Franklin achieved his intellectual and literary prowess in an era known for its philosophical advances. The eighteenth century is frequently cited as the beginning of the so-called modern era in philosophy. The century is known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, an ideal also found in the literature of the period, whether colonial, British, or Continental.
Two factors—or, more specifically, two intellectuals—epitomize this era: Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and John Locke (1632-1704). Newton, an English mathematician and astronomer, made revolutionary scientific discoveries concerning light and gravitation and formulated the basis of modern calculus. His genius changed humankind’s view of itself and its capabilities, showing that individuals can practically, rationally, and reasonably order their world for the benefit of all human beings. English philosopher Locke formulated these attitudes into his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Locke’s basic thesis asserts that humans are born devoid of any preformed ideas or perceptions; in essence, a person is a tabula rasa, or “blank slate.” Through experience, as perceived through the senses, people develop knowledge.
This theory, revised and amended by numerous philosophers of the century, casts doubt upon the previously accepted role of a divine being in the lives of humans. With the Christian idea of predestination called into question, a new attitude toward the Creator was developed to coincide with these new philosophical concepts. This “religion,” termed Deism, espoused a belief in a “clockwork universe,” in which the Creator provided the spark to create the world but then took an inactive role in its operation. Thus, people, through reason (not through a reliance on revelation), had the responsibility to arrange their own affairs, both personally and socially. Many American colonists adhered to this philosophy, most notably Thomas Jefferson, the radical revolutionary Thomas Paine, and Franklin. Early in his autobiography, Franklin concludes, after much study, that he has become “a thorough Deist.”
Franklin, however, took his Enlightenment ideas a step further than most of his scholarly contemporaries. While the philosophers of the era were content to argue among themselves about the nature of humankind, Franklin believed in bringing these new philosophical and scientific ideas to the common people. His wit, coupled with his intellect, had an immediate appeal to his readership. His maxims and aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack made the colonists laugh but also revealed some of their foibles. Franklin’s Memoirs de la vie privée ecrits par lui-même, (1791; The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, 1793; Memoirs of the Life, 1818; best known as Autobiography) is essentially a story of the application of rationality, practicality, and wise frugality to everyday life. Also inherent in Franklin’s writings is the belief in the innate liberty of common people and the right of people to pursue their own destinies.
Many twentieth century intellectuals have taken exception to what they see as Franklin’s materialism. German sociologist Max Weber’s Marxist interpretation takes issue with the aims of Franklin’s philosophy: “It [the earning of money] is thought of purely as an end in itself . . . [I]t appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.”
Such criticism has evolved not as much from Franklin and his writings as from inferences by readers who believe Franklin’s philosophy justifies abject materialism. In fact, the true character of Benjamin Franklin reveals a man concerned about society and its treatment of humankind. His concern for public education, public safety, and public health made Philadelphia the most modern city not only in the colonies but also in the entire Western...
(This entire section contains 1990 words.)
world. Franklin also refused to apply for patents for many of his inventions, thus making them more accessible to the public. Thus, Franklin’s philosophy not only defined the American ideal but also defined the entire concept of human progress.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
First published: Part 1, 1791; complete, 1818
Type of work: Autobiography
Franklin’s Autobiography, begun in 1771, presents his thoughts on practicality, frugality, and Enlightenment ideals.
Franklin’s Autobiography is divided into three parts, with a short addendum added a few months before Franklin’s death in 1790. Each has a distinct thematic purpose and thus serves, in part, to make the work an important philosophical and historical tract. Part 1 is, in essence, an extended letter to Franklin’s son William, written in England in 1771. It recounts Franklin’s ancestry, his early days in Boston and Philadelphia, and his first journey to London in 1724. In fact, Autobiography is by far the best source for information on Franklin’s early life. Part 1 ends with Franklin’s marriage to Deborah and the beginning of his subscription library in late 1730, when he was twenty-four years old. Franklin ends part 1 with this explanatory note:
“Thus far was written with the Intention express’d in the Beginning and therefore contains several little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others. . . . The Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption.”
In spite of this rejoinder, there are important ideas developed in part 1. Franklin concludes that, after a youthful prank brought parental admonishment, that, “tho’ I pleaded the Usefulness of the Work, mine convinc’d me that nothing was useful which was not honest.” Part 1 also discusses Franklin’s Deistic inclinations and his predilection for the art of disputation, which is similar to modern-day debate. Franklin thus believed in the mind’s ability to use logic and reason over and above strong emotions. He comments:Therefore I took a Delight in it [disputing], practic’d it continually and grew very artful and expert in drawing People of even superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee . . . and so obtaining Victories that neither myself nor my Cause always deserved.
