Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe

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Educator, theologian, archbishop; b. in the château de Fénelon, near Sarlat in the region of Périgord, Gascony, Aug. 6, 1651; d. Cambrai, Jan. 7, 1715. Fénelon was the thirteenth child of a father whose noble ancestry went back to the tenth century. Because of poor health, he received his early education at home, then at the Jesuit college in Cahors (166365); he left his native province in 1666 to study in Paris at the College of Le Plessis. In 1672 or 1673 he entered the Paris Seminary of Saint-Sulpice. Ordained at about 24, he served in the parish of

Saint-Sulpice (167578), laying aside his dream of missionary work in Greece. In 1678 Fénelon was appointed superior of the Convent of New Catholics in Paris, a post he occupied (with some interruptions) until 1689. The purpose of the institution was to convert and strengthen in their new faith young girls from Protestant families. Fénelon headed two preaching missions (December 1685 to July 1686, and May to July 1687) in Saintonge and Aunis. These represented efforts to convert the Protestants disturbed by the recent revocation of the Edict of nantes. Fénelon could not tolerate heterodox religious beliefs, but he preferred gentle persuasion to persecution.

Early Writings. In 1687 Fénelon published his first important work, Traité de l'Education des filles, composed at the request of his friends, the Duc and Duchesse de Beauvilliers, for the benefit of their daughters, and partially embodying the results of his pedagogical experiences at the Convent of New Catholics. Although on the whole conservative, the book was a pioneering work. The dignity of women and the necessity of molding young girls for adulthood are the underlying principles. He criticized the harsh methods of his day, preferring a subtly persuasive and engaging technique proportioned to the mentality of the learner. The pupil should not be too conscious of being taught, and reason should as much as possible supplant mere discipline.

By 1687 Fénelon had powerful friends: bossuet, the Beauvilliers (the Duc was soon to be made guardian of the Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of the King and second in line to the succession), and the Duc and Duchesse de Chevreuse. He was introduced to Mme. de Maintenon and on Oct. 4, 1688, met Mme. guyon.

In August 1689, at the suggestion of Mme. de Maintenon and of Beauvilliers, the King chose Fénelon as tutor of his grandson. To this period (168999) we owe the Fables, the Dialogues des morts, and the novel Télémaque, most of which was not published until later. Fénelon created these as a series of texts to meet the different stages in the intellectual and moral development of his royal charge: the first book for the child, the second for the adolescent, the third for the boy on the threshold of manhood. The two latter works are courses in the art of ruling well; the central theme is that one must first be a good man in order to be a great king; concrete examples point up lessons in statesmanship and moral idealism. In the novel the examples are adapted from the legends of antiquity, whereas in the dialogues historical figures are the types. Fénelon's methodthe inculcation of truth through enjoymentproved itself in this instance: the spoiled child, subject to tantrums, became a serious, pious boy with admirable self-control. In 1693 Fénelon was elected to the French Academy; in 1695 he was named to the archbishopric of Cambrai and consecrated by Bossuet at Versailles.

The Semiquietism Affair. Ever eager to enrich his spiritual life, Fénelon had been attracted to the teaching of Mme. Guyon. Although not approving the more extreme forms of her thought and charitably discounting her eccentricities and often exaggerated expressions, he thought that she had discovered a method of prayer well suited to bring the individual near to God, and that indeed her doctrine was not too far removed from that of the mystical saints and doctors accepted by the Church. It soon began to be bruited about that the doctrine skirted the line between orthodoxy and heresy, and was close to the quietism recently condemned by Rome. Mme. Guyon's writings were examined by Church authorities (169495), but Fénelon could not agree with Bossuet's reaction. The appearance, at the beginning of 1697, of Fénelon's L'Explication des Maximes des Saints sur la vie intérieure and, a month later, of Bossuet's interpretation of the doctrine launched the unfortunate polemic between the two.

