Benjamin franklin (Part 1)

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The transition from Edwards to Franklin is a striking but instructive one for us to make. Though products of essentially the same New England, Puritan background, these at first seem radically different thinkers. All of Edwards' emphasis was placed on the divine world, the life of the spirit, and the function of the individual in glorifying God. All of Franklin's emphasis was on this world, on a life defined by middle-class American values, and the function of the individual in serving mankind.

Consider, though, what they also shared. To Franklin, as for Edwards, writing should be simple, direct, and without aristocratic pretense; it should be for ordinary men and women. Writing is not, in short, an end in itself, but a work done in the service of something greater--whether God or mankind. Both had been influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Newton and Locke, but where Edwards strove to ameliorate the effects of the new rationalism by putting it in the service of Puritan theology, Franklin embraced Enlightenment thought. His theology, such as it was, remained "deistic." This means that he conceived of God as a necessary cause; a creative force that had designed the cosmos and set it in motion according to rational laws, but, having done so, had withdrawn from human affairs. To Franklin, this deity was no longer a present, providential force in one's daily life, but a distant and detached fact. His Autobiography would publicly disavow his statements of deistic belief, which occasioned a bit of controversy when he was a young man of just 22 years, in 1728; but it's clear that privately Franklin never swerved from those beliefs. Certainly his deity was no longer the angry and punishing God of Edwards' 1741 sermon.

In his "Personal Narrative," Jonathan Edwards describes how, as a boy, he set up a small religious shrine deep in the woods and went there to imitate the church services that he himself would eventually lead. By contrast, Franklin describes how, as a boy, he had stolen some stones in order to set up a kind of fishing pier for his friends' use; the effort was a punishable mistake, but it foreshadowed--Franklin implies--the public works projects that he would eventually guide. In such moments the difference between Edwards and Franklin becomes quite clear.

Yet Franklin's debts to the Puritan culture that bore him were enormous. Most of all, his proclivity for the self-examined life, lived in daily evaluation of its achievements and faults, owes much to Puritan ethics. Still, the change in Franklin was of extraordinary importance, and it symbolizes the end of Puritan dominance and the rise of a rationalist thought which would define the new Republic, in the writings of Paine, Jefferson, Madison, and others. Franklin's great project was to find the middle-path, or via media between the extremities of daily life. This spirit of compromise, of reasoned evaluation and mediation, would define late-18th century American culture.

Writing Assignment

  1. Read Franklin's 1757 text, "The Way to Wealth." Then, select any three of Poor Richard's maxims, and write "imitations" of them; that is, "plug in" your own words at the appropriate points. Example: for "He that hath a trade, hath an estate," one could write, "She that hath a husband, hath a curse." (Incidentally, this is a time-honored way of learning, one Franklin himself had used, as you'll see in his Autobiography.)

  2. Note how Franklin frames "The Way to Wealth." It opens upon Poor Richard, eavesdropping on a village elder, called Father Abraham, who has been asked a question involved with civic matters: "Won't these taxes quite ruin the country?" (page 493). But does Father Abraham provide a direct answer to that question? Indeed, does he even speak of civic matters at all? Endlessly quoting Poor Richard, Father Abraham addresses what sphere of human activity? Why? Does he persuade the people? Answer and discuss these questions, in several paragraphs.

  3. How would a Puritan like Anne Bradstreet or Jonathan Edwards respond to Father Abraham's discourse on personal wealth?

  4. Read Franklin's 1784 essay on Native American customs, and write a list of four or five sentences that summarize those qualities of native Americans which Franklin most admires.

  5. What reasons does Franklin give to his son, William, for writing the Autobiography?

  6. Franklin says (on page 525) that he was "the youngest Son of the youngest Son for 5 Generations back." How does this, in context with other genealogical facts, have meaning for readers in a young democracy?

  7. Why does Franklin wind up working for his brother, the printer; and what reasons does he give for quitting and leaving his family for Philadelphia?

  8. Summarize Franklin's arrangements with Governor Keith, and the true facts behind them, as Franklin comes to understand the case, on arriving in England.

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