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Pierre Abélard: Sic et non

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Finished in 1125, Sic et Non ("Yes and No") is simple in form: 158 chapters, each beginning with an important theological issue and followed by statements by Church Fathers on that issue.

The first issues are more abstract and lofty, then later topics are more to do with methodology. Regarding each topic, the first quotes from Church father support the proposition, then later quotes are against it. However, the Church Fathers' statements conflict with one another, and even with themselves.

The various supporting and contrary statements give the work its title Sic et non, meaning Yes and no or Pro and con.

PrologueAbelard outlays his attitude and approach.
Chapter 1"That faith is not to be based on human reasons, and the contrary."
Chapter 2"That faith applies only to what is not visible, and the contrary."
Chapter 3"That only God is to be believed in, and the contrary."
Chapter 4"That there is no knowledge of the invisible, only faith, and the contrary."
Chapter 80"That Christ did not experience fear and suffering as a human, and the contrary"
Chapter 126"When a man has put away an adulterous wife, and the contrary."
Chapter 158"That the punishment of unbaptized infants is very mild compared to the other damned, and the contrary."


Although the quantity of words is so enormous that even some sayings of the saints seem not only to differ from one another but even to contradict one another, one should make no rash judgment about those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as scripture says:

"The saints shall judge nations," and "You shall sit as judges."Sic et non, § Prologue ¶1

The Fathers were great theologians and great writers, but seemed to make false, contradictory and even self-contradictory statements on even the biggest issues.

Abelard was very serious about theology, where what's at stake is the salvation of the soul, heaven and hell. He was very, very respectful to the Fathers, and is not trying to clandestinely subvert the Church. He blamed the contradictions on his own uninspired lack of understanding. Abelard made an earnest attempt to sort out the truth.

Let us not presume to denounce as liars or despise as mistaken those of whom the Lord said, "Whoever heeds you, heeds me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me." Falling back on our weakness, then, let us believe that we lack grace in understanding rather than that they lacked grace in writing, they of whom the Truth [Jesus] itself said "It is not really you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." No wonder, then, if we lack understanding of them, in the absence of that very Spirit through whom their works were written and dictated and also revealed by him to those writers.Sic et non, § Prologue ¶1

Abelard's starting point is that the Fathers were neither dishonest nor ignorant -- but an impostor could be.

Inconsistency could arise due to textual unreliability, a serious consideration. The printing process was invented in the 15th century and it was easy for a work's authorship to be lost or deliberately disguised. A work could be pseudonymous, incorrectly attributed to a certain author.

Also, a text could be corrupted.

Corruption happened when subsequent scribes accumulated each other's errors as they copied texts. Also, copies could but perfect but the translation not so. Even the New Testament could fall victim to a bad Greek → Latin translation, or poor copying.

If some things have been corrupted even in the Gospels by the ignorance of copyists, then no wonder the same thing sometimes also happens in the writings of the Fathers, who came later and whose authority is much less. Therefore, if something in the writings of the saints seems far out of line with the truth, then the pious thing, in keeping with humility and under the obligation of charity – which believes everything, hopes for everything, endures everything and is not quick to find vice in those whom she embraces – is either for us to believe that the passage has not been faithfully translated or that it is corrupt, or else to acknowledge that we do not understand it.Sic et non, § Prologue ¶7

Next, Abelard shifts away from pious reverence to scholarly inquiry. He starts with the issue of retractions.

Augustine himself published a book called Retractions later in his life, addressing his own works.

Nor, in my opinion, should we be any less careful about whether such things, when they are cited from the writings of the saints, were actually retracted by them elsewhere and corrected once the truth was known, as the blessed Augustine did in many cases Sic et non, § Prologue ¶8

A contradictory statement could be an argument or unresolved question.

Perhaps the contradiction had been included by the Fathers to argue a point but did not intend it as their own personal view. It could be misunderstood as the Fathers' own opinion, or quote notation had been lost by scribal error. Also, perhaps opposing views were included and the Fathers had not intended a neat resolution.

