François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, more commonly known as François Fénelon ,August 6, 1651-January 7, 1715, was a French Roman Catholic theologian, poet and writer. He today is remembered mostly as one of the main advocates of quietism and as the author of The Adventures of Telemachus, a scabrous attack on the French monarchy, first published in 1699.
Childhood and Education, 1651-75
Fénelon was born on August 6, 1651 at the Château de Fénelon, in Sainte-Mondane, Périgord, Aquitaine, the second of the three children of Pons de Salignac, Comte de La Mothe-Fénelon by his wife Louise de La Cropte. Being born into a noble family, many of Fénelon's ancestors had been active in politics, and for several generations his relatives had served as bishops of Sarlat.
Fénelon's early education was provided in the Château de Fénelon by a private tutor which provided Fénelon with a thorough grounding in the Greek language and classics. In 1667, at age 12, he was sent to the University of Cahors, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy. When the young man expressed interest in a career in the church, his uncle, the Marquis Antoine de Fénelon (a friend of Jean-Jacques Olier and Vincent de Paul) arranged for him to study at the Collège du Plessis, whose theology students followed the same curriculum as the theology students at the Sorbonne. While there, he became friends with Antoine de Noailles, who later became a cardinal and the Archbishop of Paris. Fénelon demonstrated so much talent at the Collège du Plessis that at age 15, he was asked to give a public sermon.
Early years as a priest, 1675-85
In 1678, Hardouin de Péréfixe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, selected Fénelon to head the house of Nouvelles-Catholiques, a community for Protestant converts about to enter the Church of Rome.
Missionary to the Huguenots, 1686-87
During this period, Fénelon had become friends with his future rival Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Church began a campaign to send the greatest orators in the country into the regions of France with the greatest concentration of Huguenots to persuade them of the errors of Protestantism. Upon Bossuet's suggestion, Fénelon was included in this group, alongside such oratorical greats as Louis Bourdaloue and Esprit Fléchier.
He consequently spent the next three years in the Saintonge region of France preaching to Protestants. He persuaded the king to remove troops from the region and tried to avoid outright displays of religious oppression, though, in the end, he was willing to resort to force to make Protestants listen to his message. He believed that "to be obliged to do good is always an advantage and that heretics and schismatics, when forced to apply their minds to the consideration of truth, eventually lay aside their erroneous beliefs, whereas they would never have examined these matters had not authority constrained them."
Important friends, 1687-89
During this period, Fénelon assisted Bossuet during his lectures on the Bible at Versailles. It was probably at Bossuet's urging that he now composed his Réfutation du système de Malebranche sur la nature et sur la grâce, a work in which he attacked Nicolas Malebranche's views on optimism, the Creation, and the Incarnation. This work was not published until 1820, long after Fénelon's death
Fénelon also became friendly with the Duc de Beauvilliers and the Duc de Chevreuse, who were married to the daughters of Louix XIV's minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The Duchesse de Beauvilliers, who was the mother of eight daughters, asked Fénelon his advice on raising children; as a result, he wrote his Traité de l'education des filles. This work is often seen as being somewhat ahead of its time, as it insists that girls should receive a thorough education, particularly in theological matters, so that they will be able to recognize and refute heresies.
He spent three years working as a preacher to the Protestants. He became a friend and colleague of Jacques Bossuet during this time, and produced his successful works Treatise on the Existence of God and Treatise on the Education of Young Girls during this period.
In 1688, Fénelon first met Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon, usually known simply as "Mme Guyon", who was being well-received in the social circle of the Beauvilliers and Chevreuses. He was deeply impressed by her piety and would later become a devotee and defender of her brand of Quietism.
Royal tutor, 1689-97
In 1689, Louis XIV named Fénelon's friend the Duc de Beauvilliers as governor of the royal grandchildren. Upon Beauvilliers' recommendation, Fénelon was named the tutor of the Dauphin's eldest son, the 7-year-old Duke of Burgundy, who was second in line for the throne.
As tutor, Fénelon was charged with guiding the character formation of a future King of France. He wrote several important works specifically to guide his young charge. These include his Fables and his Dialogues des Morts.
But by far the most lasting of his works that he composed for the duke was his Les Aventures de Télémaque (English The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses), written in 1693-94. On its surface, The Adventures of Telemachus was a novel about Ulysses' son Telemachus, but in reality, it was a biting attack on the divine right absolute monarchy which was the dominant ideology of Louis XIV's France. In sharp contrast to Bossuet, who, when tutor to the Dauphin had written Politique tirée de l'Écriture sainte which affirmed the divine foundations of absolute monarchy while at the same exercising the future king to use restraint and wisdom in exercising his absolute power, in Telemachus, Fénelon went so far as to write "Good kings are rare and the generality of monarchs bad" (p. 254).
It was the general opinion that Fénelon's tutorship resulted in a dramatic improvement in the young duke's behaviour. Even the memoirist Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, who generally disliked Fénelon, admitted that when Fénelon became tutor, the duke was a spoiled, violent child; when Fénelon left him, the duke had learned the lessons of self-control and had been thoroughly impressed with a sense of his future duties. Telemachus is therefore widely seen as the most thorough exposition of the brand of reformism in the Beauvilliers-Chevreuse circle, which hoped that following Louis XIV's death, his brand of autocracy could be replaced by a monarchy less centralized and less absolute, and with a greater role for aristocrats such as Beauvilliers and Chevreuse.
In 1693, Fénelon was elected to Seat 34 of the French Academy.
