François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715) was a noted bishop and writer. In 1689, the learned, pious, and zealous priest was appointed tutor of the Duke of Burgundy, the second in line to the French throne. In 1696, he was named bishop of Cambrai. However, he was suspected of holding heretical views on prayer and the spiritual life. Though a supporter of Jeanne Guyon, he submitted along with her to the Articles d’Issy, in which the French bishops condemned some of the spiritual doctrines she was alleged to hold. However, he refused to sign Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s explanation of those articles. He replied with a work of his own, An Explanation of the Maxims of the Saints. This led to his removal as tutor to the king’s grandson and a papal brief condemning certain propositions of his book. However, the Bishop of Cambrai continued to be one of the major intellectual figures of the period throughout Europe, known for his writings on the spiritual life, political philosophy, and education.
Ryan Patrick Hanley, Professor of Political Science at Boston College, will take us through his pick of the five best books by or on Fénelon. Prior to joining the faculty at Boston College, Prof. Hanley was the Mellon Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Marquette University, and held visiting appointments or fellowships at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. A specialist on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment period, he is the author of The Political Philosophy of Fénelon, and a companion translation volume, Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings, both of which are published by Oxford University Press.
Telemachus by François Fénelon, translated Tobias Smollett, revised by Patrick Riley
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We opened with a biographical sketch of Fénelon. What would you add to it? Something about the significance of his early experiences and his legacy.
Early in his life, Fénelon held some remarkable posts. He was always an educator by profession. Prior to teaching the Duke of Burgundy, he was a very well-known at the court as an educator at other institutions. In the wake of the Edict of Nantes, he worked with young women from newly converted families. He wrote extensively on education and had been thinking about it from his time at the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice. That is an important part of his biography. It shapes so much of his later writing, especially his deep investment as a spiritual counsellor, as well as a formal tutor to the Duke of Burgundy himself.
As to his legacy. Fénelon dies in 1715, pre-deceasing Louis XIV by a matter of months. However, his influence was as significant as it was during his life, perhaps even more so, especially in the later part of the 18th century. Through my work, I hope to contribute to maintaining his visibility and perpetuating that legacy. He is a remarkable thinker, one that is well worth the time of his readers.
Why should we read Fénelon today? We should read him for several discrete but interrelated reasons. Fénelon deserves our attention for his vision of political life. He had a remarkably humane understanding of what politics could be and how it could be reformed. That part of his vision remains important today, especially in our fraught global political moment.
Ultimately, more important than his political writings are his insights as a spiritual counsellor and advisor. For many generations, up to our own, the faithful have recognised in him a remarkable guide to spirituality and the inner life. Whether reading his words in French, Latin, or in translation, the power comes through. For many, this has been a formative experience. I am delighted to have a chance to talk about those works.
The first work that you have recommended is the one for which Fénelon was best-known during his own lifetime. The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses is one of various mirrors for princes that he had written for his pupil, the Duke of Burgundy. It narrates the travels of Telemachus, who is accompanied by his tutor, Mentor. It was published without Fénelon’s authorization and became an international best-seller. Is it still worth reading? It is worth reading for a variety of reasons.
First, it was a remarkable historical phenomenon. It was written explicitly for the education of the Duke of Burgundy. Here we have a book written for an audience of one, literally. But the manuscript was leaked without Fénelon’s consent or knowledge and published. As you rightly note, it became an international bestseller. Indeed, in 18th century France it was the most widely read book after the Bible. That alone, suggests the degree of influence that Fénelon had. This work is particularly interesting simply from a historical perspective. However, I would be remiss if I were to say that it is only important for history. In the course of the work, Fénelon aspires to provide, as you say, a mirror for princes: what we might call antithesis of Louis XIV, whom Fénelon knew at first hand, from serving in his court.
The sun-king believed himself to be the centre of the universe and dedicated his life to promoting his glory and grandeur and those of the nation. Fénelon believed that the king needed to have a different orientation. His glory should come not from the splendour of his palace, but from the services that he rendered to the least and lowest of his flock. Fénelon’s remarkable portrait of kings good and bad in Telemachus, is meant to clue the Duke of Burgundy, and indeed us, his later readers, into the essential components of good and bad, just and unjust, free and tyrannical government. In our fraught political moment, Fénelon gives us the opportunity for sustained reflection on both the perils of our current political moment, but also some of the promise of the politics, once well and rightly reformed.
Presumably Mentor is Fénelon himself; Telemachus the Duke of Burgundy. Why would Fénelon, a bishop, recur to Greek epic poetry and mythology rather than Sacred Scripture to get his message across? On one hand, his contemporary audience certainly would have recognised that Scripture figures between the lines throughout the work. His use of the characters of classical mythology is informed by a Christian Catholic perspective.
But there is another reason. This is another important part of Fénelon’s life. He is one of the Immortals: one of the members of the Académie Française, right at the time when it is not just publishing its landmark dictionary but is also deeply involved in the great quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. One thing that animated Fénelon’s intense love of classical learning and his interest in Greek and Roman poetry and prose, was that these enabled him to be a conversationalist in such debates. Through his literary prowess, he was able to get a hearing in the secular world. He was speaking not merely to the faithful.
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