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Fenelon: François Fenelon (1651-1715), a Roman Catholic Archbishop who also an educator and writer, advocated a controversial religious philosophy: Quietism. Quietists believed it possible to reach a sinless state and union with God by means of internal quiet or stillness. They believed internal passivity and intellectual stillness described the state of perfection. Once a people attained the state of perfection, their souls would unite with God. And as God absorbs their souls, their thoughts become those of God.

Ordained a priest in 1675, he joined the Sulpician order. Earlier, in 1689, Fenelon became the tutor of the Dauphin’s eldest son, the Duke of Burgundy, who was seven at the time. Fenelon wrote The Adventures of Telemachus for his student who was next in line for the throne. The book, a story surrounding the son of Ulysses, criticized the divine right of absolute monarchy. In 1696, the king made Fenelon Archbishop of Cambrai. When Fenelon published Telemachus in 1699 the king, outraged at the content, forbade Fenelon from leaving the limits of his archdiosese. The book became one of the most influential/popular works of the century.

Around 1688, Fenelon developed an intellectual relationship with Mme Guyon, a devout Quietist. He admired her work and she, in return, influenced him; he began to share her religious opinions. In 1697, scandal erupted over Mme Guyon’s quietist opinions. (The Catholic Church had declared Quietism heresy.) When Mme Guyon came under fire for her writings, Fenelon defended her. Fenelon submitted to the pope’s authority, though, after the inquisition condemned his essay “Maxims of the Saints.” He was thus, in the end, out of favor of both the court and the church.

Nonetheless, Fenelon’s influence extended past his lifetime. Many praised Fenelon for his philosophy of mind and, overall, as a virtuous thinker, and contemporaries of Carlyle admired Fenelon. For example, William Ellery Channing, who greatly influenced the New England Transcendentalists (among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Carlyle), praised Fenelon because

if not a profound, he was an original thinker, and because, though a Catholic, he was essentially free. He wrote from his own mind, and seldom has a purer mind been tabernacled in flesh. . . . “When we think of Fenelon in the palace of Louis XIV, it reminds us of a seraph sent on a divine commission into the abodes of the lost; and when we recollect that in that atmosphere he composed his Telemachus, we doubt whether the records of the world furnish stronger evidence of the power of a divine virtue, to turn temptation into glory and strength, and to make even crowned and prosperous vice a means of triumph and exaltation.


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Last modified 8 April 2010