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François Fénelon

François FénelonAKA François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon

Born: 6-Aug-1651
Birthplace: Périgord, France
Died: 7-Jan-1715
Location of death: Cambrai, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cambrai Cathedral, Cambrai, France

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Author

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Télémaque

French writer and archbishop of Cambrai, born at the château of Fénelon in Périgord on the 6th of August 1651. His father, Pons, comte de Fénelon, was a country gentleman of ancient lineage, large family and small estate. Owing to his delicate health the boy's early education was carried on at home; though he was able to spend some time at the neighboring university of Cahors. In 1666 he came to Paris, under charge of his father's brother, Antoine, marquis de Fénelon, a retired soldier of distinction, well known for his religious zeal. Three years later he entered the famous theological college of Saint Sulpice. Here, while imbibing the somewhat mystical piety of the house, he had an excellent chance of carrying on his beloved classical studies; indeed, at one time he proposed to couple sacred and profane together, and go on a missionary journey to the Levant. "There I shall once more make the Apostle's voice heard in the Church of Corinth. I shall stand on that Areopagus where St. Paul preached to the sages of this world an unknown God. But I do not scorn to descend thence to the Piraeus, where Socrates sketched the plan of his republic. I shall mount to the double summit of Parnassus; I shall revel in the joys of Tempe." Family opposition, however, put an end to this attractive prospect. Fénelon. remained at Saint Sulpice until 1679, when he was made "superior" of a "New Catholic" sisterhood in Paris -- an institution devoted to the conversion of Huguenot ladies. Of his work here nothing is known for certain. Presumably it was successful; since in the winter of 1685, just after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, Fénelon was put at the head of a number of priests, and sent on a mission to the Protestants of Saintonge, the district immediately around the famous Huguenot citadel of La Rochelle. To Fénelon such employment was clearly uncongenial; and if he was rather too ready to employ unsavory methods -- such as bribery and espionage -- among his proselytes, his general conduct was kindly and statesmanlike in no slight degree. But neither in his actions nor in his writings is there the least trace of that belief in liberty of conscience ascribed to him by 18th-century philosophers. Tender-hearted he might be in practice; but toleration he declares synonymous with "cowardly indulgence and false compassion."

Meanwhile the marquis de Fénelon had introduced his nephew into the devout section of the court, dominated by Mme. de Maintenon. He became a favorite disciple of Bossuet, and at the bishop's instance undertook to refute certain metaphysical errors of Father Malebranche. Followed was an independent philsophical Treatise on the Existence of God, in which Fénelon rewrote Descartes in the spirit of St. Augustine. More important were his Dialogues on Eloquence, in which he entered an eloquent plea for greater simplicity and naturalness in the pulpit, and urged preachers to take the scriptural, natural style of Bossuet as their model, rather than the coldly analytic eloquence of his great rival, Bourdaloue. Still more important was his Treatise on the Education of Girls, being the first systematic attempt ever made to deal with that subject as a whole. Hence it was probably the most influential of all Fénelon's books, and guided French ideas on the question all through the 18th century. It holds a most judicious balance between the two opposing parties of tho time. On the one side were the précieuses, enthusiasts for the "higher" education of their sex; on the other were the heavy Philistines, so often portrayed by Molière, who thought that the less girls knew the better they were likely to be. Fénelon sums up in favor of the cultivated housewife; his first object was to persuade the mothers to take charge of their girls themselves, and fit them to become wives and mothers in their turn.

