François de Fénelon, Télémaque [Telemachus]

Aris Della Fontana (Scuola Normale Superiore)
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The Aventures de Télémaque (1699) is the best-known work of François Fénelon (1651-1715) and one that exercised enormous influence over eighteenth-century letters, politics and economics, both in France and well beyond. Exploiting a gap in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrative recounts the adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses, and his guide Mentor, who is Minerva, goddess of wisdom, in disguise. Visiting countries such as Egypt, Tyre, Cyprus, Betica and Salentum, and examining their political and economic conditions, the young and curious Telemachus undergoes an educational journey, that is, a moral and political apprenticeship through which he learns the attributes of a virtuous ruler. It is a work that does not belong to one specific genre: it is rather a palimpsest of multiple genres, simultaneously, a specula principum (‘mirrors for princes’) in the Renaissance tradition; a novel – a novel of formation, an adventure novel, a mythological novel, a utopian novel – but also an epic; and, finally, a treatise on political science and moral virtues.

The Archbishop of Cambrai and theologian François Fénelon wrote the Aventures de Télémaque as tutor to Louis, Duke of Burgundy (1682–1712), at that point second in line to the French throne. Intended as a tool for the moral education of his young pupil, Fénelon conceived this utopian novel as a continuation of the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey. It became an international best-seller and between 1699 and 1800 there were about 300 editions, including translations. It was a pedagogical project of fundamental political significance: to shape the conscience of a future sovereign so as to shape his decisions. In this respect, Fénelon’s involvement in the court-based Burgundy Circle – which included important figures such as Charles Honoré d’Albert de Luynes, Duke of Chevreuse; Paul de Beauvilliers, Duke of Saint-Aignan; François Le Blanc; and the abbé Claude Fleury – is of importance. This circle, while not questioning the French political architecture, was trying to persuade Louis XIV to involve the nobility in decision-making, and above all to abandon a practice of government that was oblivious to public interest. Those who, by divine mandate, were appointed as sovereigns must act as fathers and shepherds of their subjects, giving priority to their physical and moral well-being.

One of the central episodes of Télémaque takes place in Salentum, a city wallowing in luxury. Mentor, the guide of young Telemachus, exhorts Idomeneus, king of Salentum, to restore a proper balance between the countryside and the city by transforming “all unnecessary craftsmen” [“tous les artisans inutiles”] into peasants (Fénelon, 1997 (1), p. 169). Indeed, according to Mentor, cities, where sumptuousness coexists alongside the most abject poverty, are the place of endless temptations, fashions and indolence. They are also characterised by rapid, piratical and speculative forms of enrichment, and above all by an artificial economy centred on manufacturing, which produces secondary and superfluous wealth. The Salento reform therefore puts agriculture, which is considered the most authentic form of labour, back at the centre: by generating what is “truly necessary” [“véritablement nécessaire”], it enables man to lead a “simple, frugal and laborious life” [“vie simple, frugale et laborieuse”] (Fénelon, 1997 (1), p. 58). In this sense, Mentor describes the land as a generous mother whose fertility is inexhaustible [“son sein fécond ne peut s’épuiser”] and whose fruits are proportional to the quantity and quality of the people who cultivate it (Fénelon, 1997 (1), p. 58). Thus, under this reform, increased production and agricultural productivity are virtuously intertwined with population growth.

It is important to point out that at the time of Télémaque’s publication huge sections of the French population lived in wretched conditions and there was widespread malnutrition, in part due to constantly recurring agricultural crises. Thus, the prospect of an economy centred on flourishing agriculture undoubtedly had appeal. This paradigm, moreover, represented a radical alternative to Colbertism, the political and economic doctrine based on governmental regulation of trade, maximising exports and limiting imports via tariffs. Indeed, in order to increase the international competitiveness of the French economy, the Contrôleur général des Finances (Comptroller General of Finance) had promoted the development of the manufacturing industries at the expense of agriculture, such as by freezing agricultural prices, which had the effect of lowering the wages of craftsmen. He had also favoured industrial or export crops, sacrificing subsistence crops. In opposition to this, Mentor encourages Idomeneus to focus agricultural production on foodstuffs. He does not, however, suggest an archaic approach to agriculture. Production and productivity are to be enhanced in several ways: by collaboration between agriculture and animal husbandry, by limiting fallow land, by introducing new types of vegetables, and by promoting more efficient work practices.

In line with his economic restructuring, Mentor divides Salentine society into seven classes. On the basis of class membership, every family unit is assigned a plot of land proportionate to its essential needs, whose meaning is determined according to class membership. In such a situation, obviously, it follows that even those families that work hard are unable to earn a significant surplus: that is, they cannot enrich themselves excessively. The explicit objective of this strategy is the preservation of hierarchical social structures, which guarantee order and the harmonious functioning of a society in which ambition, vanity and envy have no place. Detailed sumptuary laws, in particular regulations pertaining to dress, provide external signs of social differences, thus neutralising the confusion and indistinctness generated by luxury: “little by little, luxury, by an imperceptible shift, passes from the highest condition to the lowest of the people” (Fénelon, 1997 (2), p. 980), wrote Fénelon around 1700 in his Examen de conscience sur les devoirs de la royauté [Examination of Conscience on the Duty of Royalty].

