Dear Lily June,
Remember way back when I made you learn a little about F. Scott Fitzgerald? I made the
threat promise then that I’d occasionally teach you a little bit about literature. The bad news is this: I’m coming through on that torture gift today by throwing a little Benjamin Franklin at you (the only “Benjamins” I can afford to throw at you).
The good news is this: Once upon a time, when I was in training to become a teacher, I was given some pretty solid advice: Never assign something to your students you wouldn’t be willing to do/write yourself. I promptly ignored that advice, because ain’t no teacher got time to be writing her own essay assignments.
But now, as penance to my students of yore, I’m going to do what I assigned years ago. I’m going to
endure enjoy a Franklinian lifestyle every Friday for the next thirteen weeks (or roughly until I get bored of the experiment and give it up–something I believe my students called laziness “the old college try.”)
Don’t know what I’m talking about with a Franklinian lifestyle? (This little girl does.) Then it’s time, little Lily, to get to reading, this time an excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Part II. Here’s a note, though, on how to read it: Franklin’s using some pretty outmoded language here (habitude? posterity? artifice? Speak American, Benny Frankie). Also, he’s confused “sentence” with “entire freakin’ paragraph” so following him through a long succession of semicolons and subordinate clauses can be tedious.You have to forgive him; it was 1784 and there were no character limits other than hand cramps for those willin’ to quill it.
So to get through it, I’ll give you the
scholarly terrible advice I used to give to my students who had to read texts written before text messaging. Let whatever you don’t understand “flow through you.” It’s not about understanding every word, every time. Attempt to read it for the broad strokes, to get at the bigger picture. Mark the finer points you don’t get and come back to those (ha! Students reread as often as unicorns wink.) Don’t get bogged down in places where you get tripped up, or you can’t plow through to the end. And sometimes, just crossing the finish line gives you perspective on the journey that got you there. (Hooray for mixed metaphors!)
Okay. It’s Franklin Friday. Read it here. Read it now.
Some Things to Know about Franklin
He was born the tenth of fifteen children to candlemaker Josiah Franklin. In fact, his dad was such a proud and yet poor Protestant, he tried to “donate” Benjamin Franklin to the Church as a tithe–offering him up to the Boston Grammar School to become an eventual member of the ministry. Franklin hated it. (See, Lily? Nobody’s parents “get” them.)
Then, Josiah forced Benjamin to work in his candle shop. Franklin hated that, too, and threatened to run away to sea. (Do not, Lily, run away to sea.) So Franklin’s dad apprenticed Benjamin to his brother’s print shop. Finally, Franklin actually liked it.
He liked it so well, in fact, that he ended up stealing his brother’s business out from under him. His brother was in prison at the time for printing what Massachussetts officials though was “incendiary” material. When his brother busted out of the joint (i.e. was released in 1723), he & Franklin fought, Franklin didn’t like it, and he ran away to Philadelphia. (Do NOT, Lily, run away to Philadelphia.)
Franklin then knocked about in England for a bit (long story short; he was sent there to get print shop materials by a Pennsylvania governor who promised to front the money, then didn’t) before finally returning to Philly where he was
chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool finally able to set up his own print shop by incurring some temporary debts.
From then on, Franklin becomes
a bit of a badass the prototypical American self-made hero. He teaches himself Latin, Italian, Spanish and French, but is still saavy enough to dress down and push his own paper through the Philly streets on a wheelbarrow because he knows people don’t want to do business with someone smarter than them.
By 24, dude not only owns his shop outright (all debts repaid), he’s also the editor and publisher of The Philadelphia Gazette, one of the most important newspapers in the country at the time. Take that age and reverse it, and by 42, he’d founded the first subscription library (called a “junto”), invented a stove, and established a fire company (maybe to put out the books he left burning on that stove).
Fast forward montage: He spent his last forty years “retired” like Oprah. During that time, he became a diplomat, a revolutionary, pulled his lightning rod stunt (which others had done before but many were electrocuted for their efforts), served in the second Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, signed the Treaty of Paris (bringing the Revolutionary War to an end), and when he died in 1790, 20,000 people attended his funeral.
20,000 people, Lily. Consider that. We live in a world where your complete hermit of a mother has roughly 1,000 followers to these letters I write you, and at least half of those are businesses trying to up their own numbers. And I’m using the internet to
con those suckers into reading reach that many human beings on a regular basis. Ben Franklin used to walk around talking to people with a wheelbarrow full of the papers he printed.
20,000 people. Clearly, this is a guy who had his sh*t together. Clearly, this is a guy who accomplished some great things. Clearly, this is a guy to be emulated. A bit.
Some Things We’d Rather Not Know About Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was a kind of a womanizing jerk. Though there’s no historical evidence substantiating the claim that he had syphilis, historians do know that he had a number of consummated and unconsummated affairs with other women. In fact, despite his claim earlier in Part II of his autobiography that he lived by the English Proverb
“He that would thrive / Must ask his Wife” (524),
it’s unlikely that he asked permission of his missus, Deborah Read, before fathering an illegitimate child, William, with one of his affairs. He did, however, have the gall to ask her to raise that child which she, for reasons unknown, did.
