Early Life (§ 1).

Reputation for Tolerance Unearned (§ 2).

Missionary Labors (§ 3).

Tutorship of Duke of Burgundy (§ 4).

Championship of Mme. Guyon (§ 5).

Conduct of His Diocese (§ 6).

Télémaque (§ 7).

Estimate of His Character (§ 8).


I. Early Life.

Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, the French prelate and educator, was born at the castle of Fénelon in Périgord (the modern department of the Dordogne), Aug. 6, 1651; d. at Cambrai Jan. 7, 1715. He was the younger son of the Marquis of Fénelon, and was brought up in an atmosphere of strict piety. Under the guidance of a private tutor he laid the foundation of an excellent knowledge of the classics and after a short stay at the University of Cahors he went to Paris, where he devoted himself to the study of philosophy and theology at the Jesuit Collège du Plessis. Made an abbé when only fifteen, he achieved distinction by his oratorical gifts; he later entered the seminary of St. Sulpice, where he spent five years in strict retirement, devoted primarily to the study of the Greek Fathers. He became a priest in 1675 and was soon made supervisor of the Nouvelles Converties, an association of women, chiefly of noble rank, whose object was to instruct women newly converted to Roman Catholicism, or those inclined toward conversion, in the principles of the Roman Catholic faith.


2. Reputation for Tolerance Unearned.

In his attitude toward Protestants Fénelon does not seem to have earned the epithet of "tolerant " which has been bestowed upon him not only by Roman writers but also by Protestant historians. He was certainly not free from the prejudices of his Church and his time. In his Dissertation sur la tolérance he asserts that the Roman Church as opposed to the Protestants can not logically extend toleration to dissidents, and in his sermon Pour la profession religieuse d'une nouvelle convertie he characterizes schism as the worst of crimes. Speaking of his old friend Mme. Guyon he says "If it be true that she has attempted to disseminate the damnable teachings of Molinos, they ought to burn her and not admit her to communion, as the Bishop of Meaux has done." Fénelon employed pacific means, nevertheless, in his missionary work, and through his fine oratorical powers, his instructive catechetical addresses, and his eminently gracious personality, he succeeded in winning over large numbers from the Protestant faith; not that he omitted, indeed, to make use of the promise of pensions and other worldly rewards to facilitate conversion. Against obstinacy, moreover, he frequently resorted to force. Certain "stiff-necked" members of the institution directed by him he caused to be imprisoned as criminals of state, and others were punished by incarceration in the loathsome Hôpital Général. The results of his ten years' experience as director of the Nouvelles Converties he embodied in his work De l'éducation des filles [new ed., Paris, 1885, Eng. transl., The Education of Daughters, e. g. Dublin, 1841] a book characterized by deep psychologic insight into the mental life of the child, and one that has retained value to the present time. Starting out from the principle that education must content itself with following and supplementing the workings of nature, he lays it down that the exercise of love directed toward the confidence of the child, and the indirect form of imparting knowledge, are the true methods of the teacher, in opposition to the system of threats, punishments and categorical drill. At the same time he insists upon the importance of a solid grounding in religion, especially in Biblical history. In addition to instruction in religion, languages and history, the young girl should also be prepared for the various duties of domestic life.


3. Missionary Labors.

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Fénelon was one of the noted ecclesiastics sent into the provinces "to effect the conversion of the few Huguenots remaining in the country. His labors lay in the districts of Saintonge and Aunis. When he took leave of the king, he begged to be allowed to dispense with the usual military escort, saying that, after the example of the Apostles, he wished to accomplish a work of peace and love." Instead of combating heresy by acrimonious debate, he sought rather to attain his aim by the skilful and attractive exposition of the teachings of the Gospel, by the dissemination of Roman versions of the New Testament and missals, and by requiring the attendance of all children at Catholic schools. On the whole, however, he seems to have met with little success; and, impatient at the obstinacy of the heretics, he writes in Feb., 1686 to the secretary of state Seignelay: "The representatives of the king must in no way cease to keep a firm hand on those people, whom the slightest sign of conciliation renders so presumptuous;" then, giving information of the different routes by which the Huguenots were escaping abroad, he insists that the frontiers shall be guarded closely; "to render their sojourn in the country as tolerable as possible and their flight as dangerous as possible is the task." Fénelon's system of converting heretics, like that of the Roman Church of his time, was that the clergy should labor among them by means of preaching and loving persuasion, but invoke against the stubbornly recusant the "salutary pressure" of the worldly authorities.


