Sunday, November 20, 2011

A tribute to Benjamin Franklin

This post can in no way do justice to Benjamin Franklin the husband, the father, the grandfather, the scientist, the diplomat, the run-away teenager, the philosopher, the printer, the governor, the friend, the socialite, the writer, the slave owner, the Deist, the vegetarian, the political aide, the apprentice, the slave trader, the engineer, the rebel, the author of "Poor" Richard Saunder's almanac, the frequenter of prostitutes, the abolitionist, and last, but not least, Benjamin Franklin the American.

I think that Franklin is still the Soul of Our Age. In other words, I'm saying that the era of Franklin has not yet completely ended. In many ways, we are still following directly in his footsteps, such as 1) Conducting scientific inquiry directed both towards practical problems and towards interesting questions about why the world is the way it is. 2) Honoring the virtue of public service, both in the government and in volunteer organizations. 3) Upholding religious tolerance (freedom to be a Deist, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, etc...) 4) Preserving freedom of the individual not to be a slave, the right to vote, freedom of the press, etc...  5) Holding individuals responsible for actions that harm society.
6) Admiring public and private virtue...while never being able to completely achieve that virtue 7) Focus on virtue not vice, and assuming that vice can be corrected through education.

Though, the Era of Franklin has for many years being slowly eroding away. The virtue of hard work is no longer universally held by people in the US. The Era of Franklin partially eroded in the 1920's with the Gospel of Consumption. The gospel of economic consumption was a direct attack on Franklin's focus on productivity and thriftiness. The Era of Franklin partially eroded in the 1930's with the advent of the welfare state, which Franklin argued against even before Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations. The Era of Franklin again partially eroded in the 1940's with WWII and the Holocaust because here was definitive proof that there is evil in the world, and that evil can't be eradicated simply with education. And finally, the Era of Franklin partially eroded in the late 1960's and 1970's with the focus on individual happiness at the expense of hard work.

The question I have is: should we leave the Era of Franklin? Should we just leave it as an ornament on the Christmas Tree of Era's Past? (Like we do for the Eras of Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon) Or should we defend the Soul of Franklin as our own soul, defending it from attacks by modernism, post-modernism, socialism, communism,  existentialism, and deep ecology?
In my opinion, we should defend and continue the Era of Franklin because his philosophy of hard work, religious tolerance, individual freedom, social responsibility, and scientific inquiry are the foundations of any good philosophy of life. More so, it has been when we're started to deviate from Franklin's philosophy of life that we have run into major problems, like the great depression.

For those of you who aren't already quite familiar with Franklin's biography, I encourage you all to learn more about him by reading the book and/or listening to the audio series by H.W. Brands.  This biography is particularly rewarding because it does justice to Franklin by showing all aspects of his personality...not just the ones that fit into our childhood stories of Franklin the frugal old man.

In this post, I want to highlight both those aspects of Franklin that we honor and those aspects that make us cringe. When we step back and look at Franklin, he remains, in my opinion, the best example of what is an American.  (This isn't to say that there haven't been plenty of other American's that are exemplary, such as George Washington, Ale Lincoln, MLK Jr.,etc..., it's just that (other than George Washington, it's hard to find a persona in US History that is pretty much beloved by everybody and who did so much to create the world in which we live.) There have been famous politicians (FDR, JFK, Reagan), but each of these individuals are famous only for politics (it's not like we really enjoy watching Reagan's movies or ads for GE.) But where would we be today without: lightning rods, bi-focals, the fireplace, libraries, fire departments, the assistance from France in the war for independence, plus and minus electrical charges, the 13 virtues, or the land between the original American colonies and the Mississippi River (which he successfully negotiated into the treaty that ended the war for independence.)

Here are some of Franklin's qualities that we still admire greatly today:
1) Optimism:   Focus on the's not that there isn't evil in the world, it's just that focusing on evil doesn't do any good. He assumed that whatever evil is out there could be eradicated by educating people to do a better job of balancing short-term and long-term desires as well as balancing self-interest with the community's interest.
2) Scientific Curiosity:  Pursued a scientific career after having already created a printing business.
3) Willingness to sacrifice his life for American Independence: He risked his life to travel to France in the middle of winter when the British would have sentenced him to death had they captured his sailing vessel. Also, any one of the British spies that worked for Franklin while he was in Paris (trying to arrange for French assistance against the British) could have poisoned him or just shot him because he was a traitor and a rebel against the British crown.
4) Successful diplomat:  By winning over the French people (and eventually the crown), he was able to secure French assistance in the war (which is what eventually allowed George Washington to capture General Cornwallis's army at Yorktown in 1781.) Franklin also convinced many professional military officers to travel to America from Europe to help lead the American War. And of course, Franklin negotiated the end of the American War, in which the US was given the rights to the land between the original colonies and the Mississippi River

Here, on the other hand, are some of Franklin's qualities that many of us today do not admire:
1) Cheated on his fiance (and future wife), which resulted in a child out of wedlock
2) Frequented prostitutes while in London (even though he was dating somebody in the US), and had virtually no communication with his girlfriend (future wife...Sarah Reed) while he was in London (the first time)
3) Neglected his family throughout his life, including:
      a) Failing to get the smallpox vaccine for his son, who eventually died of smallpox
      b) Living in London apart from his wife for ~18 years
      c) Unwilling to forgive his son for staying loyal to Britain during the war
4) Owned slaves and even was a slave trader (though, he did become one of the first and most vocal of the abolitionists)

Benjamin Franklin was not perfect, but he did many things that we are forever in his debt. (Of which I've listed the major ones already)
In many ways, Andrew Carnegie was the epitome of Franklin's philosophy of life: hard work, frugality, and reinvesting profits back into the company. The question I have is: why are these two men not more universally regarded? Do some of us secretly think that they are naive? When I saw an Occupy Wall Street crowd marching down the street shouting, "F^&* the system. F%&^ the system.", all I could think to myself was, "Grow up."

We have real problems to solve and to solve these problems we need to work together. We've got to figure out how to grow our economy again because the goal of life is for life to expand and to grow. We need to get our economy growing again so that we can expand life both here on Earth, on the Moon, and on other planets. And I think that we need to focus more of our attention on those elements that Benjamin Franklin taught and exemplified:  hard work, frugality, religious tolerance, entrepreneurship, public service, scientific curiosity and engineering innovation. Our problems (whether they are energy or health or fiscal problems) can be solved. If we follow in Franklin's footsteps, we can solve our problems. But as Franklin himself found out when he tried to eliminate vice from his life; knowing the good doesn't mean that we will always do good. Doing good and solving our problems is not easy, in fact, it's really hard precisely because doing good sometimes means sticking your neck out to incrementally improve the system. It's always easier to ignore the system or to say "F*&^ the system."  It's a lot harder to incrementally improve the system because that means finding compromise and it also means that there might be people who will be negatively affected by the change, even if people on average gain from the changes you implement. We need more people to follow in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin so that we can continue to grow the Republic that he worked so hard to form.

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