are often poor, due to insufficient real world experience and realistic learning from others; a person may develop return to index attitudes of ‘fate’ and a belief in any nonsensical pseudo-science that claims to offer a degree of ‘certainty’ that it cannot deliver.


The way we describe the world, or are taught to describe the world, may effect[2] our acts and our perceptions of our acts and the acts of others. What we must not do, if we are to remain sane, is to regard our mere chosen categories as acts of ‘god’ and be limited to thinking within those categories. Verbal models are but descriptions of the world and are suitable only as long as they are effective for communication with our fellows; categories are not a useful substitute for reality. Our models may be useful to seek possibilities within our brains without the cost (or danger) of trying ‘everything’ out in the external world. We must always check our results very carefully and tentatively to ensure that the ‘results’ hold in the real as well as in the verbal world.

In order to stop confusion and contention, it is useful to recognise which temporal mode of description we are using and to become aware of shifts of mode. For clarity, we must remain aware of differences and of our shifts of emphasis. return to index A consistent mode of description is a necessary foundation to clear communication, while constantly remembering that the description is not the thing.

Abelard taught ethics on 3 levels:
I am now going to gloss his categories

1) God and his providential ordering of the universe, now better put as acceptance of reality.

In the works of the great writers of what is crudely called the ‘pre-scientific’ age, it is reasonable to read the word ‘god’ in a manner that generally makes sense by taking the word to mean ‘everything that is’. The inclination to personalise ‘god’ was and is used more in the conditioning of the peasantry, rather than being a reflection of the understanding of able theologians. (See also ‘heresies’, authorities, quarrels and words). Terms such as ‘satori’, world soul, and enjoinders to ‘act well’ all are compatible with interpretation to act in accord with the world as it is. That such advice becomes too great a reverence for authority, or is reduced to a series of rigid ‘rules’, may be necessary at times for the less able or for the immature, but such cannot form a sound basis for secure ethics.

We live in a universe as we find it. We respond to our existence as ‘good’. If that were not the case, we would surely act in the mass to end that existence. We may find elements in our existence uncomfortable or not entirely to our taste, but we tend to choose to continue to suffer the slings and arrows rather than to end it. The reality of being alive is to be subject to the irritating necessities of maintaining that life by seeking and consuming food, and other annoying details. To be both alive and to be without irritation is a rather forlorn ambition.

Most humans have as yet insufficient educated consciousness to grasp how foolish it is to attempt to use, without negotiation, others as tools to fulfil their own comfort. Ethics is not taught widely on a basis of rational analysis. Instead pseudo-ethics and ‘rules’ are taught which are but rationalisations of the objectives of the rulers or of selfish whims, flavoured to various degrees with an imbibed and inherited experience for what works. A great deal of what passes for ethics is rhetoric in the pursuit of isolated self-interest. Russell states that the ethical behaviour of the savage is differentiated from that of civilised society merely by the degree of foresight; in other terms, by the amount of information processed prior to actions. It takes less thought and planning to snatch the bone or the cake from the table and run, than it does to consider the effects of that action upon one’s companions.

The American stage performer of the Thirties, Will Rogers (1879 – 1935) had a catch phrase, “I never met a man I didn’t like”. There is a French aphorism that goes ‘to understand all is to forgive all’. If you understand what motivates the acts and perception of another, it usually becomes clear that they are acting as best they can imagine within their lights. Hence, it is common for theologians to imagine that real ‘sin’ is not easily possible. People react to the behaviour of others as good or evil in terms of how well it serves them; while the people performing the acts, mainly act as best they think they may. Good, as with much human assessment, is in the eye of the beholder.

With the educational or conditioning process captured by some form of hereditary aristocracy, confusions of guilt and social domination are the normal experiences of human society. People are trained to behave according to the patterns of local custom, and are brought to fear any deviation from those patterns, under threat of force and by strong instincts for social approval and acceptance.

As a note of warning, it is my experience that if dull adults or children are taught the realities of social calculation and the reality that their internal thoughts are inaccessible to others[3], then they are inclined to become psychopathic in their behaviour. That is, they are inclined to attempt to get away with what ever they think they can. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that the crude and simple ‘rule conditioning’ of ‘religion’ may have held empiric attractions for the rulers of uneducated societies.

However, rule conditioning does not lay a useful basis for thoughtful citizens. Instead it encourages the worst excesses of lazy, unconscious ‘thought’ and behaviour, seen at its nadir in the ‘only following orders’ chaos of the centrally-ruled state (for further grasp of this psychological structure refer to the psychology and development of Adolph Hitler Schicklegruber). In view of these difficulties, the planners of the ethical training of the populace would be well advised to consider most return to index carefully the structure of social education.

[See feedback and crowding.]

2) of human ethical acts in general

There is no knowable right and wrong, all that you may aspire to is to do your best. It is my view that all humans probably attempt so to aspire. The difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acts is primarily in foresight. Foresight is inevitably mediated by the access that one has to relevant and useful facts. Such access is always limited. Hence the great teachers constantly warn of the ‘unknowability’ of ‘god’ or ‘reality’. In any circumstance you are thus limited to doing the best that you are able. These limitations are also mediated through the access one has to culture and education, as folk wisdom puts it, “there but for the grace of god, go I”.

The error called the law of the excluded middle

Judging what is ‘right’

Acts are not of ‘themselves’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.The use (or merit) of acts varies according to context.
Charging a person from the path of an onrushing train has a very different value than charging them to the ground for pique. Likewise, cutting a person's stomach open is different in the context of an operating theatre from in a street brawl.

Mind reading—mad, bad or sad

You cannot know the mind of another. The mad person may kill in the paranoid assumption that one is about to slice them into pieces for the evening salad. The bad psychopath may kill because they want your purse and knows no reason they should not have it, meanwhile assessing that you are in their way. The sad fool acts ‘stupidly’ if they kill a person by hitting them with a piece of two by four through mere clumsiness. In each case the target is similarly dead.

Mad bad or sad: ultimately, you cannot know or decide. For you do not and cannot know, with any sureness, what is in the mind of another. As Abelard would have said, only god may know what is in the heart of another. Assumptions to the contrary are mere vanity and ego-comforting illusion.

