Paul et Virginie : Christianizing Rousseau à la Fénelon

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Deden, Christine

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This thesis presents Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel Paul et Virginie (1788) as a synthesis of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the theology of François de la Mothe-Fénelon. While the novel’s prominent themes of the goodness of nature and the corruption of society are clearly associated with Rousseau, Bernardin rejects Rousseau’s ideals of independence and self-sufficiency as the basis for his moral theory and preference of nature. Instead, his novel appears to Christianize Rousseau’s philosophy by stressing dependence on a personal, beneficient God who is revealed through nature, thereby associating the natural life with a God-centered life where happiness can be found through dependence on God and selfless service to others. In seeking to pinpoint Bernardin’s Christian influence, this paper goes on to acknowledge Bernardin’s hyperbolic praise for François Fénelon, which leads to an investigation concerning, first, which of Fénelon’s teachings can be found in Paul et Virginie, and second, how Bernardin manages to preserve such enthusiastic admiration for a Christian thinker while also denying several important tenets of Christian orthodoxy. This investigation reveals that Fénelon appealed to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre not only on the basis of what he emphasized, but also what he failed to emphasize. On the one hand, a number of Fénelonian ideas find expression in Paul et Virginie, ideas such as a conception of worship that privileges inner realities over external performances; a glorification of pure, disinterested love toward God; an ideal lifestyle of simplicity and harmony with nature; and an acknowledgement of the role of sentiment in gaining knowledge of the divine. On the other hand, this paper also proposes that Bernardin’s unhindered admiration for Fénelon was made possible by his ability to misinterpret two of Fénelon’s most well-known works, Télémaque (1699) and the Traité de l’existence de Dieu (p. 1718), whose silence on particular doctrines like original sin and the authority of the Scriptures allowed Bernardin to preserve his beliefs about natural goodness and the sufficiency of natural revelation.



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