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The Existence of God: Introduction

By Francois Fenelon



      Francois Fenelon


      An ancestor of the French divine who under the name of Fenelon has made for himself a household name in England as in France, was Bertrand de Salignac, Marquis de la Mothe Fenelon, who in 1572, as ambassador for France, was charged to soften as much as he could the resentment of our Queen Elizabeth when news came of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Our Fenelon, claimed in brotherhood by Christians of every denomination, was born nearly eighty years after that time, at the chateau of Fenelon in Perigord, on the 6th of August, 1651. To the world he is Fenelon; he was Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon to the France of his own time.

      Fenelon was taught at home until the age of twelve, then sent to the University of Cahors, where he began studies that were continued at Paris in the College du Plessis. There he fastened upon theology, and there he preached, at the age of fifteen, his first sermon. He entered next into the seminary of Saint Sulpice, where he took holy orders in the year 1675, at the age of twenty-four. As a priest, while true to his own Church, he fastened on Faith, Hope, and Charity as the abiding forces of religion, and for him also the greatest of these was Charity.

      During the next three years of his life Fenelon was among the young priests who preached and catechised in the church of St. Sulpice and laboured in the parish. He wrote for St. Sulpice Litanies of the Infant Jesus, and had thought of going out as missionary to the Levant. The Archbishop of Paris, however, placed him at the head of a community of "New Catholics," whose function was to confirm new converts in their faith, and help to bring into the fold those who appeared willing to enter. Fenelon took part also in some of the Conferences on Scripture that were held at Saint Germain and Versailles between 1672 and 1685. In 1681 an uncle, who was Bishop of Sarlat, resigned in Fenelon's favour the Deanery of Carenas, which produced an annual income of three or four thousand livres. It was while he held this office that Fenelon published a book on the "Education of Girls," at the request of the Duchess of Beauvilliers, who asked for guidance in the education of her children.

      Fenelon sought the friendship of Bossuet, who revised for him his next book, a "Refutation of the System of Malebranche concerning Nature and Grace." His next book, written just before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, opposed the lawfulness of the ministrations of the Protestant clergy; and after the Edict, Fenelon was, on the recommendation of Bossuet, placed at the head of the Catholic mission to Poitou. He brought to his work of conversion or re-conversion Charity, and a spirit of concession that brought on him the attacks of men unlike in temper.

      When Louis XIV. placed his grandson, the young Duke of Burgundy, under the care of the Duke of Beauvilliers, the Duke of Beauvilliers chose Fenelon for teacher of the pupil who was heir presumptive to the throne. Fenelon's "Fables" were written as part of his educational work. He wrote also for the young Duke of Burgundy his "Telemaque"--used only in MS.--and his "Dialogues of the Dead." While thus living in high favour at Court, Fenelon sought nothing for himself or his friends, although at times he was even in want of money. In 1693--as preceptor of a royal prince rather than as author--Fenelon was received into the French Academy. In 1694 Fenelon was made Abbot of Saint-Valery, and at the end of that year he wrote an anonymous letter to Louis XIV. upon wrongful wars and other faults committed in his reign. A copy of it has been found in Fenelon's handwriting. The king may not have read it, or may not have identified the author, who was not stayed by it from promotion in February of the next year (1695) to the Archbishopric of Cambray. He objected that the holding of this office was inconsistent with his duties as preceptor of the King's grandchildren. Louis replied that he could live at Court only for three months in the year, and during the other nine direct the studies of his pupils from Cambray.

      Bossuet took part in the consecration of his friend Fenelon as Archbishop of Cambray; but after a time division of opinion arose. Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon became in 1676 a widow at the age of twenty-eight, with three children, for whose maintenance she gave up part of her fortune, and she then devoted herself to the practice and the preaching of a spiritual separation of the soul from earthly cares, and rest in God. She said with Galahad, "If I lose myself, I save myself." Her enthusiasm for a pure ideal, joined to her eloquence, affected many minds. It provoked opposition in the Church and in the Court, which was for the most part gross and self-seeking. Madame Guyon was attacked, even imprisoned. Fenelon felt the charm of her spiritual aspiration, and, without accepting its form, was her defender. Bossuet attacked her views. Fenelon published "Maxims of the Saints on the Interior Life." Bossuet wrote on "The States of Prayer." These were the rival books in a controversy about what was called "Quietism." Bossuet afterwards wrote a "Relation sur le Quietisme," of which Fenelon's copy, charged with his own marginal comments, is in the British Museum. In March, 1699, the Pope finally decided against Fenelon, and condemned his "Maxims of the Saints." Fenelon read from his pulpit the brief of condemnation, accepted the decision of the Pope, and presented to his church a piece of gold plate, on which the Angel of Truth was represented trampling many errors under foot, and among them his own "Maxims of the Saints." At Court, Fenelon was out of favour. "Telemaque," written for the young Duke of Burgundy, had not been published; but a copy having been obtained through a servant, it was printed, and its ideal of a true king and a true Court was so unlike his Majesty Louis XIV. and the Court of France, and the image of what ought not to be was so like what was, that it was resented as a libel. "Telemaque" was publicly condemned; Fenelon was banished from Court, and restrained within the limits of his diocese. Though separated from his pupil, the young Duke of Burgundy (who died in 1712), Fenelon retained his pupil's warm affection. The last years of his own life Fenelon gave to his work in Cambray, until his death on the 7th of January, 1715. He wrote many works, of which this is one, and they have been collected into twenty volumes. The translation here given was anonymous, and was first published in the year 1713.

      H. M.

Back to Francois Fenelon index.

See Also:
   Sections 1-6
   Sections 7-16
   Sections 17-23
   Sections 24-30
   Sections 31-40
   Sections 41-50
   Sections 51-60
   Sections 62-69
   Sections 70-81
   Sections 82-92


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