Acts that harm others are essentially unsane in a civilised state. Humans are struggling out of the swamp and the jungle. To attain a civilised state, we must strive to cause no harm. This can be expressed in the anarchist assumption, ‘your freedom stops when you step on my toes’ or otherwise, as much freedom as possible, as long as it doesn't interfere with the freedom of others.

As an example,
(1) the right of an individual to practice ‘culture’ of their choice, and
(2) the right of an individual NOT to be forced into conforming to or practising a culture they don't agree with, don’t like or with which they feel uncomfortable.
Where they conflict, (2) takes precedence.[4]

Rational approach combines awareness that we cannot look through the eyes of another, with the empiric observation that suggests people prefer to do as they wish. All dogmatisms or ‘laws’ develop from encoding the wishes of one or some persons and forcing them upon the many. Common interpretation of law often assumes some unattainable absolute knowledge. Laws do not arise from valuing each individual, but come from some imagined group advantage arising in the ego of dominant individuals or else negotiated by some set within a ‘group’.

Excluded middle

From my document on Aristotelian logic you may come to understand that all categories are ‘fuzzy’ and uncertain both in time and space. You may further grasp that beyond that fuzziness, there is a further fog in attempting to communicate what is in your mind due to the instabilities of language (see also ‘groups’ box ). The establishment of ‘oppositions’ is a fundamental error in the system known as ‘Aristotelian logic’. The ‘idea’ of ‘opposites’ is empirically unsound; that is, the ‘idea’ is false to reality. Yet this ‘concept’ is at the very heart of what this culture calls ‘science’. If we are to go forward, awareness of this difficulty must become conscious. For more technical discussion see Gödel and sound sets.

‘Opposites’ do not exist in empiric reality.
The greater (>) the extent of ‘fuzziness’of a category,
the more impossible becomes the task of setting up an ‘opposite’.

Opposition is, therefore, a relative concept;
categories and ‘their’ ‘contraries’ must be subject to empiric validation, not treated as some ‘given’ or ‘absolute’ reality.

It will be seen from the above that in the ethical sphere there is no safe basis whatsoever for forming general categories. Not only is the excluded middle uncertain in ethics and much other human interaction, such attempted categorisation becomes irrational and a fount of discontent and friction. Tolerance becomes a rational imperative, especially in a world of mega-weaponry.

The subsidiary error of either/or
(also described as the on/off or the yes/no error)

The ‘idea’ of categories leads to the fundamental error of believing that there are ‘answers’ to ‘questions’, and that those ‘answers’ are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’[5] or right or NOT-right (see also the asymmetry of NOT). The real world is not like that. The ‘answers’ are mere conveniences for our current choices, a means of selecting for a particular purpose rather than getting hung up in an extended dither of indecision like a computer with a recurring loop. Computers[6] and the human brain have digital architecture built into their structures but the real world is not so delimited. In order to think effectively, it is necessary to grasp and allow for this structural problem in the human brain and in the inherent digital nature of language. return to index

[See also Feedback and crowding]


This box is for emphasis

It is central to the widespread insanity in our species to believe in categories and to imagine that those categories exist outside our own heads. However intuitive or ‘natural’ or entrenched this belief may be,

it is a false belief. — And it is a very dangerous false belief.

Humans imagine that individual items exist in the real world. For example, on my plate there is an ‘object’ which I refer to as a spoon. That is, I call the ‘object’ a spoon. It is myself that has decided that the part of reality, which I am calling a spoon, is ‘separate’. The ‘spoon’, is in fact ‘part’ of the general reality (‘god’?). I find it useful to treat that ‘part’ of reality as ‘separate’ at this moment for my purposes. My decision to so treat the part of reality that I am calling ‘spoon’ does not measurably effect ‘reality’ or the ‘spoon’. The ‘spoon’ does not magically become somehow ‘separate’ for the wider reality by my decision to focus upon it and call it ‘a’ ‘spoon’.

I may take this further and refer to the group of ‘objects’ that I choose to call spoons. Each one of those ‘objects’ is at a ‘separate’ space/time position. Each ‘spoon’ is not the ‘same’, other than in my head. I have separated them in my head as a ‘group’ of ‘objects’ because it is useful for me so to do: in the present case, in order to instruct in the nature of language and the pragmatics of communication. At other times, this grouping is useful for laying the table, because I don’t currently care about the real differences of the individual ‘spoons’, that is, I don’t care which place or person gets which ‘spoon’.

Spoons do not seem to mind being put into groups or boxes. Individual ‘people’ can mind very much indeed. The more immature and uneducated of our species can tend to worry exceedingly about the categories into which they fit themselves or other people.

Consider the light-reflecting characteristics of the human skin: for some strange folly, this factor seems to be extremely important to those of little experience. Making and acting upon such trivial ‘categories’ can lead to great and unnecessary social destruction and mess, this to the detriment of civilisation and the comfort of all sane individuals.

The light-reflecting characteristics of a person’s skin may be seen by others from the outside. As has been emphasised in The error of the Excluded middle and in Why Aristotelian logic does not work, what a person believes or thinks is considerably inaccessible to others. Belongingness to one club or another is, as stated before, both shifting and not very well defined. And yet people start wars over an imagined adherence to ‘one’ ‘religion’ or another.

Now that we monkeys have contrived to arm ourselves with nuclear spears, and probably worse, we can no longer afford these vanities of dogma and petty squabbles over how many angels can dance upon a pin. We have come to the pass where it is: either we grow up and behave rationally or we wipe ourselves out.

It is wise to think very carefully when using words as categories, lest one starts to think that they have useful or clear meaning outside our individual heads. The chaos attendant upon the irrationalities flowing from any lack of caution is far too great to be taken lightly. It is essential to rationality, and to survival, that we teach our children in such a manner that their minds do not become trapped by the rigidities of language and by the false certainties where addiction to words over rides attention to external realities.>

When combined with our fundamental instincts to form gangs and clubs to defend some patch of jungle, confused return to indexunderstanding of the nature of language is no mild and harmless eccentricity.

Abelard admires the ascetic perfectionism he attributes to the ancient philosophers. Although he never recants this praise, as he develops his moral theory Abelard comes to advocate a doctrine of moderation in practical ethics. Moreover, moral judgement (in the proper sense) is left to God who, Abelard believes, alone knows man’s inward intentions. Abelard asks earthly judges to restrict themselves to considering external acts, even though this means that they will often condemn people who have not sinned.

