On failure, success & how the Great Conversation can help us endure both: Lessons from François Fénelon

Reflections on the meaning of life—and what should we learn together next?

Gracious reader,

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community! I’m so grateful you are here.

Today we’ll explore:

  • How the Great Conversation can help us endure both failure, success, reflecting on the life and lessons of the French thinker François Fénelon—who was born 370 years ago today!

  • What should we learn together? I’d LOVE your input on what course to offer in the FIRST Civic Renaissance course offering, coming in September

Part of the purpose of Civic Renaissance is to show how ideas, the wisdom of the past, and the Great Conversation can improve our lives.

Today we’re going to discuss how the Great Conversation—the iterative dialogue between the wise men and women who have come before us— can help us cope with two important challenges we all endure: failure and success.

It’s obvious why failure is a challenge. But success? Yes, staying humble and keeping one’s integrity amid success is a challenge of its own. We’re going to explore these two challenges by discovering how one lesser-known (but no less important!) contributor to the Great Conversation allowed his love of the wisdom keep him humble amid great success, as well as resounding failure.

Have you ever heard of François Fénelon?

He was born 370 years ago on this day—August 6th—in southwest France in 1651, and lived until January 7th, 1715.

By a relatively early age, Fénelon achieved tremendous professional success. At the age of 44, he was:

  • The private tutor to Louis XIV’s the grandson who was heir to the throne—the most important educational position in the country—and indeed, arguably all of Europe;

  • Elected to the Académie Française, the prestigious body dedicated to the preservation of the French language;

  • Appointed by the King to be the Archbishop of Cambrai, a position that came with enormous wealth and prestige.

His positions granted him a position at the court of Louis XIV’s magnificent Palace of Versailles, where he rubbed shoulders with some of the most important and powerful people on the continent. This was a time in history where France was the cultural, intellectual, and political center of Europe. This is the era where the French language became the language of intellectuals and of international diplomacy, and where the manners and norms of Versailles set the standard for decorum and courtly customs in every court in Europe. Fénelon was at the center of it all.

Yet overnight, because of his commitment to his Christian faith and to intellectual integrity, it was all taken away from him. Fénelon chose loyalty to his faith and to a friend in a religious dispute, which led him to fall out of favor with the king.

More than that, while he was educating the King’s grandson, he wrote a book (published without Fénelon’s permission) that greatly offended the king. Called Adventures of Telemachus, the book tells the story of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he searches for his father under the wise guidance of his friend Mentor. Fénelon had written to help aid the education of his young pupil, the future King of France, but because of it’s pro-republican sentiments—for example, Fénelon suggested that government and monarchs exist to serve the people they govern, not the other way around—Louis XIV, France’s absolutist monarch, took the book as a direct affront and fired him as the tutor of his grandson.

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Louis XIV imposed a sentence that effectively placed Fénelon under house arrest in Cambrai for the rest of his life. Interestingly, while Adventures of Telemachus was the work that put the final nail in Fénelon’s metaphorical coffin, it is also the work that he is most remembered for today. It went on to influence the thought of Montesquieu, the prose of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the operas of Mozart. Even the architect of American liberty, Thomas Jefferson, nurtured his republican ideals by reading and re-reading Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus!

Side note: Fénelon was classically educated and his love of books and ideas was deeply intertwined with his Christian faith. Before his firing, he spent ten years as a tutor to the Louis XIV’s grandson, and by all account transformed the young, future king from an unruly and petulant child to a duty-bound and wise young man. Unfortunately, the young heir died before he could take the throne. It’s a very interesting moment of alternative history, though: what might have happened had a kind and wisdom-loving ruler had become King of France instead of the Louis XIV spoiled great grandson, who took the throne and became Louis XV? Might democratic reforms had taken place—pre-empting the violent fury of the democratic French Revolution? It’s an interesting question!