And he wasn’t all that great a father, either. In fact, though Part I of The Autobiography (which mostly just traces the details I gave you above) was devoted to that son, who became governor of New Jersey, by Part II, they weren’t on speaking terms because Benjamin was Revolutionary attempting to fight for American independence and William was a Loyalist, supporting British rule of the Colonies. (Lily, I could love you even if you, for some crazy reason, fought to give America back to England. But don’t, okay? I don’t think they want us anymore!)
Franklin’s Ethical/Moral Beliefs
So when you’re reading his work about morality, as in Part II, you have to take what he says with a pound of salt. And you have to know his beliefs on ethics: Franklin believed that human flaws weren’t sins (a religious concept) but errata, a term printers use to refer to a list of errors in a text. With enough careful editing, one could correct, but not necessarily prevent, these errors. Unfortunately, he was born before the invention of WiteOut.
His views on religion overall, in fact, were complicated. Earlier in Part II (before the excerpted pdf above begins), he writes this of his experiences with religion:
“I had been educated as a Presbyterian, and tho’ some of the Dogmas of that Persuasion…appeared to me to be unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the Public Assemblies of the Sect, Sunday being my Studying-Day, I never was without some religious Principles; I never doubted, for instance, the Existence of the Deity, that he made the World, and govern’d it…; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that our Souls are immortal; and that all Crime will be punished and Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteem’d the Essentials of every Religion, and being to be found in all the Religions we had in our Country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix’d with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another.” (533)
In other words, if he lived today, Benjamin Franklin might describe himself as agnostic. Or as “spiritual” but “not religious.” Some would call him a deist, the kind of guy who believes that God, like a Divine watchmaker, builds humanity like a watch but then allows it to tick by its own devices, not intervening immediately in moral affairs.
Unlike the founding Puritans of America, Franklin’s philosophies also more closely resemble humanism, the ethical perspective that emphasizes the value, rational thoughts and actions of human beings over the dogmatic principles of faith.
It’s up to you, Lily, whether that kind of approach rocks your particular moral boat, but the thirteen virtues he puts into practice show an extraordinary devotion to personal action for individual improvement. He treated his own mind as his church and he was, for better or worse, a worshiping disciple.
Okay, so the Virtues Already? And that Assignment?
In case you skipped the reading assignment from your mother (boo! hiss! Go to the corner and think about what you’ve done!), here are those 13 virtues Franklin attempted to organize his life around:
- Temperance. Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., Waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak; speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or Accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (526-527 in Norton; 1-2 in pdf)
The way Franklin enacted these virtues across his rigidly structured day (see pages 4-5 in that pdf) was to take on one a week, for thirteen weeks, trying to add a new one to each successive week, so that his newly acquired good habits would build upon each other. He would track all failings of virtue on a chart (see page 3) to see how he was improving overall, marking, but not worrying about, those virtues he hadn’t gotten to yet. It would take thirteen weeks to run a course of these, and he could “renew” the process four times a year, taking on again those virtues which troubled him most (according to him, especially Order and Humility).
I assigned it a little differently, making my students only live through a single Franklinian week to see what they could do. (And, for obvious reasons, I cut chastity, because I neither wanted nor needed to know about my students’ sex lives.) But I never–not once–tried this myself, so this is the challenge your mother will take on to let you know if Franklin really did unlock the secret to successful living. I’m going to, every Friday (or, again, until I give up entirely, preferring, as is Franklin’s metaphor, “a speckled axe best”), post some kind of an update on what the impact is. Maybe I’ll even show you my charts.
I’m also going to go one further and try to adopt his schedule, waking at 5 am and going to bed by 10pm. I’ll start each day by asking,
“What Good shall I do this Day?”
and go to bed pondering,
“What Good have I done [today]?” (531)
Considering that it’s the Christmas season, I could definitely do with a little more Moderation and a lot more Good. But hopefully, this experiment will teach your fairly unreligious, maybe agnostic, maybe deistic, maybe humanistic mother a little bit about how to be a better person. If not, I’ll at least fail in a “revolutionary” way. (Pun intended). It should be, (I hope, I hope) if nothing else, a source of entertainment to you in your literate years.
And maybe, just maybe, like Franklin, I’ll find myself in a moral paradox (a paradox being a compound statement where, if one part of it is true, the other can’t be). Franklin claims, ultimately, that even if he should overcome his Pride, he would be “proud of [his] humility” (534).
Questions to Consider (for Lily or anyone else who might read this)
- A lot has changed since 1784. What virtues might give people the most trouble now?
- If the list were “modernized” (either in its virtues or their definitions), how might it read today?
- What virtues give YOU the most trouble? How could you try to improve on those aspects of your life?
- “Benjamin Franklin – Join or Die” by Benjamin Franklin – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g05315. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die.jpg#/media/File:Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die.jpg
- “Franklin1877”. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Franklin1877.jpg#/media/File:Franklin1877.jpg
- “Wite-Out 123” by Ashton Zanecki – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wite-Out_123.PNG#/media/File:Wite-Out_123.PNG
- “Dr Martens, black, old” by No machine-readable author provided. Tarquin~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr_Martens,_black,_old.jpg#/media/File:Dr_Martens,_black,_old.jpg
- Franklin, Benjamin. “From The Autobiography.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. A. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 522-534. Print.