1902 Encyclopedia > François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon

François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon
French writer and cleric

FRANÇOIS DE SALIGNAC DE LA MOTHE FENELON, (1651-1715), archbishop of Cambray, and one of the most celebrated names in the intellectual and ecclesiastical history of France in the 17th century, was born at the Chateau de Fénelon in Périgord, August 6, 1651. The family of Salignac or Salagnac, to which he belonged, had been ennobled from the middle of the 15th century, and pro-duced already many distinguished names. The father of the future archbishop was Count Pons de Salignac, of whose second marriage, contracted in mature years, François was the only child. From his birth he was of a delicate and sensitive temperament ; and, greatly beloved by his old father, he was educated at home till he was twelve years of age. He received, according to one of his biographers, " a simple Christian education devoid of anything remarkable." But he must have been lucky in his tutor or of rare aptitude for learning, for he seems then to have laid the foundation of his admirable scholarship and love of letters. After a short time at the college of Cahors, he went to Paris to complete his studies under the Jesuits at the College du Plessis. There his great gifts soon drew to him distinction, and, like his rival Bossuet, he ventured to preach to an ad-miring audience at the age of fifteen. His father seems to have died before this time, and his uncle, the Marquis de Fénelon, who had assumed the care of his education, with-drew his charge from what might have proved injurious seductions, and placed him in the seminary of St Sulpice under the saintly Trouson. His uncle was himself a re-markable man. Distinguished as a soldier and a statesman, he became no less distinguished for his piety and moral heroism. In conjunction with M. Olier, the founder of St Sulpice, he inaugurated and became the first president cf an association for the suppression of duelling. The association was composed only of men whose valour was unimpeachable, and whose oath binding them to refuse any challenge or take part in any duel could not therefore be mistaken. The Marquis de Fénelon and his daughter, who became Madame de Montmorenci Laval, wife of the Marquis de Montmorenci Laval, both exercised a decisive and happy influence over the young Fénelon. Many of his early letters are addressed to his cousin, whom he looked upon as a sister—the only one he had ever known. But the head of St Sulpice, M. Trouson, shared with these relatives the task of his higher education, and no one, both now and afterwards, enjoyed so much of his confidence. " Great as is my freedom and openheartedness with you," the young student writes to his uncle after being placed at the seminary, " I must confess without any fear of making you jealous that I am still more unreserved with M. Trouson ; if you could hear our conversation and the ease with which I lay bare my heart to him, and with which he teaches me to know God, you would not know your pupil, and you would see that God has very marvellously helped on the work which you began."

Fénelon's first aspirations were towards a missionary life. The congregation at St Sulpice had established a missionary society at Canada which many of its pupils had joined, and he wished to follow their steps ; and when this project failed he still more earnestly desired to undertake a mission to Greece. In one of his letters, dated October 9, 1675, he draws a glowing sketch of his desire to visit " the glorious scenes," redolent of the spirit of antiquity, which he had so often pictured in imagination, and " to seek out the Areopagus whence St Paul proclaimed the unknown God to heathen sages." But his delicate health, and the dissuasion of another uncle, the bishop of Sarlat, interfered with his missionary longings. He was induced to remain at home and accept the office of superior of the community of Nouvelles Catholiques, a community founded for the pro-tection and instruction of women converted from Protes-tantism: He spent ten years (1675-85) of quiet and successful labour in connexion with this institution, became intimately associated with a select circle, at the head of which was the Due de Beauvilliers, began his career as an author, and otherwise laid the foundation of his remarkable influence. It was at the request of the Duchesse de Beauvilliers that he is said to have written his first work, De VEducation des Filies, which long maintained its reputation among the higher families of France, and may still be consulted with advantage. It contains many admirable precepts. To this same period belong a Refuta-tion of Malebranche's Treatise of Nature and Grace, in which he was assisted with marginal notes by Bossuet, and a treatise on the Ministry of Pastors, in which he set forth the blessing of a divine order appointed in uninterrupted succession from the apostles to guard men from error, seeing that all experience proves how unable ordinary men are "to decide for themselves as to the details of dogmas." This treatise had a polemical aim against the Protestants, but was at the same time written with great moderation and fairness.

In 1685 Louis XIV. carried out his infamous policy of expelling the Protestants from France by the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Great disturbance arose in consequence in the districts of Poitou and Saintonge. It was necessary, by firm yet gentle means, to do something to allay the violent irritation which had been caused. On the recommendation of Bossuet, Fénelon was chosen as the head of a mission for this purpose. He made two conditions, —that all troops should be withdrawn from the provinces, and that he should be allowed to choose his fellow workers. The result was that his mission was attended with consider-able success, although he himself complains more than a year afterwards, " Our converts get on very slowly ;—it is no easy matter to change the opinions of a whole people." On his return to Paris he had several interviews with the king to report the result of his labours, and afterwards resumed in comparative privacy his old duties among the Nouvelles Catholiques. M. de Harlay, the well-known brilliant but profligate archbishop of Paris, who had first advanced him to this position, withdrew his favour from him when he saw he could make no use of him. "It seems, M. l'Abbe, that you wish to be forgotten, and you shall be," was his bitter speech on one occasion; and he so far suc-ceeded as to prevent Fénelon's appointment to the see of Poitiers which had been contemplated by the king.

