Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

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Feminist History of Philosophy

I have just finished a draft of a chapter on virtue ethics in the Middle Ages from the perspective of women. As I knew next to nothing about that period (twelfth century) before I started, I decided to focus mostly on Heloise. I could have written about Hildegard of Bingen, as Barbara Newman has written a very nice book about her, but I chose Heloise because she was in dialogue with other philosophers of her time (well, Abelard, anyway) and because she is steeped in whatever was left-over of ancient virtue ethics – she is particularly fond of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. 

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Written by Sandrine Berges

March 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Sandrine, for the great post. I look forward to reading more about the divergence between Heloise’s and Abelard’s accounts of virtue; I hope you continue to share your work here in the blog. I am no expert in virtue ethics, nor in medieval philosophy but what I find fascinating in your work (and labour) here is the methodology of working through letters in developing your views on Heloise’s ethics. It strikes me as interpreting letters, and tracing Heloise’s philosophical arguments on virtue through these letters, must be challenging; primarily because the letters are personal, i.e., they do not prioritize doing philosophy (from the armchair), but rather are means of conversation, exchange, and communication with Abelard (I might be wrong here, please correct me if I am). Is this part of the reason that you have not found teasing out Heloise’s argument easy? Do we know of anything else that Heloise wrote aside from these letters?

    Serife Tekin

    March 25, 2012 at 4:19 am

  2. Thanks for commenting Serife! You’re right that it is a bit of a challenge extracting an argument from the letters. But this is due to the fact that there are very few texts available more that because they are letters. I don’t think Heloise and Abelard wrote these as personal correspondence: even when she is talking of her love for him, in the first letter, she is using known rhetorical devices, quoting from Seneca and Jerome, and modelling the form of her letters on Seneca’s letters to Lucilius. The letters were then copied in the convent of the Paraclete, where she was the abbess, and collected – and presumably selected. Some personal letters are thought to exist – one commenter, Constant Mews, has argued very convincingly that the letters known as Epistolae Duore amantorum were an exchange between Abelard and Heloise when they were lovers in Paris, pre-unwanted pregnancy, marriage, and castration. These, although they include quite a lot of philosophical discussion, are personal, and I wouldn’t want to try and construct anything from them. My favourite text is that last letter Heloise wrote (in the collection) in which she asks Abelard to write a rule for the nuns she is in charge of. There is quite a bit of argument there, as she explains why a rule is needed, how to go about writing it, and what it should be like. Another text she co-wrote with Abelard is the Problemata, a series of questions from her about biblical interpretation, with his answers. But even all that taken together is thin pickings. She may have written more, but nothing that was preserved in her name.

    Sandrine Berges

    March 26, 2012 at 11:28 am


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