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.

Republic of Beavers

Here’s Ferdinand, Baron d’Eckstein, addressing the issues that matter:

Mais quelle différence entre les vérités que nous admettons et les dogmes que proclame un industrialisme grossier et trivial, dogmes qui tendent à transformer l’ordre social en une république de castors, de fourmis ou d’abeilles. Méconnaissant la dignité humaine, ce genre d’industrialisme confierait les rènes du gouvernement au seul intérêt privé. C’est lui qui donne pour l’article de foi la maxime suivant, que gagner de l’argent c’est bien mériter de la civilisation, c’est répandre la lumière. C’est dans le sens de cette doctrine que le Constitutionnel immole chaque jour, sur les autels de la classe industrielle, les nobles et les administrateurs. Lancer le moindre sarcasme contre un fabricant, c’est un blasphème! malheur au poète comique, au journaliste ou au député qui se permettrait ce crime contre la seule classe inviolable de toute la société.

— ‘De l’industrialisme’, in Le Catholique, vol. 5 (1827), p. 241

Also of interest at the Virtual Stoa is the way that the Baron goes on to call Johann Gottlieb Fichte a Stoic just a few pages later (p. 239) — but, right now, we’re focused on the beavers.

When you start looking for it, the Republic of Beavers is everywhere!

Goethe called Venice the “Biberrepublik” in his Italian Journey (27 September 1786), and the identification was picked up by the  Comte Pierre-Antoine-Noël-Bruno Daru in his 1819 Histoire de la république de Venise, vol. 5. There’s even an article on ‘The Republic of Beavers: An American Utopia’ by Arnold L. Kerson  in the 2000 volume of Utopian Studies!

Daru says that it was Montesquieu who first called Venice the R of the Bs, but I don’t know what the original source is supposed to be. So I now find myself leaning towards the thought that the original for all of this is Voltaire, who in the entry on ‘laws’ in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) shrewdly notes that ‘The republic of the beavers is still superior to that of the ants, at least if we judge by their masonry work.’

[thanks! IN]

Blast from the Past

It’s good to read in tehgraun that “some of Italy’s most senior police officers have been given jail sentences of up to five years for what the prosecution called a “terrible” attack on demonstrators at the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa and an attempted cover-up”, though sad also to read that, as with so many criminal trials with political ramifications in Italy, statutes of limitations mean that jail sentences are unlikely to be served.

Someone who may very well be unhappy with these verdicts is Tony Blair. British readers may remember what his spokesman said at the time, when reports of police brutality were beginning to circulate: “The Italian police had a difficult job to do. The prime minister believes that they did that job.”

Over the fold is a bit of eye-witness testimony of the events in question, from my friend Uri Gordon, an Israeli anarchist and G8 protester, which I was privileged enough to be able to publish nine years ago in The Voice of the Turtle:

Continue reading “Blast from the Past”

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Last Friday afternoon, as it happens, I tried to walk up to the top of Monte Nuvolone above Bellagio on Lake Como. I didn’t succeed, partly because I didn’t leave myself quite enough time, and partly because at one point I spectacularly missed the path, and it took quite a long time to find it again, much further up the slope. But while wandering through the fairly dark woods looking for the path again – in, significantly, my thirty-fifth year, I realised I was enjoying what can only be called an authentic Dante moment.

People tell me I should go off next in search of an authentic Petrarch moment in an attempt on Mont Ventoux, but those who know me better will know that if I ever do go up that mountain it won’t be by way of tribute to an Italian poet.