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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François Fénelon (1651–1715)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Joseph Shahan (1857–1932)
 
FRANÇOIS DE SALINAC DE LA MOTHE FÉNELON was born in 1651 at the Château Fénelon, in Périgord, France. He received his early education within the domestic circle, where his delicate and sensitive temperament was trained with great care by his father, and where he acquired the elements of the profound classical knowledge that distinguished him in later life. After some years of study at the University of Cahors and in the Jesuit College of Plessis, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice at Paris, by the advice of his uncle, the Marquis de Fénelon, a gentleman of high social and political rank at the court of the Grand Monarque. Fénelon was ordained a priest at Saint-Sulpice, and joined the admirable body of ecclesiastics who have given fame to that center of religious life. On his death-bed he wrote to Louis XIV. that he had known in his lifetime nothing more venerable or more apostolic than Saint-Sulpice. It was here that he fell under the spiritual influence of the Abbé Tronson, whose guidance had much to do with the future career of Fénelon. Parochial work at Saint-Sulpice, the guidance of a convent of Protestant female converts, a mission to the Huguenots of Poitou after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, occupied the attention of the young priest in the early years of his career. He desired to come to Canada, to evangelize the Indians; but his friends opposed the plan, which was carried out by his brother, the Abbé Fénelon, who died a Sulpician at Montreal in 1697. At this time he wrote his ‘Traité de l’Education des Jeunes Filles’ (1687) and his ‘Traité du Ministère des Pasteurs’ (1688), admirable manuals of a pedagogical and pastoral nature. In 1689 he was made preceptor of the young Duke of Burgundy, the grandson of the King. Here he accomplished a marvel in the transformation of the passionate and stubborn son of the Dauphin into a youth of courteous manners and great self-control. It was a triumph of art and tact against brute nature and irresponsible strength. But Fénelon, a born teacher, was equal to the task, and won moreover the undying affection of the young duke. For him he wrote his ‘Fables’ (36), and his ‘Dialogues des Morts’ (91), in which he inculcated by alternate lessons of a pleasing or a grave character the virtues and principles that befitted a ruler of men. He wrote also a ‘Life of Charlemagne,’ model of a Christian king; but it seems never to have been printed. While his position as the duke’s preceptor seemed to assure to Fénelon a most honorable career, it was precisely what caused the greatest of his misfortunes,—the loss of the King’s confidence. Fénelon had written for the instruction of the duke a work entitled ‘Les Aventures de Telémaque, Fils d’Ulysse,’ a kind of postscriptum to the Odyssey. It was in reality a manual in which all the wisdom of classic antiquity was gathered by a master hand and explained in almost perfect style, to one destined to govern the greatest kingdom of Europe. But it was surreptitiously printed, and the King’s courtiers pointed out in it many apparent satires on the King’s principles and conduct, notably in the delineation of Idumæus. Thenceforth Fénelon fell under the ban of the jealous King. He had been already made in 1693 a member of the Academy, and in 1695 Archbishop of Cambrai.  1
  In the mean time had broken out the famous controversy on Quietism, apropos of the doctrine and life of a female mystic, Madame de Guyon. A grave discussion had arisen concerning the orthodoxy of her views on the pure and unselfish love of God, in which Bossuet and Fénelon were adversaries; with the immediate result that the latter accepted, with some reserves, the outcome of the famous Conferences of Issy. Not long after Fénelon wrote, to justify himself, ‘L’Explication des Maximes des Saints sur la Vie Intérieure,’ to which in the same year (1697) Bossuet replied by the ‘Instructions sur les États d’Oraison.’ Meanwhile the affair was brought before the Holy See, which was solicited on one side by the powerful King and the nephew and the agent of Bossuet, and on the other by the good Abbé Chanterac, with whom Fénelon kept up a most admirable exchange of letters. Rome hesitated long, diminished the number of assailable propositions, and finally in March 1699 condemned some of those laid before her as “dangerous,” not as heretical, which was the vote that the King and Bossuet anxiously looked for. In April of the same year followed the humble submission of Fénelon. Weinand agrees with the Pope, who is reported to have said that in the whole affair Bossuet sinned by lack of human, and Fénelon by excess of Divine love.  2
  From the outbreak of the discussion on Quietism, Fénelon had been obliged to withdraw from the court to his diocese of Cambrai, which he administered with rare zeal and success. The largely Flemish population, and the fact that it was partly the scene of the War of the Spanish Succession, made the territory no easy one to care for; but he proved himself a good shepherd indeed, a wise adviser of the Crown in his numerous letters and memoirs, a preacher of the highest rank, and a rhetorician second to few in his ‘Dialogues sur l’Éloquence en Général et sur Celle de La Chaise en Particulier’ (Paris, 1708). The last years of his life were occupied with a continuous warfare against the open and the secret friends of Jansenism, which was making its greatest struggle for political recognition when Fénelon died, January 7th, 1715, beloved and regretted by all, the foremost gentleman of France, and the greatest ecclesiastical soul since Saint Bernard.  3
  Saint-Simon thus describes Fénelon’s appearance (‘Mémoires’):—
          “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 gayety, gravity and courtesy,—the prevailing characteristic, as in everything about him, being refinement, intellect, gracefulness, 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 acquired only by habitual intercourse with the best society and the great world.”
  4
  His political views were moral and Christian in color, and for that age highly democratic, marking a return to the best period of the Middle Ages.
          “This ideal,” says Principal Tulloch in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ “was that of a limited monarchy, surrounded by national institutions, each having its due place and function 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 reciprocal independence of the temporal and spiritual powers, detestation of war, free industry in agriculture and trade, a people growing in intelligence and self-dependence around the throne and under the guidance of the Church,—such were the broad principles which he sought to instill into his pupil, and so to make him, in his own language, a philosophic king, ‘a new St. Louis.’”
  5
  His own king, Louis XIV., looked on all this as brilliant but chimerical.  6
  Fénelon ranks forever as one of the most elegant writers in the French language. The sweetness of his character, his tender and loving mysticism, his unction and simplicity, his crystal-clear thought, and affectionate direct eloquence, mark him as unequaled in his own line as a director of souls and a teacher of men. His philosophy of life is kindly and practical, but directed to a higher end of man than the pleasures of earth afford, and his instruction is always decked out with all the intellectual graces that can allure men to look beyond and above the present and the transitory.
          “The most effective charm of his works,” wrote d’Alembert, “is the sentiment of calm and peace that he instils into his reader; he is like a friend who draws near to you and whose soul runs over into your own. He soothes, he allays, if only for a moment, your sorrows and your trials, and one forgives humanity for so many men who make us hate it, in favor of Fénelon, who makes us love it.”
  7
  The best edition of his works is that of Paris, 1852 (10 vols.), containing biographical material, documents, and the best life of Fénelon, that printed in 1808 by Cardinal de Bausset. The reader may also consult with profit Michelet’s ‘Louis XIV. et le Duc de Bourgogne’; Sainte-Beuve, ‘Causeries du Lundi’; Emmanuel de Broglie, ‘Fénelon à Cambrai’; an article by Principal Tulloch in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’; that by Weinand in Welzer and Welte’s ‘Kirchenlexikon’; and the pertinent paragraphs in histories of French literature and in French biographical encyclopædias, like the ‘Nouveau Dictionnaire de Biographie Générale.’ A good biography is also found in H. Sidney Lear’s ‘Christian Biographies’ (1877). The latter has also translated into English the ‘Lettres Spirituelles’ of Fénelon.  8
 
 
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