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Peter Abelard (1079-1142): Prologue to Sic et Non

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was one of the great intellectuals of the 12th century, with especial importance in the field of logic. His tendency to disputation is perhaps best demonstrated by his book Sic et Non, a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions about which there were divided opinions. This dialectical method of intellectual reflection - also seen in Gratian's approach to canon law - was to become an important feature of western education and distinguishes it sharply from other world cultures such as Islam and the Confucian world. Abelard's mistake was to leave the questions open for discussion and so he was repeatedly charged with heresy. For a long period all his works were included in the later Iindex of Forbidden Books.

Peter Abelard: Prologue to Sic et Non

Here begins Peter Abelard’s prologue to Sic et Non:

(1-11) When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgement concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as it is written: "The saints shall judge nations" (cf. Wisdom 3: 7-8), and again "You also shall sit as judging" (cf. Matthew 19:28). Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken – those people of whom the Lord said "He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me" (Luke 10:16). Thus with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing –- those of whom the Truth Himself said: "For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you" (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?

(54-85) We also ought to pay close attention so that, when some of the writings of the saints are presented to us as if they were contradictory or other than the truth, we are not misled by false attributions of authorship or corruptions in the text itself. For many apocryphal works are inscribed with the names of saints in order that they might obtain authority, and even some places in the text of the Holy Testament itself have been corrupted by scribal error. Whence that most trustworthy author and truest translator, Jerome, warned us in his letter to Laeta concerning the education of her daughter, when he said (Epist. 107, 12), "Let her be wary of all apocrypha; and if she ever wishes to read such works not for the truth of dogma, but for the miracles contained in them, let her know that they do not belong to those men whose names are indicated in the inscription and that it requires great wisdom to seek gold amid the mud." The same man has this to say about the 77th Psalm (Tractatus sive Homil. in Ps. LXXVII), concerning the attribution in its title (which is like this: ‘recognized as Asaph’s’), "It is written according to Matthew (cf. 13:34-35), "when the Lord had spoken in parables and they did not understand, etc…". he said these things happened so that what had been written by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled (Psalm 77:2): "I will open my mouth in parables". The Gospel has this wording even up to today. However, Isaiah does not say this, but Asaph." And further: "Therefore let us say plainly that, as it is written in Matthew and John that the Lord was crucified at the sixth hour, and in Mark that it was the third hour –- this was a scribal error and ‘the sixth hour’ had been written in Mark, but many scribes thought it was a gamma instead of the Greek episemon [i.e. a symbol for ‘six’; it resembles gamma, which can be used as a symbol for ‘three’], just as the error was scribal when they wrote ‘Isaiah’ instead of ‘Asaph’. For we know that many churches were made up of uneducated Gentiles. Therefore, when they read in the Gospel " … that it might be fulfilled as it was written by the prophet Asaph", the first one to copy the Gospel began to say, ‘Who is this prophet Asaph? He is not known among the people.’ And what did this scribe do? In attempting to correct an error he committed one. We may say something similar about another place in Matthew; he says ‘then he brought back the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him who was priced, as it was written in the prophet Jeremiah’ (cf. Matthew 27:9). We are not able to find this in Jeremiah, but in Zachariah (cf. Zacharias11:13). Therefore you see that this is also an error just like the other." And if in the Gospels some things were corrupted due to scribal ignorance, what is so surprising if it should also happen sometimes in the writings of the Church Fathers who came later, and possessed far less authority? So if something in the writings of the saints should seem perhaps to be deviating from the truth, it is honest and in accordance with humility and appropriate to charity (which ‘believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:7) and does not readily suspect errors from those whom she embraces) that either we believe that this place in the text may have been corrupted or not translated faithfully, or that we acknowledge that we do not understand it.

(86-148) Nor is it any less a matter for consideration whether such statements are ones taken from the writings of the saints that either were retracted elsewhere by these same saints and corrected when the truth was afterwards recognized -- as St. Augustine often did –- or whether they spoke reflecting the opinion of others rather than according to their own judgment …

(176-187) What is so amazing, then, if some things are proposed or even written by the Holy Fathers sometimes based on opinion rather than on the truth? When conflicting things are said about the same topic, one must carefully distinguish that which is offered with the stricture of a command, that which is offered with the lenience of indulgence and that which is offered with exhortation to perfection, so that we might seek a remedy for the apparent conflict in accordance with this variety of intents. If indeed it is a command, we must distinguish whether it is general or specific, that is, directed toward everyone in general or toward certain people in particular. The times and causes of dispensation ought also to be distinguished, because what is permitted at one time is found to be prohibited at another, and what is often commanded with rigor may sometimes be tempered with dispensation. It is very necessary to distinguish these things in the statutes of the Church decrees or canons. Moreover, an easy solution for many controversies may be found as long as we are able to be on our guard for the same words being used with conflicting meanings by different authors.

(188-194) The reader who is eager to resolve conflicts in the writings of the holy ones will be attentive to all the methods described above. If the conflict is obviously such that it cannot be resolved by logic, then the authorities must be compared together, and whatever has stronger witnesses and greater confirmation should be retained above all. Whence also these words of Isidore to the bishop of Massio (Epist. 4, 13): "I have thought that this should be added at the end of the letter, that whenever a discordant opinion is found in the acts of councils, the judgement of that person possessing greater or more ancient authority is preferred."

