Virtues of Ben Franklin

Over the Thanksgiving holidays, I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin for the first time. He began it in 1771 during a rare break in his hectic life as a letter to his son, encouraged by the pleasure he derived from little stories of his own ancestors and the feeling that, having done all right in his life, he should pass on some anecdotes of his own. Thus the entire first part of his memoir is quite informal and personal. He realizes that he is “indulg[ing] the Inclination so natural in old Men, to be talking of themselves and their own past Actions…” but by doing so in writing that we, the audience, have the ability to read or not as we please.

If he lived now, Franklin would probably be running some Lifehacking site. He had a mania for self-improvement. And if something worked for him, he was excited to pass it on. Most of what the casual reader knows of Franklin is from his casual aphorisms, written for an audience that today laps up “One Weird Trick” link bait or listicles which promise that “Number 4 will make your jaw drop.”

What distinguishes Franklin is that he actually goes out and accomplishes stuff. In fact, the reason he dislikes going to church is that the preachers are always exhorting people to be good without giving them any specific instruction in how to…”their Aim seeming to be rather to make us Presyterians than good Citizens.”

Being a good citizen, working for the public good was extremely important to Franklin. He was always coming up with some scheme, and then convincing others to pitch in both seeking funding in private subscriptions and public taxes. Street sweeping. Night watchmen. Lending libraries. Hospitals for the poor. Orphanages. Universities. He had a hand in founding all of these. He believed “the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man”.

He had an engineering mindset in that he could not observe something (a social situation or a technical problem) without wondering what he could do to make it better. More efficient street lamps and stoves. Invented. Bifocals. Invented. Lightning rods to help prevent fires. Invented.

Franklin had three years of grammar school and when he was ten, his father determined that he could not afford to educate him further. So Franklin educated himself by reading every book he could get his hands on. He preferred to spend his one day of rest studying rather than in church. Today he might be one of those people who says he is spiritual but not religious; of his own religion, Presbyterianism, he found some of the dogmas “unintelligible, others doubtful” and he felt the essentials of the varying religions to be more or less the same but to varying degrees “…mix’d with other Articles without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another.”

So Franklin decides to come up with his own lifehack to moral improvement. After reading numerous philosophers, he comes up with his own list of virtues and creates a moral “Fitbit” to track how well he exercises them.

He’s perfectly cognizant that not only is perfection unachievable but were it achievable it would make you a boring prig among your friends. However, he says, it’s the trying that makes you a better person. The consciousness of one’s actions. The application of human will. Dare we say it: mindfulness.

Franklin doesn’t intend for you to follow his set of virtues. You are supposed to come up with your own. Sort of like New Year’s resolutions…except that Franklin’s virtues were a lifelong ideal and he was better at sticking to the effort at cultivating them than most of us.

I’ve adopted three as my own: Order (a place or time for everything), Industriousness, and Resolution. I find Resolution the most difficult: Resolve to perform what you ought; Perform without fail what you resolve. I tend to shirk unpleasant duties, to procrastinate (often by busying myself with trivial things), and to rationalize my faults.

I’m glad you put me onto this book. It was mentioned once in a Hitchens article, but slipped off my reading list as a consequence of Hitchen’s stronger and more persistent recommendations to read Tom Paine, and about him.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-11-30 19:41:54-0500

+Peter Strempel I meant to ask you privately more about Utilitarianism, as Franklin seems to have a somewhat practical bent of mind. I looked it up myself and the consensus seems to be that he doesn’t fit neatly into any camp. Indeed, he hated ideology.

Apparently because of his thrifty, industrious self-help guides, he’s even been adopted by Randian capitalists. I think they really miss the point of him. Franklin was never about making money for money’s sake. It was always about having the freedom to devote himself to greater tasks, which was about doing things for the greater good.

He might be to ascetic for you. However, even when he spoke of temperance, he wasn’t telling anyone not to drink or have sex. Just not to do engage in activity that causes harm to yourself or others, either physically or by reputation.

Yeah. I was wowed by Franklin…not so much by his writing but by his accomplishments. Our schoolbook histories makes all these guys seem like old fuddy-duddies. But, they really were builders and makers.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-11-30 20:00:09-0500 – Updated: 2015-11-30 20:00:23-0500

The autobiography has only piqued my curiosity, not satisfied it. Here’s a great tidbit on Franklin from Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.

The vast bulk of Franklin’s writing, and especially of his political pieces, is sober, stirring, and grave, as the occasion, and the times, all too often demanded. But he was also a sucker for a good joke, or, really, even a lousy one. He loved hoaxes and counterfeits and had the sort of fondness for puns that, if he hadn’t been so charming, would have been called a weakness. As it was, his enemies damned his “trivial mirth.” John Adams, who resented him, conceded, “He had wit at will,” and “talents for irony, allegory, and fable,” but characterized his humor as “infantine simplicity.” Franklin’s best satires are relentlessly scathing social and political commentary attacking tyranny, injustice, ignorance, and, at the end of his life, slavery. Yet reading his letters you get the sense that he couldn’t always govern his wit, as when, striving to collect himself, he began a new paragraph, “But to be serious.”

Peter Strempel – 2015-11-30 20:10:23-0500

+M Sinclair Stevens
Traditional utilitarianism was a reductionist, determinist philosophy based on the principle of doing only what maximises benefits to the greatest possible number of people. Its high priest was JS Mill’s private tutor, Jeremy Bentham, whose most useful work today is possibly his exposition of animal husbandry.

Jeremy Bentham was an ur-fascist if we accept a central characteristic of fascism to be the subjugation of every aspect of life, public and private, to the dictates of the anointed/the fascist state. He was certainly an unlikeable man, and is symbolised for me by his invention of the Panopticon – the first mass surveillance device for solely autocratic, punitive, malevolent purposes.

