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.
Despite being well aware that very few historical women writers are taken seriously as philosophers, I was surprised by how difficult it was to find any secondary literature on Heloise. I thought I hit gold, when I found that Marenbon, in his book on Abelard, has two chapters in which he deals with Heloise’s contribution to his ethics. But even that was poor pickings. The first of the two chapters is about dismissing claims that Heloise did not write her own letters. That, in itself, is telling. Take any woman philosopher who is not actually around to fight her ground, and chances are, someone will argue that she did not author her own work. Marenbon’s defence is spirited and convincing, but it does not go far towards building up an account of what Heloise might have had to contribute to the philosophy of her age. The second of the two chapters does a little better, as it claims that Abelard’s later account of Caritas as unconditional love of God was influenced by Heloise’s description of her love for Abelard. She, was, Marenbon said, a writer he had to take seriously, and this is reflected in his revisions of his own ethical thought. Having read the letters, I am tempted to go quite a bit further. Marenbon makes it sound as though Heloise and Abelard are talking in two different voices, one, the voice of poetry, love and the particular, and the other the voice of philosophy, morality, and the universal. This is, I believe, a misrepresentation of the letters. Heloise writes as a confident, though sometimes rhyming, philosopher, not as a love stricken intelligent woman who happens to know a lot of Seneca and Jerome.
In the three letters she wrote to Abelard, I believe that she presents a philosophical stance that is distinct from his own, and, I believe, one which reflects a more subtle understanding of the ancient texts they had both read. Heloise’s emphasis is on the virtue of moderation, and on the need to temper a rule so that it applies equally well to people who have different capacities. I spent some time teasing out the argument, and I’m not yet happy with the final result, but I am convinced that there is an argument and that it constitutes a form of resistance to Abelard’s conception of virtue as an internal struggle with oneself. To Heloise, virtue is much more a matter of fitting in with one’s community, making the best of what one has to work with. To that extent, she is much closer to the Stoics she read than Abelard.