Know Thyself[1][2]

Note: Instead of using the translation of Abelard's Ethics in HW as assigned (which has the Prologue and chapters 1-3, 7-8, 11-12), the translation in Luscombe's "Peter Abelard's Ethics" was used. Page numbers in square brackets refer to the odd number pages (i.e., those pages in English) in Luscombe's translation.

1. What differentiates moral vices and virtues from non-moral vices and virtues?

Abelard considers morals to be "vices and virtues of the mind which make us prone to bad or good works" [3]. This characterization places two qualifications on vices/virtues: a) that is of the mind, and b) that which makes us prone to bad or good works. The former eliminates any physical attribute from the moral realm. Even those physical qualities that might be considered instrumentally good or bad (e.g., strength/weakness, swiftness/sluggishness, upright/limpness, and vision/blindness) are not good or bad in the moral sense. The latter qualification eliminates any mental quality that does not by itself make one prone to good or bad acts. Although mental qualities such as ignorance, dullness, and forgetfulness seem to affect our ability to choose good or bad acts, they themselves do not make us prone towards good or bad works and as such are not in the moral realm [3]. Knowledge of what is good and bad is irrelevant to moral virtues and vices. Even newborn babies, unaware of God and religious teaching, are capable of having moral virtues and vices[3].

A fuller characterization, that does not use the terms `good' or `bad', would be that morals are that which make us prone to consent to the contempt or reverence of God.

Moral vices include such things as lust, gluttony, irascibility, and the desire to kill.

2. What is sin?

Sin is allowing ourselves to consent to contempt against God [5]. A more humanistic characterization would be that sin "is acting against our conscience" [Gilson. p.140]. Sins come in degrees from some damnable sins such as those considered criminal to venial sins that include those lustful dreams and when we forget ourselves and drink too much [69-71]. The key to committing a sin is consenting to vice, even if we do not have that vice (e.g., the unwilling killing of the cruel lord (see below)), where vices are the contempt for the wishes of God.

3. Why is the presence of evil will or desire neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for sin?

Evil will is not a necessary condition for sin as it is possible to unwillingly sin. The example that Abelard gives is an innocent man who unwillingly kills his cruel lord in order to stop the lord from killing him. It is unwilling as he does not want to kill his lord, and yet a sin as he consents to kill him [7-9].

Evil will is not a sufficient condition for sin as it is possible to have evil will and yet not sin. A continent person can have the evil will of lusting after a woman, yet not consent to the lusting. What is damnable is the consent of the will for sex, and not the will itself. The desire to do what is against the wishes of God itself is "by no means to be called a sin, but rather… the consent itself." [15]

4. Is sin voluntary?

In Scito Te Ipsum, Abelard refines his earlier position[4] that `every sin is voluntary' to that by which `some sins are involuntary'. A counter-example of the former is that it is possible to lust after a married woman in which lusting after her would be permitted if she was single. The lusting is consented towards the woman, yet the consent itself is unwanted because she is married [17]. The fact that makes it a sin is that it is unwanted.

5. What is the relation between sin and pleasure?

Abelard rejects asceticism, that is, the idea that one should act in such a way that one gets no pleasure, as that practice makes unreasonable demands of people. It would be absurd to do acts, such as sex and eating pleasurable food, in a manner that is wholly without pleasure, as they would "be done in a way in which they cannot be done at all" [21]. To deny pleasure is to deny the acts altogether or put people in the untenable position that they have to sin. Abelard's God would not be so cruel so to make food tasty in order to make us sin.

An example Abelard gives is of a man that is chained down and pleasured without consent. Since this man does not give into consent, he should not be faulted for that he feels a pleasure made necessary by nature [19-21].

While pleasure is not necessarily sinful, Abelard does not discuss whether sin is or is not necessarily pleasurable.

6. Why is the presence of an action neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for sin?

The presence of an action is not a necessary condition for sin, as it is possible to sin without performing an action. For someone to sin, they merely have to consent to the contempt of the wishes of God. They do not have to act upon their consent. Moreover, the act adds nothing to the sin [15] and action is irrelevant to whether someone has sinned or not.