In the new Salento, alongside the great mass of peasants, there are also merchants. Fénelon recognizes that, if it is not driven by dishonesty and the selfish desire to maximise profit, trade can indeed be a useful and even virtuous activity. But, for this to happen, there needs to be a meticulous regulation of the economy. In this sense, Mentor recommends not only the creation of a magistracy to supervise commercial activities, but also the containment of monetary circulation, the punishment of bankruptcy, the limitation of expenditure in proportion to the resources possessed and the prohibition of private credit (lending money with interest). International trade is also subject to very strict laws. Indeed, it is forbidden to import goods that could generate “luxury” and “idleness”; moreover, since exports are only useful in order to dispose of the “superfluous”, so as to curb domestic consumption, the exporting of “necessary” goods is prohibited (Fénelon, 1997 (1), pp. 159-160). In this sense, the new Salento does not use international commerce to increase its wealth. The absence of notable manufacturing production is the result of a conscious choice: by rejecting competition, Salento rejects the idea that the interests of states are opposed and that, consequently, trade is a continuation of war by other means.

In other words, Mentor teaches the young Telemachus – who witnesses the reform in real time – to prefer an economy of peace, based on interdependence, complementarity and cooperation between nations. According to this view, commerce should unite rather than divide peoples, who – as Fénelon wrote in his Dialogues des morts (1692–1696) – ought to live as a “single family” [“seule famille”] (Fénelon, 1830, pp. 127-128). “It is by an effect of divine providence that no land bears all that which serves human life, for need invites men to trade, to give each other what they lack, and this need is the natural bond of society between nations” (Fénelon, 1997 (3), pp. 515-16), declared in his Démonstration de l’existence de Dieu [Demonstration of the Existence of God] (1713).

Mentor’s reform, therefore, induced both economic and moral regeneration. Invigorated by agricultural work and frugality, the Salentinians are immune to luxury and have no reason to be envious of one another. Moreover, thanks to an economy focused on satisfying domestic demand for “necessary” goods, any antagonism towards foreigners ceases. Thus, Salento appears invincible. Indeed, unlike people who lead a “soft and indulgent” life, the Salentinians are distinguished by their “courage” and their readiness “in bearing fatigue with patience” (Fénelon, 1997 (1), p. 69). Moreover, if invaded, they can count on the support of other nations, with whom they have established a relationship of brotherhood.

It is plausible to believe that Fénelon did not conceive of the Salento reform as a concrete programme to be applied to France. Rather, the new Salento was a model and a utopia, whose spirit and values could illuminate the contradictions and obscenities of the present and encourage a reforming perspective. In order to understand what, according to Fénelon, the first stages of this reform were to be, we need to look at the Tables de Chaulnes (or Plans de gouvernement). Together with Charles Honoré d’Albert de Luynes, Duke of Chevreuse (1646-1712), Fénelon wrote this text in 1711, when the Duke of Burgundy became official heir to the throne. With Louis XIV now seventy-three years old, Fénelon could legitimately hope that France might take a new course: therefore, through this work, he advised his former pupil on a series of measures to be applied as soon as he ascended the throne.

In this programme, the importance of regenerating agriculture through a reduction and reorganisation of taxation emerged strongly: the aim was “to leave no land uncultivated”. Only in this way could France carry out a “great trade” [“grand commerce”] in its “good and abundant” [“bonnes et abondantes”] foodstuffs, such as grains, oils and wines. However, Fénelon was probably aware that in the eighteenth century a France built on subsistence agriculture would be very vulnerable, so he abandoned Mentor’s rigidly agrarian approach. Indeed, he advocated promoting the development of the arts and manufacturing. According to Fénelon, thanks to the advancement of these sectors, it was possible to make an additional profit from exports and, at the same time, to ensure that the French preferred goods produced in France to foreign ones. In this sense, he was convinced that if this economic reform had been successful, France would have bought only “spices” [“épiceries”] and “curios” [“curiosités”] from England and Holland. In this reform project, therefore, international competition is not rejected, as is the case in the new Salento. Yet Fénelon, a convinced pacifist, does not interpret this paradigm in an aggressive or particularly jealous manner. Indeed, while stating that it was necessary “to do better than any foreigners” [“faire mieux que les étrangers”], he advised against banning the importation of their artefacts [“laisser liberté”] and calls for them to be treated respectfully and fairly [“ne vexer ni chicaner jamais les étrangers”] (Fénelon, 1845, p. 432 and pp. 435-36). In other words, trade does not prevent coexistence and even friendship between nations, but instead encourages the exchange of useful goods among neighbours, particularly those specific to a certain territory.

