Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

(The Harvard Classics, Volume I)
I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan; and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. (I.106)
A quote from the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”, to which he might have added: “…achieving success according to merit and regardless of the circumstances of his birth.” This is the great lesson of Franklin’s work, and core to its enduring popularity among Americans.

The American ethos is self-improvement, and it has been central to our individualist and immigrant culture since colonial times. Add the capitalist instinct and you have 300 years of hawking lectures, pamphlets, and books dedicated to the theme, including Franklin’s Autobiography and the packaging of the Harvard Classics themselves. “Self-help” yields 112,323 book results on Amazon, and many linear feet at your local Barnes & Noble are filled and refilled by the heirs of another of Franklin’s bestsellers, “The Way to Wealth”.

The Autobiography is clearly divisible into two sections. The first, dating from 1771, was intended as a memoir for his son alone. It describes Franklin's childhood, apprenticeships, and success in business, ending just after his marriage to Deborah Read in 1730. The work was left untouched for many years.

The latter half of the book, begun in Paris in 1784 and never finished, picks up the tale with Franklin an established leader of his community. This section was begun in a different spirit, with a wider readership in mind. He was convinced to return to the project by friends who had seen the original manuscript. One, Abel James, wrote: 

...what will the world say if Ben. Franklin should leave his friends and the world deprived of so pleasing and profitable a work...which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions? The influence writings have on that class of youth is very great...and almost insensibly leads [them] into the resolution of endeavoring to become as good and eminent as the journalist. (I.71)
Another, Benjamin Vaughn, goes further:
All that has happened to you is connected with the detail and manners of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar or Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature or society...
But these are small reasons compared with the chance your life will give for the forming of future great men... The work will give a noble rule and example of self-education. Your discovery that the means for a reasonable course in life is in many a man’s private power will be invaluable!
Your biography will not only teach self-education, but the education of a wise man; and the wisest man will improve his progress by seeing detailed the conduct of another wise man. (I.72-73)
Aside from the inspirational, Franklin’s particular self-help book happens also to have historical, philosophical, and literary value: as Vaughn suggests, it is an excellent firsthand account of conditions during colonial times; it includes meditations on the well-lived life; and it is notable for the quality and wit of its writing. The many facets of the work merit its inclusion in the Harvard Classics, but for its vivid example of the power of self-education, Dr. Eliot put Franklin up front: the Autobiography is the first selection of the first book of the set.

Franklin is one of the most famous self-educated, self-made men in our history. Born poor, through hard work and lifelong study he achieved wealth and fame as a writer, printer, scientist, diplomat, founding father, and philosopher. His Autobiography preaches by example the virtues of a strict work ethic, moderation, a proper outlook, and personal responsibility. But Franklin places considerable emphasis on community spirit as a balance to individual self-interest.

Franklin, Like Dr. Eliot, believed in the power of education. He used his reach as a publisher to influence and to contribute to the public discourse. 
In 1732, I first published my Almanack...I endeavoured to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand, that I reaped considerable profit from it: vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighbourhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces, that occurred between the remarkable days in the Calendar, with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly, as, to use here one of those proverbs, “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.” (I.106-107)
“Poor Richard's Almanack” was famously filled with maxims and proverbs—some borrowed, others original—for the edification of its readers. I bought a copy of the Almanack as a supplement to this reading. Most of his proverbs are timeless:

Regarding work… 
  • No gains without pains. 
  • Great talkers, little doers. 
  • Lost time is never found again. 
  • Well done is better than well said. 
  • Be always ashamed to catch yourself idle. 
  • Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him. 
  • Words may show a man’s wit, but actions show his meaning. 
  • He that would catch fish must venture his bait. 
  • Would you live with ease, do what you ought and not what you please. 
  • Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 
  • If you would not be forgotten when you are dead and rotten, either write things worth the reading or do things worth the writing.

Regarding education… 
  • The things which hurt, instruct. 
  • The wise and brave dares admit he was wrong. 
  • The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason. 
  • Where there is hunger, law is not regarded; and where law is not regarded, there will be hunger. 
  • Reading makes a full man. Meditation, a profound man. Discourse, a clear man. 
  • Tim was so learned, he could name a horse in nine languages. So ignorant, that he bought a cow to ride on. 
  • What signifies knowing the names, if you know not the natures of things? 

Regarding thrift… 
  • Pay what you owe, and you’ll know what is your own. 
  • Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. 
  • Drink water, put the money in your pocket, and leave the [hangover] in the punchbowl. 
  • For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost. 

Regarding vice and virtue… 
  • Prosperity discovers vice, and adversity, virtue. 
  • Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices. 
  • To be proud of your virtue is to poison yourself with the antidote. 
  • He that lieth down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas. 
  • He who thinks that money will do everything, may well be suspected of doing everything for money. 

And timeless humorous truths… 
  • Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. 
  • Fish and visitors stink after three days. 
  • A full belly makes a dull brain. 
  • If Jack’s in love, he’s no judge of Jill’s beauty. 
  • Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards. 
  • One good husband is worth two good wives; the scarcer things are, the more they are valued 
  • Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones; the difference is only in the price. 
  • People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages. 
  • He's gone, and forgot nothing but to say farewell to his creditors. 
  • Shame and the [hangover] were diseases of the last age; this [age] seems to be cured of them. 

Many of his adages were included in “The Way to Wealth.”  Franklin felt that success was within anyone’s reach, provided he applied himself diligently to the effort, and his definition of success was not wealth alone: 
"You will be more happy than princes, if you will be more virtuous,” wrote Poor Richard. We need only the right attitude, and just as importantly, the right expectations.

Franklin’s contributions weren’t limited to his publications, but in the Autobiography his many philanthropic works are merely touched upon: Philadelphia’s first fire department, the illumination and paving of its streets, his experiments with electricity, the efficient “Franklin” stove (which he chose not to patent, giving away the design), and the colonies’ first circulating library: 
The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries...” (I.88)
He felt that this “better instruction” added indirectly to the intellectual force behind the Revolution. This is one of the few foreshadows of that event. Another comes just before the Autobiography breaks off, upon his second visit to London, in 1757, as head of a delegation sent to petition the king. The proprietary colonial governors had exempted themselves from the collection of tax, against the will of the Pennsylvania assembly. Upon arriving at London he was told by one Lord Granville:
You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend that the king’s instructions to his governors are not laws, and think yourselves at liberty to regard them or disregard them at your own discretion …[but] they are, so far as they relate to you, the law of the land, for the king is the Legislator of the Colonies.
Wrote Franklin:
I told his lordship this was a new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent laws without his assent, so neither could he make a law for them without theirs. He assured me I was totally mistaken.
This exchange alarmed Franklin. Being student of human nature, and knowing his own compatriots, he foresaw the inevitable outcome of such a profound difference in opinion. Here on the last pages of Franklin’s unfinished Autobiography, we find in his visit to London, or in his oblique reference to the Stamp Act, the first stirrings of the Revolution in which he would play so vital a role—but for that, sadly we can no longer rely on Franklin himself; we need to turn to his many biographers. They say the best is Carl Van Doren’s “Benjamin Franklin” published in 1938, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and subject of a future post.

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