When someone goes to commit adultery and the intended partner refuses, the intended's refusal should not effect whether the first has sinned or not. Abelard follows Matthew 5:28, "`whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her,' that is, whosoever shall look in such a way as to fall into consent to lust, `hath already committed adultery in his heart', although he has no committed the deed of adultery, that is, he is already guilty of sin although he is still without its outcome." [25]

The presence of an action is not a sufficient condition for sin, as it is possible to perform a naughty action without sinning. These actions can be done, not by consent, but by ignorance, coercion, and under some other circumstances. While the Bible[5] forbids having sex with siblings, it is sometimes not known that they are your siblings. Similarly, Oedipus did not sin when he took his mother as this was done under ignorance. When a married man rapes a woman, she has not sinned as the act was done by coercion [25]. Although the bible[6] also says `Thou shalt not kill', it is not prima facie obvious that people have committed sin if they have killed. It is one's will and consent that relevant to sin, not action [27].

Furthermore, if one were to place fault by action alone, then one would say that God, Jesus, and Judas committed the same sin as all three delivered up Jesus. Abelard would not claim that these similar deeds were equivalent.

7. What is the function of punishment?

Vices, sins and actions are irrelevant to punishment on earth; instead, it is for the appearance of naughty actions that people are punished. Abelard's system of punishment is not distributive, retributive, or corrective; it is merely used, preventatively, to discourage future naughty acts. That a person has appeared to commit an unlawful act is sufficient for punishment, even if it was done without vices, sin, or action.

A mother who accidentally smothers a baby has not committed a sin, but is punished nonetheless. (That is, there is no necessary condition of sin for punishment.) Furthermore, she is given a heavy punishment in order to for her and subsequent women to be more careful. (That is, there is no real relationship between the enormity of the crime and the punishment.) If an innocent man is given a trial in which the judge knows to that he is innocent and yet cannot rebut the false witnesses, then the judge ought to punish him. Abelard puts it succidently, "he ought to punish him who ought not be punished" [39]. (That is, there is no real relationship between an action and the punishment.)

The function of punishment is to provide knowledge of the law, by example, to discourage people from committing naughty acts. The mother did the crime out of the non-moral vice of ignorance, and the punishment is given in order to promote the non-moral virtue of knowledge. The innocent man is punished, not by any merit, but in order to inform people that they should not commit the act he was wrongly accused of doing. Abelard's theory of punishment is amoral.

Punishment is "in accordance not so much with the obligation of justice as with the practicalities of government, so as to ensure, as we have said, the common utility by preventing public injuries. Therefore we often punish the smallest sins with the largest penalties, not so much considering with the fairness of justice what fault went before, as thinking with the wisdom of foresight how much trouble can arise if they are punished lightly" [45]. That is, punishment is utilitarian in nature and the intentions of the accused are irrelevant.

Any concern for the faults of the mind are left to God. God will distributes everyone's punishment by fault, and equally for equal contempt [45]. Man is not concerned with fault when punishing, and will punish a monk harder than a layman.

8. What criteria can we use for assessing a) intentions and b) actions?

An intention is good "when, believing that one's objective is pleasing God, one is in no way deceived in one's own estimation" [55]. That is, beyond doing what seems to be good, one must also have the correct belief in what pleases God. One must use the dialectic (roughly, logic) to figure out what the correct belief is. One must know that they have, for instance, the correct interpretation of St. Paul.

An action is good only when it "proceeds from good intention" [53]. The same action can once be good and another time bad, depending on the corresponding intention. An analogy used is that the proposition `Socrates is seated' is sometimes true and sometimes false depending on whether he is seated or not.

[1] This essay was originally written for an undergraduate class in mediaeval philosophy. I like to thank Jenny Ashworth for her comments on the earlier draft.

[2] Besides our text Hyman and Walsh's Philosophy in the Middle Ages. (2nd edition, 1973, Indianapolis: Hackett),Paul Vincent Spade's A Survey of Mediaeval Philosophy (Version 2, 1985, hard copy), Luscombe's Peter Abelard's Ethics (1971, London: Oxford University Press), Sikes's Peter Abailard (1965, New York: Russell & Russell), Windelband's A History of Philosophy (1914 [1901], Norwood, Mass: Norwood Press), and Gilson's Heloise and Abelard (1972 [1960], Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) were consulted.

[3] Abelard says that infants should not have "no fault arising from contempt of God" [23] which implies that they are at least capable of vices, above being subject to original sin.

[4] Luscombe claims that in earlier works (which I have not read), "Abelard wrote that every sin is voluntary, i.e., freely chosen" [16-7.f1].

[5] Deut 27:22; Lev 20:17. Referred from Luscombe p. 26-7.

[6] Deut 5:1, 20. Referred from Luscombe p. 26-7.