In a recording for the Talking Intellectual History series at the University of St Andrews, Ryan Patrick Hanley and I discussed his new work on François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. Hanley is a professor of political science at Boston College and author of the monograph The Political Philosophy of Fénelon (Oxford University Press 2020), just published alongside Hanley’s selected translations: Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings.
Most anglophone historians of political thought have forgotten Fénelon’s significance. It may come as a surprise that Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699) was the most-read book in eighteenth-century France after the Bible. As Hanley notes, Telemachus counted Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume, Robespierre, Jefferson, and Bentham among its many admirers.
Tocqueville certainly read Fénelon. In a colorful letter describing his travels in Upstate New York, Tocqueville quipped that he and Gustave de Beaumont navigated Lake Canandaigua “not [by] swimming it, as Mentor and Telemachus might have done, but aboard a steamboat, which is much surer and more commodious” . Fenelon wrote Telemachus while serving as tutor to the Duke of Burgundy. His didactic narrative follows Telemachus and his teacher as they travel from ancient island to island and as they compare different regimes—with an eye on the best political and economic future for France. Tocqueville’s adventures through the American forest also amount to a comparative political analysis—this one fueled partly by steam power and written not for the future King of France but for the French public at large.
For more on Fénelon—one of France’s great writers on issues of political economy, moral philosophy, and modern theology—you can listen to the interview here.
 Tocqueville to his sister-in-law Émilie, Batavia, New York, July 25, 1831, in Letters from America, trans. Frederick Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
Photo Credit: Les Aventures de Télémaque (Amsterdam: J. Wetstein, G. Smith, Zacharie Chatelain, 1734), Fair Use.