Poor Richard, reflecting on the writings of Ben Franklin

We’re “doing” Ben Franklin in American Lit on Monday. This morning I sketched some outlines of the Enlightenment and Deism with which to set the stage for Franklin. We’re reading a section of his Autobiography which makes him a poster child for Enlightenment Humanism: self-educated, self-made, relying on his reason, and setting out on a rational project to accomplish moral perfection, acknowledging “the Deity” in his project, but laying aside any particular trappings of any particular religion. He asks aid for his project of perfection, but really, it’s up to him. As Poor Richard says in his Almanack (from which we’re also reading): “God helps those who help themselves.”

I remember covering some of Franklin’s Almanack proverbs in elementary school, copying them carefully onto the wide-ruled composition paper in my large, child-writing:

The cock crows in the morn to tell us when to rise,
And he who stays in bed will never be wise.
For early to bed, and early to rise,
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

This is not just Enlightenment Humanism, this is sturdy, practical Americanism. I’ve heard that Franklin suggested America adopt the turkey as its national bird, rather than the eagle. Because turkeys are practical and useful, and Franklin’s idea of America was all about pragmatism and industry: a keen-eyed and sharp-taloned military bird does not convey the appropriate idea.

Wild Turkey, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Though the eagle may have won — and I’m not sorry — as the representative of America, the settlers who steadily spread across the continent in the century following Franklin carried Franklin’s precepts with them, sometimes even quoting them as scripture-truth. They pursued ideals of industry, frugality, preferring fewer possessions, so long as they were their own, to wealth gained by debts or oppression. (There are exceptions; allow me to generalize.)

All this is good, and they achieved much by it. But moral perfection? The self-made poster-child’s Autobiography records his rigorous plan for perfection: thirteen essential virtues, to be pursued one at a time over a thirteen-week period; a chart on which to record daily failures in that particular virtue; the potential to repeat the course in virtue four times in a year; the eventual arrival, so Franklin hoped, at a habit of perfection. But here we find Franklin, in spite of his many accomplishments, not quite attaining this one. He confesses to falling “far short of it,” and, while he concludes it to have been worthwhile, remains “incorrigible” with regard to Order and predisposed to Pride. No longer reaching toward perfection, our Enlightenment model settles for good enough.

But is good enough really good enough? Even Poor Richard in his Almanack asserts that “Heaven” is “to the virtuous.” How much virtue is needed? How do you know that your enough virtue is enough virtue? Since perfection was the goal, will anything less than the goal be satisfactory? Here the deists’ rational readings of natural revelation fail them. They assert the universe to be governed by natural laws established by a deity, they find moral law to also be “natural,” but they have no answer for our continual failure to meet that moral law.

For that, the detached god of deism simply won’t do. For that, we need special revelation. For that, we need God-come-to-earth, God-with-us, Emmanuel. For that, we have Christ.

Which is why, in the end, while I appreciate Franklin, I do not agree with him.


©2013 by Stacy Nott

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