Suddenly he was called to the responsible position of preceptor of the dauphin's son, the young duke of Burgundy. This was the work especially of his friend the Due de Beauvilliers, who in 1689 was appointed governor of the royal grandson. But other friends warmly rejoiced in Fénelon's advancement, and amongst these Bossuet wrote to Madame de Montmorenci Laval congratulating her. " We shall not lose the Abbé Fénelon," he says; " you will be able to enjoy him, and, provincial as I am, I shall escape from time to time to embrace him." It is interesting to notice this renewed trace of hearty friendship between these two illustrious men, considering the unhappy relations which afterwards arose between them.

No man probably was ever better fitted than Fénelon for the difficult position which he now assumed, and to which he mainly devoted himself during the next six years (1689-95). He was a born teacher in the highest sense,—gifted with the most charming qualities of patience, sweetness of temper, tact, and address, yet inflexible in principle, and severe and unbending in his methods of training. He had the manners of a grand seigneur, with all the intellectual refinements of an accomplished churchman. Saint Simon in his Mémoires (t. xxii. p. 135) has left a portrait of him about this time which has been often quoted, and from which we extract only a few sentences. " He was a tall thin man, well made, pale, with a large nose, eyes whence fire and talent streamed like a torrent, and a physiognomy the like of which I have never seen in any other man, and which once seen one could never forget. It combined everything, and the greatest contradictions produced no want of harmony It united seriousness and gaiety, gravity and courtesy—the prevailing characteristic, as in everything about him, being refinement, intellect, graceful-ness, modesty, and above all noblesse. It was difficult to take one's eyes off him. All his portraits are speaking, and yet none of them have caught the exquisite harmony which struck one in the original, or the exceeding delicacy of every feature. His manner altogether corresponded to his appearance ; his perfect ease was infectious to others, and his conversation was stamped with the grace and good taste which are only acquired by habitual intercourse with the best society and the great world." He had need of all his brilliant and solid qualities in the task which he had under-taken. The young duke of Burgundy, as the same writer remarks, " was born with a naturel which made one tremble. He was so passionate that he would break the clocks which summoned him to some unwelcome duty, and fly into the wildest rage with the rain which hindered some pleasure." He was withal warm-hearted and clever,-—in fact, " danger-ously quick in penetrating both things and people." Fénelon had full scope for the exercise of his marvellous educational art, and the result was a success far beyond what is usual in such cases. - The impetuous but affection-ate and bright child grew under his charge into an earnest, well-disciplined, and promising, if somewhat over-scrupu-lous and timid youth, whose life if spared might have brought blessing to France. Fénelon carefully planned all the details of his education, arfd has embodied in his well-known Têlêmaque and other writings the principles on which he based it. It was his aim to train the young prince not merely in habits of self-control, to direct his scholarly acquirements and religious convictions, but, moreover, to awaken in him true and large political instincts fitted to qualify him for his high position. Fénelon himself, while an aristocrat both by birth and feeling, and strongly favour-able to the maintenance of these class distinctions which were especially marked in France in the 17th century, was at the same time essentially liberal in his recognition of the radical equality of all men, and the moral regards which should regulate the relation of classes to one another. His ideal was that of a limited monarchy, surrounded by national institutions, each having its due place and func-tion in the body politic, and representing in due degree public opinion. A written constitution, one sovereign law for all, universal education provided by the state, the recip-rocal independence of the temporal and spiritual powers, detestation of war, free industry in agriculture and trade, a people growing in intelligence and self-dependence round the throne and under the guidance of the church,—such were the broad principles which he sought to instil into his pupil, and so to make him, in his own language, "a philosophic king," " a new Saint Louis." The task was a noble one, and it was pursued with all the fascina-tion, patience, and quiet earnestness which distinguished him.

