Fénelon, François (1651–1715)

French archbishop, theologian, writer, and royal tutor François de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon played many diverse intellectual roles; among these, posterity has celebrated him as a philosopher with extraordinary views of education.

Fénelon was born in 1651 into an established noble family that had long served the French Church and Crown. After completing his theological studies, he was ordained a priest in 1676; in 1678 he was appointed director of the Nouvelles Catholiques, a college that converted young women from French Protestantism. Here he wrote his first important work, Traité de l'éducation des filles (1687; Treatise on the education of girls). The same year, he published his Réfutationde Malebranche.

In 1689 his noble birth, combined with his remarkable pedagogical skills, landed Fénelon the influential job of tutor to Louis, the duke of Bourgogne and grandson and heir to Louis XIV. Several honors resulted from this privileged position at court, including Fénelon's election to the French Academy in 1693. His greatest success, however, was his Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d'Ulysse (1699; Telemachus, son of Ulysses), a poetic rewriting of Ulysses composed for the political education of the prince.

At the same time, however, Fénelon's support of Madame Guyou, the leader of the quietist movement in France, had given rise to the so-called Quarrel of Quietism (the Christian doctrine in which human passivity is supposed to generate divine activity). Actually, by arguing for the "disinterested" and "pure" love of God in his Explication des maximes dessaints sur la vie intérieure (1697; Explanation of the sayings of the saints on the interior life), Fénelon generated much consternation within the authoritarian Church. His selection as archbishop of Cambrai the year before had been a disappointment for a man whose accomplishments and reputation legitimately could have been expected to earn him the bishopric of Paris. His disgrace became official in 1699, when first Louis XIV, and later Rome, banned Fénelon's Explication.

Exiled to his diocese, Fénelon remained a vigilant observer of political matters, although he did despair upon the death of his pupil the duke of Bourgogne in 1712. Three years later, he himself died in Cambrai.

In a century with few childhood and educational theorists Fénelon was indeed an exception–as his countrymen Michel Montaigne and François Rabelais had been in the previous century. Fénelon's first pedagogical work explored the neglected field of girls' education. Although France had several nuns' schools, and the Saint-Cyr girls' school had been founded in 1686 near Versailles, Fénelon pointed to the necessity of educating, from a global moral perspective, all French girls for their roles as future mothers and housewives. The pedagogical counsel and rules given in Fénelon's Treatise, however, included not only girls' instruction, but also education in general; he encouraged recognition of the child as a child. The schoolmaster was to follow the child's nature, preparing her for education even before she could speak, never forcing her to study when not absolutely necessary, and eliminating her FEAR and submission by teachingusing PLAY, joy, and amusing stories.

Because of this educational philosophy, Fénelon did not write scholarly treatises or discourses, as the other royal tutors had done before him. Instead, he invented pleasant dialogues, fables, and a less predictable format: the didactic novel Telemachus, originally conceived as an insertion into Ulysses.

Telemachus, in search of his father, is guided by the wise Mentor, alias Minerva, on his perilous travels through various civilizations throughout the Mediterranean. By telling such an adventurous story, Fénelon not only initiated his royal pupil into Greek mythology, but he also awakened the prince's interest in politics, religion, and virtue. Furthermore, by helping his pupil to identify with the future king of Ithaca, Fénelon hoped to teach him the art of good government. When Telemachus considers the countries he visits– comparing their laws, manners, and customs– he is actually preaching humanity and peace in contrast to the violence and despotism characteristic of Louis XIV's reign. Nevertheless, Telemachus is basically a pedagogical work for the use of young people and their teachers. Fénelon's genius was to incorporate traditional topics into a new dynamic process of teaching and learning.

Entirely organized around the fundamental coupling of the master and the disciple, Telemachus is in fact as much a didactic method as an edifying narrative. If mentor (meaning a good master) has become an ordinary word, it is because Fénelon's creation, in accordance with the Jesuits' pedagogical ideal, transforms the act of instruction into a relationship–one full of love. The master must help the child acquire her own experiences, kindly and step-by-step, "arranging" pedagogical situations, and sometimes even leaving the child alone when necessary.

Advocating for an entirely experimental education, Fénelon's writings had enormous influence on the ENLIGHTENMENT, directly affecting two of the era's leading philosophers, JOHN LOCKE and JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU. From the eighteenth until the mid-twentieth century, Telemachus was required reading in French schools, mainly as a means of imparting knowledge of Greek culture to the pupils.

See also: Education, Europe; Girls' Schools.


Carcassonne, Elie. 1946. Fénelon, l'homme et l'oeuvre. Paris, Boivin.

Chérel, Albert. 1970. Fénelon au XVIIIe siècle en France, son prestige, son influence. Geneva: Slatkine.

Dédéyan, Charles. 1991. Télémaque ou la Liberté de l'Esprit. Paris: Librairie Nizet.

Goré, Jeanne-Lydie. 1968. "Introduction." In Les aventures de Télémaque, by François Fénelon. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion.

Granderoute, Robert. 1985. Le roman pédagogique de Fénelon à Rousseau. Geneva and Paris: Editions Slatkine.