As we increase our understanding of human behaviour, I think it better we take the stance:

There is no blame—there is no excuse.

The problem with nuisance behaviour is how to stop it, not to ‘punish’ it or to feel self-righteously outraged by it. My experience leads me to the strong conviction that people do not act ‘badly’ because they are ‘bad’, but because they do not clearly understand the effects of their actions upon others and, thence, upon themselves. It is quite amazing how naïve ‘wrongdoers’ can appear when they are encouraged to communicate the nitty-gritty of their ‘thinking’ processes.

Abelard's theory of the ethical act is based on the simple idea that we act well in so far as we act out of love for God, and badly in as much as we put anything before our love for God. Around this notion, the act itself is not of ethical importance, but only the love for God, which is manifest in obedience or the contempt in disobedience of ‘his’ commands and prohibitions. Such a view will tend to make almost any sort of ignorance a reason for excuse from blame, and a modern reader will be struck by the correlation with our growing understanding of behaviour.

The recognition that codes of behaviour are in fact human constructs is not the manner in which Abelard expresses himself. It is a short step to join experience of the real world (‘god’) with ideas of behaviour that tend to work in a social context, to understand that albeit the linguistic expressions differ somewhat, the ideas are very modern. The ideas are quite distant from the growing authoritarianism of the Church of Rome in the 12th century that forms a clear background to the difficulties of the life of this most able free thinker. This background puts into context the charge of heresy that was to dog the life of Abelard. Recent attempts to reclaim this great thinker for authoritarian christianism, or alternatively to denigrate him as some second rate non-entity, are an expression of the centuries-old attempt of Rome to remove or evade the teachings of this, for the Church, most awkward genius[7].

Abelard devotes great energy to analysing the relation between willing and acting in relation to sin. He separates himself from his contemporaries by his insistence that people can only sin by ‘consenting’ to act sinfully. Thinking about a possible sinful act with pleasure and longing is not, he considers, in itself sinful; indeed, the greater temptation such thoughts provide to disobey God’s will, the greater merit a person gains by resisting them successfully. Abelard identifies with the classical virtues of justice, courage and temperance. Making it clear that the disposition of charity “loving God in the right way” is another way of describing the virtue of justice, when supported by courage and temperance. Christian and classical moral schemes are seen to coincide. This caused Abelard problems with his contemporaries. Bernard of Clairvaux said of him, “The more, that Abelard sweats to make Plato a Christian, the more he himself becomes pagan.”[8]

Abelard adopts what he recognises as a highly controversial view of divine power: that God cannot do other than he does, because god is supremely good and wise. Abelard breaks new ground with a careful analysis of how the word ‘good’ is used and of the difference between the goodness of things, intentions and statements. Unlike almost all his contemporaries, his analysis allows him to hold that there do indeed exist evil things and yet, at the same time, to maintain that God is wholly good and omnipotent. The general tenor is the granting of greater individuality and independence to the human.

Both Jesus of Nazareth and Abelard of Le Pallet, having been persecuted by their primitive societies for the crime of being ‘different’ and for the crime of questioning ‘authority’, became very sensitive to injustice. This is reflected in their respective world views and, because of their thoughtful responses to their experiences, we have a great deal to learn from them both. This should not blind us to the reality that they were both living in a much simpler and less knowledgeable society. Both did not always express themselves with the clarity of which we are now capable. We must learn to build upon what they understood and taught, not just cling to their expressions as to a dogma for primitive fear of something worse. We must also avoid, as best we can, any inclination to eject the baby with the bathwater.

The message of both these great teachers of human psychology and human behaviour warned us to ‘judge not that ye be judged’. The tenor of their teaching springs directly from their personal experiences. It remains as valid now as it did in their own times. Psychological ‘laws’ have much similarity to the ‘laws’ of physics. The ‘laws’ don’t tend to change much from year to year. But the laws of psychology are effected by changing environment. As an example, we have now become so good at war that we can no longer live with feuding gangs called nations or ‘religions’, whereas the current rate of gravitational attraction to the earth has probably changed during this time-frame by an amount too small for us yet to measure or concern us.

‘Religion’ is a repository for our accumulated knowledge of human psychology and social pragmatism; this is not widely or clearly understood. Although religion is considerably invaded by superstition and dogmatism, it has carried much wisdom for human conduct down the ages.

Religion has taught us to ‘hate’ the sin and not the sinner. Naturally all ‘hatred’ is foolish and we would now more sensibly use the word ‘error’ in place of ‘sin’, but the message remains both useful and clear. Folk wisdom, ‘another’ vehicle of cultural transmission, teaches us that to understand all is to forgive all, again the message is correct and useful for us still.

Other maxims are false and foolish in the light of modern understanding. Take, for example, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you”[9]. This is bad advice, bad logic and bad psychology. Kindness to others consists primarily in serving their needs, rather than projecting[10] one’s own tastes upon those others. Better to remember, “I like tea and you like coffee”. Another example is: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”[11] Again, this is exceedingly bad advice which is oft quoted by those attempting to avoid accounting responsibly for their own actions, upon the excuse that others also cause problems.

On the other hand, no person could raise a child, reform a ‘criminal’or count themselves civilised if they eschewed the advice in Matthew, 18 : 21: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him I say unto thee, not until seven times: but until seventy times seven”.

Religions are not some sole repository of esoteric certainties quite beyond question. They are human organisations or cultures often capable of foolishness and idiocy. Those who claim special treatment or veneration are no less con-artists than a local car salesman, lawyer or estate agent. It is sane to read the brochures and the small print with considerable attention. return to index That does not mean that religions have not provided a useful and valuable service to the advance of humanity.

3) of practical ethics

Having covered the theory of ethics, Abelard then considers the practical application of ethics in every day life. It is both fine and rational to attempt to understand the confusions and unwellness of ‘murderers’ and other nuisances. We are still faced with the practical necessity to restrain them. Upon this issue is built the pragmatism of well-founded human law. I do not intend to go into this in detail here. Law is a wide study, I will comment upon law as necessary, in this and other documents (see also).

Aristotle sensibly describes law as the transition (bridge?) from ethics to politics. He distinguishes moral virtues determined by the irrational, from intellectual virtues determined by the rational soul (Nichomachian ethics of Aristotle*); what we would perhaps call instinct and reason. As politics is inherent in law, it is no surprise that law is highly variable as cultures changed down the ages and among individual applications.