[Perhaps] the saints made the statements when following the opinion of others rather than their own, as Ecclesiastes often introduces conflicting statements from various sources ... or whether they investigated the question and left it in doubt rather than resolve it with a clear definition, as Augustine, the aforesaid venerable doctor, asserts that he did in writing his Literal Commentary on Genesis ... "In this book," he says, "I sought more than I found; little of what I found was confirmed; and the rest I proposed as still needing investigation."Sic et non, § Prologue ¶8

Abelard sought out a text to provide a baseline of clarity and stability.

He concluded that the texts which demand the most clarity are laws: consider the ten commandments, or more abundantly, canon laws. However, some laws apply strictly or loosely, narrowly or broadly, or differently based on a variety of circumstances. Also, some laws have exceptions. So even the most seemingly clear law must have significant explication.

Abelard concluded that the main problem was language itself.

Language is elusive and often unfamiliar. One word can have different meanings; different words can have the same meaning. Thus, Abelard contented that theology must communicate using utmost clarity, even sacrificing precision and correct grammar when necessary. Abelard supported using common, direct speech that was as clear and simple as possible, to avoid obscurity and enhance understanding.

Also, being inspired does not confer total knowledge.

Abelard considers that though these figures were inspired, they perhaps were not always inspired, or could be inspired to different degrees. A person could receive a revelation; however, the spirit might reveal some things but leave others hidden.

Abelard used age and authority to judge a text's reliability.

Abelard quotes Isidore’s Letters (§4 ¶13), "Whenever a conflicting position is found in the acts of the councils, the position of the person whose authority is older or more powerful should be held." If Augustine was found to contradict Gregory, then Augustine's position would hold based on its greater age. And Paul had age and authority over both of them. Thus, the new defers to the older; and authority trumps all.

Using all the methods described above, the careful reader will try to resolve contradictions in the writings of the saints. But if a contradiction happens to be so obvious that it cannot be solved by any argument, the authorities must be compared, and those views especially are to be maintained for which testimony is more powerful and confirmation is greater. This is why Isidore writes as follows .. : "Whenever a conflicting position is found in the acts of the councils, the position of the person whose authority is older or more powerful should be held."Sic et non, § Prologue ¶15

Abelard has two final tests for veracity: dogma (canon) and philosophy (reason).

First and foremost, the Bible was taken to be true. If one of the Fathers' statements could be matched with the Bible, and another contradictory statement contradicted the Bible, then Abelard took the former as truth. If the Bible could not ascertain the truth of a statement, perhaps it could be proven true by reason. Abelard used reason to philosophically argue and prove the truth of theological statements.

Abelard sought out conflict because it stimulated questioning, which he purported was a good thing.

Abelard held it was intrinsically good to pursue theological questions based on conflict between authorities. However, he also held enormous respect for authority, and was strongly charitable. Abelard always assumed the author's intelligence and intention even in light of what seemed to be errors.

It seems right that we set out to collect the various sayings of the holy Fathers that stick in our memory because they seem to disagree as they converge on any question -- sayings that may stimulate new readers to ... seek the truth and may make them sharper at questioning. ... The definition of the first key to wisdom is constant or frequent questioning. ... By doubting, in fact, we come to inquiring, and by inquiring we perceive the truth.

Accordingly, the Truth [Christ] himself also says, "Seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you." ... The Truth chose to be discovered when he was about twelve years of age, sitting among the teachers and questioning, ... a student with questions rather than ... a teacher with a lesson. Sic et non, § Prologue ¶25-26

In the end, Abelard concludes that the Fathers' errors were at worst ignorance or rashness, but never deception.

And in the eyes of god, Abelard states, the author's intent in saying something is more important than the actual content. The Church Fathers knew they made mistakes, and even said so, urging their followers to correct errors; and if errors could not be corrected, to simply ignore the erratum entirely. And the Church Fathers always distinguished their own writings from canonical scripture. So the Fathers gave their followers the freedom to judge their writings.


Dr. Brian Copenhaver. A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. Lecture, UCLA. August 27, 2012.