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What the Most Famous Love Story of the Middle Ages Can Tell Us About Ourselves

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Uncle Fulbert: Abelard, Heloise, and the Culture of Narcissism

It was the love story of the Middle Ages, and one of the greatest love stories of all time.

Abelard, the premier philosopher of the twelfth century and an instrumental force in the rise of the University of Paris, had become attracted to the comely young Heloise, a teenage girl about twenty years his junior, who had already gained a reputation for her learning.

He approached Heloise’s Uncle Fulbert (her guardian) and proposed to live with him and take Heloise under his erudite wing. Fulbert eagerly agreed, proud that his smart niece had been chosen by the leading intellectual light of Europe for special instruction. Fulbert turned Heloise over to Abelard, giving him constant access to her, the right to direct her studies night and day, and even to administer corporal punishment. Under such circumstances, it didn’t take Abelard long to seduce Heloise. They carried on an affair in Fulbert’s house for months, Fulbert blind to it. (Abelard would later write, citing St. Jerome and referring to Fulbert, that a man is invariably the last to know what is going on in his own home; everyone knows what a woman is up to before her father or husband.)

Fulbert eventually learned of the affair and tossed Abelard out of the house. But Abelard had fallen passionately in love with his victim, so they carried on the affair whenever possible until she became pregnant. Abelard then abducted her (with Heloise’s cooperation) and took her to his sister’s house in Brittany. Fulbert was enraged to the point of madness. Abelard promised to marry Heloise, on the condition that the marriage be kept secret.

Fulbert, placated by the proposed marriage, agreed to keep it secret and witnessed the ceremony.

He then promptly spread news of it around Paris. Heloise vehemently denied that the marriage had taken place, and argued with Uncle Fulbert about his continued insistence on spreading news about it. The arguments became fierce, possibly resulting in physical violence. Abelard, tired of Fulbert’s antics, sent Heloise to a convent.

Fulbert mistakenly thought Abelard had sent Heloise away in order to get rid of her and figured he’d been duped again. To take revenge, he and his accomplices bribed Abelard’s servant, sneaked into Abelard’s room at night, and mutilated him, cutting off, in Abelard’s words, “those parts of my body whereby I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” Abelard the Eunuch had been disgraced (he was, according to the Bible, an unclean creature).

He resigned from Paris and became a monk. Heloise continued her life as a nun.

From Vanity to Pride to Narcissism

The romantic recounts of Abelard and Heloise concentrate on the lovers, for obvious reasons.

But what are we to make of Uncle Fulbert in all this?

History seems unanimous: he was a vain and avaricious man who, like all such men, was eager to curry favor with a celebrity and proud that Abelard had selected his niece for special attention. After Abelard’s deceit became known, Fulbert became a vengeful and spiteful man and, following Heloise’s abduction, fell into a mad rage like only a proud man can. Following the marriage, he broke his promise and spread news about the marriage in order to save his honor. Following Heloise’s entry into the convent, he used bribery and a knife to take revenge on Abelard for an imagined wrong.

Fulbert’s actions were contemptible but understandable. Fulbert had been charged with the upbringing of his orphaned niece, and he accepted the responsibility — at first by sending her to a convent for her education, and later bringing her to live with him. Abelard undercut that responsibility by ravishing and abducting Heloise with her consent — which was a slap to the moral instruction she learned under Fulbert’s guardianship, a slap to her uncle’s affection, and a slap to Fulbert’s honor. Charged with the upbringing of his niece, he had, by all appearances, failed miserably thanks to Abelard.

Fulbert reacted to all this like a proud man: rage, broken promises, conniving, violence. Although everyone properly condemns Fulbert’s pride, at least it was rooted in family, obligation, and honor. The modern cynic might say, “Take away that medieval morality and honor, and Fulbert wouldn’t have reacted so madly.” The cynic might be partially right, but he would fail to see that if Fulbert’s pride hadn’t come from an inflated sense of obligation and honor, it would have come from some other source.

In a fallen world, pride always rises to the surface.

The only variable is, what form will it take?

Pride is a sin. In fact, it is the sin — the sin that caused original sin in the beginning and is the continuing root of actual sin today. Pride, broadly speaking, is self-regard, just as humility is self-forgetfulness. A moderate amount of self-regard isn’t bad; in fact, it’s necessary: we need at least a little self-regard in order to manage our everyday affairs. Sinful pride exists when the self-regard becomes inordinate.

I can’t catalog all the different types of inordinate self-regard, but it seems like a fair generalization to say self-regard becomes inordinate if you (1) try to obtain things for yourself — reputation, money, fulfillment, whatever — in greater amounts than others have them; (2) are more concerned about obtaining such things for yourself than you are about serving others; or (3) are more concerned about obtaining such things than you are about obeying the higher things in life (truth, goodness, beauty, divine law, etc.). Pride, as C.S. Lewis noted, is essentially competitive: me instead of others, including God and His commandments.