The instinct to control others, and thereby to control resources for personal uses and breeding, is probably inherent in humans (for further discussion, see The Selfish Gene). Naturally this instinct inclines powerful individuals to shape ‘laws’ to their own advantages, which they then rationalise[12] as ‘justice’. Those powerful individuals then attempt to sell the package to their neighbours by using rhetoric or force (for further discussion, see De Waal’s Chimpanzee politics).

As put by Brouwer: “people try by means of sounds and symbols to originate in other people copies of mathematical constructions and reasonings which they have made themselves; by the same means they try to aid their own memory. In this way the mathematical language comes into being, and as its special case the language of logical reasoning[13]. The ‘same’ concept, with lesser clarity, has recently been labelled ‘memes’ by Dawkins. In both cases, the writers have not fully grasped the fundamental detrimental nature of such a process, although Brouwer moved our understanding forward. Dawkins does call them viruses of the mind and recognises the nuisance value of some of such memes. Racism would be an example of an unhealthy meme.

Much of what is taught as history is also politics in disguise. Taught in such a manner, history is riddled with special pleading and spin. You live in a society that retains much of its feudal and associated theocratic baggage. Many, perhaps most, of the influential books produced are instigated and controlled via university publishing houses, which operations are ultimately wholly owned subsidiaries of the state. During the rise of the universities much was free enterprise. The rising universities were then steadily nationalised and controlled by the state and its propaganda division centred in Rome. Much of supposed philosophical history is in thrall to the gradually atrophying mechanisms of the large religious cults, such as Rome and Protestantism.

These cults have been used for centuries as a means to control the masses for the objectives of feudalism. While these structures are slowly dying as technology widens power and wealth, they remain tenacious and quite ruthless. Although my central focus is on communication logic, it is necessary in order to understand the corrupt use of logic to place logic in its real-world political context. The case study on this site concerning the Church of Rome with the supplementary document on the esoterica of ‘heresy’ is designed to provide such a context. The simplisms of Hitler’s ‘weltanschauung[14]  constructed on erroneous interpretations of Darwinism and directed at the capture of crude power through dishonest rhetoric, are outlined in the document The psychology and development of Adolph Hitler Schicklgruber. Naturally all such power players stronglyback to the index abhor any questioning and are of consequence deeply anti-intellectual, while adamantly claiming the  spiritual ‘authority’ or ‘iron logic’ of their ravings.

Dogmatism and tolerance

The serious ‘divide’ is not between one dogmatic system and another; the real divide is between tolerance and dogmatism. Law may be analysed and categorised by this demarcation as readily as can politics at large.

You may think of ‘laws’ in four basic categories.

1) The not division, other people section.
Things that you may not do to others, such as murder them, unless the government tells you to.

2) The not division, yourself section.
Things that you wish to do to yourself but they don’t want you to, like taking some types of dope unless the government is getting a cut, or else partaking in certain kinds of naughty games that are out of fashion.

3) The must division, other people section.
Things that you must do to others, such as pay them taxes or say “your lordship” to a ‘judge’.

4)The must division, yourself section.
Things that you must do to yourself, like register to shoot people the government don’t like, or to wear a seat belt in a moving car.

Of course the rules don’t apply as much to the ‘government’ and their agents. Often, they can do things to you even if you don’t want them to, like hit you with a cane.

You will note that there are things that you must not do to yourself or to others, whether you or those others wish to do those things or not. This is often referred to, a little simplistically, as ‘victimless crime’. The level of freedom in society can be estimated by the degree of ‘victimless crime’, that is by the degree of government interference in your apparently ‘private’ acts.

To state that a ‘crime’ is victimless is to make a false assumption that the independent acts of individuals do not effect other people. That assumption is never true as far as our current understanding runs (note on/off error). Our every movement changes the arrangements of matter. Sensibly, we can only refer rationally to the level of effect our acts havereturn to index upon others. And whether those effects seriously interfere with the interests or freedoms of others.

The link between ethics and the ‘Tragedy of the commons

When is it reasonable to curtail the freedom of another by the establishment of ‘a’ law? In many human situations there exists a common nuisance, such as air pollution by car exhaust to which all transport users contribute a small part. The end result is a major problem, for it reduces the quality of life for all.

Consider the single driver who decides to use a car for a 400-yard journey to a drug vendor in order to buy a tobacco fix. Clearly the driver is rather unconcerned with breathing pollution, or they would hardly choose a drug delivery system that involved the ingestion of smoke. Meanwhile, a child is rushed to hospital with breathing difficulties aggravated by traffic pollution. Cigarette smoke is but one contributor to the poor air quality among millions.

If the cigarette addict were the only person to drive a car, there would exist no noticeable bad air problem. The problem arises from the mass effect of, sometimes, millions of vehicles, including the vehicle that took the gasping child to the hospital. The cigarette smoker made a calculation, “which is most important to me? That I have to walk 400 yards or that I lower the chance of a child getting problems by a minuscule amount, even my ‘own’ child?” The balance came down clearly upon saving effort. Likewise, the use of the ambulance with its extra pollution was also considered profitable to the parents, health workers, local politicians and ambulance driver.

A situation like this is called ‘a tragedy of the commons[15]. This technical term comes from days gone past when all villagers held a piece of land in ‘common’, each villager was able to put as many animals to graze upon it as they wished. For any individual, the situation was clear: “If I put one more animal on the common, I would improve my lot”. Trouble arose when every villager acted upon that calculation, with the end result that the common became over-grazed, the animals were weak through malnourishment and the common land became threadbare. The situation remained however for any individual: another animal was a bonus.

Thus individual advantage was inevitably accompanied by village poverty.

The only reasonable solution for the village is to pass a law restricting each villager to a given number of animals, such that the commons is not overloaded. Likewise to control traffic pollution, the only useful route is to ration emissions. In order to develop such laws, we have established a representative democracy. That however is another issue[16], my concern here is primarily with the empiric logic of reality, not its application beyond the requirements of illustration.

Returning to the categories of law outlined previously, one prime area in which the application of law makes sense in a tolerant society is, then, where the social cost of not having a law clearly outweighs the cost of imposing any law under consideration. With such an analysis it becomes simpler to evaluate which ‘crimes’ are relatively victimless. (See alsoreturn to index excluded middle.)

