Paradox, Saint-Bernard & Abelard


"I argue that paradox lies at the heart of late medieval Christianity [...]" claims Carol Bynum (An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, p34). Paradox, she adds, is the "simultaneous assertion of opposites" (p34). How can the assumption made by Bynum that paradox is the "basic interpretive principle" (An Essay, p34) of the XIIth Century intellectual life shed a light on the points of agreement that connect Saint Bernard and Abelard, traditionally pictured as great antagonists, while revealing crucial cultural components of this period? This essay will first examine how paradox constitutes the core of the seek for knowledge undertaken by both Abelard and Saint Bernard, then to which extent is paradox a relevant prism to understand the link between the inner and the outer that becomes visible during the XIIth century. However, it finally appears that both Abelard and Saint Bernard are seeking to go beyond any kind of paradoxical binary system, and to demonstrate the compatibility of apparent contradictions.



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First, let us examine why is paradox the starting point of the seek for knowledge conducted by Abelard and Saint Bernard.

According to Abelard, paradox triggers the thirst for knowledge since "apparent contradictions give rise to questioning" (Sic And Non, p153). Indeed, "among the multitudinous words of the holy Fathers, some sayings seem not only to differ from one another but even to contradict one another" (Sic And Non, p153). Abelard employs the verb "seem" to sustain the idea that "apparent contradictions" lead "young readers to the maximum of effort in inquiring into the truth" (Sic And Non, p153). It is the will to grasp paradoxes that conducts the intellectual approach of doubting, the basis upon which one might find the truth. The aim of the Sic and Non in itself is to identify and discuss the paradoxes diffracted through the Scriptures. Moreover, there is "different significances [...] attached to one and the same word" (Sic and Non, p152). One same shape, a word, can be comprised of diverse content, namely various meanings.  Therefore, paradox structures individuals' relation with reality through language. It can be inferred from the above that paradox constitutes the space within which individuals must start questioning and doubting in order to grasp and reach the truth.

Even if paradox can also be considered as the core of Saint-Bernard's seek for knowledge, the situation remains different. Indeed, there is a form of anxiety peculiar to the use of paradox made by Saint Bernard's, in the sense that Saint Bernard uses paradox to get rid of potentialities that might threaten the Catholic faith. In the Sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard aims at showing that The Song of Songs, the incarnation of sensuality by excellence, is in fact a description of the spiritual love between God and humans. Therefore, paradox is the guiding principle of Bernard's analysis of The Song of Songs. For instance, he invites his audience to understand "why [the Ethiopian woman] calls herself black and why beautiful" (Sermon 25: 4-5, p52). Here, Saint Bernard is trying to show how two apparently incompatible propositions can be simultaneously valid. This is made even clearer when he adds: "let us see how both of these refer to her present state of life", and explains that the Ethiopian woman is "black in your estimation, but beautiful in the eyes of God and the angel"  (Sermon 25: 4-5, p53). Therefore, Bernard uses the paradoxical nature of the Ethiopian woman to demonstrate the compatibility of her blackness and of her beautifulness.

The existence of two close yet different approaches towards paradox as the core of knowledge reveals several crucial points about Abelard and Saint Bernard intellectual period. First and foremost, the XIIth century is characterized by a particularly rigorous intellectual life, yet it is not willing to systematize and to unify all aspects of the thought, but it remains deeply open to paradox. Second, the fact that two different intellectual processes exist is symptomatic of a phenomenon new to the XIIth century: the polarization of the centers of knowledge between the schools and monasteries, which, far from being diametrically opposed, are opened and influenced by each other (Leclerc, p194).

Now, let us question how paradox constitutes a relevant prism within which the distinction between individuals' inner and the outer, a distinction which both Abelard and Saint Bernard contribute to establish, can be understood. Indeed, the XIIth century is often considered to be the period of the self-discovery (Bynum, "Did the twelfth century discovered the self?", p85). But before exploring why is this discovery paradoxical, another paradox needs to be investigated. Indeed, on the question of interiority, the traditional trend consists in opposing Abelard's intention theory to Saint Bernard's responsibility thesis. However, their respective views towards interiority can be compared, if compared prudently.

For Saint Bernard, "no one is saved without self-knowledge, since it is the source of that humility on which self-salvation depends" (Sermons, Sermon 37, p181). It is thus only by the very personal experience of self-knowledge that individuals are able to become miserable enough to unite with God. Bernard is here reviving the ladder of the Benedict rule, a metaphor that describes the vertical link between human and God as a ladder, which human can climb if being humble enough. Therefore, Bernard is enriching Benedict's ladder metaphor by providing a concrete tool to reach humility: self-knowledge (Southern, p28-29).