The book brought its author more than literary glory. In 1689 Fénelon was gazetted tutor to the duke of Burgundy, eldest son of the dauphin, and eventual heir to the crown. The character of this strange prince has been drawn once for all by Saint-Simon. Shortly it may be said that he was essentially a mass of contradictions -- brilliant, passionate to the point of mania, but utterly weak and unstable, capable of developing into a saint or a monster, but quite incapable of becoming an ordinary human being. Fénelon assailed him on the religious side, and managed to transform him into a devotee, exceedingly affectionate, earnest and religious, but woefully lacking in tact and common sense. In justice, however, it should be added that his health was being steadily undermined by a mysterious internal complaint, and that Fénelon's tutorship came to an end on his disgrace in 1697, before the pupil was fifteen. The abiding result of his tutorship is a code of carefully graduated moral lessons -- the Fables, the Dialogues of the Dead (a series of imaginary conversations between departed heroes), and finally Télémaque, where the adventures of the son of Ulysses in search of a father are made into a political novel with a purpose. Not, indeed, that Fénelon meant his book to be the literal paper "Constitution" some of his contemporaries thought it. Like other Utopias, it is an easy-going compromise between dreams and possibilities. Its one object was to broaden Burgundy's mind, and ever keep before his eyes the "great and holy maxim that kings exist for the sake of their subjects, not subjects for the sake of kings." Here and there Fénelon carries his philanthropy to lengths curiously prophetic of the age of Rousseau -- fervid denunciation of war, belief in nature and fraternity of nations. And he has a truly 18th-century belief in the all-efficiency of institutions. Mentor proposes to "change the tastes and habits of the whole people, and build up again from the very foundations." Fénelon is on firmer ground when he leads a reaction against the "mercantile system" of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, with its crushing restrictions on trade; or when he sings the praises of agriculture, in the hope of bringing back labor to the land, and thereby ensuring the physical efficiency of the race. Valuable and farsighted as were these ideas, they fitted but ill into the scheme of a romance. Seldom was Voltaire wider of the mark than when he called Télémaque a Greek poem in French prose. It is too motive, too full of ingenious contrivances, to be really Greek. As, in Fénelon's own opinion, the great merit of Homer was his "amiable simplicity", so the great merit of Télémaque is the art that gives to each adventure its hidden moral, to each scene some sly reflection on Versailles. Under stress of these preoccupations, however, organic unity of structure went very much to the wall, and Télémaque is a grievous offender against its author's own canons of literary taste. Not that it altogether lost thereby. There is a curious richness in this prose, so full of rhythm and harmony, that breaks at every moment into verse, as it drags itself along its slow and weary way, half-fainting under an overload of epithets. And although no single feature of the hook is Greek, there hangs round it a moral fragrance only to be called forth by one who had fulfilled the vow of his youth, and learned to breathe, as purely as on "the double summit of Parnassus", the very essence of the antique.

Télémaque was published in 1699. Four years before, Fénelon had been appointed archbishop of Cambrai, one of the richest benefices in France. Very soon afterwards, however, came the great calamity of his life. In the early days of his tutorship he had met the Quietist apostle, Mme. Guyon, and had been much struck by some of her ideas. These he developed along lines of his own, where Christian Neoplatonism curiously mingles with theories of chivalry and disinterestedness, borrowed from the précieuses of his own time. His mystical principles are set out at length in his Maxims of the Saints, published in 1697. Here he argues that the more love we have for ourselves, the less we can spare for our Maker. Perfection lies in getting rid of self-hood altogether -- in never thinking of ourselves, or even of the relation in which God stands to us. The saint does not love Jesus Christ as his Redeemer, but only as the Redeemer of the human race. Bossuet attacked this position as inconsistent with Christianity. Fénelon promptly appealed to Rome, and after two years of bitter controversy his book was condemned by Pope Innocent XII in 1699. As to the merits of the controversy opinion will always be divided. On the point of doctrine all good judges agree that Fénelon was wrong; though many still welcome the obiter dictum of Pope Innocent, that Fénelon erred by loving God too much, and Bossuet by loving his neighbor too little. Of late years, however, Bossuet has found powerful defenders; and if they have not cleared his character from reproach, they have certainly managed to prove that Fénelon's methods of controversy were not much better than his. One of the results of the quarrel was Fénelon's banishment from court; for Louis XIV had ardently taken Bossuet's side, and brought all the batteries of French influence to bear on the pope. Immediately on the outbreak of the controversy, Fénelon was exiled to his diocese, and during the last eighteen years of his life he was only once allowed to leave it.

To Cambrai, accordingly, all his energies were now directed. Even Saint-Simon allows that his episcopal duties were perfectly performed. Tours of inspection, repeated several times a year, brought him into touch with every corner of his diocese. It was administered with great strictness, and yet on broad and liberal lines. There was no bureaucratic fussiness, no seeking after popularity; but every man, whether great or small, was treated exactly as became his station in the world. And Saint-Simon bears the same witness to his government of his palace. There he lived with all the piety of a true pastor, yet with all the dignity of a great nobleman, who was still on excellent terms with the world. But his magnificence made no one angry, for it was kept up chiefly for the sake of others, and was exactly proportionate to his place. With all its luxuries and courtly ease, his house remained a true bishop's palace, breathing the strictest discipline and restraint. And of all this chastened dignity the archbishop was himself the ever-present, ever-inimitable model -- in all that he did the perfect churchman, in all the high-bred noble, in all things, also, the author of Télémaque.

