Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Franklin’s Absent Virtue

Franklin’s list of virtues (see last post) includes all but the most important ingredient to his success: education. Franklin’s education was not formal; he was a classic autodidact whose self-taught polymathy had three sources: 

First – Books. As a kid he read everything he could, spending all his extra money on books. As a printer’s apprentice he found every way to economize, becoming a vegetarian for example: saving on meat to spend money on books. He sold the books he’d read to buy others he hadn’t. He borrowed books from booksellers’ apprentices to read overnight, returning them early, before they’d be missed. The teenaged Franklin took his lunch breaks alone, with a slice of bread, some fruit, a glass of water, and the classics.  Dr Eliot no doubt approved.

Second – People. The best way to grow is to challenge yourself, and a good way to challenge yourself is to keep friends who will challenge you. In his twenties, an established printer in his own right, Franklin with a small group of friends created a study group:
I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth [argument], all expressions of positiveness [insistence] in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties. (HC01.059-060)
This tiny club was Franklin’s inspiration for the American Philosophical Society, founded by him in 1743 and still promoting the sciences and humanities today.

As Franklin became more occupied with worldly affairs he was there was less time for the Junto, but he never forgot his earnest friends. There were other conversations to be had though, and in time Franklin would hold ongoing conversation—correspondence mostly—with many of the great minds of his time, and at the highest level of “Morals, Politics, and Natural Philosophy,” because Franklin himself became a central figure in philosophy, diplomacy, and scientific discovery.

Thought, observation, and experimentation—what we discover on our own, untaught—together form the third source of Franklin’s education, subject of the next post.

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