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When Fénelon’s lost all his earthly goods to the caprice of the French king, he didn’t complain or become bitter. He instead found consolation in his faith, and in the world of ideas.

There is much we can learn from Fénelon about surviving success: we can take inspiration from his example of keeping his integrity and not allowing success to go to his head or to corrupt him.

And Fénelon also teaches us how to endure failure. After his fall from grace, Fénelon didn’t act as if his life was over. He spent his years in isolation at Cambrai writing letters of guidance and solace to the many people who had come to look to him for advice. He knew that there was much more to life than material possessions and prestige.

A time of tumult—personally and nationally

Fénelon lived during a pivotal time in history, and one of great tumult—personally, as we’ve learned, but also geopolitically and intellectually. He lived amid the Thirty Years War, thought to be among the most devastating wars in European history. Fénelon also lived on the cusp of a major intellectual shift in Europe.

  • In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which begin with Martin Luther nailing Ninety-five theses to the door at Wittenberg in 1517, there followed decades of wars of religion. The religious wars of the 16th century, and the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, brought about enormous disillusionment with faith and the church. There was a cultural shift to emphasize reason over faith.

  • Francis Bacon (1561-1629) called for a new scientific method grounded in empiricism—including logic, experimentation, and observation—over faith.

  • Galileo (1564-1642) questioned the longstanding belief—endorsed by the Church and most academics at the time—that the sun revolves around the earth, and argued that scholars should rely on the objective principles of geometry, not divine revelation, to discern the motions of bodies in space.

  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) applied the basic principles of mechanics to all realms, and developed a political theory premised on the notion that the desire for self-preservation is the defining characteristic of human nature.

  • René Descartes (1596-1650), often called the father of the enlightenment and scientific revolution, rejected any belief that he could not prove. He made math the basis of all life and science.

These scientific and philosophical views permeated all levels of society. They emphasized the mind and reason, and left little room for the heart and faith.

Fénelon, born the year after Descartes’ death, swam against these intellectual currents. Throughout his life, he sought to restore balance to what he saw as an overcorrection to the side of reason and science. He sought to make room for the mystery, beauty, unquantifiable, and unknown in life.

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A life well-lived in exile

Fénelon remained active intellectually and spiritually through letter writing, many of which we have today. While at the court at the Palace of Versailles, he had found and created a community of Christians and thoughtful individuals who Fénelon, from exile, continued to console and encourage through his letters. These letters are beautiful reflections, and offer insightful advice about how to stay moral in a corrupt and power-hungry world (you can read them in the edited volume The Complete Fénelon).

After Fénelon found himself without position or power, he took great joy and found great meaning in cultivating the virtue of those who were. Consider a few of insights, which I’ve taken from letters found in The Complete Fénelon edition:

  • On how humanity’s fundamental selfishness makes it so difficult to endure suffering—and how suffering, if we let it, can lead us to great inner tranquility.

    “Why do we rebel against our prolonged trials? Because of self-love; and it is that very self-love that God purposes to destroy. As long as we cling to self, his work is not achieved… We suffer from an excessive attachment to the world—above all to self. God orders a series of events that detach us gradually from the world first, and finally from the self also. The operation is painful, but our corruption makes it needful. If the flesh were healthy, the surgeon would not need to probe it. He uses the knife only in proportion to the depth of the would and the extent of the proud flesh. If we feel his operation too keenly, it is because the disease is active. Is it cruelty that makes the surgeon probe us to the quick? No, far otherwise—it is skill and kindness; he would do the same with his only child.”

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  • On why we resist the opportunity for self-improvement that suffering offers.

    "[God] makes use of human inconstancy and ingratitude, and the disappointments of failures that attend human prosperity, to detach us from the created world and its good things. He opens our eyes but letting us realize our own weaknesses and evils through countless falls… It is utter selfishness that we desire to attain perfection so cheaply and so quickly.”

  • On how to find meaning in suffering and failure: begin by recognizing that it is an inevitable part of life, maturity, and growth.