Tolerance as a necessary social imperative

The other major legitimate application of law is the control of intrusion. The costs to society in allowing casual murder clearly waste considerable resources, as every member of that society must spend great effort constantly checking to see whether a potential murderer is attempting to sneak up and do them in. There is a second serious objection to murder, people don’t like it and it is inclined to cause social disruption, as in societies where the vendetta is common.

The anarchist imperative is

your freedom ends when you step on my toes.

Toleration is not just some add-on for especially nice guys, it is a basis for comfortable and effective society. There is no magical fundamentalist answer to ethical questions. But there are solid pragmatic reasons for living according to certain general principles. I am proposing that these principles are essentially the two listed here:

tragedy of the commons avoidance and non-intrusion.

Any laws that do not clearly meet these principles are damaging to peace and progress. Only laws founded in negotiation and tolerance are likely to forward a peaceful community. With ever-growing weaponry, it would be well to remove unneeded sources of friction if we hope to survive and live happily ever after.

It may be imagined that laws be based upon another principle “some compulsion to be kind” but this will not do. Such attempts have been at the heart of much of the worst abuses of humanity in the 20th century. Socialism has been described as ‘Fraternity by compulsion’. For example, Hitler said, “Human solidarity is imposed upon men by force and can be maintained only by the same means.”[17] Laws to impose ‘kindness’ must be entirely rejected; we must rely upon social example and reason alone for attaining those ends. It is, however, in our interests to ensure some form of equity if we are not to live in a jungle: such is not imposed kindness but enlightened self-interest. For the few to corral a major part of necessary resources can engender poverty, and in extremes, starvation upon the remainder. This is just as much attack (intrusion) as shooting them, for the effect is similar. We must maintain our own commons.

The eventual backing for law is force. The application of force consumes resources and is not the most pleasant application of human time, either for victim or jailor. Bearing in mind our human inability to know the mind of others, it is time our courts took a rather different approach to ‘criminals’. At the end of each trial where a person is found ‘guilty’, I would like to see judges read the following before or after sentencing:

“you are not being banged up because we do not like you, or because we think you are a naughty person,
but because you are a bloody nuisance”

and to see society adjusting, at all levels, to the consequences of this more sane response.return to index

It is well to keep constantly in mind that every situation is new, that so-called ‘principles’ are a substitute for thought, they must always be treated with caution.


The interests of others are their interests; they are not your interests. They may well co-operate with you if you make it worth their while, but they will do it for their own reasons. Likewise, if people harm you, hurt you or irritate you, it is most unlikely that is their direct intention; their actions will be related to their own needs and objectives, flavoured with a goodly degree of clumsiness. Remember, the child does not understand the world well enough to understand that others have will and objectives. The child’s original inclination is to treat you as furniture. Many an adult never gets beyond the childlike stage. Blame and anger are both inappropriate in these conditions, they are also time-wasting and ineffective.

All humans steer a course of optimising self-interest, while attempting to avoid dangers and barriers. Each action of a human is a result of a cost-benefit analysis (COBA).

The ‘criminal’ listens carefully to accusers divining the story that they wish to hear....
The ‘politician’ speaks carefully with many audiences in mind....
The ‘student’, in pursuit of good grades, steers a course between their understanding of the real world and their need to pander to the myths of their ignorant, middle-class ‘teachers’, the students usually becoming conditioned (operant conditioning) to those myths in the course of repeating them.
The person who ‘loves’ you has come to recognise you as a source of much gain, whereas the person whoreturn to index ‘hates’ you sees you as a block to their own objectives.

Negotiation and iteration

Exchange of advantage is part of the process of human relationships and, therefore, informs political and economic trade (see also iteration). Words are essential to what Aristotle would call the ‘political animal’.

This brings into focus a long-standing place of rhetoric in classical education. In classical education, the trivium was separated into three parts of order of increasing complexity: grammar, rhetoric and logic (dialectic). Grammar and logic were not regarded as separate, but correctly viewed as highly interrelated

Logic has remained tied to the false and rigid categories and the many misunderstandings of Aristotle, ultimately grounded in the physical nature of the human intellectual apparatus. Step by step as we learn, the misunderstandings are being removed. As they are removed, so it becomes easier to discuss political and psychological processes, and much else, with increasing clarity and greater humility. The process is resisted by vested interests that gain from a refusal to negotiate, clinging to rigid forms, and by the lazy mind that prefers to avoid the greater effort involved in taking others into account.

Through time, an instinct for these problems was common amongst intelligent and educated people. What was lacking was expressive clarity. The drive for clarity clashes with the confusion, arrogance and imagined certainty, encouraged by the functionaries of the Church and State. The animal drive to dominate, and the natural avoidance of any apparently redundant effort, further conspire against careful communication. For these reasons, the constant drive for conformity and dogma common to institutions has historically been in tension with those who studied logic.

Thus, the attempt to control the education process was exhibited by the likes of Bernard of Clairvaux and, more recently, by Hitler’s avowed wish to strictly limit education amongst Slavic people as part of his planning to establish enslavement. These habits still pervade society, even when the motivation is unclear or has ceased to be productive or even survival fit.

For a better world and a better education, these processes must become overt and clearly taught in a new basic curriculum. Skinner (the logic of ethics - abelard; with commentary on Abelard's ethical teachingref. needed) suggested that we might control ourselves by controlling our environment. At present, we are much controlled by our historically and genetically inherited environment. We have inherited cultural and educational dogmatism from the abuse injected when the fundamentalist cult of Christianism successfully return to indexcolonised the educational process in the service of the oppressive state. This rigid dogmatism is now blocking human progress and social peace.

The trial of Abelard for heresy at Sens in 1140

This is the second[18] of three documents on this web-site to treat the thought of Abelard of Le Pallet.

Abelard was tried for heresy under nineteen headings or ‘capitula’.

Here, I shall deal with those capitula that were directly related to the ethical teachings of Abelard.

[I shall discuss the capitula in the following order: 7, 6, 9, 12, 19, 8, 4, 11. The rest are treated in “Logic has made me hated among men”.]

A major source for the heresy accusations by Bernard of Clairvaux was Liber Sententiarum[19]. It is abundantly clear to me that the trial of Abelard was essentially a show trial and vendetta by the extremely powerful and influential authoritarian, Bernard of Clairvaux.

