Well, I have finished reading through Vol. 1. Due to the fact that the first two readings were an autobiography and a journal, and the third was essentially a book of proverbs, I don’t have much in the way of analysis. However, I can give you my various criticisms and accolades concerning each, since as we all know, opinions can be formed on the shakiest of foundations.
Franklin’s autobiography is broken into four parts. Parts 1, 2, and 3 are broken up into large chronological chunks, and part 4 was written later but ties seamlessly to part 3. Ben Franklin began writing his autobiography well before the Revolutionary War. I assume that the reason he chose to do this was because, like Beethoven and so many other self-aware people throughout history, he realized that people would inevitably want to know about his life.
The first part was written to his son as a sort of letter, because I guess writing a letter about yourself and giving it to your kid is better than actually sitting down with them and telling them stories about yourself. That’s probably just me being picky, but still. In any case, he starts by talking about what a smart boy he was growing up, and how much he loved to read. Through his love of reading, he discovered an interest in writing, and improved his skill by studying Addison and Steele’s Spectator. Eventually, he started writing the “Silence Dogood” essays and finds some modest success in doing so, and eventually revealed himself to be the author. His brother, who employs Ben in his printing shop, is furious that Ben would be so vain as to accept such accolades, and worries that he will become over-proud. The rest of part 1 doesn’t do much for the reader unless you like inspirational stories about how Ben Franklin is the best at everything, including being the most humble (see more on this below.)
Part 2 contains two letters from friends, both of whom encourage Franklin to continue writing the autobiography, as they have read part 1 and enjoyed it immensely. After the letters, Franklin talks a bit about his plans to open a public library, and how it turned out to be a smashing success. However, before all that, he starts to go into what I think is probably the most interesting part of the autobiography, where he describes his budding interest in Deism and eventual creation of the famous Virtues, which is where I will start my real analysis (I don’t care much for part 3 or 4, as they are both much of the same, with a little interesting talk about the Revolution sprinkled in here and there, and besides, nobody wants to read a 10,000 word post on Franklin, since we still need to get to Woolman and Penn).
Franklin became a Deist around age 15 when he read some of Boyle’s Lectures, which were actually intended to refute Deism. They had the opposite effect on Franklin, and he found that the quoted arguments of the Deists held more water than the refutations. He decided eventually, however, that Deism, while potentially true, was not terribly useful as a doctrine, and chose to pursue virtue as “truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life,” and that “though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.” (pg. 56)
Franklin then went on to detail his plan for self-improvement, which as a general form is taken from Cicero, the Bible, Pythagoras, and Socrates, to name a few, but in my opinion, he was probably most heavily influenced by Aristotle’s notion of “telos.” His thirteen virtues were as follows (pg. 79-80):
His overall intention was to “acquire the habitude of all these virtues.” (pg. 80) That is, he was reasonable enough to know that he would not be able to address all his weak points at once, but that he would need to master one area at a time.
I am impressed with Franklin to some degree, and I think he deserves it. He was a very accomplished man. He was an inventor, a revolutionary, an author, a political genius, a humorist, and countless other things which we have no time or space to mention here. However, he fails to impress me in his futile quest for personal virtue. This list of virtues, while commendable, is ultimately unachievable because he is starting from a point of presumed weakness, which thus disqualifies him to recognize or define morality in any great way. Franklin could work on his futile quest for the rest of his life, but ultimately, the standard he uses to define success in his endeavor is just an imaginary, less sinfully afflicted version of himself, a sort of pious personal Übermensch.
Frankly, virtue is a hopeless solo endeavor. Even in the absence of an objective religious standard outside himself in each one of these areas, it would seem obvious that he should appoint someone whom he felt was qualified to assess him in his progress and give him honest feedback in regards to it. All morality is warped when determined by fallen men. Even slaveholders can convince themselves that their occupation is virtuous when it serves their own ends. Franklin fails to realize, or at worst, intentionally ignores, that human beings are inordinately selfish by mere nature alone, and that even the quest for personal virtue is essentially futile if said morality is obtained only to serve one’s own ends. When the quest for virtue becomes a mountain to be conquered, it can never contain the real spark that makes it truly good and useful – the simple key that virtue can only be found through humble submission to the standard that is Christ. Without that, you only have religion – self-betterment to achieve a personal feeling of righteousness.
That being said, I believe that if you want to read any more about Franklin, you ought to just read the autobiography yourself.
