VIII. FÉNELON: 1651–1715

Nobly born and trebly named, François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon was also orthodox and ambitious, a bishop and courtier, a royal tutor and master of prose, but elsewise all the world away from Bossuet. Saint-Simon was impressed:

A very tall, thin man, well-built, pale, with a large nose, and eyes that flashed with fire and intelligence. His physiognomy seemed composed of contradictions, yet, somehow, these contradictions were not disagreeable. It was grave yet gallant, serious yet gay; it expressed equally the doctor, the bishop, and the aristocrat; and, perceptible above everything else, in his face as in himself, were delicacy, modesty, and, supremely, nobility of mind. It required an effort to take one’s eyes from his face. 116

Michelet thought him un peu vieux dès sa naissance117—“a bit old from his birth”—as the fruit of the final flowering of an aging seigneur in Périgord, who, over the groans of his grown sons, had married a poor but noble demoiselle. The new son was put out of the money by being dedicated to the Church. Brought up by his mother, he developed an almost feminine grace of speech and delicacy of feeling. Well educated in classical lore by a tutor and the Jesuits of Paris, he became a scholar as well as a priest. He could bandy pagan quotations with any heretic, and wrote a French style nervous, delicate, and refined, at the other end of the scale from the masculine and rotund oratory of Bossuet.

Ordained at twenty-four (1675), he was soon made superior of the Convent of New Catholics, where he had the difficult task of reconciling to the Roman faith young women recently separated from Protestantism. They listened to him at first unwillingly, then resignedly, then affectionately, for it was easy to fall in love with Fénelon, and he was the only man available. In 1686 he was sent to the region of La Rochelle to aid in the conversion of Huguenots. He approved the Revocation, but deprecated the violence, and warned the King’s ministers that forced conversions would be superficial and transient. Returning to the convent in Paris, he published (1687) a Traité de l’éducation des filles, almost Rousseauian in its advocacy of gentle methods. When the Duc de Beauvilliers was appointed by the King as governor of his eight-year-old grandson Louis, Duke of Burgundy, he called upon Fénelon to tutor the boy (1689).

The young Duke was proud, headstrong, passionate, sometimes ferocious and cruel, but possessed of a brilliant mind and a vivacious wit. Fénelon felt that only religion could tame him; he instilled in him both the fear and the love of God; at the same time he won the respect of his pupil by a discipline tempered with sympathetic understanding of adolescence. He dreamed of reforming France by forming its prospective king. He taught the lad the absurdity of war, and the necessity of promoting agriculture instead of discouraging the peasantry with taxes to build luxurious cities and finance aggressive wars. In the Dialogues of the Dead that he wrote for his pupil he stigmatized as “barbarous that government where there are no laws but the will of one man. . . . He who rules should be pre-eminently obedient to the law; detached from the law, his person is nothing.” All wars are civil wars, since all men are brothers; “each one owes infinitely more to the human race—which is the great country—than to the particular country in which he was born.” 118 The King, not privy to this esoteric instruction, and seeing a wondrous improvement in his grandson’s character, rewarded Fénelon with the archbishopric of Cambrai (1695). Fénelon put many prelates to shame by living nine months of each year at his see. The rest he spent at the court, anxious to influence policy, and occasionally continuing his instruction of the Duke.

Meanwhile he had met the woman who was to be, in a real sense, his femme fatale. Mme. Jeanne Marie de La Motte-Guyon, married at sixteen, widowed and pretty and wealthy at twenty-eight, had the world of suitors at her feet. But she had received an intensive religious training as a necessary protection against ambitious males; she had found no adequate outlet for her piety in the external observance of Catholic worship; and she listened responsively to the mystics of her time, who offered peace of soul not so much through confession, Communion, and the Mass as through absorption in the contemplation of an omnipresent deity, a complete and loving surrender of the self to God. In such a divine love affair no worldly matters counted; in that exaltation of the spirit one might neglect all religious ritual and yet attain to heaven not only after death but in life as well. The Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos had been condemned by the Inquisition (1687) for preaching such “quietism” in Italy; but the movement was spreading throughout Europe—in the “Pietism” of Germany and the Netherlands, among the Quakers and the Cambridge Platonists in England, among the dévots in France.

