Les Aventures de Télémaque  

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On our arrival upon this coast we found there a savage race who . . . lived by hunting and by the fruits which the trees spontaneously produced. These people . . . were greatly surprised and alarmed by the sight of our ships and arms and retired to the mountains. But since our soldiers were curious to see the country and hunt deer, they were met by some of these savage fugitives. The leaders of the savages accosted them thus: "We abandoned for you, the pleasant sea-coast, so that we have nothing left but these almost inaccessible mountains: at least it is just that you leave us in peace and liberty. Go, and never forget that you owe your lives to our feeling of humanity. Never forget that it was from a people whom you call rude and savage that you receive this lesson in gentleness and generosity. . . . We abhor that brutality which, under the gaudy names of ambition and glory, . . . sheds the blood of men who are all brothers. . . . We value health, frugality, liberty, and vigor of body and mind: the love of virtue, the fear of the gods, a natural goodness toward our neighbors, attachment to our friends, fidelity to all the world, moderation in prosperity, fortitude in adversity, courage always bold to speak the truth, and abhorrence of flattery . . . . If the offended gods so far blind you as to make you reject peace, you will find, when it is too late, that the people who are moderate and lovers of peace are the most formidable in war. --Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699), tr. based on that of Tobias Smollett.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Les aventures de Télémaque (The adventures of Telemachus) was a didactic French novel -- an attack on the French monarchy -- by Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai and tutor to the seven-year-old Duc de Bourgogne (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the throne). It was published anonymously in 1699 and reissued in 1717 by his family. The slender plot fills out a gap in Homer's Odyssey, recounting the educational travels of Telemachus, son of Ulysses, accompanied by his tutor, Mentor, who is revealed at the end of the story to be Minerva, goddess of wisdom, in disguise. Fénelon described his book as a prose "epic": oddly, for such an admirer of the humanism of the ancient world, he was so much a product of the age of reason as to believe that poetry was obsolete. Yet his choice of simple vernacular prose as a means of spreading morality and enlightened ideas to the widest possible audience, including women and children, was very much in the spirit of the eighteenth-century age of Enlightenment.

The tutor Mentor is arguably the true hero of the book, much of which is given over to his speeches and advice on how to rule. Over and over, Mentor denounces war, luxury, and selfishness and proclaims the brotherhood of man and the necessity of altruism (though that term would only be coined in the 19th century by August Comte). He recommends a complete overhaul of government and the abolition of the mercantile system and cruel taxes on the peasantry and suggests a system of parliamentary government and a confederacy of nations to settle disputes between nations peacefully. As against luxury and imperialism (represented by ancient Rome) Fénelon hold up the ideal of the simplicity and relative equality of ancient Greece, an ideal that would be taken up by in the Romantic era of the nineteenth century. The form of government he looks to is an aristocratic republic in the form of a constitutional monarchy in which the ruler prince is advised by a council of patricians.

Although set in a far off place and ancient time, Télémaque was immediately recognized by contemporaries as a satire on the autocratic reign of Louis XIV of France, whose wars and taxes on the peasantry had reduced the country to famine. The book so angered Louis XIV that he banished Fénelon from Versailles, confining him to his diocese, where he remained, with few exceptions, for the rest of his life.

Yet a few years later royal panegyrists were hailing the young king Louis the XV as a new Telemachus and flattering his tutors as new "Mentors". Later in the century, royal tutors gave the book itself to their charges, and King Louis XVI (1754-93) was strongly marked by it.

The French literary historian Jean-Claude Bonnet calls Télémaque “the true key to the museum of the eighteenth century imagination.” One of the most popular works of the century, it was an immediate best seller both in France and abroad, going through many editions and translated into every European language and even Latin verse (first in Berlin in 1743, then in Paris by Étienne Viel [1737-87]). It inspired numerous imitations (such as the Abbé Jean Terrasson's novel Sethos (1731), itself the inspiration Mozart's Magic Flute. It also supplied the plot for Mozart's opera, Idomeneo (1781).

With its message of peace, simplicity, and the brotherhood of man, Télémaque was a favorite of Montesquieu and of Jean Jacques Rousseau and through him of the French revolutionaries and of German romantics, such as Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who approvingly quotes Fénelon's remark, “I love my family more than myself; more than my family my fatherland; more than my fatherland humankind”. It was also a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who reread it frequently.

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