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Educating Telemachus: Lessons in Fénelon's Underworld

Ippokratis Kantzios, University of South Florida

Francois Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses is a novel little known by the general audience today; yet at its appearance in 1699 it became an immediate success, and in fact it was the most frequently published modern work in the 18th and 19th centuries.1 In addition to its literary merits, which captivated the casual reader, The Adventures of Telemachus is important because it represents a nexus of political views that held a considerable weight on the discussions and intellectual developments of the 18th century. Moreover, it reflects an array of nuanced theological concepts (for instance, quietism)2, which, although treated by Fénelon elsewhere as well, provide a view into the author’s spiritual progression. It is this polyvalence that makes the book interesting even today3 and helps us understand the complicated socio-cultural milieu of pre-revolutionary France. In this short paper, however, I am concentrating on The Adventures of Telemachus from the perspective of a classicist, since the novel is an excellent example of the use of a classical theme as a vehicle for the advancement of ideas which are the product of a particular age, never raised by the ancient models. My intention here is to speculate on why a Catholic clergyman chooses a pagan story to articulate his aphorisms, and, in particular, why he deems a katabasis, a visit to the underworld, to be a significant element in a prince’s preparation for the throne. Indeed both issues have been addressed by Fénelonians, but what I would like to emphasize in this paper is that the inclusion of a katabasis in Fénelon’s novel is encouraged not only by literary tradition, but also by its association with notions of spiritual renewal and self-awareness, qualities particularly suitable for a ruler.

First a word about the author and his book: Francois Fénelon was born in 1651 into an aristocratic but impoverished family. At a young age he was ordained a priest, and soon he distinguished himself to the point of being named tutor of Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, for whom some years later (1693-4) he wrote The Adventures of Telemachus.4 In a few words, the plot of the book is the following: after his visit to Pylos and Sparta, Telemachus heads towards Sicily where he expects to find his father. The voyage does not progress as planned, however; instead he embarks upon a series of adventures and encounters with extraordinary men who directly or obliquely provide him with important lessons that supplement those of his instructive companion Mentor. At some point Telemanchus descends to the underworld to seek information about Ulysses from his great-grandfather Arcesius. Upon return from the kingdom of Hades, he faces more challenges but eventually he manages to reach Ithaca where he is reunited with his father.

This summary does not reveal at all the all-pervading political sentiment of the book, which is a fierce attack against absolute monarchy, under which the author and his contemporaries lived in France. “Good kings are very rare and the majority…bad” (Les bons rois sont très rares, et la plupart sont…méchants)5 comments the author when Telemachus realizes that only a few of them reside in the Elysian Fields, while the rest suffer in Tartarus. It was no wonder that Louis XIV saw the book as a personal affront and retaliated accordingly, by severing Fénelon’s financial support and cutting him off from the court.6

1 P. Riley (editor), Francois de Fenelon: Telemachus, Son of Ulysses, Cambridge 1994, p. xvi; F.-X. Cuche and J. Le Brun (editors), Fénelon: Mystique et Politique, Paris 2004, p. 9.

2 Cf. A. Niderst, “Le Quiétisme de Télémaque” in Fénelon: Mystique et Politique (above), pp. 205-16.

3 See, for instance, the international Colloquium in Strasbourg (1999) on the anniversary of the three hundred years since the publication of the book.

4 E. Carcassonne, Fénelon: l’Homme et l’Oeuvre, Paris 1946, p. 5 ff.; J. H. Davis, Fénelon, Boston 1979, pp. 15-21; Riley (above), pp. xiii-xiv with bibliography.

5 A. Cahen (editor), Fénelon: Les Aventures de Télémaque, Vol. 2, Paris 1920, p. 351.

6 Davis (above), p. 29; Riley (above), p. xv.


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