Bossuet's great antagonist in the controversy concerning Quietism might have found the approval of the philosophers for some of his political opinions. His religious writings would have spoken to them in an unknown tongue.
FRANÇOIS DE SALIGNAC DE LA MOTHE-FÉNELON was born in Périgord (1651), of an ancient and illustrious family. Of one whose intellect and character were infinitely subtle and complex, the blending of all opposites, it is possible to sustain the most conflicting opinions, and perhaps in the end no critic can seize this Proteus. Saint-Simon noticed how in his noble countenance every contrary quality was expressed, and how all were harmonised: "Il fallait faire effort pour cesser de le regarder." During the early years of his clerical career he acted as superior to female converts from Protestantism, and as missionary among the unconverted Calvinists. In 1689 he was appointed tutor to the King's grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, and from a passionate boy he transformed his pupil into a youth too blindly docile. Fénelon's nomination to the Archbishopric of Cambrai (1695), which removed him from the court, was in fact a check to his ambition. His religious and his political views were regarded by Louis XIV. as dangerous for the Church and the monarchy.
Through his personal interest in Mme. Guyon, and his sympathy with her mystical doctrine in religion—one which inculcated complete abnegation of the will, and its replacement by absolute surrender to the Divine love—he came into conflict with Bossuet, and after a fierce war of diplomacy and of pamphlets, in which Fénelon displayed the utmost skill and energy as tactician and dialectician, he received a temperate condemnation from Rome, and submitted. The death of the Dauphin (1711), which left his former pupil heir to the throne, revived Fénelon's hopes of political influence, but in the next year these hopes disappeared with the decease of the young Duc de Bourgogne. At Cambrai, where he discharged his episcopal duties like a saint and a grand seigneur, Fénelon died six months before Louis XIV., in 1715.
"The most original intellect—if we set Pascal aside—of the seventeenth century"—so Fénelon is described by one excellent critic. "Antique and modern," writes his biographer, M. Paul Janet, "Christian and profane, mystical and diplomatic, familiar and noble, gentle and headstrong, natural and subtle, fascinating the eighteenth century as he had fascinated the seventeenth, believing like a child, and daring as Spinoza, Fénelon is one of the most original figures which the Catholic Church has produced." His first publication was the treatise De l'Éducation des Filles (written 1681, published 1687), composed at the request of his friends the Duc and Duchesse de Beauvilliers. It is based on a recognition of the dignity of woman and the duty of a serious effort to form her mind. It honours the reason, opposes severity, would make instruction, as far as possible, a delight, and would exhibit goodness in a gracious aspect; commends object-lessons in addition to book-learning, indicates characteristic feminine failings (yet liveliness of disposition is not regarded as one of these), exhorts to a dignified simplicity in dress. The range of studies recommended is narrow, but for Fénelon's time it was liberal; the book marks an epoch in the history of female education.
For his pupil the Duc de Bourgogne, Fénelon wrote his graceful prose Fables (which also include under that title short tales, allegories, and fairy stories), the Dialogues des Morts, aiming at the application of moral principles to politics, and his Télémaque, named in the first (incomplete) edition Suite du IVe Livre de l'Odyssée (1699). In this, for long the most popular of tales for the young, Fénelon's imaginative devotion to antiquity finds ample expression; it narrates the wanderings of Telemachus in search of his father Ulysses, under the warning guidance and guardianship of Minerva disguised as Mentor. Imitations and borrowings from classical authors are freely and skilfully made. It is a poem in prose, a romance of education, designed at once to charm the imagination and to inculcate truths of morals, politics, and religion. The didactic purpose is evident, yet it remains a true work of art, full of grace and colour, occasionally, indeed, languid, but often vivid and forcible.
Fénelon's views on politics were not so much fantastic as those of an idealist. He dreamed of a monarchy which should submit to the control of righteousness; he mourned over the pride and extravagance of the court; he constantly pleaded against wars of ambition; he desired that a powerful and Christian nobility should mediate between the crown and the people; he conceived a system of decentralisation which should give the whole nation an interest in public affairs; in his ecclesiastical views he was Ultramontane rather than Gallican. These ideas are put forth in his Direction pour la Conscience d'un Roi and the Plan de Gouvernement. Louis XIV. suspected the political tendency of Télémaque, and caused the printing of the first edition to be suspended. Fénelon has sometimes been regarded as a forerunner of the Revolutionary movement; but he would rather, by ideas in which, as events proved, there may have been something chimerical, have rendered revolution impossible.
Into his controversy with Bossuet he threw himself with a combative energy and a skill in defence and attack that surprise one who knows him only through his Lettres Spirituelles, which tend towards the effacement of the will in a union with God through love. Bossuet pleaded against the dangers for morals and for theology of a false mysticism; Fénelon, against confounding true mysticism with what is false. In his Traité de l'Existence de Dieu he shows himself a bold and subtle thinker: the first part, which is of a popular character, attempts to prove the existence of the Deity by the argument from design in nature and from the reason in man; the second part—of a later date—follows Descartes in metaphysical proofs derived from our idea of an infinite and a perfect being. To his other distinctions Fénelon added that of a literary critic, unsurpassed in his time, unless it be by Boileau. His Dialogues sur l'Éloquence seek to replace the elaborate methods of logical address, crowded with divisions and subdivisions, and supported with a multitude of quotations, by a style simple, natural, and delicate in its fervency.
The admirable Lettre à l'Académie, Fénelon's latest gift to literature, states the case of the ancients against the moderns, and of the moderns against the ancients, with an attempt at impartiality, but it is evident that the writer's love was chiefly given to his favourite classical authors; simplicity and natural beauty attracted him more than ingenuity or wit or laboured brilliance. He feared that the language was losing some of its richness and flexibility; he condemns the use of rhyme; he is hardly just to Racine, but honours himself by his admiration of Molière. In dealing with historical writings he recognises the importance of the study of governments, institutions, and social life, and at the same time values highly a personal, vivid, direct manner, and a feeling for all that is real, concrete, and living. To his rare gifts of intellect and of the soul was added an inexpressible personal charm, in which something that was almost feminine was united with the reserved power and authority of a man.