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Heloise on ancient philosophy as a way of life

Donka Markus

University of Michigan

The 12th century scholar, philosopher and refined stylist Heloise whose prose shows influences from Ovid, Vergil, Lucan, Persius, Seneca Cicero, Augustine and Jerome, is only recently beginning to emerge from the shadow of Peter Abelard through the efforts of modern scholars (Newman 1992; McNamer 1991 et al.) who focus on her unique intelligence to which even Abelard may have been indebted (Marenbon 1997, Clanchy 1998). This paper contributes to this effort to reassess Heloise, a remarkable erudite with knowledge of Greek and Hebrew (McLeod 1971.90), well versed in the trivium, quadrivium, theology and philosophy (McNamer 1991. 49-72).

Heloise’s perspective on philosophy as a way of life and her sense, rare for her time, ‘of the ancient philosophers as imitable paradigms of virtue’ so far got only a passing mention (Levitan 2007. xxii). My paper will examine Heloise’s thoroughness and use of even obscure examples in making her case, which was in conflict with the argumentative version of philosophy practiced by Abelard. Her view remarkably anticipates all aspects of Pierre Hadot’s now influential thesis in his Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995; 2011) and in his What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002).

Heloise’s representation of the philosopher as a moral exemplar and embodiment of the ideal of self-control to be followed even by the Christian monk, grows out of the arguments she presents to Abelard against marriage a) at the end of Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum where he quotes her arguments and b) in the second letter of Heloise which is a response to Ablelard’s Historia. Despite the doubts surrounding the authenticity of the couple’s correspondence (Marenbon 1997.82ff, 2000.19ff), most scholars accept Heloise as a final editor who could modify in Abelard’s letters misrepresentations of her arguments. Thus, the views on philosophy as a way of life must belong to her, especially since her aim in presenting them is to shame Abelard into aspiring to follow the example of the ancient philosophers since he did not live up to his monastic vows.

In the letters, she underscores Augustine’s reference to the Pythagoreans who stood out with a certain praiseworthy way of life (modo.. vitae, De Civitate Dei 8.2) and excelled with ‘the quality of their life rather than with their knowledge’ (Abelard’s referencing Heloise’s arguments in Historia Calamitatum).

Heloise’ independent view on philosophy as a way of life and as a blend of reason and heart (Nye 1996.40) is consistent with her intellectual independence.  At the opening of her Problemata, study questions posed to Abelard that arose from discussions of scripture with her student-nuns, she highlights Jerome’s praise for Marcella (Smith 2002.179). Marcella’s ardor for wisdom and broad, wise mind which did not value prejudged authority without reason, but subjected Jerome’s answers to questioning in the Pythagorean manner, was a model for Heloise.

Most church writers were deeply conflicted in their relationship to the Classics. Their reliance on them was paired with distrust (cf. Jerome’ Epistula  ad Eustochium) and they labeled the pagans as unworthy custodians of divine wisdom (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana II.60-61). By contrast, Heloise seamlessly mixes Classical with ecclesiastical models, presenting herself as an emulator not just of Marcella, but also of Aspasia, Pericles’ amica of 5th BCE whom she also calls philosopha.

Because of her expert and seamless use of Classical models and freedom of thought, Heloise fits perfectly into the intellectual climate of the 12th century Renaissance with its keen sense of its own modernitas (Curtius 1953.254-5). I show in this paper that Heloise went even further and looked ahead towards the Italian Renaissance, specifically in her understanding of philosophy as a way of life, in her unflinching use of ancient philosophical examples and in her sincere effort to follow both Classical and post-Classical models of philosophical virtue, to which she exhorts Abelard to aspire as well.

Session/Panel Title

The Philosophical Life

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