Mme. Guyon, in several books, expounded her views with moving eloquence. Souls, she taught, are torrents that have issued from God, and that find no quiet until they lose themselves in Him like rivers swallowed by the sea. Then individuality fades away; there is no further consciousness of self or the world, no consciousness at all, only identity with God. In such a state the soul is infallible, beyond good and evil, virtue and sin; whatever it does is right, and no force can injure it. She could not ask forgiveness for her sins, Mme. Guyon told Bossuet, because in her world of ecstasy there was no sin. 119 Some ladies of the aristocracy saw in this mysticism a noble form of piety; Mme. Guyon numbered among her disciples the Mmes. de Beauvilliers, de Chevreuse, de Mortemart, even, in a degree, Mme. de Maintenon. Fénelon himself was attracted by this fascinating union of piety, wealth, and loveliness; his own character was a complex of mysticism, ambition, and sentiment. He persuaded Mme. de Maintenon to let Mme. Guyon teach in the school that the secret wife of the King had founded at St.-Cyr. Maintenon asked her confessor to advise her about Mme. Guyon; he consulted Bossuet, who invited the mystic to expound her doctrines to him. She did. The cautious bishop saw in them a threat to the theology and practices of the Church, for they seemed to dispense not only with the sacraments and the priest, but with the Gospels and Christ. He reproved her, gave her the Eucharist, and asked her to leave Paris and cease teaching. At first she consented, then she refused. Bossuet had her confined in a convent for eight years (1695–1703), after which she was released on condition that she live quietly on her son’s estate near Blois. There she died in 1717.

To define the limits of permissible mysticism Bossuet composed an Instruction on the States of Prayer (1696). He showed Fénelon a copy of the manuscript, and asked his approval. Fénelon demurred, and wrote an opposed work, Explanation of the Maxims of the Saints on the Internal Life (1697). The two books, published almost simultaneously, became a matter of widespread discussion as lively as in the furor over Port-Royal. The King, trusting Bossuet, removed Fénelon from his position as instructor to the Duke of Burgundy, and bade him stay in his diocese at Cambrai Urged on by Bossuet, Louis demanded a papal condemnation of Fénelon’s book. Innocent XII, remembering Bossuet’s Gallicanism and Fénelon’s Ultramontane defense of the papacy, hesitated; pressure was brought upon him; he yielded, but condemned the Maxims as mildly as he could (March, 1699). Fénelon submitted quietly.

At Cambrai he performed his duties with a devotion and conscience that won him the respect of France. Bossuet and the King might have been appeased had not a printer published (April, 1699), with the consent of the author, a romance that Fénelon had written for his royal pupil under the apparently harmless title of Suite de l’Odicée d’Homère (Continuation of Homer’s Odyssey), known to us as Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulysse. Here, in a style of smooth grace and almost feminine tenderness, the ingratiating teacher had expounded again his idealistic political philosophy. Mentor, his mouthpiece, having persuaded the kings to peace, warns them:

Henceforth, under divers names and chiefs, you will be all one people . . . All the human race is one family . . . All peoples are brothers . . . Unhappy the impious men who seek a cruel glory in the blood of their brothers. . . . War is sometimes necessary, but it is the shame of the human race. . . . Do not tell me, O kings, that one should desire war to acquire glory. . . . Whoever prefers his own glory to sentiments of humanity is a monster of pride and not a man; he will gain only false glory, for true glory is found only in moderation and goodness. . . . Men should not think well of him, since he has thought so little of them, and has shed their blood prodigally for a brutal vanity. 120

Fénelon admitted the divine right of kings, but only as a power given them by Providence to make men happy, and as a right limited by laws:

