2. An Unpopular Argument (I)
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45 c h a p t e r t w o h An Unpopular Argument (I) Abelard and His Contemporaries There are few problems Abelard considered so important or difficult as whether God can do otherwise than he does.1 In his first exposition of it, in the Theologia Christiana, he even pauses, after having given the case for both sides, remarking (5.41) that he cannot easily see a way out of the net of arguments, and then adding a beautiful prayer to God for his aid. The answer Abelard went on to give, and develop and repeat in later works, is the negative one. God cannot do otherwise than he does. He recognized that this argument was unexpected and unpopular—in his late discussion of it in the Theologia scholarium, he says that not only does it seem ‘to go against the sayings of holy writers and a little against reason’ but it is an opinion that ‘has few or no supporters’ (3.46)—but he stuck to it, not surprisingly , because the position follows from his underlying view that there are absolute principles of goodness and justice, which an omnipotent and totally good God cannot but follow. Studying this argument (‘No Alternatives for God’ or NAG for short) gives an insight into Abelard’s present in many ways. First, it provides a clear case where the evolution of his thought can be 46   a b e l a r d ’ s p r e s e n t traced, since the relative chronology of the two main expositions is secure. Second, it is an area where, even in his lifetime, some of Abelard’s contemporaries can be seen reacting to his reasoning and, perhaps, making him alter or add to his discussion. Third, these presentations by others of Abelard’s argument suggest strongly that the surviving texts we have do not contain all the ideas of his which his contemporaries knew directly or by report.2 The unpopularity of NAG would also lead to its being one of the few distinctively Abe­ lardian positions to be discussed by generations of scholastic theologians . The argument’s fortune will be discussed in detail in chap­ ter 4, on Abelard’s future. NAG is one of Abelard’s most fascinating pieces of reasoning and, as will emerge, much less open to charges of confusion or inadequacy than it might at first appear. Those readers who want simply to learn about the argument, without looking at its development within Abelard’s present and the reactions to it in Abelard’s­ future, should read the last three paragraphs of this introductory section and then the section in this chapter on the Theologia scholarium and its final section, ‘Assessing Abelard’s Argument’. NAG is, moreover—in so far as anything in philosophy is ever new—Abelard’s invention.3 Of course, other thinkers had explored the question of God’s power and its relation to his will and his goodness or had made statements which implied a position on the subject . But no one had seen, in the way Abelard presents so clearly from the Theologia Christiana onwards, that there is a problem about whether God can do other than he does, because his perfect goodness arguably constrains his ability to act. When he first compiled Sic et non, probably early in the 1120s, Abelard must already have been thinking about issues in this area, because in question 35 he assembles many of the texts to which he returns in his discussions in the Theologia Christiana and Theologia scholarium. The question under which he puts them, however, is ‘Whether when God does not will something, he cannot do it’ (ubi deest velle Dei desit et posse)— a formulation Abelard may have taken from a Life of St Jerome which he quotes as his first passage.4 Only in writing the Theologia An Unpopular Argument (I)  47 Christiana does Abelard seem to have seen the wider frame of argument into which this more particular question fits. The quotations Abelard gives in the course of discussing NAG, and in Sic et non 35, indicate the sources in the context of which he devised this new problem, though none of them is straightforwardly a source for his argumentation. Plato’s Timaeus, which he had begun to study seriously when he went to St Denis, provided one important basis for the problem, with its statement that, because God is the best, he is free from all envy...