My interest is in examining the modern tendency both to rubbish Abelard and to attempt to reclaim him as a supporter for authoritarian christianism. My intent is to try to fathom something of what Abelard did mean by his words, in order to clarify my understanding of his perception and grasp of logic. I am interested to know to what extent the political accusations reflected accurately a threat, clearly perceived by the authoritarians who attacked Abelard’s teachings.

I want to understand if the threat was real by virtue of an attack on the fundamentals of logic by Abelard, or whether he just had some trivially differing views of dogma which were regarded as dangerous by an obscurantist, power-obsessed and jealous ‘authority’. Was Abelard an early post-Aristotelian or was he just another, albeit early, scholastic, as many have attempted to claim? It is my growing view that he was far more than just a re-discoverer of Aristotle, but that he was a forerunner of the critique of Aristotelian logic, which I am presenting on this site. If he was a modernist, he posed a real twelfth-century threat to the authoritarians and dogmatists. Such an interpretation accords with the reality that Abelard was perceived in his time as a new Aristotle and became the most famous man of his age. It would also put into context the great effort made by Rome to suppress his work, and his importance as a dissenter from his own time, right down to the present day.

Abelard has been accused of at least four heresies. I have prepared a document at this site on the various main heresies according to the Church of Rome and I shall insert links to that document as necessary. There may be shadowy links from Abelard to the various and growing movements of dissent that developed eventually into the reformation and modern relativism. Abelard taught very widely and his hearers were among the most influential minds of his age.

My prime sources are Little and Luscombe. However, my interest is in the logic of Abelard and his relationships with medieval authoritarianism or humanism; not with the world of historical scholarship,return to index but with the social implications and impact of logic on authority.


The seventh capitulum stated: ‘That God can do or forego only those things, or only in that manner, or at that time, in which he does, not in another’. It is essential to grasp, from the outset, that Abelard is rational enough to regard ‘god’ as quite beyond human reason. He clearly understands, or believes, that ‘god’ cannot be discussed within the categories of human (Aristotelian) logic. All that may be discussed is what various humans have said about ‘god’. Abelard’s interest concerns human reasoning about ‘god’, in other words communication logic.[20] . Thus Abelard disputes the application of categoric logic to ‘god’ or, as I understand Abelard, to reality. He is not really interested in discussing ‘god’, whatever that may mean.

Abelard is interested in what it means to do what is done at one time, at another time. This he sees as contradictory. Bernard saw it as a limitation of the power of ‘god’. Abelard saw it as a daft statement by a human. Luscombe seems to misunderstand the issue just as Bernard did, for he calls the accusation of the capitulum ‘right’. However, Little correctly sees the accusation as false. In the context of Abelard’s Sic et Non which provocatively lists 158 headings with contrasting and apparently contradictory statements from various authorities, it appears clear to me that Abelard is indeed questioning of established authority. In which case, the perception of Bernard is not unfounded, for if the authorities are unreliable the authority is claiming too much.

See section 1 of Abelard’s categories.
On unity of ‘god’ see ‘heresies’, authority, quarrels and words.


Grace appears to mean ‘drive to good’. From above, if god is unknowable and god defines evil, how is evil to be known and thence consent to evil defined? Or, if authority is unreliable, again, how do we know truth or good with reliability.

The sixth capitulum is, ‘That free choice by itself suffices for something good’.

Luscombe claims that this ‘appears to be a caricature of Abelard’s teaching’, whereas Little just regards it as doubtful. I think their case is sound, but whether my reasons run with Luscombe and Little I cannot say. In his commentary on Romans, Abelard used the simile of an invalid having to be propped up by his doctor in order to take medicine and argued that man cannot receive grace unless he has grace

In this capitulum which William of Thierry reproduced from two passages of the Liber Sententiarum in which, not only are continuing enabling graces eliminated, but a place is found for purely human achievements which earn merit from God. This may easily be translated into a form such as ‘we are born with the potential for good’ or ‘we are born with reason’. That this potential comes from the unknowable ‘god’, allows a belief in ‘goodness’ with no pretence to understand the source. The writer of Liber Sententiarum supposes that it is by the use of reason that the prudent man attaches himself to the grace offered by God. William, complaining that this is Pelagianism[21], asks where is the predestination or vocation.

But Abelard only rejected the theory that envisaged a new grace preceding each good act in favour of a simpler model. According to this model, an equal gift is offered to all, consisting of the explanation and the promise of the happiness of God’s kingdom. This itself suffices to fire a person with desire. This is the faith which stimulates the elect to will the good, but which the damned, in their torpor, inexcusably neglect. If one may will the good by virtue of what one is, then the capitulum may be accurate; however, it involves no charge that will stick. Abelard is going to be able to argue that we are able to will the good by virtue of the manner in which we are created or in the nature of what we are. We are then predestined in some such sense to be capable of good. If this was his expression, Abelard has produced a formula that can be read in many ways, including ways that do not become ‘Pelagianism’ or, alternatively, that may. We must look further for evidence to fathom whether, and to what degree, Abelard had Pelagianist tendencies.

Nature of sin and the place of ignorance

The ninth capitulum is ‘That they did not sin, who, ignorant, crucified Christ, and that whatever is done through ignorance is not to be ascribed to guilt’.

Abelard argues that the prayer on the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ [22], shows that the crucifiers were ignorant. In their ignorance, the crucifiers did not offer that contempt of God nor make that consent to evil which constitutes sin in the proper sense; their ignorance excuses them from culpa. The deed is objectively wrong and punishment would have been reasonable, although Christ preferred to offer an example of love and patience. This is of course compatible with the analytical principles of Abelard as discussed above.

In his Confessio fidei[23] Abelard held that deeds of ignorance acquire culpa, but he insists that this is chiefly the case with negligent ignorance when we ignore what we should know. From a brilliant logician, this looks to me like a fudge to appease authority. It is clear that ‘should know’ is a meaningless idea when presented in a context of ignorance of ‘sin’. I think it next to certain Abelard appreciated this. To me, it looks suspiciously like a logician’s joke: designed to be read clearly by other logicians but to his ignorant tormentors, appearing to be a concession. A message to posterity, that he is mocking his detractors. I have no doubt that Abelard’s ‘contempt’ for his dogmatic and authoritarian contemporaries was clear to them and was, for them, extremely galling. (For more, see “Logic has made me hated among men”.)