The one great blot on this ideal existence was his persecution of the Jansenists. His theories of life were very different from theirs; and they had taken a strong line against his Maxims of the Saints, holding that visionary theories of perfection were ill-fitted for a world where even the holiest could scarce be saved. To suppress them, and to gain a better market br his own ideas, he was even ready to strike up an alliance with the Jesuits, and force on a reluctant France the doctrine of papal infallibility. His time was much better employed in fitting his old pupil, Burgundy, for a kingship that never came. Louis XIV seldom allowed them to meet, but for years they corresponded; and nothing is more admirable than the mingled tact and firmness with which Fénelon spoke his mind about the prince's faults. This exchange of letters became still more frequent in 1711, when the wretched dauphin died and left Burgundy heir-apparent to the throne. Fénelon now wrote a series of memorable criticisms on the government of Louis XIV, accompanied by projects of reform, not always quite so wise. For his practical political service was to act as an alarm-bell. Much more clearly than most men, he saw that the Bourbons were tottering to their fall, but how to prevent that fall he did not know.

Not that any amount of knowledge would have availed. In 1712 Burgundy died, and with him died all his tutor's hopes of reform. From this moment his health began to fail, though he mustered strength enough to write a remarkable Letter to the French Academy in the autumn of 1714. This is really a series of general reflections on the literary movement of his time. As in his political theories, the critical element is much stronger than the constructive. Fénelon was feeling his way away from the rigid standards of Nicolas Boileau to "a Sublime so simple and familiar that all may understand it." But some of his methods were remarkably erratic; he was anxious, for instance, to abolish verse, as unsuited to the genius of the French. In other respects, however, he was far before his age. The 17th century has treated literature as it treated politics and religion; each of the three was cooped up in a watertight compartment by itself. Fénelon was one of the first to break down these partition walls, and insist on viewing all three as products of a single spirit, seen at different angles.

A few weeks after the Letter was written, Fénelon met with a carriage accident, and the shock proved too much for his enfeebled frame. On the 7th of January 1715 he died at the age of 63. Ever since, his character has been a much-discussed enigma. Bossuet can only be thought of as the high priest of authority and common sense; but Fénelon has been made by turns into a sentimentalist, a mystical saint, an 18th-century philosophe, an ultramontane churchman and a hysterical hypocrite. And each of these views, except the last, contains an element of truth. More than most men, Fénelon "wanders between two worlds -- one dead, the other powerless to be born." He came just at a time when the characteristic ideas of the 17th century -- the ideas of Louis XIV, of Bossuet and Boileau -- had lost their savor, and before another creed could arise to take their place. Hence, like most of those who break away from an established order, he seems by turns a revolutionary and a reactionary. Such a man expresses his ideas much better by word of mouth than in the cold formality of print; and Fénelon's contemporaries thought far more highly of his conversation than his books. That downright, gossiping German princess, the duchess of Orleans, cared little for the Maxims; but she was enraptured by their author, and his "ugly face, all skin and bone, though he laughed and talked quite unaffectedly and easily." An observer of very different mettle, the great lawyer d'Aguesseau, dwells on the "noble singularity, that gave him an almost prophetic air. Yet he was neither passionate nor masterful. Though in reality he governed others, it was always by seeming to give way; and he reigned in society as much by the attraction of his manners as by the superior virtue of his parts. Under his hand the most trifling subjects gained a new importance; yet he treated the gravest with a touch so light that he seemed to have invented the sciences rather than learned them, for he was always a creator, always original, and himself was imitable of none." Still better is Saint-Simon's portrait of Fénelon as he appeared about the time of his appointment to Cambrai -- tall, thin, well-built, exceedingly pale, with a great nose, eyes from which fire and genius poured in torrents, a face curious and unlike any other, yet so striking and attractive that, once seen, it could not be forgotten. There were to be found the most contradictory qualities in perfect agreement with each other -- gravity and courtliness, earnestness and gaiety, the man of learning, the noble and the bishop. But all centered in an air of high-bred dignity, of graceful, polished seemliness and wit -- it cost an effort to turn away one's eyes.

Father: Pons, comte de Fénelon

    Roman Catholic Archbishop Cambrai, 1695

Author of books:
L'Education des Filles (1687)
Explication des Maximes des Saints (1697)
Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699)
Fables (1701)
Dialogues des Morts (1712)
Démonstration de l'Existence de Dieu (1713)


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