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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture II -- Centralisation

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Let us honour the courtier who dared speak such truths; and still more the saintly celibate who had sufficient catholicity of mind to envelop them in old Grecian dress, and, without playing false for a moment to his own Christianity, seek in the writings of heathen sages a wider and a healthier view of humanity than was afforded by an ascetic creed.

No wonder that the appearance of "Telemaque," published in Holland without the permission of Fenelon, delighted throughout Europe that public which is always delighted with new truths, as long as it is not required to practise them. To read "Telemaque" was the right and the enjoyment of everyone. To obey it, the duty only of princes. No wonder that, on the other hand, this "Vengeance de peuples, lecon des rois," as M. de Lamartine calls it, was taken for the bitterest satire by Louis XIV., and completed the disgrace of one who had dared to teach the future king of France that he must show himself, in all things, the opposite of his grandfather. No wonder if Madame de Maintenon and the court looked on its portraits of wicked ministers and courtiers as caricatures of themselves; portraits too, which, "composed thus in the palace of Versailles, under the auspices of that confidence which the king had placed in the preceptor of his heir, seemed a domestic treason." No wonder, also, if the foolish and envious world outside was of the same opinion; and after enjoying for awhile this exposure of the great ones of the earth, left "Telemaque" as an Utopia with which private folks had no concern; and betook themselves to the easier and more practical model of "Gil Blas."

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But there are solid defects in "Telemaque"--indicating corresponding defects in the author's mind--which would have, in any case, prevented its doing the good work which Fenelon desired; defects which are natural, as it seems to me, to his position as a Roman Catholic priest, however saintly and pure, however humane and liberal. The king, with him, is to be always the father of his people; which is tantamount to saying, that the people are to be always children, and in a condition of tutelage; voluntary, if possible: if not, of tutelage still. Of self-government, and education of human beings into free manhood by the exercise of self-government, free will, free thought--of this Fenelon had surely not a glimpse. A generation or two passed by, and then the peoples of Europe began to suspect that they were no longer children, but come to manhood; and determined (after the example of Britain and America) to assume the rights and duties of manhood, at whatever risk of excesses or mistakes: and then "Telemaque" was relegated-- half unjustly--as the slavish and childish dream of a past age, into the schoolroom, where it still remains.

But there is a defect in "Telemaque" which is perhaps deeper still. No woman in it exercises influence over man, except for evil. Minerva, the guiding and inspiring spirit, assumes of course, as Mentor, a male form; but her speech and thought is essentially masculine, and not feminine. Antiope is a mere lay-figure, introduced at the end of the book because Telemachus must needs be allowed to have hope of marrying someone or other. Venus plays but the same part as she does in the Tannenhauser legends of the Middle Age. Her hatred against Telemachus is an integral element of the plot. She, with the other women or nymphs of the romance, in spite of all Fenelon's mercy and courtesy towards human frailties, really rise no higher than the witches of the Malleus Maleficanum. Woman-- as the old monk held who derived femina from fe, faith, and minus, less, because women have less faith than men--is, in "Telemaque," whenever she thinks or acts, the temptress, the enchantress; the victim (according to a very ancient calumny) of passions more violent, often more lawless, than man's.

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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