4. Tutorship of Duke of Burgundy.

After six months' labor in the missionary field, Fénelon returned to his post at the Nouvelles Converties. His remarkable gifts had attracted attention before this, and in 1689, when the duke of Beauvilliers became governor to the grandchildren of Louis XIV., Fénelon was made preceptor to the princes, the eldest of whom, the duke of Burgundy, became his especial charge. For eight years Fénelon gave himself up with absolute devotion to the education of the young duke, who, combining unusual talents with a character in the highest degree stubborn, insolent, and pleasure-loving, offered an excellent opportunity for the exercise of Fénelon's splendid pedagogic talents. To train this child into a wise king (roi philosophe), a second St. Louis, was his aim. In combating the vices and supplementing the deficiencies of the lad, he displayed a remarkable resourcefulness that is evidenced especially in the different works he wrote for the young duke. His Contes et fables, his Dialogues des morts, his Démonstration de l'existence de Dieu, and his Direction pour la conscience d'un roi, all had a didactic purpose, which is present also in the most famous of his works, Les aventures de Télémaque. Fénelon succeeded in gaining an absolute influence over his pupil and in transforming him into a learned, affable, and modest youth. Fénelon's praise was in every mouth for the wonder he had wrought. He enjoyed the highest favor at the court, and as a reward for his services Louis XIV. made him, in 1695, archbishop of Cambrai. Yet his obligations to the king did not prevent him from speaking out boldly in criticism of the policy of Louis XIV. In a letter, the authenticity of which has been demonstrated by the discovery of the original, Fénelon attacks the monarch's vanity, worldliness, and love of power with a boldness that amounts to absolute temerity.


5. Championship of Mme. Guyon.

From his splendid position at court Fénelon fell suddenly as a result of the part he played in the conflict over the mystical doctrines of Mme. Guyon. When these were declared heretical by an investigating commission which included Bossuet and Noailles, Fénelon, dissenting from the majority in certain important reservations, published the Explication des maximes des saints, in which Mme. Guyon's fundamental principles were formulated in a sober and guarded manner. All love of God, Fénelon laid down, which was conditioned only by the fear of punishment or by the desire of earthly happiness was only an extremely imperfect copy of the pure unselfish love which consists in the adoration of God for his own sake. "Even though God--indeed an impossible supposition--should destroy the souls of the just or abandon them for eternity to the temptations and pains of this life, or condemn them for all eternity to the pains of hell, these souls would none the less love him and serve him faithfully." The style in which this work is written is dry, dogmatic, without grace or unction; and as the principles laid down are frequently followed by contradictory explanations and qualifications, it contains much that is subtle and obscure. It created great excitement, almost every one taking part for or against it. Bossuet attacked it violently; Fénelon answered with self-restraint and dignity. Although Fénelon had the support of the Jesuits, and in secret, that of Le Tellier, confessor of Louis XIV., most of the clergy adhered to Bossuet, upon whose side, too, the monarch ranged himself. Fénelon was banished to his see city of Cambrai, whereupon he appealed to the pope for judgment upon his book. After a long delay and urgent pressure from Louis XIV., decision was rendered, declaring several passages of his work erroneous (not heretical). Fénelon publicly proclaimed the papal decision and caused as many copies of his book as he could obtain to be burned. It is open to question, however, whether his submission was sincere. That he held fast to his opinions at a later date is manifest from a letter to Le Tellier in which, speaking of his conflict with Bossuet, he says "He who was in error has conquered and he who was free from error is overcome." As a matter of fact the papal judgment, rendered so unwillingly and in so mild a form, did Fénelon no harm, but gained him sympathy and increased love and admiration.


