Peter Abelard

On Sin

Introduction by Constant Mews

Abelard says: "In fact we say that an intention is good, that is, right in itself, but that an action does not bear anything good in itself but proceeds from a good intention. Whence when the same thing is done by the same man at different times, by the diversity of his intention, however, his action is now said to be good, now bad, and so it seems to fluctuate around the good and the bad, just as this proposition 'Socrates is seated' or the idea of it fluctuates around the true and the false, Socrates being at one time seated, at another standing."

Original Latin

What makes an action good or bad?

In his Ethics, one of his last compositions, Abelard set out to define the nature of both vice and virtue. He is not known to have finished the work, which carries the title Scito teipsum ("Know yourself") in the surviving manuscripts. It is celebrated for the emphasis placed on intention as justifying whether an action is good or bad.

Just as a proposition like "Socrates is seated" might be true at one moment, but false at another, so the same action might be good in one context, but bad in another. This, he argues, is central to understanding the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. Those who believe that what they are doing is pleasing to God are often led astray by external assessment of what they are doing, when they do not fully appreciate what they are doing in the sight of God.

Abelard explains that this intention is defined by consent to an evil action, in contempt of God. Those who persecuted the martyrs or Christ himself did not necessarily sin through their actions if they were not driven by contempt for God. This was the implication of Christ's prayer that God should forgive those who crucified him, for they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34). Abelard's discussion is as much about his reading of the Gospel as it is a reflection on ethics.