The philosophy of love

Abelard and Heloise were the smartest people of the 12th century - and the most passionate.

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We're devoting this book section to romance in preparation for Valentine's Day. That's less than a week away, which could be the most valuable information you learn today. There's still plenty of time to send a stunning bouquet of roses from Calyx & Corolla ($188.95). (I warned you it was stunning.) If you prefer something less subtle, you could mail a "Pajama Gram," which is just what it sounds like. (Valentine's Day delivery is guaranteed, but after that, you're on your own.) Meanwhile, the candy industry expects lovers and wannabe lovers to exchange 36 million boxes of chocolate on Feb. 14.

If all this sounds too sweet, direct your attention to a new biography of "Heloise & Abelard," by James Burge. Their star-crossed romance is hot enough to singe Cupid's wings. Abelard was the hippest philosopher of the 12th century, and Heloise may have been the smartest woman. You probably thought the Middle Ages was all plagues and crusades and really bad haircuts, but these two passionate philosophers were carrying on while Christianity was plunging into a period of strict sexual prohibition.

Their story has been told before in songs, poems, plays, paintings, sculptures, and previous biographies - all based on eight remarkable letters that Abelard and Heloise exchanged 12 years after they were forced to separate under gruesome circumstances. Burge's book, however, is the first popular biography to benefit from the discovery in 1980 of a collection of fragments from the letters that Abelard and Heloise wrote to each other every day during their steamy two-year affair.

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Apparently, they exchanged notes (in Latin) on a wax tablet that could be immediately reheated, smoothed, and inscribed again, a kind of medieval IM. It's conjectured that Heloise kept a copy of these missives, and some scholars believe that her copy eventually fell into the hands of Johannes de Vepria, a 15th-century monk who was compiling examples of good letters.

De Vepria, however, was particularly interested in salutations, so most of what survives from this flagrante delicto correspondence are just the opening flourishes: "To her heart's love, more sweetly scented than any spice, from she who is his in heart and body...." You get the idea - hardly juicy details. But textual scholars think they have identified passages from 113 different letters between Heloise and Abelard. Burge claims, a little too breathlessly, that this is "almost of the order of a new play by Shakespeare or a lost gospel." In any case, by using these letters and fragments, he reconstructs the story of Abelard and Heloise in all its heart-thumping energy and fascinating historical context.

The first thing to understand about this period of political and ideological upheaval, Burge says, is that "monasticism in the early 12th century was competitive. It was, in a sense, the defining activity of the age - in the same way that, say, manufacturing and marketing are the primary occupations of the early 21st century." Abelard renounced his inheritance, declined the life of a soldier, and strode into Paris in 1100 at the age of 21, ready to take on the world in the arena of dialectica, "philosophy as a kind of combination of word-game, search for truth, and competitive sport."

He was brilliant - perhaps too brilliant. He bested the master of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, and then set up his own school, where he wowed crowds of fawning students.

At a time of consolidating ecclesiastical control, Abelard's relentless method questioned the foundations of authority. "By doubting we come to inquiry," he wrote, "and by inquiry we come to truth." His goal was a perception of God's logic. "Understanding was all-important," Burge writes. "He believed it was a sin to say a prayer that one did not understand."

Abelard's faith in divine logic, however, blinded him to the earthly ways of office politics. Knowing he could outreason anyone, he never realized that reason isn't usually the weapon of choice for powerful people.

This naiveté would eventually destroy him, but at 36, Abelard was a philosophical hottie, and when he spied an attractive girl named Heloise, he went for it. "I decided she was the one to bring to my bed," he wrote years later, "confident that I should have an easy success." He rented a room in her uncle's home, offered himself as a private tutor, and then seduced Heloise while they were studying together.

Yes, Abelard started off as a cad, but in this thoughtful reconstruction of their affair, we can see how quickly he was enthralled by Heloise's passion, intelligence, and spiritual independence. Using the letters, Burge takes us through their crazy sexual exploits (in the refectory? - Yikes!), their tiffs and makeups, and their growing anxiety about being found out. Burge is also particularly astute in his discussion of their development of an ethical view called intentionalism, which holds that only a person's intention determines if an act is sinful or not.

Needless to say, Heloise's uncle didn't hold this view when he caught them during a moment that looked nothing like the study of philosophy. Accusations flew and tempers raged, but they managed to work out a weird compromise: Abelard agreed to make an honest woman of Heloise, but to protect his position, their marriage would be secret. (Celibacy rules for clerics were starting to be enforced with vigor.)

The failure of this scheme isn't surprising, but its climax shocked Paris: In a brutal act of revenge, Heloise's uncle castrated Abelard. The lovers had no contact with each other for more than a decade.

During this separation, Heloise became a very successful abbess, while Abelard had to run from monks who were trying to poison him.

When their correspondence picks up 12 years later, they're older and wiser, but Heloise is as startlingly honest and challenging as ever. Under Burge's analysis, their letters provide an illuminating study of the tension between romantic love and religious devotion. Even 900 years later, it's hard to tell what's more searing: their passion or their insight.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, Ron Charles.

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