Neutrality of acts - intentions

The twelfth capitulum is ‘That on account of works (acts) neither better nor worse is brought about’.

This accurately summarises Abelard’s teaching, especially as it is presented in the Ethica where Abelard argued that human actions are in themselves morally indifferent and that a man’s merit or guilt is determined, not by what he does, but by his intention. An action considered concretely or objectively adds nothing to merit or guilt, which are earned by the will. Walter of Mortagne asked Abelard whether he taught this, while William of St Thierry charged Abelard with saying that sinful consent is not augmented by the sinful action. The anonymous Excerptor produced two quotations, neither identifiable in the Ethica, but both consonant with Abelard’s teaching.

The nineteenth capitulum goes further: ‘That neither the deed nor the will nor the desire, nor the delight which moves it, is a sin, nor ought we wish to extinguish it’. In other words: wanting does not make sin, only acts do; so ‘lusting in the heart’ is no sin. This view is counter to the habitual guilt inculcation of most christianism.

Abelard wrote in the Ethica that all actions are in themselves morally indifferent, and that both natural pleasure and concupiscence are not sins. Abelard refers to sin in its strictest sense, as contempt of God and consent to known evil; for example, in his eighth sermon Abelard described sins of deed. In his commentary on Romans, while probing the concept of sin, Abelard was insistent that culpa could only ensue from a deliberate contempt of God by the free will.

The eighth capitulum is that we did not contract guilt from Adam, but only penalty. Newborn children cannot offer contempt of god, nor has all mankind consented to Adam’s own culpa. Original sin in us is, therefore, the debt of damnation with which we are bound because of the fault (culpa) of our first parents. Whether Abelard imagined that this inheritance was natural or cultural is not clear, very likely the distinction would not have been in his thinking. William asserted that it is the culpa, which is forgiven in baptism while the poena (punishment) survives in the tribulations of life.


The fourth capitulum states, ‘That Christ did not assume flesh to liberate us from the yoke of the devil’. Abelard could not brook any limitation on God's power and his solution of the dilemma was a form of exemplarism.[25] Abelard says that, ‘He persisted even unto death in teaching us by word and by example.’

Abelard’s critics seized on this theory of redemption. In his commentary on Romans, Abelard, following Anselm of Canterbury, had rejected the view that Christ’s[26] death was a ransom paid to the devil who, upon receipt, surrendered his rights over mankind. Instead Abelard taught that men, far from belonging to the devil by any right, through the sin of Adam (which I translate to mean, ‘by their nature’) had themselves entered into subjection to the devil. In other words, ‘evil’ is an (‘inherited’) free choice made by humans. Some early theory claims that Jesus overcame this ‘inherited’ guilt and so ‘delivered’ humans by his example. This is quite close to Abelard’s position.

This is echoed in Abelard’s theological position that sin, and thus ‘the’ devil, is an absence (zero). You cannot be released from an absence. Again, this is a deeply logical approach for Abelard to apply to his theory of ethics.

The only ius[27] which the devil could be said to have gained by seducing men, was by the permit of God, who allowed him to act as torturer or gaoler. The price of blood was not paid to the devil but to God. Abelard believed that Christ’s life and passion were an example of love: our redemption is the love, which Christ showed in his passion. Abelard challenged the wisdom of allowing the devil a central place in an explanation of redemption. The charge in this capitulum is too categorical (at least when compared with Abelard’s Commentary), for it charges Abelard with denying that Christ intended to liberate men from the devil’s power. For ‘the devil’s power’, read ‘sin’ or ‘evil’, also compare with excluded middle box. Abelard’s struggle to harmonise his own clear insights into human behaviour and problems of ‘evil’, with the dogma and confusions of church perspectives is here apparent.

When Abelard developed the exemplarist thesis, he had not denied thereby that christ had intended to liberate people from the devil’s power, he had just ‘clarified’ the issue. Abelard taught that Christ’s death achieved the liberation from subjection to sin and the people’s freedom as children of God by example. By this route, Abelard had enlarged the part played by human will and thus could be regarded as moving at least somewhat toward a pelagianist position[28]. He had also effectively ‘humanised’ the actions of Jesus by moving away from the pagan idea of ‘sacrifice’. Thus it is, in my view, reasonable to conclude that Abelard exhibited genuine Pelagian or ‘modernist’ tendencies. This makes the charge of Pelagian ‘heresy’ at least meaningful in the context of a jealous and dogmatic authoritarian.

William of St Thierry disputed Abelard’s theory by distinguishing three elements: redemption, the (an) example of humility and incitement to charity. Abelard had alighted upon the last alone. The charge in the capitulum was trumped up on the basis of Liber Sententiarum. If Abelard was indeed intending a message of unaided human action to good, then this further reinforces a suspicion of Pelagianism, thus again emphasising the individual against authority. The case grows that authority had realistic fears of this able and famous critic.

Powers of clergy

The eleventh capitulum is ‘That the power of binding and loosing[29] was given only to the apostles, and not to their successors’. This was an ongoing contention in dogma. Unsurprisingly, the idea was threatening and unpopular with the power establishment of the Church. This approach is sometimes referred to as the heresy of Donatism.

 I am surprised not to have yet found any comment on Donatism with respect to Abelard. Again, Abelard’s views upon this matter seem to be a direct conflict with authority and so he temporises, doubtless because of the political difficulties.

In the Ethica, Abelard suggested that power was given especially to the apostles, but not generally to all bishops because many lack religion and discretion (note the lack of qualifying clarity in the capitulum). He notes that various promises were given at various times by Christ to the apostles. Abelard also believes that the gift of the Spirit to remit or retain sins[30] was addressed exclusively to the apostles and to those successors who share their worthiness. He quotes from Jerome, Origen and Gregory to show that the power of the keys[31] is tied to a power of discernment, to merit and to justice. Abelard also argues that the power of the keys granted to Peter can mean merely the power, granted to all bishops, of excommunicating and readmitting into the church.

Further related reading For related psycho-logical documents, start with


1 capitulum: heading, trial accusation
1a Thomist: of Thomas Aquinas

affect: the presentation of a feeling/emotion, as in ‘to show affect’.
effect: the result or consequence of an act.
The meaning of ‘affect’ is being gradually corrupted and confused with 'effect' in current English usage.
Note: even one of the (very large number of) examples of ‘affect’ in the full OED uses the word ‘incorrectly’.

