An Unlikely Place for Advice

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One would not think that insight would be gained in reading instructions from a 12th century monk to a 12th century nun on how to run her convent, even if the monk is Abelard and the nun is Heloise — tragic lovers and key figures of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance– and yet located within The Letters of Abelard and Heloise is a corrective to people who trump tradition (or custom) over truth.

The version I have is the Penguin Classics paperback translated by Betty Radice.  On page 224, Abelard writes:

The superior must take care that he orders well since it is sufficient for his subjects to obey well and not to follow their own will but, as they professed, that of their superiors.  For we absolutely forbid that custom should ever be set above reason; a practice must never be defended on grounds of custom but only of reason, not because it is usual but because it is good, and it should be more readily accepted the better it is shown to be.

He then quotes St. Augustine, who says:

‘Whoever despises truth and presumes to follow custom is either ill-disposed and hostile toward his fellow-men, to whom truth is revealed, or he is ungrateful to God on whose inspiration his Church is founded.’  Again, ‘In the Gospel the Lord says “I am Truth.” He did not say “I am custom.”  And so as truth was made manifest, custom must yield to truth.’  Again, ‘Since the truth was revealed, error must yield to truth, just as Peter who was previously circumcised, yielded to Paul who preached truth.’

He then goes on to quote other learned men of the church and Biblical passages, but one more passage will suffice, in Abelard’s own words (p. 225):

In taking counsel no one should follow the larger number of men but the better men; it is not a man’s years which should be considered but his wisdom, and regard paid not to friendship but to truth.

In light of ideological arguments against climate change, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights, one sees a preference for custom.  And yet, here is an argument from a man who is part of that custom, convincingly writing that custom must give way to the truth.  Not that Abelard’s views were always welcome (he was excommunicated by the Pope, though the sentence was later lifted), or that his truths are our truths (for example, he believed that women were less likely to become intoxicated than men due to their moist, porous skin).  Yet today, we would do well to consider the words of the greatest logician of his time, and give over our prejudices and fears to what the better men are telling us.

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