“Alleged virtues”

This afternoon “All Thing Considered” did a pleasant, affectionate & informative segment on Benjamin Franklin; tomorrow is his three hundredth birthday. His breadth & wit make him a great subject. What struck me, however, was the underlying assumption that irony & wit & a sense of his own fallibility meant that he wasn’t serious about self-improvement. He doesn’t take himself seriously, he doesn’t think with pride that he has or ever will reach “perfection”: this is not just his charm but his common sense. But we can laugh at what we still hold seriously. This paradox seemed lost. D. H. Lawrence is a fool as well as completely lacking a sense of humor. However, Joel Rose simplifies in another direction when he describes Poor Richard’s moralistic aphorisms on (in Rose’s words) “temperance” and “frugality” as “alleged” virtues, I doubt Franklin would have agreed.

Rose speaks to the critic Michael Zuckerman, who quite rightly notes that Franklin was “spoofing himself.” Then he goes on to say that, “knowing that no one could live up to it,” Poor Richard spouted “just didactic bombast.” Of course, this is true in one sense; but, in another, Franklin clearly saw these as useful goals for those who also valued pragmatic & independent & useful lives. Zuckerman simplifies irony — and how such men saw perfectability. Franklin’s position is complicated & quite human; sure these goals should not be pursued intemperately, but they remain goals. Failing is not sinning; but, well, it is best to try to succeed.

Franklin is admired because he is the “lapsed” founding father—flirtatious, sensual. Well, yes. He does seem like excellent company. And he certainly had no time for the Calvinist obsession with theology. It is hard to consider him (as he was) a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards. But he valued virtue. He believed not in the theology of the Bible but in the ethics of the Judao-Christian tradition, as he tells us often. He believed not in sin but in errata. As a good printer, he would aim at the impossible goal of a perfect work; as a human printer, he realized that fewer errata were what he’d get. That fewer, however, was better than more. Accepting that, Franklin keeps acting to improve the world around him: in the big ways – getting France on America’s side – and the more mundane ones – the lending library & volunteer fire department. And keeps laughing – at himself and with us – with genial good humor.

This is the American & in some ways the British Enlightenment Gertrude Himmelfarb so nicely describes. But, of course, any one reading Franklin closely sees level on level.

Personal Aside:
Perhaps this not so great and certainly not so terrible little segment caught my interest because of a personal juxtaposition. As our trip through the sixties (thanks to Netflix) continues, we watched Blow Up this weekend. That seems, while wonderfully artful, much more dated than Franklin–our vision closer to his than Antonioni’s. We bloggers & commentors may not always be practical or even sensible, but we assume truth is knowable – if with considerable difficulty. Ours is not the world of the dessicated twentieth century voyeur, caught & unable to act because of intense self-consciousness; we seem more like the eighteenth century, quite self-conscious and ironical, valuing action & purpose. Sometimes, of course, we get both wrong. Still, I wouldn’t exchange this for the life of the sixties. I suspect the only people who want to relive those years were too stoned then to be able to remember them now.

Another Note: Edmund Morgan, that venerable old Americanist, published a warm & thoughtful biography of Franklin a couple of years ago. It emphasizes the role that “ethics” and “doing good to others” played in Franklin’s vision while relishing his irony, good humor & passion.

3 thoughts on ““Alleged virtues””

  1. I’ve been raising this question on several blogs, hoping someone has an answer. Anyone know about the theory that Franklin was a Tory double-agent, secretly employed by the British Crown? Sounds weird, I know, and doesn’t square with Franklin’s Herculean labors to secure the crucial alliance with France; but rather than dismiss it out of hand, I’m wondering what the evidence and counter-evidence is. Murray Rothbard raised the question in his four-volume history of Colonial and Revolutionary America, CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY, which unfortunately I’ve read only in part. Rothbard references some historian who came up with the Tory-spy theory, and ever since I became aware of it, I’ve been skimming through the various Franklin biographies that have come out in the past few years (seems like two a year to me) to see if any of them take up this issue, even if to refute it. So far, nothing. Rothbard, by the way, is pretty disparaging about Franklin, portraying him as a kind of Colonial Peter Keating. (You FOUNTAINHEAD fans will get the reference.)

  2. But didn’t Franklin completely break off his relationship with his own son over the American Revolution? He was for it; his sona gainst.

    Here’s some nasty commentary on Franklin. He does raise an important point about Franklin and slavery. I’ve never heard anyone discuss Franklin and slavery before. but slavery is always a topic when we look at other Founding Fathers.


  3. Franklin had slaves, took one to France with him. He later was president of his state’s anti-slavery society. He was not without faults (his autobiography notes his great “errata” of leaving his brother’s without working out the terms of the indenture, contracts which were designed so that an employer would teach a trade and be paid back with services. Of course, he was not perfect.

    The Romano piece to which lindenen links observes, “Indeed, a voyage through Franklin biographies suggests a near-natural law: The more commercial the project, the more celebratory the tone. The more academic the project, the more evenhanded the view.” That is, I’m sure, true. And, of course, the more even-handed is more accurate.

    But while seeing Franklin as a saint is absurd, and Romano (publishing in the Philadelphia Inquirer) may get far too much of this, I’m always a bit put off by judgments of people who have clearly done so much that was good by people applying modern standards of political correctness. If NPR thinks he’s neat because he carried on flirtations, Romano complains of his lack of “wholesomeness.” If Franklin wrote a devastating satire against slavery and made powerful arguments against it in his older years, he did own slaves in his middle ones. We probably need, as someone like Morgan does, to emphasize both. I suspect that fairness will not decrease our real admiration,if make it more complex.

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