Theses Doctoral

The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Francois Fenelon's Political Theory: Love, Free Will,and Disinterested Virtue

Falgoust Mennite, Barbara Ray

This dissertation claims that Fenelon's political theory is ontologically instead of epistemologically based. His political theory is a moral theory of civic virtue. The ontological focus places the emphasis of his theory on the question of why and how individuals relate and contribute to civic society. This means that inner atonement of independency and dependency is a key to civic society and determination of free will, a connection Rousseau made at a later date.
Fenelon does not approach this question from the standpoint of duty or obligation. He claims that the goodness of human nature has the potential of unselfish civic virtue. This goodness is perfected when the motives of action do not end in the self. It is the role of civic education, particularly through the example of words and deeds of those who hold political authority, to inculcate unselfishness. The viability and flourishing of civic society depend upon character development toward unselfishness. Because unselfish members do what they should because they want to do it, there is harmony between the individual and his tendency toward association. There is personal ownership of consciousness and action toward the well being of others.
Fenelon's political theory is based on the principle of disinterestedness, a theological term with a rich history in Christian contemplative mysticism. Disinterestedness refers to detachment from selfish interest in sense based, emotional, or temporal acquisitiveness in favor seeking the welfare of others. Indifference to a person's actions stems from his motives. For Fenelon, love is the will's determining motive toward action. Motives vary on a spectrum from interest that is mercenary, or selfish, to that which is purely unselfish. All humans are capable of perfectibility toward unselfishness during temporal life, and social improvement is possible. Fenelon's concept of love provides an alternative to the seventeenth century Jansenist focus on human corruptibility, although Fenelon concedes the influences of social corruption. His concept of disinterestedness brought to a head the question of whether happiness has anything to do with interest. Because he maintains that personal happiness, satisfaction of desire, and utility are not factors in the concept of interest, he detaches happiness from the motive of ethical action. Fenelon's theory of property is a primary example of disinterestedness in his political theory.
Fenelon's voluntaristic theory of free will is also crucial to his moral and political thought. Unfettered will determines itself with the impressions of reason, senses, emotions, and experience with that which incorporates all being, Infinite Goodness. Fenelon maintains the Cartesian distinction between the mind and the body. He also maintains Descartes's distinction between la pensa and la volonta. However, Fenelon expands Descartes's concept of will by incorporating influences of Christian contemplative mysticism. Here, Fenelon shifts from epistemology to ontology. The primary source of experience in the will is ontological and is not limited by what reason can ascertain about infinity. Morality stems from the fact that experience is relational. Good will is what is most perfect in man, and the will can experience its goodness only when it is creative and free of encumbrance, including limits of reason. The basis of the morally good will is ontological. The idea of union as Infinite Goodness is the basis of Fenelon's system of ethics
One of the goals of this dissertation is to explain the role of language and rhetoric in Fenelon's theology and politics of virtue. Because moral value and inspiration are integral parts of phenomenological being, persuasiveness has a role in inculcating the spirit of association. Through rhetoric, persuasiveness has a vital role in communication within the polis. Rhetorical
language is the means of communication among political beings. When moral value is identified as caring for others, rhetoric is the language of civic virtue and education. Civic education of disinterested virtue beckons individuals to bond unselfishly
This dissertation uniquely provides an ontological explanation that connects the dots between Fenelon's metaphysics, theology, moral theory, and political theory. It also provides a strong foundation for further research.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 29, 2014