Victor Nuovo: Franklin, the ‘presiding genius’
Editor’s note: This is the 24th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The principal founders of this nation played different but complementary roles in its creation. Adams was its chief theoretician; Jefferson and Hamilton, no less knowing, excelled at putting theory into practice, although moving in contrary ways; Washington as chief executive made it actual.
What of Benjamin Franklin? He played many roles: drafting the Declaration of Independence, concluding a peace with Great Britain, framing the Constitution, and securing a prominent place for the United States among the international community of nations, and more, much more: he was this new nation’s presiding genius, which is a fitting role for a philosopher.
It is often overlooked that even before his eminence among the founders Franklin had gained international reputation as a philosopher. David Hume (1711–1776), who is arguably the most eminent British philosopher of the 18th Century, in a personal letter to him recollecting his visit to Edinburgh in 1762 wrote this: “America has sent us many good things: gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, indigo, etc.; but you are the first philosopher and indeed the first great man of letters, for whom we are beholden to her.” Franklin excelled at “natural philosophy,” and gained international reputation for his investigations into the nature of electricity; a product of this inquiry is the lightening rod, which he invented. He also invented the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the urinary catheter, all of which are evidence of his study and insight into the workings of nature. In the early modern period in Europe (the 17th and 18th centuries) philosophers did more than deal with abstractions.
To promote such studies he helped found the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of London and was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Edinburgh, and by Harvard and Yale, which commissioned a portrait of him that still hangs in its library.
What sort of philosophy did Franklin profess? It was motivated by an insatiable curiosity that knew no limits and could be satisfied only by free enquiry and free expression. It was also public and therefore practical, often concluding with some practical benefit; and it was non-dogmatic. At its root was a profound moral seriousness and a preoccupation with human conduct.
Overall, Franklin’s stance is skeptical. Thus, while his researches into the nature of electricity were constructive and important, he never seems to have pursued a more general inquiry into the nature of things, into what was then known among philosophers as speculative physics or metaphysics. In this respect, he is much like his friend David Hume. He did not believe that humans, in spite of their intelligence, are so well situated, or so penetrating in their insight to gain a knowledge of the fundamental laws by which nature operates, how it originated and what its end might be.
Franklin was a professed theist, and he repeatedly expressed belief in a universal providence, believing that a wise and universal intelligence governed the course of events in nature and history. He had little use for religious dogma, which he considered doubtful and morally repugnant; as a youth he repudiated the strict Calvinism in which he was nurtured. He doubted the divinity of Christ, but admired Jesus’ moral teaching. He valued religion because it was for many the only secure way to be sufficiently motivated to sustain a morally upright life. Yet he had only mockery for those who supposed that their good behavior and good works were a source of divine pleasure, as though God should require such things and still be God, all-wise and in need of nothing.
His writings were devoted almost entirely to practical morality and they led to his fame and fortune. This all began almost by chance, and as the result an ingenious deception. While still a youth — he was 16 — he submitted a letter to the editor of a local newspaper which was owned and managed by his older brother James to whom he was apprenticed as a printer. The letter was rejected. He then invented a fictitious persona, “Silence Dogood,” a middle-aged widow, and submitted letters over her name, slipping them under the door of the press room. They were printed. They contained practical reflections on everyday life in the colonies and on the human comedy generally and they excelled in homespun wisdom.
In 1733, he published Poor Richard’s Almanackunder the pseudonym Richard Saunders, and followed it by a new edition every year for a quarter century. It made him rich. An almanac is a book of useful knowledge, containing a calendar, astronomical and astrological information, household information, and everyday practical wisdom. It was a fitting work for a philosopher of Franklin’s bent to write, a skeptic, one who knows only that we are creatures of time, cast adrift in a changing and therefore uncertain world, and who must every day take our bearings anew and recognize the challenges we face, which differ with the changing seasons and situations in life. Philosophically, Franklin the philosopher might be described as an existentialist, but of a purely American kind, uninfected by the narcissism and romanticism of his later European counterparts.
The most enduring part of Franklin’s almanacs are his moral teachings, which consist not of general rules or abstractions, but of apothegms, which are concrete, specific, observations of character that contain implicit rules of behavior; they are universal in meaning and soul searching in intent. There is no adequate way to describe them, for each has its own idiom. I conclude this essay with some examples:
“The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart”;
“Humility makes men twice honorable”;
“Full of courtesie, full of craft”;
“Most of the learning in use, is of no great Use”;
“Hunger is the best Pickle”;
“Pride is as loud a Beggar as Want, and a great deal more saucy”;
“If you would be revenged of your enemy, govern yourself”;
“Would you live with ease, Do what you ought, and not what you please”;
“Without justice, courage is weak”;
“A rich rogue is like a fat hog, who never does good ‘til dead as a log”;
“He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas”;
“Kings [Presidents] and Bears often worry their keepers.”
Postscript: The main virtue of maxims is their apparent self-evidence, they foster belief without thinking. However, in promoting this sort of homespun morality, one wonders whether in this respect Franklin might be considered as a founder of American anti-intellectualism, unintended by him, but perhaps inevitable, for the maxim is the ancestor of the soundbite, which has become a staple of our culture.
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