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Classic review: Heloise and Abelard

The perfect Valentine's Day gift: a biography of history's most famous philosopher-lovers.

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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.

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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 a former Monitor book editor.

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