As many of his principles, Abelard's position towards self-knowledge has fluctuated through his life, so this point is particularly sensitive. However, in some of his writings, Abelard claims: "humility leads to the first degree of the truth which is the knowledge of the self; then one turns to the next degree, which is the merciful knowledge of others, then one turns to the third degree, which is the pure contemplation of God. Thwarting humility, pride is the radical obstacle for perfection" (qtd in Gomes, 21). Clearly, Abelard's position is here in harmony with Saint Bernard's idea that self-knowledge leads to humility. Furthermore, they meet on the notion of successive steps between self-knowledge and the love of God.

 Therefore, the views of Saint Bernard and Abelard upon interiority convergences on one point: self-knowledge leads to humility, which enables God-knowledge, ultimately allowing individuals to unite with God and to love God freely. Abelard and Saint Bernard thus share the same objective of knowing God. However, one must keep in mind that the method to do so has long been an object of conflict between them. Indeed, Abelard has not always sustained the position stated above. He also claimed that dialectic was the way to reach God, as illustrated by the Sic and Non prologue, where he states that "doubting" (p153) is the basis of the faith. The response of Saint Bernard is unambigous "we discover with greater facility through prayer than with [...] disputatio". Yet as summed up by Leclerc (p196-197), both the schoolman and the cloister man had the same objective, knowing God through self-knowledge, even if their respective method might have differed.

The quest for self-knowledge is one of the dominant paradigm of the XIIth century. However, this process is in itself utterly paradoxical. Indeed, the discovery of the self is permitted by the affiliation to a group, a group that adopts a common model (Bynum, "Did the twelfth century discovered the self?", p95). It is this model that structures the discovery of individuals' inner, whom are not seeking to discover uniqueness within them, or at least not in the modern sense of the term. These individuals are rather looking to discover the image of God within themselves, the Imago Dei. Therefore, there is a close link between individuals' inner and the outer: individuals shape their outer by belonging to a group, and this belonging in turn models individuals' inner. In other words, at the same time that the XIIth century establishes a distinction between interiority and the external reality, this distinction is immediately blurred by the influence of the outer towards the inner, which reveals the porous nature of the separation between self-interiority and exteriority.

This idea of porosity introduces the last axis of this essay: both Abelard and Saint Bernard do not limit their intellectual approaches to a paradoxical binary system, but rather go over the contradictions inherent to the paradoxes they are faced with. They both do not limit themselves to the “simultaneous affirmation of opposed statements” (Bynum, An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, p34) but bring into focus the compatibility of these apparently opposed statements.

According to Saint Bernard, the spirit can reach God only by getting rid of its human nature, and yet it always remains bounded precisely by its human nature. Therefore, there is not a rigid opposition between the spirit and the body, but rather a dialog between them. Bernard’s will to exceed paradox can also be seen when he details his views towards virtue and weakness. Indeed, he explains that there is a “desirable weakness for which the power of Christ compensates”, as “virtue is perfected in weakness” (Sermon 25:6-7, p55). Far from being opposed to each other, virtue and weakness complement one another. Saint Bernard is not seeking to simplify this complex relation, on the contrary, he highlights the intricacies and the subtleties of the system formed by virtue and weakness.

The will to demonstrate the compatibility of apparently opposed statements is even clearer in Abelard’s intellectual approach. Indeed, Abelard is seeking to “lecture on the basis of […] faith by analogy with human reason”, and claims that “nothing can be believed unless it is understood” (Historia, 21). The terms “reason” and “understood” reveal Abelard’s method: to use dialectic in order to strengthen faith. Although later on in his life Abelard restates his position upon dialectic, as described above, Abelard’s intellectual originality is precisely to demonstrate the compatibility of faith and dialectic, dialectic that itself aims at solving paradoxes, which is the reason why according to Carol Bynum "paradox is not dialectical" (Bynum, An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, p34).

The will to overpass paradoxes is maybe one of the most significant symptom of the deep mutations that occurred during the XIIth century. First, it reveals the great optimism of this period, that is seeking to demonstrate the compatibility of apparently opposed intellectual approaches. This is the reason why, the monks were able to read both Christian and pagan philosophers, as they considered that the truths stated by the latter belonged to Christianity (Leclerc, p113). Second, the desire to go further paradoxes sheds a light on the sophistication of the thought that emerged during the XIIth century, as well as the intellectual appetite for nuance and subtleties. Third, this thought elaborateness process brings into focus the movement of violence domestication that occurred during the XIIth century: intellectual struggles start replacing physical confrontations, witness one of very first sentences of Abelard in the Historia: "I preferred the weapons of dialectic [...] instead of the trophies of war", (p3).


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To conclude, it might seem contradictory that Abelard and Saint Bernard centralize the notion of paradox in their intellectual approaches and at the same time are willing to go beyond paradox. However, this meta-paradox reveals that despite their antagonism, Abelard and Saint Bernard can be compared on many points. It also shows that the XIIth century is a period of great sophistication of the thought, yet not a period of systematization of the thought.


© Rosalie Calvet, Novembre 2015