Benjamin Franklin American Literature Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)