Adventures of Telemachus

"...He appears to act only by the dictates of his own will; but he is, indeed, the slave of appetite: he is condemned to do the drudgery of avarice, and to smart under the scourge of fear and suspicion. He appears to have dominion over others, but he is not the master even of himself; for, in every irregular passion, he has not only a master, but a tormentor."


"Men of the greatest wisdom and most moderate desires have found life full of trouble, without taking upon them the government of others, who are restless and untractable, injurious, fraudulent, and ungrateful."


"If kings concern themselves with religion, they do not protect it as a divine institution, but degrade it to a mere instrument of State policy."


"Men are continually talking of virtue and merit, but there are few who know precisely what is meant by either. They are splendid terms, indeed, but, to the greater part of those who take a pride in perpetually repeating them, of uncertain signification."

While transcribing George Lippard's Washington and his Generals, I came across a reference to François Fénelon, and subsequently learned of Adventures of Telemachus. Intended as a private composition to entertain and instruct a young heir to the French throne [not unlike the Panchatantra, another work of which I'm quite fond], this prose pastiche of Homer and Virgil is rife with political criticism, and once it was leaked to an enterprising publisher it became one of the most popular books in Europe at the time. [Although not absolutely necessary, it is helpful to have the Odyssey, Iliad, and Aeneid fresh in one's mind prior to reading it.]

When I discovered this novel, I was surprised to find it available on Project Gutenberg only in the original French, and on Amazon as the usual scan-off*. Hence my decision to take it on. The edition I chose to transcribe begins with a lengthy "Life of Fénelon," which may be passed over safely without detracting from the main content of the volume; nonetheless, I advise the reader not to avoid a treat. The essay is as much a fascinating exposition on the theological and political milieu of the Court of Louis XIV as it is a commentary on the character of the essayist himself, who is none other than Alphonse de Lamartine. I was particularly struck by this passage, which both amused and alarmed me with its early enthusiasm for Capitalism, Industry, Environmental Exploitation, and Trickle-down Theory:

The influence of this book in matters of political economy, has been no less powerful and equally fatal; but its errors in this respect are more easily demonstrated. The declamations against art and luxury, the sumptuary laws to regulate the consumption of articles produced by labor, which are useless in our epoch, were applicable to the primitive condition of that antiquity from which Fénelon unfortunately drew his examples and imbibed his ideas. Upon the first establishment of any community strictly pastoral and agricultural, where the earth is cultivated with difficulty, and scarcely supplies the necessary aliment of man, it becomes the enforced law and virtue of citizens to consume as little as possible, that their sobriety and abstemiousness may thus leave a larger portion to satisfy the wants of their brethren. The aim of such laws was to prevent scarcity, that scourge of new-born empires, whose existence depends upon abundance of provision. Under this view, temperance, which is now a virtue confined to ourselves, became a benefit conferred on society. Abstinence was an act of devotion—luxury a crime. We can thus comprehend the usefulness of sumptuary laws in the remote periods of antiquity; but when a community is firmly established, and has increased its productive powers by clearing land, by the acquisition of flocks and machinery, when it no longer fears scarcity, and supports its immense population by the wages paid for the various products of art, intellect, and industry; when the luxury of one class creates the riches of another; when each pleasure, each vanity, and each caprice of the rich, pays, voluntarily or involuntarily, a reward for the labor which has supplied it,—the system of Fénelon, of Plato, and of J. J. Rousseau, appears no longer a mere absurdity, but assumes the serious aspect of a ruinous injury to the people. Consumption then becomes a virtue, and luxury proportioned to fortune supplies the necessities of the rest of mankind. This error of "Telemachus" is one of those which produced the worst evils of the Revolution, and its impression is still uneffaced from the minds of the people, much as it has misguided and injured them.

The text is from this scan of the 1887 edition, backed up by this scan of the 1872 edition. I corrected any obvious typographical errors, while preserving spellings that were common for the time. Where variations in spelling occur, I generally resolved them in favor of the more common occurrence: a notable example of this being "subtilty." An exception to that rule occurs where I left two instances of "Lacedæmon" (vs. "Lacedemon") as is.

Due to the high number of footnotes, I departed from my usual practice of placing them at the end of the paragraph. Instead, I converted them to endnotes, and numbered them accordingly.

So here it is: the master HTML version, the home-brew Kindle version, and the actual Amazon publication.

As the author might say, may you "have all the gladness that is inspired by wine, without either the tumult or the folly."

December 20, 2022


*After I began work on this, an excellent omnibus edition of The Life and Works of Fenelon appeared on Amazon for a modest price. I purchased it as soon as I discovered it. Although it contains both Adventures of Telemachus and the Fables (which I am also transcribing), they are based on other, earlier translations, and I decided to continue my own work anyway.

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