6. Conduct of His Diocese.

It is in the last period of his life, during eighteen years of labor in his diocese (1697-1715) that Fénelon showed himself in the noblest light. Devoted to his pastoral duties, he made himself thoroughly acquainted with conditions in every part of his jurisdiction, giving himself up especially to the task of training worthy priests and removing for this purpose the diocesan seminary from Valenciennes to Cambrai where it enjoyed his personal supervision. A master of pulpit oratory himself, he combated the prevailing taste for declamation, laying down as the threefold object of the preacher to convince, paint, and persuade. During the war of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) his diocese was repeatedly the scene of hostilities. In 1709, when the country around Cambrai was laid waste by the enemy, Fénelon turned his palace into a refuge for the inhabitants of entire villages, and gave his personal care to the sick and wounded. He placed his episcopal income at the disposal of the government for the relief of famine. The nobility of his conduct did not fail to impress even the foe, and Prince Eugene and the duke of Marlborough established guards for the protection of his personal property during the occupation of the country by the allies.


7. Télémaque.

In the Jansenist controversy Fénelon took an active part as an opponent of the teachings of the bishop of Ypres. He requested the pope to obtain from the king the dismissal of all dignitaries who should refuse to subscribe to the anti-Jansenist formula, and their excommunication in case of obstinate opposition. He gave unconditional support to the bull Unigenitus directed against the Jansenists. On the other hand, to the Protestants of the country he maintained, according to some authorities, an attitude that went to the extreme of tolerance. His pastoral duties still left him time for literary activity. As a member of the French Academy his advice was called for in the work on the great dictionary. As a judge in the conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns, he praised the classic writers because they depicted nature with power and grace, carried out their characters consistently, and attained harmony. At this time he brought together the different fragments of the Télémaque into an orderly whole. The book achieved a tremendous success, not only in France, where it was speedily prohibited, but throughout Europe. Fénelon has been accused unjustly of intending this romance as a satire upon the government of Louis XIV., a view against which the author vehemently protested. Nevertheless the book itself contains echoes and images of the time. The work is written in a highly attractive style and reveals a sound knowledge of antiquity. What detracts from it is the blending of Greek mythology with Christian doctrine and ethics, of antiquity with modern times, a process resulting in a general impression of unreality. Although the king had forbidden all intercourse between Fénelon and the duke of Burgundy, the two remained in constant communication through common friends. On important occasions the young duke turned for advice to his old teacher, and when the death of the Dauphin (1711) made the duke heir to the throne, a new career seemed about to open for Fénelon. But if he entertained hopes of playing the part of a Mazarin or a Richelieu, the death of the duke in the following year dashed them to the ground. On hearing the fatal news he remarked "My ties are now severed--nothing more binds me to earth." The last years of his life were passed in partial retirement and devotion.


8. Estimate of His Character.

Fénelon's numerous literary, theological and political writings offer abundant testimony to the versatility of his talents and the wide extent of his knowledge. Similarly many-sided does his character appear. By nature mild, he was stern to himself and often severe to those who differed from him in belief. With a strong bent for mysticism, he nevertheless possessed remarkable insight into practical affairs and conditions. Insisting as a theologian upon "a pure and unselfish love for God" and revealing as archbishop a spirit of noble sacrifice and of devoted service toward the poor and the suffering, he aspired at the same time to power and dominion. An earnest champion of authority and established doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church and an opponent of all religious innovations, he showed himself, in the field of politics and social science an advocate of ideals bordering on Utopianism. In an age when absolutism was regarded as almost a divine principle, Fénelon was the first to speak of popular rights and the popular welfare. In this manner his ideas represent an anticipation of the eighteenth century, whose philosophers, notably D'Alembert, praise him highly. On the whole, in spite of certain defects, we may decidedly place him among the noblest characters and most talented writers of his day.

(J. EHNI†.)