Fénelon Now!

Various Philosophical types in my twitterstream are drawing attention to this story in today’s tehgraun about an Italian town that has appointed a municipal Philosopher. What an excellent idea, they say, appointing a municipal Philosopher. And perhaps it is. But when I read the article, my first thought was, my goodness, this is Fénelon’s Salentum, isn’t it?

So what’s that about, and why is this interesting (to me, at least)?

Corigliano d’Otranto is a dinky little town with six thousand inhabitants, right down in the heel of the Italian boot. As the article points out, it’s in a part of Italy called Grecìa Salentina, ‘a stronghold of Italy’s ethnic Greek minority, which has been there since long before Plato put pen to papyrus’. Historically, that’s right, and Greeks have been in that part of the world for a very long time indeed. Mythologically, the story begins with Idomeneus (the subject of Mozart’s opera), who fights at Troy, sacrifices his son when he gets back home to Crete, and as a result goes into exile, winding up in this bit of Italy.

Now (changing direction for the moment), hardly anyone reads Archbishop Fénelon’s book Telemachus these days, written at the close of the seventeenth century, which is a shame, as it’s a cracker. I have a particular reason to remember reading it for the first time five years ago, which is that what I thought was the cramp I report in this old blogpost after the strenuous activity of sitting on the sofa all afternoon reading Fénelon turned out to be a rather painful tear in my rotator cuff (and, incidentally, a clear sign that I had passed into middle age). But happily there’s a lot more to Fénelon’s book than a trivial episode in my medical history, and it’s sometimes said–though I don’t really know on what evidence–that Telemachus was the most popular book in France in the first half of the eighteenth century, other than the Bible. (Given that it was never intended for publication, that’s quite an achievement.)

Fénelon was a royal tutor, in charge of the education of Louis XIV’s grandson, le petit Dauphin. In the end, he never became king of France, because his father, le grand Dauphin, died in 1711, he himself died in 1712, the Sun King kept on going on the throne for 72 years (!), and, when he finally died in 1715, was succeeded by the infant Louis XV, the king’s great-grandson and le petit Dauphins son. Telemachus was written as part of Fénelon’s educational programme for the young prince, and it was important to Fénelon that it not be published, as it contained very sharp criticism of the king’s policies. Indeed, the book presented quite detailed and only somewhat veiled instructions for how a new, virtuous king might rescue France from the disastrous legacy of Louis XIV. The manuscript leaked, the book was published, and Fénelon was banished from the court.

Telemachus was Odysseus’s son (in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus), and the first few books of The Odyssey describe him setting out from Ithaca in search of his father. What Fénelon did was to imagine how his adventures continued, after Homer’s spotlight shifts back onto Odysseus, drawing very heavily on plot devices from Homer and also from Virgil’s Aeneid to tell another story of extensive wandering around the Mediterranean. And just as Odysseus and Aeneas have their divine protectors, so Telemachus is accompanied by Mentor, who is in fact the goddess Minerva in disguise, and Mentor ensures that Telemachus receives, along the way, a thoroughgoing education for future kingship.

Like Aeneas, Telemachus ends up in Italy. He encounters Idomeneus, who has founded the city of Salentum, and joins in the wars in that part of the world. But Salentum has become corrupt, and while Telemachus is off on campaign, Mentor reorganises Salentum in order to purge it of the luxury ‘that poisoned the whole nation’, and to enable it to live in peace with its neighbours. And this is the heart of Telemachus. Unreformed Salentum is a thinly disguised version of Louis XIV’s France, and Reformed Salentum presents Fénelon’s vision of what France might become.

Running an economy devoted to the production and consumption of luxury goods made war more likely, Fénelon argued, as those without access to luxury goods were tempted to use violence to acquire them, and it made that war more dangerous, because ‘these superfluities enervate, intoxicate and torment those who possess them’, making them less able to fight. In Mentor’s reorganisation, much of the urban population is resettled in the countryside, and the economy is recentered on agricultural production, foreign trade is strictly limited, and the profits of agriculture are used to purchase domestically-manufactured armaments, in order to provide military defence.

To a quite remarkable extent, the story of political and economic thought in the eighteenth century in Europe is the story of a series of responses to Fénelon’s blueprint for Reformed Salente, and we can’t really understand what Bernard Mandeville, Jean-François Melon, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Physiocrats, Adam Smith, and others were doing without taking seriously the challenge that Fénelon threw down. Those who were attracted by his vision often faced the problem of how-to-get-there-from-here, since Fénelon’s extensive reorganisation certainly required the exercise of absolute power, but absolutism was not an especially attractive prospect in a world in which virtuous monarchs were in pretty short supply. Those who were not so attracted had to explain where Fénelon went wrong in his diagnosis (hence the rest of the luxury debate). But the eighteenth century understood the centrality of Fénelon to its debates, in a way that often we do not: Benjamin Vaughan wrote in 1788, for example, that ‘the seeds of all the sentiments, if not all the doctrines of modern political œconomy’ were to be found in Telemachus, and Fénelon remained a key point of reference throughout the controversies of the French Revolution. (Robespierre is supposed to have whispered to his neighbour after one of the speeches in one of the debates in the Convention on the price of grain, ‘that man is the Fénelon of the Revolution’, and, coming from him, it was meant as a compliment.)

Corigliano d’Otranto, then, is pretty much exactly where the fictional Salentum was supposed to stand. Graziella Lupo is the new municipal Philosopher there, embarking on its Reform. Minerva is a tough act to follow. But I’m sure she is up to the task.

2 Comments


  1. This interesting post prompted me to skim the Wikipedia entries on Fenelon (sorry, I’m leaving out the accent) and Telemachus. The latter references David A. Bell’s The First Total War, a paperback copy of which I own but I have never done much more than flip through it. It turns out there is some discussion of Fenelon in ch. 2 of Bell’s book. (I have now moved it up a bit on my reading list.) Just now I’ve pulled something else from the shelf and I see that there is a translation of Fenelon’s short “On the Necessity of Forming Alliances” in Chris Brown et al., International Relations in Political Thought, pp. 301-306.
    F’s advocacy of restricting foreign trade and emphasizing agriculture, as described in your post, presumably drew criticism from Smith and others, but apparently Rousseau and Jefferson, among others, were fans of Telemachus.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2012, 3:49 pm

  2. p.s. Which in the case of Jefferson, at least, and probably Rousseau as well, makes perfect sense.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2012, 3:54 pm

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