In earlier times, a man like Fulbert often looked to family and obligation for the effect they would have on himself. If Fulbert had neglected his duties to Heloise, his reputation would have suffered. This is pride, no doubt, but at least it was attached to something outside himself first. The era forced a man like Fulbert to look to, to serve, something outside himself first in order to further his pride, which came second (if it came first, his reputation would have been ruined for putting himself ahead of his obligations).

In modern society, a Fulbert is more likely to concentrate on himself first, then look at the effect the “outside” things have on himself. As subtle and apparently irrelevant this distinction may seem, I think it’s an important distinction and one that has been recognized for thousands of years. It seems to be the difference between ordinary pride and narcissism, especially if we recall the full significance of the myth of Narcissus.

Narcissism: A New Cultural Norm

Narcissus was the beautiful son of a nymph who was so enamored with himself and his beauty that he scorned the love and attention of all others. Narcissus’ complete self-absorption that found no pleasure in others angered the goddess Nemesis. As punishment, she caused him to see his reflection in a still pool and fall in love with it. Narcissus couldn’t stop looking at himself and stayed there until he physically wasted away (when he died, his body vanished, leaving behind only the small flower that bears his name).

Narcissus’ sin was the psychological state called selfism: a complete absorption in the self that finds no enjoyment in things outside itself. I think C.S. Lewis was talking about narcissism in Mere Christianity when distinguishing between mere vanity and a much more dangerous type of pride:

[V]anity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a childlike and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The black, diabolical pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.

Black, diabolical pride that doesn’t look to others at all, looks at nothing outside itself. That is narcissism, an extreme form of pride that even the Greek gods (surely one of the proudest bunch of characters in the history of literature) couldn’t stomach.

Today we live, to borrow the title of Christopher Lasch’s book, in a culture of narcissism. Modern society, Paul Vitz observed in Psychology as Religion, is obsessed with self-fulfillment, thanks largely to its modern psychologists who preach self-worship. According to Vitz,

Self-actualization, self-fulfillment, etc., are standard explanations for the purpose of everything from college education to life itself…. [Psychology has become] a secular cult of the self…[and is] based on the rejection of God and the worship of self.

Significantly, Vitz says this emphasis on “self-actualization” has resulted in a society obsessed with “developing the existential, autonomous self,” with the result that society is full of “existential narcissism.” Although every culture has had incidents of narcissism that result from an unstable childhood or other neurotic causes, Vitz notes, we now have a culture that encourages narcissism through its approach to life.

The modern’s quest for self-fulfillment seems like the ultimate form of pride because, in a way, the quest itself is pride. Unlike a person who looks to other things for the “boost” they give his ego (like the praise of others), the person obsessed with self-fulfillment is concentrated at all times on the self. The person is focused on himself, and anything that doesn’t convey immediate fulfillment (read “gratification”) automatically becomes suspect and is often tossed aside. There is no presumption that things outside the self, like family, must be furthered. There is only the presumption that “What brings gratification must be furthered.”

Fulbert’s counterparts in modernity don’t look outside themselves for their cue. They look internally only. They don’t care what norms or demands might be made from things outside themselves, just as Narcissus didn’t care about the affection or attention of others because he was totally absorbed in himself.

The modern narcissistic pursuit of self-fulfillment takes many forms. Anything that gratifies is seized — sex, money, vacations, sports utility vehicles, shopping, careers, hobbies. Anything that doesn’t further the pursuit of gratification — or worse yet, blocks it — is eschewed — family (parents in nursing homes), babies (contraception to protect active sexuality; abortion to protect one’s autonomous pursuit of fun), charity (keep time for one’s hobbies, keep money for nice cars).

In comparison to these, it seems that the form of Fulbert’s pride was somewhat laudatory. If Fulbert lived today, what might he have done? He might not have taken Heloise under his wing at all. A single man, he could have had romantic interests, and it’s hard to score with the ladies when your niece is living with you. Furthermore, he could have had his own desires and ambitions that would have been hindered by caring for a niece. And even if he had accepted responsibility for Heloise, he might not have cared that she was ravished — placing a premium on his own sexual pursuits, he might have been hesitant to deny Heloise hers.

Pride will exist. It’s unavoidable. The form it takes will largely be dictated by the presumptions of culture. Fulbert’s culture presumed the goodness of family and obligation. Our culture presumes the goodness of self. This has caused our pride to assume a particularly malignant form, the form known as narcissism. And I suspect it has become so prevalent that nobody even notices it anymore: we’re all so busy looking at ourselves in the pool, we don’t notice everyone else doing the same thing.

It’s no wonder that, like Narcissus, our culture at times seems to be wasting away.