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Fenelon, Francois

Category: Religious


François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, more commonly known as François Fénelon (6 August 1651 – 7 January 1715), was a French Roman Catholic archbishop, theologian, poet and writer.

Although he trod a very careful line between his duties as an archbishop and his private views, he was nevertheless an extraordinary agent of positive change and held views which were not only in direct contradiction to many Catholic and other orthodox views, but which were to have a significant long term influence. 

At no time did Fenelon directly oppose prevalent dogma by direct confrontation, at times he even smoothed over the rifts, but by careful, almost diplomatic, means he achieved far more by simple gentle explanations and persuasion.

We will take a look at his achievements one by one.

Monarchical reform

In 1689, Louis XIV named Fénelon as 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.

The  Dauphin

But by far the most lasting of the works that Fénelon composed for the duke was his Les Aventures de Télémaque [The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses], written in 1693–94. On a superficial level, The Adventures of Telemachus was a novel about Ulysses' son Telemachus. On another level, it became a biting attack on the 'divine right', absolute monarchy which was the dominant ideology of Louis XIV's France. In Telemachus, Fénelon went so far as to write "Good kings are rare and the generality of monarchs bad".

Paul Hazard remarks on the bitterness of the questions Fénelon has his fictional hero Telemachus put to Idomeneus, King of Salente:

those same questions, in the same sorrowing tone, Fénelon puts to his pupil, the Duc de Bourgogne, against the day, when he will have to take over the royal power: Do you understand the constitution of kingship? Have you acquainted yourself with the moral obligations of Kings? Have you sought means of bringing comfort to the people? The evils that are engendered by absolute power, by incompetent administration, by war, how will you shield your subjects from them? And when in 1711, the same Duc de Bourgogne became Dauphin of France, it was a whole string of reforms that Fénelon submitted to him in preparation for his accession

The Adventures of Telemachus enraged Louis XIV, for it appeared to question his regime's very foundations.  But the book became one of the most popular works of the century and an immediate best seller both in France and abroad, going through many editions and translated into every European language and even Latin verse (first in Berlin in 1743, then in Paris by Étienne Viel [1737-87]). Its influence was thus enormous and the seed was sown for change.

In the short term, 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, as well as being thoroughly impressed with a sense of his future duties. But it is in the long term that we should look to understand the real influence of Fenelon.

From these simple beginnings, sprung the change that was to eventually sweep all of Europe, as it moved more to democracy - or revolution when democracy was not forthcoming.

Promotion of Human rights and pacifism

Millais' painting, Huguenot Lovers
on St. Bartholomew's Day

Neither the Catholic church nor the monarchy were noted at the time for pacifist views, however, Fenelon quietly demonstrated their value. 

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Church began a campaign to send the best speakers in the country into the regions of France with the highest concentration of Huguenots to ‘persuade them’ of the errors of Protestantism, this persuasion was backed by force, in the form of a significant numbers of troops.

 Fénelon spent the next three years in the Saintonge region of France preaching to Protestants. But whilst there, he persuaded the king to remove troops from the region and tried to avoid outright displays of religious oppression.  His carefully worded message was that persuasion was a far better ploy.

During the War of the Spanish Succession, Spanish troops encamped in his archdiocese (an area France had only recently captured from Spain), but they never interfered with the exercise of his archiepiscopal duties. Warfare, however, produced refugees, and Fénelon opened his palace to refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict.

For Fénelon all wars were civil wars. Humanity was a single society and all wars within it the greatest evil, for he argued that one's obligation to mankind as a whole was always greater than what was owed to one's particular country.  Thus he speaks:

A people is no less a member of the human race, which is society as a whole, than a family is a member of a particular nation. Each individual owes incomparably more to the human race, which is the great fatherland, than to the particular country in which he was born. As a family is to the nation, so is the nation to the universal commonweal; wherefore it is infinitely more harmful for nation to wrong nation, than for family to wrong family. To abandon the sentiment of humanity is not merely to renounce civilization and to relapse into barbarism, it is to share in the blindness of the most brutish brigands and savages; it is to be a man no longer, but a cannibal.


Educational reform

Needless to say, the education provided for women and girls in 1600s France [as elsewhere at the time] was virtually non existent.  In early 1679, the Archbishop of Paris selected Fénelon as director of Nouvelles-Catholiques, a community in Paris for young Huguenot girls, who had been removed from their families and were about to join the Church of Rome.  As a result of his work there, 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.  Given that girls did not receive a ‘thorough education’ in the UK until about the 1950s, his plea for change here took quite a long time to filter through!

Support of mysticism and direct spiritual experience

Madame Guyon

Fenelon himself was not a mystic, however, he was a tireless supporter of those who wanted to be.

