Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is another one of those figures in American history who we Americans tend to think we know quite a bit about, however his famous autobiography tends to largely fall into the category of classic as expressed by that other great American, Mark Twain, who wrote "A classic is a book which people praise and don't read."  I think I can probably count on one hand the people I've known in my life (that I know of) who have read Franklin's Autobiography. Of those, I imagine I was not the first who was acutely aware of Franklin omitting almost every major part of his life that we usually think of when we think of his life. There is nothing about The Revolution, the experiments with electricity, the strange relationship with his son, meeting Voltaire. He even mentions at one point that he has dined with kings, but sadly never gets to the portion of his life which would occasion telling those stories. I don't think a single founding father was named in the course of the narrative.

The reason for this is that he wrote the book in three chunks of his life, the final one, falling pat into the "unfinished" category, may very well have been moving toward the Revolution as he wrote it in the last year of his life, but if memory serves, I think he only got up to more than a decade before the first shot was heard around the world.

So, what does he write about?  Well, the first section of the book seems to have been intended for his son and written in the 1750s. It deals with Franklin's early life which, while interesting, often focuses heavily on what now seem like trivialities. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about petty squabbles and loans between people history has relegated to mere footnotes (mainly as people who owed Franklin money at one point).  Also the costs of the printing business. Of course, the financial figures didn't age well and are largely meaningless to modern readers.

In the second portion, Franklin is much older and compelled to write by fans who are eager to read his story in his own words. I found this to be the real meat of the book. I found this to be what made this book worthwhile. Otherwise it would have been a collection of some semi-amusing anectdotes about colonial America. He spends a lot of time dealing with virtues and exercises to strengthen same. His list of thirteen (note: same number as the colonies, and Franklin was not above being cute) is as follows:
1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
11. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; Never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
12. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
 He had a score sheet through which he would work on one virtue per week, marking down at the end of the day if he had failed, hopefully mastering a virtue per week. He admits that he never perfected it, but found the exercise extremely helpful in his personal and professional lives. His endorsement of his system is so ringing that I keep almost convincing myself to try it.

Also on the topic of behavior (Franklin was refreshingly, highly concerned with character and virtue) Franklin spends a good deal of time on dealing with people in conversation. I appreciated his focus on avoiding dogmatics in discussion and debate, steering more toward phrases akin to "In my experience I have found..." for the sake of the preservation of peace and friendship. I also thought it a wonderful piece of advice that when one is seeking donations for a cause to not speak of it as "your cause" but rather a cause that a group of people you represent stand behind. He says people are more likely to give more freely if you present the cause in that manner.  

I think one of the most challenging sections for me dealt with his dealings with religious people. Franklin states in no uncertain terms that he was not a religious man. He mentions how, in his experience, many religious people in specific sects are like people in a fog who look around them and think everyone around them is in a fog, not perceiving that they too are in a fog. I wanted to be sympathetic to this analogy and usually I probably would be, but the challenge came in that his catalyst for this observation revolved around two specific groups in religion that I naturally gravitate toward appreciating a great deal. One was George Whitefield. Franklin had a much more complex relationship with Whitefield than most historians (including me when I taught my Whitefield class) let on. The other was the Quakers. I grew up as a Quaker and still largely (especially lately) consider myself a Quaker at heart. Franklin, on account of some of his more hawkish tendancies, had great misgivings toward the Quakers. I felt that he stopped just shy of mocking them in his narrative and at that Franklin and I parted ways.

One of the aspects of Franklin's well known public life that he does cover in the text is his introduction of many public services into the colonies. He really did provide us with a great legacy of public libraries, fire departments, largely the postal service, and public schools. He does give fairly good detail on the establishment of each of these institutions and they make for riveting reading.

In spite of the unexpected direction and the unfulfilled desire to hear his firsthand account of later, more famous events in his life (if only he'd lived another year or so... Although knowing him he would most likely have filled that extra year engaged in more pressing activities as well), I think I come away from this book challenged, with great jewels of wisdom, and with a good deal to think about. It is, indeed, a great work of literature although it might not be the great work of literature you're expecting when you go into it.  

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