Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 583:
PIERRE ABELARD

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 583.

Today, our search for the inventive mind takes us to a great love story. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who hasn't been torn by the story of Heloise and Abelard? Yet the story grows in power when we read it more closely.

Pierre Abelard was born in 1079. He studied linguistics, logic, and dialectic. His brilliance flung him to the center of medieval intellectual life. At 35, he was the reigning gladiator in the arenas of verbal combat. Angry losers ran him off from school after school. Then he took a teaching post at Notre Dame.

There, Fulbert, a canon of the Cathedral, put him to teaching his brilliant niece, Heloise. They became lovers, and then they secretly married. Abelard had lived his life from the neck up. Now, late in life, he learned to love. He wrote to Heloise,

Take thou this rose, O rose,
Since love's own flower it is,
And by that rose
Thy lover captive is.
When Fulbert found out, he sent his men to emasculate Abelard.

After that, Abelard and Heloise both took holy orders. Their love, far from fading, intensified. Abelard founded a convent. He called it "Consoling Spirit." Later, Heloise became the Abbess.

Of course there were two parties to this arrangement. But it's Abelard who tells us the most about himself in his writings.

We read the works of a philosopher with a powerful optimism about the human condition. He believes in the power of the mind to make sense of a world that crushes less hope-filled people.

Soon after he became a monk, Abelard was in trouble again. At the Monastery of St. Denis he condemned the sloth and worldliness he found there. Later, he was given charge of a monastery in Brittany. There, disgruntled monks tried to murder him.

Abelard wrote and wrote. He was in constant hot water. Church councils condemned his books. The Pope censured him.

Yet he sailed on with an ebullient belief in the human mind and the human spirit. He wrote a logical agenda for scientific inquiry. He argued for skepticism. He pointed out that scripture had to be fallible if only because the scribes who copied it made mistakes. Reason, he told us, was the ultimate friend of faith -- not its enemy.

So this was the man whose love was unshaken even when its physical expression was hacked away. Afterward, Abelard wrote:

Peace, O my stricken lute!
Thy strings are sleeping.
Would that my heart could still
Its bitter weeping!
But through his anguish shines high principle and a redeeming belief that the intellect, fueled by love, can set things right. In the end, Abelard showed us the creative implements of human transcendence.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Wadell, H., The Wandering Scholars. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955.

Minio-Paluello, L., Abailard, Pierre. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 1, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980, pp. 1-4.

For a look at all this from Heloise's side, see Episode 759.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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