Now, let us move on to Woolman. I really enjoyed reading this. I was struck with two observations as I read:
- Woolman was a truly, legitimately humble man. He speaks very little about himself at all, for a journal. He may be the single most important reason that the Quakers spoke out faithfully against slavery a hundred years before it was abolished (when during his lifetime it was not uncommon for Quakers to own slaves), and yet he preferred to proclaim the glories of God and the wonder of the Gospel than to trouble himself with trifling about his personal accomplishments, which were considerable.
- Woolman could have easily been a Franklin under different circumstances.
Let’s start from point 1. Woolman struggled greatly with personal sin throughout his life, and detailed it in his journal with a great degree of sincerity. He was very self-aware, and agonized over personal virtue, eventually coming to the conclusion that the Gospel of Christ was not primarily about perfecting the individual, but rather redeeming humanity to Himself. Therefore, he sought to publicize the plight of the marginalized and establish their personhood, hoping to bring them to the saving knowledge of Christ and do his part in bearing the burden of the Gospel. The most prominent beneficiaries of John Woolman’s work were slaves, particularly among the Quakers. Self-betterment only ever comes up in Woolman’s journal as a faulty idea attempted by foolish people who cannot recognize their own frailty without God.
Concerning my second point, Woolman and Franklin had a lot of similarities in their raw human makeup. Both were exceedingly persuasive, genteel, given to high standards personal excellence, ethical, and methodical. However, while Franklin chose a more idealistic path of self-improvement in order to address his moral failings, Woolman chose to place himself under the Gospel. This, it appears, made all the difference, both in terms of virtue and of life direction.
Woolman was certainly no William Wallace. He was not built to be a violent revolutionary, pillaging the remains of a corrupt society and recapturing it for God’s glory in a sort of spiritual crusade. However, he was the undisputed leader of a lifelong revolution, from one congregation to another, from one job to another, and is, as I said before, he was probably the most important factor in the Quaker rejection of slavery simply due to his dedication in pleading with people to recognize the human beings beside them as fellow tzelem elohim. Woolman truly believed of all human life, no matter how low, that “these are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct towards them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons… the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.” (pg. 207)
John Woolman provides us with an excellent example of nonviolent change on a large scale in a relatively short amount of time. He appealed to his brethren on behalf of their slaves and convinced them to change their minds, which is hard enough, but then to change their conduct and way of life, something which is much harder to do. He never so much as had a shouting match with anyone as far as I can tell, and yet something in his nature and passion appealed to Man’s better nature and persuaded him to change his conduct in an altogether altruistic way. I believe that Woolman’s appeal to the plight of the enslaved would have been utterly vain without his steadfast belief that “(He) alone is able to turn the hearts of the mighty, and make way for the spreading of truth on the earth, by means agreeable to His infinite wisdom.” (pg. 208)
I am greatly pained to skip past all the other wonderful topics that Woolman explores in his journal, such as the pursuit of profit, pacifism, humanism, consumerism, and general social justice. I would love to pick apart his hamartiological arguments and compare them to those of St. Augustine, etc. However, speed is the name of the game, and we must move along.
Finally, we come to Penn’s Fruits of Solitude. First, you need to know that this is NOT the William Penn you are thinking of. (These are not the droids you’re looking for…) This is his son, also named William Penn. He was a devout Quaker, and wrote a number of short verses during life, including his multiple imprisonments. He is an interesting combination of Franklin and Woolman in style and form, making heavy use of Franklinian pith and wit to create memorable, quippy sayings, but drawing on a Woolman-like mystical spirituality. It is ultimately useless to analyze these sayings, as they are meant to stand alone or in short groups, but I will close with a few of my favorites:
329. “Government has many Shapes: But ‘t is Sovereignty, tho’ not Freedom, in all of them.” (pg. 350)
337. “Let the People think they Govern and they will be Govern’d.” (pg. 350)
254. “A Man like a Watch, is to be valued for his Goings.” (pg. 345)
On Country Life:
221. “As Puppets are to Men, and Babies (dolls) to Children, so is Man’s Workmanship to God’s: We are the Picture, he the Reality.” (pg. 342)
26. “In his Prayers he says, Thy Will be done: But means his own: At least acts so.” (pg. 325)
NEXT WEEK: Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
The Apology, Phaedo, and Crito, by Plato
The Golden Sayings by Epictetus
The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius