On the Origins of Mentorship

Words only speak as loud as the actions behind them. And actions speak louder than words.

I’ve written before about what a huge impact mentors have had on my life. In fact, mentorship has been so meaningful to me that I decided to build an [organization](www.moneythink.org) that spreads it. Mentors have given much of the advice, perspective, connections, inspiration, and ego-checking I’ve needed to excel. Which is why I felt compelled to write when I learned of the word’s origins.

The word “mentor” originates in Homer’s The Odyssey. In the story, Mentor is a wise character who stands up for his beliefs, imparts wisdom through his actions, and offers advice in times of trouble. When the bystanding majority fails to stand up for Odysseus’ family under attack, Mentor calls them out for their cowardice and omissive crimes. As Nassim Taleb wrote: “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” Mentor says fraud: “I hold it against you other people, how you all sit there in silence, and never with an assault of words try to check the [attack], though they are so few, and you so many.” (The Odyssey 2.235-241)

Mentor’s story picks back up in year 1699 through the book Les aventures de Télémaque (The adventures of Telemachus) by Fénelon. Fénelon enhances Homer’s story of Mentor, portraying him not only as a tutor to Telemachus (Ulysses’ son in The Odyssey) but also as the disguised human embodiment of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Mentor retains the external credibility he earned in The Odyssey while also introducing the reader to more of the “tutoring” role that Mentor plays for Telemachus.

No doubt Fénelon drew from his own experiences to write the Mentor character. In real life when he wasn’t writing, Fénelon split his time between his post as the Archbishop of Cambrai and his role tutoring Louix XIV’s grandson. So much time in the high courts developed in Fénelon a distaste for the luxury, war, and selfishness he observed in Louix XIV’s administration. So Fénelon took a stand, vocalizing his subversive beliefs through Mentor, whose lines express strong opinions on how to rule. When the book was released and began circulating, Louis XIV (and almost everyone else who read it) couldn’t help but notice its clear intent to undermine his style of rule. Infuriated, King Louis banished Fénelon from Versailles.

Notice that Fénelon and Mentor both represent a two-part archetype: mentor-as-tutor (words) and mentor-as-role-model (actions). As tutors, Mentor guides Telemachus, and Fénelon guides Louix XIV’s grandson. As role models, Mentor and Fénelon risk livelihood and status to stand up for their beliefs. As tutors, their words offered guidance and perspective; as role models, their actions gave credibility and authenticity to their words.

In the stories, what makes Fénelon and Mentor remarkable characters is not that they are willing to give advice, but that their advice is backed up by experience. They learned their wisdom and earned their authority by putting their skin in the game and taking responsibility. For both their mentees and their readers, they didn’t just tell the way, they showed the way.

In my experience, the best mentors–whether 20 years old or 80–put their money where their mouth is. The word’s origins seem to confirm this.

This post is adapted from another version written for the Moneythink blog http://moneythink.org/blog/


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