Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe (1651–1715)

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François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, the French bishop and author, was born in Périgord of an ancient noble but impoverished family. He received his education in Cahors and then in Paris, where he entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice and was ordained priest about 1675. First in Paris and then in Saintonge he was made responsible for securing the conversion of Protestants, and in this, especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), he had to offset the effects of brutal military repression. He was certainly firm and successful, but opinions vary on how gentle he was. By 1689 he enjoyed the favor of Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and Mme. de Maintenon and had been appointed tutor to Louis XIV's grandson, the duc de Bourgogne.

Fénelon's association with Mme. Guyon, the exponent of quietism, dramatically changed his career. In 1694, mainly on Bossuet's initiative, she was censured by an official inquiry and temporarily put under his supervision at Meaux. Both Fénelon and Mme. de Maintenon were implicated with Mme. Guyon in a devotional group, but when Bossuet consecrated Fénelon archbishop of Cambrai in 1695 it seemed that he had averted potential scandal by using promotion as a pretext for removal. Fénelon, however, had become personally committed to mysticism and the doctrine of pure love (the disinterested love of God, divorced from any act of will, or even concern for one's salvation). Learning that Bossuet planned a crushing (and unfair) attack on Mme. Guyon and, through her, on all mysticism, Fénelon tried to forestall him by publishing a reasoned defense of mystical spirituality, Les maximes des saints (1679). Bossuet then embarked on a campaign of slander, falsification, and corruption, which resulted in Fénelon's banishment from the court (1697) and his condemnation by the pope (1699). Fénelon, who had always been fragile in health, remained in exile at Cambrai, conscientiously ruling his war-ravaged diocese, earning a reputation for sanctity, and pursuing a relentless, and ultimately successful, struggle against Jansenism in high places.

Though he owed much of his early success to Bossuet, whom he had at first admired, Fénelon was by temperament so different that a subsequent breach was inevitable. In his attitude to the theater Fénelon had a breadth and humanity of outlook that led him to praise Jean Racine and even Molière, who had been mercilessly attacked by Bossuet (Lettre à l'Académie, 1714). Fénelon had been deeply influenced by Greek culture, and much of his thinking bore the mark of Plato. He combined sensitivity and idealism with a strong vein of practicality, but he echoed neither the authoritarianism nor the moral grimness of Bossuet.

In philosophy Fénelon was enthusiastic rather than original. In 1687 he undertook for Bossuet a Réfutation du système de la nature et de la grâce against Nicolas Malebranche, but he soon espoused a form of Cartesianismbest represented in his Traité de l'existence de Dieu (1712 and 1718)that came very close to Malebranche's position. Fénelon also wrote Lettres sur divers sujets de métaphysique et de religion (1718).

His early Traité de l'education des filles (1687) is humane and sensible, arguing that to neglect the education of one half of the human race can only have adverse effects on the other. Basing his system firmly on Christian teaching, he emphasized the need for a moral education deriving from love of virtue, rather than from fear of punishment. In addition to general literacy and elocution, Fénelon advocated the teaching of such practical matters as sufficient knowledge of law to enable women to protect their much-abused interests.

Fénelon's principle of developing rather than repressing character appears in Télémaque, written for his pupil about 1694 and semiofficially condemned on publication (1699). The transparent veil of Homeric legend does nothing to conceal the author's detestation of royal absolutism in its contemporary manifestations. Wars of aggression fought in the name of national prestige, territorial aggrandizement and extravagant luxury at court are condemned, not only for the misery they cause for impoverished subjects, but also as evils in themselves. For Fénelon a good king is one whose people enjoy prosperity based on industry and commerce and who accepts the duty of ensuring not only their material but also, through his example, their moral welfare. Fénelon's fundamental political axiom was that kings and their policies are subject to and judged by the moral law, as embodied in Christian teaching, and that the true interests of a state can never conflict with this law. Similar views occur in the Dialogues des morts. Had it not been for the premature death of the duc de Bourgogne (1712), Fénelon's teaching, so contrary to Louis XIV's practice, might well have become official policy.

See also Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne.


works by fÉnelon

Oeuvres complètes. 10 vols, edited by J. Gosselin. Paris, 18481852.

Numerous editions of separate works.

works on fÉnelon

Adam, A. Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle. Vol. V, Ch. 5. Paris, 1956. Excellent chapter on Fénelon.

Bremond, H. Apologie pour Fénelon. Paris, 1910.

Carcassonne, E. Fénelon, l'homme et l'oeuvre. Paris: Boivin, 1946.

Goré, Jeanne-L. L'itinéraire de Fénelon. Paris, 1957.

Hazard, P. La crise de la consciense européenne. 2nd ed. Paris, 1961. Translated by J. L. May as The European Mind. London: Hollis and Carter, 1953; Harmondsworth, U.K. (paperback), 1964.

Kearns, Edward J. Ideas in Seventeenth Century France. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

A. J. Krailsheimer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)