It is thanks to Mill’s eventual revulsion for this autocratic conception that we have his words in On Liberty, and other foundational ‘liberal’ tracts.

The problem with the original conception of utilitarianism, which predates Bentham as a less rigid theme in other thinkers (for example, Voltaire in Candide), is that in its full expression it begs the question who will determine what the greatest possible benefit is in an unequal society, and how the greatest possible number of people is determined at a time in which slavery was still legal, and women were denied the franchise.

Later conceptions of utilitarianism focus less on the reductionism of ‘greatest possible’, or the determinism of ‘maximising’ anything. Instead these more modern forms examine the benefits or ‘utility’ of an approach or solution. I see the focus being more about fitness of purpose and paring away of form that adds little to function. I would see Franklin probably more closely aligned with such a later definition, and perhaps even as an exemplar on which more pragmatic conceptions of utilitarianism were based.

There is a strong link between utilitarianism and communist or socialist systems. The principle becomes about utility of resource allocation, sacrificing choice, preferences, and sometimes ancillary concerns like environmental care, sustainability, or quality of product. Consider, for example, the Soviet Russian approach to manufacturing shoes: all style and considerable comfort is surrendered to the purpose of covering feet and preventing frostbite. Unfortunately this also entailed an increasing shoddiness of manufacture (quality) and supply itself (imbalance between demand and supply).

Perhaps the best examples of humane utilitarianism are the foudnations of Scandinavian social democracy, examining as they did the purpose of state supplied services, and attempting to make them fit for purpose rather than as cheap as possible, or as profitable as possible. Another great example was the fledgling Israel, which was a commune of sorts, in which everyone pitched in to build and maintain those things most urgently needed by the community within the constraints of available resources. The Israelis were an astonishingly inventive, hard-working, persistent people. But I suspect there wasn’t really much freedom in that early struggle to not be annihilated by their enemies all around, and an unforgiving landscape.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-11-30 20:22:05-0500

+Peter Strempel Thanks. Nice to have it in writing as I’m sure I’d get it muddled if I was trying to recall a conversation.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-11-30 20:41:57-0500

The Lepore article has another quote which I think gets to the core of Franklin as I understood him (via my first introduction). He was writing parody under pseudonym and people took that character as the real deal…in the same way as some people take Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” character seriously.

By the time Twain was writing, in 1870, Benjamin Franklin had turned into Father Abraham in the American imagination…The joke fell flat. The parody within the sham became the man. Of the nineteenth-century’s frugal, prudent, sober, homey, quaint, sexless, humorless, preachy Benjamin Franklin—loved (by Dale Carnegie), hated (by D. H. Lawrence), and held up (by Max Weber) as the original American Puritan striver, the prophet of prosperity—Twain wrote, “He was a hard lot.”

Until Carl Van Doren’s 1938 biography, Franklin was hostage to this narrow view of his character. Valiantly, Van Doren vowed “to rescue him from the dry, prim people who have claimed him as one of them.” He wrote, “They praise his thrift. But he himself admitted that he could never learn frugality, and he practised it no longer than his poverty forced him to. They praise his prudence. But at seventy he became a leader of a revolution.” Van Doren, who had earlier written a biography of Swift, couldn’t have tried harder to free Franklin from the shackles that bound him. “The dry, prim people seem to regard him as a treasure shut up in a savings bank, to which they have the lawful key. I herewith give him back, in his grand dimensions, to his nation and the world.”

Bad biographies make small men great; Franklin’s biographers have had the opposite problem. It’s difficult to fit Franklin between the covers of a book. His contributions to statesmanship, science, philanthropy, and literature were unrivalled both in his time and in ours.

Peter Strempel – 2015-11-30 20:46:01-0500

A Nietzschean Uebermensch! With humour (a quality conspicuously absent in Nietzsche).

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-12-31 16:46:51-0500

+Peter Strempel Putting books back on the shelf to clean up the year, I turned to the last page in Richard Reeves biography of John Stuart Mill.

“Mills legacy rests not only in the power of his thought, however, but also in the inspiring conduct of his life—the finest example of thought in action of the last two centuries.”

“Oh!” I think. “Just like Franklin.”
Reeves continues,

“He is unquestionably the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain—and perhaps even the world. One of his rivals for the global title, Benjamin Franklin (who Mill, unsurprisingly, greatly admired), gave some advice to anyone who wished to be remembered: ‘Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.’ Mill is among the very few who managed both.”

Which is exactly what the New Yorker article said about Franklin.

I like that we’re each inspired by this kind of man.

Peter Strempel – 2015-12-31 17:00:40-0500

+M Sinclair StevensLooking at this way, I wonder whether Mill aspired to be remembered when he broke with Bentham and utilitarianism …

M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-12-31 17:54:00-0500

+Peter Strempel Interesting that you ask that because in the paragraphs on the penultimate page Reeves says this. “John Morely reflected that Mill’s ‘true ambition…was to affect the course of events in his time by affecting the course of thought.’* In fact, Mill came to believe that much of his writing would have more value in the future than in his own time. He was right. It is hard to think of a point in our history where his words could be more useful, more needed, than today.”
* John Morely, ‘John Stuart Mill: an anniversary’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 May 1906 p. 174.

Peter Strempel – 2015-12-31 18:56:51-0500 – Updated: 2016-01-01 02:44:13-0500

+M Sinclair Stevens, Maybe he thought utilitarianism would be a great blight on the spirit of humanity. I wonder whether he could have imagined it to be so in the guise of the techno-scientific rationality that leads so many people to banal, binary thinking.