The peculiarity of both the Tables and Télémaque, and thus their coherence, lies essentially in their criticism of luxury. In this respect, the Tables, as well as repressing the money trade – considered the expression of a fictitious and speculative economy – distinguish the “useful arts” and “works made by good workers” [“ouvrages faits par le bons ouvriers”] from the sectors that produce luxury goods and are based on fashion. The development of the latter must be carefully circumscribed, because they can cause both the dissipation of private wealth [“on ruine les nobles pour enrichir les marchands par le luxe”] and the corruption of the nation’s mores (Fénelon, 1845, 435-36). In short, in both Télémaque and the Tables, Fénelon uses the term “luxury” [“luxe”] to describe anything that is superfluous and causes excess, or that breaks the fragile harmony of a society. But he does so in a contextual way, and so the elements that fall under this definition vary: they cannot be defined in absolute terms. While harshly denouncing the “inventions of vanity and voluptuousness”, Fénelon was aware of the historical, geographical and cultural relativity of desires: it is as if the boundary between “natural” and “artificial”, that is, between “real” and “superfluous” needs, had to be constantly redefined. In this regard, rather than wanting to eradicate change, he seems to aim to regulate and govern it. In this way, society can preserve harmony and balance. And it is precisely in the light of this conviction that Fénelon questions the idea that the encouragement of desires can constitute the core and engine of economic development. In short, Fenelon’s condemnation of luxury can be understood as a critique of an accelerated, outsized and anarchic civilisation, in which there is an exacerbation of inequalities, and in which people are overwhelmed by pleasures. The result is a society that has been bled not only economically, but also morally.

Fénelon also insisted on this essential aspect in the numerous Fables he wrote for the education of the Duke of Burgundy. One of the main leitmotifs of these texts is indeed the stigma against “pomp” and “disordered amusements”, which induce man to incessantly seek “new desires” and “refined comforts”, “without even being able to quietly enjoy any pleasure”. He declared: “The fruit of so much care to satisfy itself is boredom and anxiety”. This softening and degradation, besides discrediting agriculture and “other useful arts”, “makes us forget that we have a reasonable soul, and that we must overcome our perverse inclinations and strive to become virtuous”. However, against the predominance of the passions that enslave and corrupt man, making him greedy, jealous and prone to mischief, Fénelon claims the primacy not of a “savage and brutal” life, but of a pleasant life [“vie agréable”], characterised by “quiet pleasures” and plenty of “necessary things” (Fénelon, 1809, p. 51, p. 59, p. 77, p. 87, p. 96, p. 99 and pp. 181-82). His is the ideal, vividly expressed in the Lettre à M. Dacier (1714), of a “happy and elegant simplicity” (Fénelon, 1843, p. 237). Fénelon, therefore, sought to conceive, through culture, a renewed naturalness, that is, a cultivated naturalness that is refined because it is proportionate, and that uses reason –“the true nature of reasonable animals” (Fénelon, 1830, p. 223) – as an essential tool of judgement.

Fénelon understood that there could be no such thing as a disembodied morality, that is, a morality that exists independently of the value systems underpinning social and economic life. He therefore sought to replace a corrupt and corrupting economy with an economy that was a source of righteousness. The fact that Fenelon’s vocabulary and discourse – particularly in the passage from speculative criticism to political proposal – are redolent with tensions and ambivalence does not make them any less significant. On the contrary, it is precisely this aspect that expresses in a paradigmatic way the intellectual travails of a Christian who, in the context of the crisis of the European conscience, wanted to confront without reserve the enigmatic novelties of the modern world and of commercial society.


Fénelon, F. 1809, Fables de Fénelon [~1690-95], Billois, Paris.
Fénelon, F. 1830, “Dialogues des Morts” [1712], in Oeuvres complètes de Fénelon, Archevéque de Cambrai, Tome XIX, Gauthier Frères, Paris, pp. 105-377.
Fénelon, F. 1843, “Lettre à M. Dacier, Secrétaire perpétuel de l’Académie française, sur les occupations de l’Académie” [1714], in Oeuvres de Fénelon, III, Firmin Didot Frères, Paris, pp. 210-240.
Fénelon, F. 1845, “Plans de gouvernement” [1711], Oeuvres de Fénelon, III, Firmin Didot Frères, Paris, pp. 430-436.
Fénelon, F. 1997 (1), “Les Aventures de Télémaque” [1699], in Fénelon, Oeuvres, II, ed. Jacques Le Brun, Gallimard, Paris, pp. 3-326.
Fénelon, F. 1997 (2), “Examen de conscience sur les devoirs de la royauté” [~1700], in Fénelon, Oeuvres, II, ed. Jacques Le Brun, Gallimard, Paris, pp. 971-1009.
Fénelon, F. 1997 (3), “Démonstration de l’existence de Dieu” [1713], in Fénelon, Oeuvres, II, ed. Jacques Le Brun, Gallimard, Paris, pp. 507-682.

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Citation: Della Fontana, Aris. "Télémaque". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 May 2021 [, accessed 14 July 2024.]

16095 Télémaque 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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