As a result, Fénelon's favor at court began to decline: Mme. de Maintenon turned against him and the King banished him to Cambrai (1697). He was officially deprived of the title of tutor in January 1699. On March 12 of that fatal year, the papal brief Cum alias condemned 23 propositions found in Fénelon's work, as seeming to favor quietism. Fénelon himself had insisted that Rome scrutinize his book, and after months of study the consultors had been equally divided; a majority was secured later. In April the first volume of Télémaque appeared in an unauthorized edition, and readers saw in it a veiled criticism of the King and his government. Although Fénelon denied this, the event put the seal on his official disgrace at court, and he spent the remaining years of his life in his diocese.

Despite the loss of royal favor, Fénelon remained greatly influential. At Cambrai he maintained the dignity of his office while he himself lived very simply. He was accessible to all, heard the confessions of the most humble parishoners, and frequently made inspection tours of his large diocese. He corresponded with the Duc de Bourgogne and met him on different occasions. When war swept over his diocese, he succored the enemy wounded as well as the French. Finally, he used the rich revenues of his diocese so well that upon his death he left neither debts nor notable assets. A fever, following a carriage accident in November 1714, brought his noble life to an end two months later.

Social Thought. For an understanding of Fénelon's political thinking, the chief documents are, in addition to his dialogues and novel, the bold Lettre à Louis XIV (from internal evidence, written c. 1693 or 1694, but very likely never read by the King), Examen de conscience sur les devoirs de la royauté (1697 or after), Discours pour le sacre de l'Electeur de Cologne (1707), and Tables de Chaulnes (1711). The last work was the result of discussions with the Duc de Chevreuse, in which the two men formulated plans for the possible administration of the Duc de Bourgogne, who had just become the heir presumptive. Fénelon knew that a reform of the French monarchy was necessaryto that end he had prepared the young Duke, but his protégé died in 1712. Fénelon detested absolutism, and called for a constitutional monarch restrained by law. He further advocated a number of specific reforms: economic, e.g., the reduction of expenses and a balanced budget; political, e.g., the reestablishment of the Estates General and decentralization; and social, e.g., freedom for the nobility to enter commerce or the magistracy. Industry was to be encouraged, and manufactured goods were to be allowed to compete freely on the world market. Fénelon insisted that the Church be independent of the State, which should protect the Church without being its master. He was not, like Bossuet, a partisan of the Gallican freedom of the Church of France. (see gallicanism).

It was during the Cambrai period that Fénelon summed up his religious thinking. In the Traité de l'Existence de Dieu (Pt. 1, 1712; Pt. 2, 1718 and 1731) he is both an intellectual and a mystic. For him the arguments of the heart were more telling than those of the intellect; he seemed to be erecting a dike against the rationalistic flood that was to come. Fénelon yearned for the vision of God to whom he wished to be united and in whom he would lose himself. Ever a man of apostolic zeal, he strove to improve the faithful, bring back the heretic, and convince the unbeliever. He fought to establish at Cambrai a seminary that would compete with the Jansenist centers at Douai and Louvain (see jansenism), and, from 1704, wrote much to defend the Augustinian conception of grace against Jansenist misinterpretation. His final polemic in this controversy was the Instruction pastorale en forme de dialogues contre le système de Jansénius (1714). Inflexible in controversy, he was charitable in his relations with the Jansenists of his diocese. One of his last writings was the Lettre sur les occupations de l'Académie française (1714).

Seminal Influence. Fénelon was not a professional man of letters, but he was a born artist. His style is generally characterized by the qualities of ease, fluidity and grace, harmony, and equilibrium. More important, his ideas were seminal. His educational philosophy foreshadowed that of rousseau's Emile. His desire to break the aesthetic fetters imposed upon writers hastened the literary upheaval then gathering momentum. His thinking on the writing of history anticipated voltaire. Above all, his criticism of royal absolutism and his ideas on political, economic, and social reforms were to make an impression upon the revolutionary minds that were to follow. Philosophers of the 18th century, unfortunately, interpreted Fénelon to suit themselves. Thus Fénelon's Catholic mysticism was equated with sentimental deism. He would have been surprised at Rousseau's application of his educational theories. Fénelon remains the most likable personality of the closing years of the reign of Louis XIV. It has been asserted that if his constructive reform program had been realized, the French Revolution might have been prevented.