But a train of circumstances was preparing, destined to impair and finally to overthrow his influence at court, and to banish him from all intercourse with his royal pupil. We can only very briefly indicate the causes which led to this result. A system of religious mysticism known as Quietism had been set afloat towards the end of the 17th century by a Spanish priest of the name of Molinos. The system was espoused in France amongst others especially by Madame Guyon, a remarkable woman devoted to the cause of religion, but of an erratic and restless temperament. Her writings on the subject attracted wide attention, and speedily called forth ecclesiastical condemnation. The archbishop of Paris took up a position of violent hostility towards her ; the severe and methodical character of the king was greatly offended by her excesses; and Bossuet was by and by drawn into the circle of her vehement opponents. Strangely it was by Fénelon's advice that the subject was first brought under Bossuet's notice. Attracted by Madame Guyon's genuine enthusiasm, and no doubt finding some-thing in her view of disinterested mysticism which appealed to his own religious temperament, he recommended her to place her writings in the hands of the bishop of Meaux, and to abide by his decision. Many conferences were held on the subject, in which Fénelon at first took no part, and during the progress of which he held friendly communication with his old friend, and in fact supplied Bossuet, who professed his ignorance of the mystical writers, with extracts from the fathers and others bearing on the controversy. The relation of the two friends continued apparently cordial ; the atmosphere of the court had not yet changed towards him, for it was at this very time, in the beginning of 1695, that the king nominated Fénelon for the archbishopric of Cambray; but gradually out of this miserable business there sprung up a host of embittered feelings. After his appointment as archbishop, Fénelon had joined in the conferences at Issy which finally condemned Madame Guyon's doctrines. He scrupled, however, to subscribe her condemnation ; he scrupled also to express approval of a publication of Bossuet attacking these doctrines : and in vindication of his own position and principles he published his Maximes des Saints sur la vie intérieure. The result was to kindle into greater fury the storm of controversy, to provoke the jealous and violent animosity of Bossuet, and to fan the suspicions with which the king had always more or less regarded him into such a vehement outbreak as to lead to his permanent banishment from court, and his condemnation at Borne (1699). He sub-mitted himself to the pontifical decision. But this did not save him either from the continued anger of Bossuet or from the displeasure of the monarch, which were further excited by the publication, through the treachery of a secretary, of his Têlémaque, under the allegorical disguise of which Louis and his courtiers recognized a satire against the absolutist principles of the French Government.

Fénelon himself disclaimed any such intention. "He had," he said, " introduced all the virtues necessary for a good government, and the faults to which sovereign power is liable, but none were drawn with the slightest approach to any personality or portraiture. The more the book is examined, the more it will be seen that it only expressed principles fully, without attempting to draw any finished character. My only object was to amuse the duke of Bur-gundy with a tale of adventure, and to instruct him at the same time, without ever thinking of giving the work to the public " (Corresp., t. iii. p. 247).

The remainder of Fénelon's life was spent in his diocese in ceaseless works of Christian piety and charity. Cambray abounded in Protestants and Jansenists, whom he greatly won by his toleration and evangelical simplicity. It was, moreover, a great thoroughfare for the armies of the time, to the necessities of which, and especially of the sick and wounded, he personally ministered. His own palace was sometimes crowded with invalided officers, who remained his guests for months. He became in consequence endeared to the army and the people. Mingling familiarly with the poorest peasants under his spiritual charge, dis-pensing with liberality, yet without ostentation, the duties of Christian hospitality, carrying on an extensive correspondence with the clergy and some of his old friends at court, he became more honoured in his retirement even than he had been in Paris. " In everything," says Saint Simon, " he was a true bishop, in everything a grand seigneur, in everything, too, the author of Têlémaque." A curious pic-ture is preserved of these later years of Fénelon by a Scotch-man of the name of Andrew Bamsay, who had wandered over Holland and Germany in search of something more satisfying than the sectarianism of his native country, or the deism which seemed to him for a time the only alterna-tive. Won by the spiritual beauty of Fénelon's character, and the elevation of his teaching, he embraced the Catholic faith, spent much of his time at Cambray, and wrote the first life ever published of his teacher and friend. The last years of the good archbishop's life were saddened by the loss of most of his friends. " Our best friends," he said, on hearing of the death of the Duc de Beauvilliers in 1714, "are the source of our greatest sorrow and bitter-ness." And again he wrote to a remaining friend, "I only live in friendship now, and friendship will be the cause of my death." He died on the 17th January 1715.

Fénelon is chiefly remembered for the beauty of his character, his tender and mystic devotion, and the charm of his style as a writer. He is not great as a thinker, nor can the substance of his writings be said to have a permanent value. But there is the same subtle delicacy, sensibility, and tenderness and purity of expression in his style as in his character. An exquisite highly-toned and noble genius pervades the one and the other. As a man he is one of the greatest figures in a great time. As a writer he has been placed in prose on the same level with Racine in poetry. In both there is the same full harmony and clearness, the same combination of natural grace with per-fect art.

In addition to the works of Fénelon already noticed, the following deserve to he mentioned:— The Dialogues des Morts, composés pour l'Éducation d'un Prince, 1712 ; Dialogues sur l Éloquence, &c, 1718 ; Lettres sur divers sujets concernant la religion et la métaphysique, 1718 ; Traité d l'Existence de Dieu, &c, 1713. There are many collected editions of his works. That of Leclerc (Paris, 1827-1830), 38 small vols., is the latest. An excellent life of Fénelon has recently appeared in English (1877) by the same author as the Life of Bossuet mentioned under that article. (J. T. )

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