In 1688, Fénelon first met Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon, usually known simply as Madame Guyon.  Madame Guyon was developing a form of contemplation which led to direct spiritual experience and did not follow the Church’s accepted practises.  Fénelon and Guyon were cousins; Fénelon was deeply impressed by her. He would later become a devotee.

During the early-to mid-1690s, Mme de Maintenon, the 'morganatic wife' of Louis XIV (a morganatic marriage is a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband's titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage), began to regularly consult Fénelon on matters of conscience. Since Fénelon had a reputation as an expert on educating girls, she sought his advice on the house of Saint-Cyr which she was founding for girls.

In 1697, following a visit by Mme Guyon to Mme de Maintenon's school at Saint-Cyr, Paul Godet des Marais, Bishop of Chartres (Saint-Cyr was located within his diocese) expressed concerns about Mme Guyon's orthodoxy to Mme de Maintenon. The bishop noted that Mme Guyon's opinions bore striking similarities to Miguel de Molinos' Quietism, which Pope Innocent XI condemned in 1687. Mme de Maintenon responded by requesting an ecclesiastical commission to examine Mme Guyon's orthodoxy.

The commission consisted of two of Fénelon's 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, as well as set forth a brief exposition of the Catholic view of prayer. Both Fénelon and the Bishop of Chartres signed the articles, as did all three commission members. Mme Guyon immediately submitted to the decision.


At Issy, the commission asked Bossuet to follow up the Articles with another paper.  When it came out, Fénelon refused to sign, arguing that Mme Guyon had already admitted her mistakes and there was no point in further condemning her. In his Explication des Maximes des Saints (a work often regarded as his masterpiece - English: Maxims of the Saints). Fénelon interpreted the Articles d'Issy in a way much more sympathetic to the Quietist viewpoint.

This unleashed two years of pamphlet warfare as the two sides traded opinions. On 12 March 1699, 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 and set aside his own opinion. With this, the Quietist matter was dropped.

But the Maximes des Saints was published and circulating.  Fenelon had achieved what he wanted.  The controversy surrounding Madame Guyon had sparked a great deal of interest and she herself was more or less martyred to her own cause.  Thus the sympathy of the public had been roused.  Thus once he, a person of some authority and stature, wrote on the subject, the book was guaranteed to succeed.  His book had a far wider circulation than any that Madame de Guyon herself wrote and again the seed had been sown – change was in progress and with no conflict, no arguments other than diplomatic ones.  This is how true change is achieved, from the inside not the outside.

Other actions

During his later years, Fénelon wrote a series of anti-Jansenist works. The Jansenist beliefs do not need to concern us now, except to say they were not helpful.  The treatises, sermons, and pastoral letters Fénelon wrote in response occupy seven volumes in his collected works. Fénelon particularly condemned Pasquier Quesnel's Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament. His writings contributed to the tide of scholarly opinion which led to Pope Clement XI's 1713 bull Unigenitus, condemning Quesnel's opinions.  As such we can view him as a tireless quiet campaigner for progress and change and against the sinking back into reactionary politics and views.

Inspiration and wisdom

Chateau de Fenelon

From where did Fenelon get his inspiration?

Fénelon was born on 6 August 1651 at the Château de Fénelon, in Sainte-Mondane, Périgord, Aquitaine, in the Dordogne river valley, the second of the three children of Pons de Salignac, Comte de La Mothe-Fénelon.

Reduced to the status of "impecunious old nobility" by François' time, the La Mothe-Fénelons had produced leaders in both Church and state. His uncle Antoine served as bishop of nearby Sarlat, a see in which fifteen generations of the Fénelon family had filled the episcopal chair. "In fact, so many members of the family occupied the position that it had begun to be considered as practically a familial apanage to which the Salignac-Fénelon had a right as seigneurs of the locality".  So inherited genes.

Fénelon's early education was provided in the Château de Fénelon by private tutors, who gave him a thorough grounding in the language and literature of the Greek and Latin classics. Thus he also benefited from home schooling.

Plan of Cambrai drawn in 1649

Fénelon did not live the life of the ascetic, did not suffer humiliation or impoverishment.  In fact when he was Abbot of Saint-Valéry he earned 14,000 livres a year.  He rose steadily and quietly through the ranks, doing his duty, and helping others.  As Archbishop of Cambrai, Fénelon spent several months of each year visiting his parishioners.  He preached in his cathedral on festival days, and took an especial interest in seminary training.  He was one of those quiet men, the truly spiritual [and  genuinely Christian], whose influence is very far reaching, but whose names are rarely mentioned.

Fénelon's later years were blighted by the deaths of many of his close friends. He died on 7 January 1715.



  • The Adventures of Telemachus
  • Dialogues
  • Christian Perfection
  • Let Go
  • The Royal Way of the Cross
  • Maxims of the Saints
  • The Inner Life


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