Bibliography: Oeuvres, 35 v. (Versailles 182030); Oeuvres complètes, 10 v. (Paris 184852). d. c. cabeen, ed., A. Critical Bibliography of French Literature (Syracuse 1961), contains the most up-to-date annotated bibliography, m. de la bedoyÈre, The Archbishop and the Lady: The Story of Fénelon and Madame Guyon (New York 1956). e. carcassonne, Fénelon (Paris 1946), the best biography and general treatment. p. janet, Fénelon (Paris 1892), old, but still good.

[j. w. cosentini]

François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon

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François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon

The French prelate, theologian, and preacher François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715) is best known for his advocacy of quietism.

Born on Aug. 6, 1651, François Fénelon was educated by the Jesuits. He became a priest at the famous Seminary of St-Sulpice and spent 3 years preaching to Protestants. He became an ardent disciple and friend of Jacques Bossuet. Fénelon produced his Treatise on the Existence of God as well as his Treatise on the Education of Young Girls at this time. Both were highly successful.

In 1688 Fénelon met Madame Guyon, who claimed to have mystical experiences and to have the secret of loving God. She had been imprisoned by the archbishop of Paris in a convent because he feared that she was in error. Fénelon believed in her stoutly; he visited her infrequently but corresponded with her voluminously. He was suffering at this time from an intense aridity of mind in regard to God. Intellectually he could prove God's existence, but emotionally he felt little or nothing toward God. Guyon seemed to him to have discovered or received the secret of such "feeling" in her childlike surrender to God and the simplicity of her approach to divine things.

About this time there was a controversy in the French Church about a heresy called quietism, a teaching according to which progress in virtue and in the love of God was achieved by submitting to God's action and grace. Its opponents maintained that quietists made no positive effort at being virtuous, that they depended passively on God's grace, and even neglected basic rules of Christian virtue and behavior. Fénelon was involved in this unpleasant controversy through his association with Guyon. She used to visit, on Fénelon's suggestion, a school for girls run by Madame de Maintenon. The latter disliked Guyon and reported her to the authorities. Guyon also submitted her doctrine for approval to Bossuet on Fénelon's suggestion. Bossuet, although fundamentally ignorant of theology, attacked both Guyon and Fénelon in 1697.

Hate now replaced friendship for Fénelon in Bossuet's mind. He saw him as a rival in public speaking and as the nation's foremost theologian and religious counselor. He sought to have Fénelon discredited. The teaching of Fénelon and Guyon was condemned by Pope Innocent XII on the insistence of Louis XIV under Bossuet's constant prodding. Fénelon submitted and then set out to outline his teaching on Catholic mysticism on a scale never before attempted.

In February 1695 Fénelon was made archbishop of Cambrai and from then until his death he spent his time in writing, teaching, and preaching. He was appointed tutor to Louis XIV's eldest grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. For the duke he composed his Dialogues and Telemachus, together with other minor works. His ideas on politics were based on the universal brotherhood of man, an unpopular idea in the 18th century. He proved himself a first-rate literary judge in his Letter to the French Academy in 1714. He spent his last years writing against Jansenism. In his writings he explained the love of God and the simplicity of heart required in man in order to be able to practice that love. Fénelon died on Jan. 7, 1715.

Further Reading

Katherine Day Little's biography, François de Fénelon: A Study of a Personality (1951), is recommended. A popularly written account, sympathetic to Fénelon, is Michael de la Bedoyere, The Archbishop and the Lady: The Story of Fénelon and Madame Guyon (1956). Thomas Merton wrote a useful introduction to Fénelon's Letters of Love and Counsel, edited by John McEwen (1964). Fénelon's works are discussed in W. D. Howarth, Life and Letters in France: The Seventeenth Century (1965), and Philip John Yarrow, The Seventeenth Century, 1600-1715 (1967). □

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