    “People find it very hard to believe that God heaps crosses on those he loves out of loving kindness. “Why should he take pleasure in causing us to suffer?” they ask. “Could he not make us grow without making us so miserable?” Yes, doubtless God could do so, for to him all things are possible. His all-powerful hands hold the human heart and turn it as he pleases… But though God could save us without crosses, he has not willed to do so, just as he has willed that people should grow up through the weakness and troubles of childhood, instead of being born fully developed.

Fénelon had every right to be critical of the egotistical and mercurial monarch who had taken everything from him. But we find no evidence of cynicism or resentment in these writings. We find, in fact the opposite! Consider this advice that he offers on dealing with the faults of others. He suggests looking deeply within our own soul before criticizing others.

Self love cannot bear to see itself. The sight would overwhelm it within shame and irritation, and if it catches an accidental glimpse, it seeks some false light the may soften and condone what is so hideous. Therefore, we always keep up some illusion as long as we retain any self-love. In order to see ourselves perfectly, self love must be rooted up, and the love of God must reign solely in us.

It is only after a serious, candid look inward at the ugly and selfish state of our own souls that we might consider turning to the faults of others. But when we do turn to others, we must be incredibly discerning. Fénelon recommends spending years in humble reflection and prayer before criticizing the faults of someone else.

Spiritual guides must imitate God’s own way of dealing with the soul, softening his rebuke so that the person who has been reprimanded feels as if it was rather self reproach, and a sense of wounded love, than God rebuking. All other methods of guidance—correcting impatiently, or because the spiritual guide is agitated by other’s infirmities—smack of earthly judgements, not the correction of grace… Nothing is so offensive to a haughty, sensitive self-conceit as the self-conceit of others.

We can take these wise words to heart and be encouraged by Fénelon’s example.

Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Which do you find the most challenging: success, or failure?

  • Why do you think it is so difficult to maintain integrity and humility in success?

  • Why is it so difficult to maintain hope and forgiveness in the face of failure?

  • Are there failures in your life that you still harbor resentment about? What is it about your circumstance that you feel was unfair or unjust?

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I’d love to hear from you on any or all of these questions. Feel free to write to me at ah@alexandraohudson.com

What should we learn together?

I am SO excited to announce that I’ll be launching the very first full Civic Renaissance course mid September. Here at Civic Renaissance, we care deeply about lifelong learning and continually nurturing the life of the mind. So next month, I plan to offer a course to help us continue to learn and grow in our appreciation and understanding of the ideas and world around us—and the people and books that helped make our world what it is today.

Do you yearn for opportunities to keep learning and to exercise your mind?

Do you wish you had an opportunity to study Great Books, engage with ideas, and discuss the highest, most important questions in life?

I was blessed with incredible parents and teachers in my life who showed me the beauty in book and ideas. My hope is to pass on that privilege to you through these course offerings.

I want to guide you through the corridors of classical wisdom, and to empower you with the knowledge that Great books and ideas have much to offer you and improve your life here and now.

If this sounds interesting to you, take a look at the course ideas below and share with me your thoughts on what we should learn together!

Here are the course ideas:

  • Five classic books that will change your life. This course would explore five books across intellectual history that have changed my life, and that I think offer a lot of promise to change yours, too.

  • The timeless principles of human flourishing. In this course, we’ll explore five historic books on civility you’ve never heard of but are essential to know. This would be a lot of fun, since this is the topic of my forthcoming book on civility from St. Martin’s Press.

  • Seven epic poems you absolutely must to know. What is epic poetry? Every culture has it. But why? and Why does it matter? Which poems have shaped cultures and people for hundreds of years? Why have they stood the test of time and what can they teach us today?

Which would you most enjoy? I’d love to hear from you! Vote blow!

What should we learn together?

Send me a note at ah@alexandraohudson.com with your thoughts on whether and why these ideas appeal to you—and also feel free to send me other ideas!