Saturday, August 6, 2016

Homage to Abélard

France, part 6.

At the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on July 23, the lines were very long just to get through security inspections and enter inside. This was only to be expected, since it was a Saturday during tourist season, and was also a response to the nearly daily terrorist attacks, such as a few days earlier (July 14) in Nice, and more recent ones in Germany. But I had already seen enough ornate cathedral decorations (see an earlier essay about the Strasbourg cathedral, also called Notre Dame). What I wanted to see and experience inside was something that was probably either off limits at the best of times, or maybe locations now lost to the historical record.

I wanted to see the chamber in which Peter Abélard lived in the twelfth century, and the classroom in which he taught.

Abélard was most famous for being the 35-year-old monk who had a torrid love affair with the 19-year-old nun Heloïse, in revenge for which her Uncle Fulbert arranged to have Abélard castrated. But Abélard was also one of the planet’s major scholars of his time, and Heloïse was an accomplished scholar herself.

And the thing that made Abélard different from all the other scholars was that his primary rule, first, last, and always, was to question what we think we know and what the authorities have told us. His famous quote, preserved in various forms, was this:  “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” This was the closest that any scholar had yet come to the scientific method.

Abélard’s world was extremely limited compared to ours today. He could not have imagined the vastness of the universe, or even that Earth was just a planet like the others that revolved around the sun. He could not have imagined Copernicus, much less Darwin. To him, the universe was as orderly as an astrolabe, the little device that calculated the time and the phases of the moon and the positions of the planets based upon a geocentric model. He and Heloïse even named their love child Astrolabius! But he stretched his mind as far as anyone could at the time.

So I satisfied myself with seeing Notre Dame de Paris from the outside. It was splendid, as the photos show, but not as significant as the contribution that Abélard made to the history of scientific thought.

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