3 For further discussion, see essence, meaning and empathy in Why Aristotelian logic does not work on this site.
4 Denying parity to the two sides of the value scale in this manner, and maintaining that avoidance of disutility is ethically more important than promotion of utility, is known as negative utilitarianism.
5 The ‘Cartesian’ ambition for expressive ‘certainty’ is an analogous example of similarly erroneous ‘thinking’.
6 Over a long period, Rolf Landauer has written many papers on the physical constraints of computers, and thus on computation. The following references are just examples:
Computation and Physics: Wheeler’s meaning circuit? Foundation of Physics, vol.16, no.6, 1986, (Plenum Press, New York), pp.551 – 564
The Uncertainty Principle and minimal energy dissipation in the computer, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, vol.2 no.3/4 (Plenum Press, ISSN0020-0748), April 1982, pp. 283 Ᾱ 298

The scientific attack upon the dogmatic authoritarianism of the christianist corporation can be divided for convenience into 3 sectors:
1) the attack upon the physical cosmology of the ‘Churches’ by the likes of Copernicus and Galileo;
2) the attack upon the biological cosmology by Darwin; and
3) the attack upon the psychological cosmology by Abelard, Freud and myself.

In each instance, the Church struggles with great force to maintain its control of the minds of humanity, but is forced back inch by inch as science and freedom advance.

8 Clanchy, 1997, p.169, and his endnote 113 on p.368.
9 Widely known as the Golden Rule, it this appears in Matthew (7:12) This rule of conduct is regarded as a summary of the Christian's duty to his neighbour and states a fundamental ethical principle. In its negative form, “Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourselves”, it occurs in the 2nd-century documents Didache and the Apology of Aristides and may well have formed part of an early catechism. It is not peculiar to Christianity. Its negative form is to be found in Tobias. 4:15, in the writings of the two great Jewish scholars Hillel (1st century BC) and Philo of Alexandria (1st centuries BC and AD), and in the Analects of Confucius (6th and 5th centuries BC). It also appears in one form or another in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca.
10 projection: to generalise out one’s own experiences and apply them to others. This is a fundamental error of psychological thought.
11 Matthew: chapter 7, verse 3
12 rationalise: to make up ‘reasons’ after the event to ‘explain’ why the event occurred.
13 Brouwer, L.E.J., Collected Works, Vol. 1: On the Foundations of Mathematics, 1907, p. 73
14 weltanschauung: world view.
15 for an excellent development of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ see
Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. this is must reading for any who wish to understand society.
16 a useful place to start is R.S. Katz, Democracy and Elections.
17 Fest, 1979, p.71 (Picker, 1951, entry for 11 April, 1942).
18 See also Abelard of Le Pallet, introduction.

[Pages quoted in this endnote all come from Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard]
The anonymous work Liber Sententiarum is probably a source for the anonymous Excerptor  (p.108). Several of the capitula were compiled by William of St. Thierry from the Excerptor, which is Bernard of Clairvaux’s prime source. (p.136)

To spell it out, Bernard got it from William, who got it from the anonymous Exerptor, who got it from The anonymous Liber Sententiarum.!!

Liber Sententiarum is thought to be derived from Abelard’s teachings but Abelard disclaimed authorship. I tend to wonder if the Liber Sententiarum was forged to assist the purpose of convicting Abelard. To quote Abelard, “the devil even if he does interpret scripture badly at least gives the actual words of scripture which he misinterprets. But you are so far from both my words and my meaning and you labour over arguments taken from your inventions rather than from my sayings”.(p.109)

Abelard also wrote, ‘there is a well-known proverb: nothing is so well said that it cannot be twisted’. He claimed that the charges made at the council of Sens were ‘framed in malice and ignorance’.

Also quoted by Luscombe, p.114, (his source: C. H. Talbot).
‘Bernard displayed stupefying credulity.’ One could imagine other motivations.

20 see for example, Clanchy, 1997, p. 106
21 Pelagianism: denial of original sin and the need for grace.  For more, see ‘heresies’, authority, quarrels and words
22 Luke chapter 23, verse 34
23 Confessio fidei  (Confession of faith) was a response to the show trial at Sens. It is in the nature of a forced confession, but it appears riddled with logician’s tricks to appease while not accepting. The Church and its apologists use it illegitimately to claim Abelard as submissive to their will and dogma. See also Clanchy, 1997, p. 118.

See also the idea of one god, in ‘heresies’, authority, quarrels and words.

25 exemplarism: giving of example.


a) I will be examining the charges against Abelard with regard to the trinity in a later document.
b) For the moment, I will let the term ‘Christ’ stand for Jesus of Nazareth.
c) For an outline of christianist disputes, see ‘heresies’, authority, quarrels and words


ius: right
28 It would be clumsy to regard the assemblage of ideas subsisting under the label of ‘Pelagianism’ as some simple either/or concept.


E.g. ‘priests’ were held to have the power to release people from the effects of ‘sin’ or to pronounce excommunications.
30 John chapter 20, verses 22 – 3
31 Binding and loosing.


Axelrod, Robert  The Evolution of Cooperation pbk, 1985, Basic Books, 0465021212
$18 []/£12.20 []
Brouwer, L.E.J. Collected Works, Vol. 1; edited by A. Heyting 1975, out of print
Clanchy, M. T., Abelard, a Medieval Life
pbk, 1999, Blackwell Pub, 0631214445
£17.99 [] / $29.95 []

De Waal, Frans &
F. B. M. De Waal

Chimpanzee Politics: power and sex amongst apes

pbk, 2000, John Hopkins University Press, 0801863368
$18.95 []/ £14.00 []

hbk,1998, John Hopkins University Press, 0801858399
$19.68 []/£24.04 []

R.S. Katz Democracy and Elections 1997, OUP, 0195044290
£40 []
Little, Edward

Bernard of Clairvaux: Bernard and Abelard at the Council of Sens, 1140

(vol.23 of Studies presented to Dom Jean Leclerq)

1973, Cistercian Studies series, 0879078235
Cistercian Publications, Consortium Press,
Washington, D.C.
(Cistercian study series: 0879078006)
Out of print.

Luscombe, D.E., The School of Peter Abelard 1969 Cambridge U. P., SBN 521073375
out of print
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