Absolute power degrades every subject to the condition of a slave. The tyrant is flattered, even to the point of adoration, and everyone trembles at the glance of his eye; but at the least breath of revolt this monstrous power perishes by its own excess. It drew no strength from the love of the people. 121

In these bold lines Louis XIV saw himself described and his wars condemned. The friends of Fénelon hastily vanished from the court. The printer of Télémaque was arrested, and the police were told to confiscate all copies. But the book was reprinted in Holland, and soon it was being read throughout the French-reading world; for a century and a half it was the most widely read, and best loved, of all French books. 122 Fénelon protested that he had not had Louis in mind in these critical passages; no one believed him. Two years passed before the Duke of Burgundy dared to write to his former teacher; then the King relented, and allowed him to visit Fénelon at Cambrai. The Archbishop lived in hopes that his pupil would soon inherit the throne, and might then call upon him to be hisRichelieu. But the grandson died three years before the King; and Fénelon himself (January 7, 1715) preceded Louis by nine months to the grave.

Bossuet had gone long before them. He was unhappy in his later years; he had triumphed against Fénelon, the Ultramontanes, and the mystics, and he had seen the Church triumphant against the Huguenots; but all these victories could not enable him to pass the stones from his bladder. Pain so racked him that he could hardly bear to take the place he so loved to hold in the ceremonies of the court; and heartless cynics asked why he could not go and die privately at Meaux. He saw about him the rise of skepticism, of Biblical criticism, of Protestant polemics impiously aimed at his own head; here, for example, was Jurieu, the banished Huguenot, telling the world that he, Bossuet, the bishop of bishops and the very image of virtue and probity, was a ranting liar living with concubines. 123He began some new books to rout these scurrilous foes, but life ran out on him as he wrote; and on April 12, 1704, his pains ceased.

At first sight Bossuet seems to mark the zenith of Catholicism in modern France. The old faith appeared to have recovered all the ground that had been lost to Luther and Calvin. The clergy were reforming their morals, Racine was devoting his final dramas to religion, Pascal had turned skepticism upon the skeptics, the state had made itself an obedient agent of the Church, the King had become almost a Jesuit.

And yet the situation was not perfect. The Jesuits were still under the cloud raised by the Lettres à un provincial; Jansenism was not destroyed; the Huguenot fugitives were stirring up half of Europe against the pious King; Montaigne was read more widely than Pascal; and Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle were striking terrible blows at the edifice of faith. According to St. Vincent de Paul (1648), “several pastors complain that they have fewer communicants than before; St.-Sulpice three thousand less; the pastor of St.-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet found that 1,500 of his parishioners had omitted Easter communion.” 124 Said Bayle in 1686: “The age we live in is full of freethinkers and deists; people are amazed at their number”; 125 “a prodigious indifference to religion reigns everywhere”; 126and he attributed this to the wars and controversies of Christendom. “You must know,” said Nicole, “that the great heresy in the world is not Calvinism or Lutheranism, but atheism.” 127 Said the Princess Palatine in 1699: “One now rarely finds a young man who does not wish to be an atheist.” 128 In the Paris of 1703, Leibniz reported, the “so-called esprits forts are in the fashion, and piety is there turned to ridicule. . . . Under a King devout, severe, and absolute, the disorder of religion has gone beyond anything ever seen in the Christian world.” 129 Among these esprits forts—“minds strong” enough to doubt almost everything—were Saint-Évremond, Ninon de Lenclos, Gassendi’s epitomizer Bernier, the Ducs de Nevers and de Bouillon. The Temple, once the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Paris, became the center of a little group of freethinkers—Chaulieu, Sirvien, La Fare, etc.—who passed down their irreverence to the Regency. And Fontenelle, the indestructible near-centenarian destined to bandy quips with the Encyclopedists, was already in 1687 publishing his Histoire des oracles, slyly undermining the miraculous basis of Christianity. In the ecstasy of his piety Louis XIV had cleared the road for Voltaire.

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