One should not conclude that Franklin had a thoroughly optimistic view of human nature; too many whom Franklin called his friends took advantage of his good nature and left him with their debts or in embarrassing situations. Franklin, however, frequently blamed himself for allowing such developments—and others, such as his failure to pursue his courtship of Deborah actively after first meeting her. He terms such faults errata, a term that appears frequently in part 1.
Part 2 is less autobiographical and more philosophical than part 1 but no less revealing of Franklin’s character. His Philadelphia friend Abel James encouraged Benjamin in 1782 to follow through on his idea of continuing the Autobiography, with the idea of depicting, in Franklin’s words, “My Manner of acting to engage People in this and future Undertakings.” The essence of part 2 can be found in Franklin’s discussion of his attempts to achieve “moral perfection,” “a bold and arduous project.”
He devises a list of thirteen virtues, such as temperance, industry, moderation, and humility, and includes a precise definition for each. He then orders them in a vertical list, according to the theory that “the previous Acquisition of some might facilitate the Acquisition of certain others.” A list of the days of the week composes the horizontal axis of the chart. Each of the virtues has its own separate chart, thus allowing Franklin to concentrate on a particular virtue for those seven days. Theoretically, at the end of thirteen weeks and after a religious maintenance of the charts, noting all transgressions at the appropriate points, moral perfection, an attribute attainable by “people in all religions,” can be achieved.
This “Book of Virtues” is joined by Franklin’s “Scheme of Order,” an organizational plan to meet each workday, to complete his precise scheme of living. Was Franklin himself able to realize the edicts of moral perfection? He comments:In Truth I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my Memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it.
Part 3 does not have the literary value of the first two parts, but it is an intriguing recollection of Franklin’s career as a public administrator. It particularly focuses on his efforts as Pennsylvania representative to British General William Braddock in a plan to lease civilian “waggons and baggage horses” to the British army in 1755. The plan nearly failed as a result of Braddock’s arrogant contempt for the colonists. This incident had a profound effect on Franklin’s future attitudes toward Great Britain.
Poor Richard’s Almanack
First published: 1732 for the year 1733; published in annual editions until 1757 for the year 1758
Type of work: Almanac and maxim book
This work, an American institution, contains proverbs, maxims, poems, and anecdotes on how to achieve moral perfection.
Essentially Poor Richard’s Almanack embodies all the themes of the Autobiography in a witty and accessible format. Franklin’s literary influence on Poor Richard’s Almanack comes in a variety of forms: Proverbs, epigrams, rhymes, and aphorisms abound in each edition, usually interspersed among the calendars, weather forecasts, and astronomical charts. Each edition opens with a letter from the almanac’s alleged author, one Richard Saunders (another Franklin pseudonym). He was “excessive poor” but fascinated with the heavens. Influenced by his wife, who could not bear “to sit spinning in her Shift of Tow,” he was compelled to publish his observations. Thus, Franklin presents to his readership “middling people” who had to work long and hard to save and prosper—one of their own, a man of humble means in search of moral perfection and its resultant prosperity.
Few of Franklin’s sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack were original. He borrowed many of them from larger poetic works written within the preceding five or ten years; the poetic satirists Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Jonathan Swift are heavily borrowed from but revised by Franklin to fit the needs and tastes of his readership. Many of these sayings have become oft-repeated foundations of American cultural heritage: “A true friend is the best possession”; “Don’t misinform your Doctor nor your Lawyer”; “Don’t throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass”; “Fish and visitors stink in 3 days”; “Haste makes waste”; “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” Scholars point to the role that experience plays in the sayings found in Poor Richard’s Almanack: It is not scholarly pursuits but wise, practical living that paves the road to virtue.
Although there were allusions to Deism (“Serving God is doing Good to Man, but praying is Thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen”) and the theories of Locke, Newton, and the essayist Francis Bacon, they were versed in language that indicated that such ideas could be acquired through experience—which includes, in the Lockean sense, observation. Thus, those colonists (and there were a great many) who did not have access to books could gain much contemporary philosophical and literary thought through Mr. Saunders’s Almanack. Franklin’s sayings, while not original in themselves, were revised to adapt to the emerging working class of the American colonies. Such an infusion of philosophical ideas dealing with equality helped give the American colonies the intellectual impetus for the Revolution that occurred less than twenty years after the last edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack was published.
One final note as to the popularity of Poor Richard’s Almanack concerns the Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, who waited for months in France for a refitted man-of-war promised to him by the French monarchy to aid the independence effort. Finally, Jones recalled a maxim from Poor Richard’s Almanack. “If you’d have it done, go; if not, send,” and he marched to Versailles and demanded the vessel. The resulting warship was christened Bonhomme Richard in appreciation of the influence of Poor Richard’s Almanack on the indomitable Jones.