(195-208) Indeed it is established that the prophets themselves at one time or another have lacked the gift of prophecy and offered from their habit of prophecy some false statements, derived from their own spirit, while believing that they were in possession of the Spirit of prophecy; and this was permitted to happen to them so as to preserve their humility, so that in this way they might recognize more truly what sorts of things come from the Spirit of God and what sorts from their own spirit, and recognize that when they possessed the Spirit of prophecy they had it as a gift from the Spirit Who cannot lie or be mistaken. For when this Spirit is possessed, just as it does not confer all its gifts on one person, so does it not illuminate the mind of the inspired one concerning all things, but reveals now this and now that, and when it makes one thing apparent it conceals another. Indeed, St. Gregory declares this with clear examples in his first homily on Ezekiel. And it did not shame even the very chief of the apostles, who shone so greatly with miracles and with the gifts of divine grace after that special effusion of the Holy Spirit promised by God, who taught his students the entire truth –- it did not shame him to abandon a harmful untruth, when up to that point he had fallen into a not insignificant error concerning circumcision and the observance of certain ancient rites, and when he had been earnestly, wholesomely and publicly corrected by his fellow apostle Paul.

(209-249) When it is clear that even the prophets and apostles themselves were not complete strangers to error, what is so surprising, then, if among such manifold writings of the Holy Fathers some things seem to be handed down or written erroneously, for the reason given above? But just as these holy ‘defendants’ should not be charged with lying if at one time or another, not from duplicity but from ignorance, they make some statements other than what the real truth would have them think; so in the same way something that is said for love while giving some instruction should not be imputed to presumption or sin, since it is well known that all things are distinguished by God according to intention, just as it is written (Matthew 6:22), "If thy eye be sound, thy whole body will be full of light." …

(249-291) If God on occasion does allow this to happen even to the holy ones themselves, as we have said, in those situations that would cause no damage to the faith, it does not happen unproductively to those by whom everything is undertaken for the good. Even the ecclesiastical teachers themselves, diligently attentive and believing some things in their works needed correction, grant to posterity the license to emend or not to follow them; if somehow these teachers were not able to retract or correct in their works. … However, so that the room for this freedom is not excluded, and that very healthy task of treating difficult questions and translating their language and style is not denied to later authors, the excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments has been distinguished from that of the works of later authors. If there should be something in the Old or New Testament that seems as if it were absurd, you may not say that the author of this work did not possess the truth, but that the manuscript is corrupt, or the translator has made a mistake, or that you do not understand. But in works of later witness, contained in innumerable volumes, if perhaps some things are thought to deviate from the truth because they are not understood as they have been expressed, in these works the reader or listener has the freedom of judgement to approve what seems good or disapprove of what offends, and therefore when it comes to things of this type, unless they are supported either by sure reasoning or canonical authority, so that what is either argued or narrated there may be shown either to be entirely so or to be potentially so, if it does not seem good to someone or they do not wish to believe it, they are not reproached."

(292-304) And thus he [Augustine] calls the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments documents about which it is heretical to say that something in them contradicts the truth. Indeed, concerning Holy Scripture … he writes (Epist. 28, iii, 3): “it seems to me a most dangerous thing to allow that anything in the sacred books may be a lie, that is, that those men who preserved and wrote the Scriptures for us should have lied about anything in their books. For if a single white lie is admitted anywhere in so lofty an authority, then no particle of these books will remain which will not be explained as the idea or practice of the author’s mind, using this most dangerous example whenever anyone finds something difficult to practice or hard to believe." …

(330-350) With these prefatory words, it seems right ,as we have undertaken to collect the diverse sayings of the Holy Fathers, which stand out in our memory to some extent due to their apparent disagreement as they focus on an issue; this may lure the weaker readers to the greatest exercise of seeking the truth, and may render them sharper readers because of the investigation. Indeed this first key of wisdom is defined, of course, as assiduous or frequent questioning. Aristotle, the most clear-sighted philosopher of all, advised his students, in his preface 'Ad Aliquid', to embrace this questioning with complete willingness, saying (cited by Boethius, In Categorias Aristotelis, ii): "Perhaps it is difficult to clarify things of this type with confidence unless they are dealt with often and in detail. However, it would not be useless to have some doubts concerning individual points." And indeed, through doubting we come to questioning and through questions we perceive the truth. … And when some passages of Scripture are brought before us, the more the authority of the Scripture itself is commended, the more fully they excite the reader and tempt him to seek the truth..


Translated by W. J. Lewis (aided by the helpful comments and suggestions of S. Barney) from the Latin text in the critical edition of Sic et Non edited by Blanche B. Boyer and Richard McKeon (University of Chicago Press, 1976).


Biblical quotations are translated following the Douai translation of the Vulgate, with adjustments as necessary. Numbers in parentheses before each paragraph refer to the corresponding line numbers in Boyer and McKeon’s text..

Another translation of this Prologue, by A.J. Minnis and A.B. Scott, can be found in: Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100 – c. 1375 (Oxford, 1988)

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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Paul Halsall, February 21, 2001