The early- to mid-1690s are significant since it was during this period that Mme de Maintenon (morganatic wife of Louis XIV since roughly 1684) began to regularly consult Fénelon on matters of conscience. Also, since he had a reputation as an expert on the education of girls, she sought his advice on the house of Saint-Cyr which she was founding for girls.
In February 1696, the king nominated Fénelon to become the Archbishop of Cambrai while at the same time asking him to remain in his position as tutor to the duke of Burgundy. Fénelon accepted, and he was consecrated by his old friend Bossuet in August
The Quietist controversy, 1697-99
As already noted, Fénelon had met Mme Guyon in 1688 and had subsequently become an admirer of her work.
In 1697, following a visit by Mme Guyon to Mme de Maintenon's school at Saint-Cyr, the Bishop of Chartres (Saint-Cyr was located within his diocese) expressed concerns about Mme Guyon's orthodoxy to Mme de Maintenon. He was concerned that Mme Guyon's opinions bore striking similarities to Miguel de Molinos' Quietism, condemned by Innocent XI in 1687. As a result, Mme de Maintenon asked for an ecclesiastical commission to exam Mme Guyon's orthodoxy: the commission consisted of two of Fénelon's old friends, Bossuet and de Noailles, as well as the head of the Sulpician order of which Fénelon was a member. The commission sat at Issy and, after six months of deliberations, delivered its opinion in the Articles d'Issy, 34 articles which briefly condemned certain of Mme Guyon's opinions and set forth a brief exposition of the Catholic view of prayer. These articles were signed by Fénelon and the Bishop of Chartres, as well as by all three members of the commission. Mme Guyon immediately submitted to the decision of the commission.
At Issy, the commission had decided that Bossuet should follow up the Articles with an exposition of them, so Bossuet now proceeded to write that exposition in a work he entitled Instructions sur les états d'oraison. Bossuet submitted this work to the members of the commission, as well as to the Bishop of Chartres and Fénelon, to ask for their signatures prior to its publication. Fénelon refused to sign, arguing that Mme Guyon had already admitted her mistakes and there was no point in further condemning her. Furthermore, Fénelon disagreed with Bossuet's interpretation of the Articles d'Issy, so in response Fénelon wrote Explication des Maximes des Saints (a work often regarded as his masterpiece - English: Maxims of the Saints), in which he provided his own interpretation of the Articles d'Issy, interpreting them in a way much more sympathetic to the Quietist viewpoint than Bossuet's interpretation.
Louis XIV, shocked that his grandson's tutors held such views, removed Fénelon from his post as royal tutor and ordered Fénelon to remain within the boundaries of the archdiocese of Cambrai. The king chastised Bossuet for not warning him earlier of Fénelon's opinions and ordered Bossuet, de Noailles, and the Bishop of Chartres to respond to the Maximes des Saints.
This unleashed two years of pamphlet warfare as the two sides traded opinions. This continued until March 12, 1699, when the Inquisition formally condemned the Maximes des Saints, with Pope Innocent XII listing 23 specific propositions as unorthodox.
Fénelon immediately declared that he submitted to the pope's authority in the matter and set aside his own opinion in the matter. With this, the matter dropped.
In 1699, The Adventures of Telemachus was published and Louis XIV was enraged by this work, which appeared to question the very foundations of his regime. As a result, even after Fénelon abjured his Quietist views, the king refused to revoke his order forbidding Fénelon from leaving his archdiocese.
As Archbishop of Cambrai, Fénelon spent most of his time in the archiepiscopal palace in Cambrai, but also devoted several months of each year to visitation of his archdiocese. He preached in his cathedral on festival days, and took an especial interest in seminary training and in examining candidates for the priesthood prior to their ordination.
During the War of the Spanish Succession, Spanish troops encamped in his archdiocese (an area only recently gained by France from Spain), but the troops never interfered with Fénelon in the exercise of his archiepiscopal duties. During the war, Fénelon opened his palace to refugees from around the archdiocese who had fled in the face of Spanish troops.
During these latter years, Fénelon wrote a series of anti-Jansenist works. The impetus for this was the publication of the Cas de Conscience, which revived the old Jansenist distinction between questions of law and questions of fact, and arguing that though the church had the right to condemn certain opinions as heretical, it did not have the right to oblige one to believe that these opinions were actually contained in Cornelius Jansen's Augustinus. In response to this, Fénelon wrote treatises, sermons, and pastoral letters which occupy seven volumes in his collected works. Fénelon particularly condemned Pasquier Quesnel's Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament, and his writings were part of the build-up to Pope Clement XI's 1713 bull Unigenitus, condemning Quesnel's opinions.
Although confined to the archdiocese to Cambrai, in his later years, Fénelon continued to act as a spitirual director for Mme de Maintenon, the ducs de de Chevreuse and de Beauvilliers, the duke of Burgundy, and a number of other prominent individuals.
Fénelon's later years were saddened by the deaths of many of his close friends. Shortly before his death, he asked Louis XIV to replace him with a man opposed to Jansenism and loyal to the Sulpician order. He died on January 7, 1715.
- The Adventures of Telemachus
- Christian Perfection
- Let Go
- The Royal Way of the Cross
- Maxims of the Saints
- The Inner Life
- "François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Gale Research, 1998.
- Avis Chretiens "Christian Counsel" (1810) English translation
- Catholic Encyclopedia article
- "Educating Telemachus: Lessons in Fénelon's Underworld" by Ippokratis Kantzios