Monday, October 18, 2010

The Self-taught Master, part 2

In this penultimate post about Benjamin Franklin, I want to quote at length a passage from the Autobiography.

The Quakers, having had outsized political power in the Pennsylvania Assembly at the start of King George’s War (War of the Austrian Succession), found themselves opposing, on principle, funding for the proper military defense of the colony including their own homes. Franklin recalls an exchange with the leader of a different sect whose approach to such matters impressed Franklin as much as it does this reader:
Those embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d, from having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers. I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appeared. He complained to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg’d with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that to put a stop to such abuse I imagin’d it might be well to publish the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline. He said that it had been propos’d among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: “When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.”
This modesty in a sect [continued Franklin] is perhaps a single instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man travelling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle.
Michael Welfare, observing the unsettled tenets of faith during the First Great Awakening, appears as skeptical and logical as a scientist, as humble as a saint. Franklin was obviously surprised by this confluence of cool rationalism and religious faith, but, brilliant writer that he was, doesn’t fail to provide a vivid (yet foggy) contrasting metaphor of human conceit. Franklin’s perspicacious judgment of the prejudices, inclinations, and motivations of his fellow man was his greatest asset, and the subject of the next post.

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