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Monday, April 7, 2008

Benjamin Franklin--An American Life--by Walter Isaacson

I've had the book (Benjamin Franklin-An American Life) for years. I wish I was a better reader. It's 560 pages and I'm struggling to get thru it. So I rented the book on CD from the library and listened to it in the car on the way down to Miami. I felt like I was hanging out with Benjamin Franklin. I think he is such a cool dude. He loved women. I'm a woman so I like it that he loved women.

Walter Isaacson clearly likes Benjamin Franklin also. I think it's a pleasure reading a biography by someone that adores the man while at the same time not being blind to his faults.

Listening to the CD in the car on a long drive was easier for me than reading the book. BUT now I can go back to sections of the book. In the "Conclusions" chapter Isaacson talked about critics of Benjamin Franklin. I think of Benjamin Franklin as a visionary. Not a romantic but a visionary. Perhaps the word "visionary" can be interpreted in different ways. Even though I believe that Franklin had a vision of a better world, I don't think that word negates the possibility that Franklin also had the practicality of making that vision come true.

Here are some quotes from the "Conclusions" chapter:

On one side were those, like Edwards and the Mather family, who believed in an anointed elect and in salvation through God's grace alone. They tended to have a religious fervor, a sense of social class and hierarchy, and a appreciation for exalted values over earthly ones. On the other side were the Frankins, those who believed in salvation through good works, whose religion was benevolent and tolerant, and who were unabashedly striving and upwardly mobile.
Out of this [dichotomy] grew many related divides in the American character, and Franklin represents one strand: the side of pragmatism vs romanticism, of practical benevolence versus moral crusading. He was on the side of religious tolerance rather than evangelical faith. The side of social mobility rather than an established elite. The side of middle-class virtues rather than more ethereal noble aspirations.
During the three centuries since his birth, the changing assessments of Franklin have tended to reveal less about him than about the values of the people judging him and their attitudes toward a striving middle class.

This Age of Enlightenment, however, was being replaced in the early 1800s by a literary era that valued romanticism more than rationality. With the shift came a profound reversal, especially among those of presumed higher sensibilities, in attitudes toward Franklin. The romantics admired not reason and intellect but deep emotion, subjective sensibility, and imagination. They exalted the heroic and the mystical rather than tolerance and rationality. Their haughty criticisms decimated the reputations of Franklin, Voltaire, Swift and other Enlightenment thinkers.

American transcendentlists (such as Thoreau and Emerson) who shared the romantic poets' allergic reaction to rationalism and materialism, also found Franklin too mundane for their rarefied tastes.

Franklin's reputation was elevated by the emergence of that distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism, which holds, as Franklin had, that the truth of any proposition, whether it be a scientific or moral or theological or social one, is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.

Disentangling morality from theology was an important achievenment of the Enlightenment, and Franklin was its avatar in America. In addition, by relating morality to everyday human consequences, Franklin laid the foundation for the most influential of America's homegrown philosophies, pragmatism. His moral and religious thinking, when judged in the context of his actions, writes James Campbell, "becomes a rich philosohical defense of service to advance the common good." What it lacked in spiritual profundity, it made up for in practicality and potency.

....there's something to be said for Franklin's outlook, for his pragmatism and occasional willingness to compromise. He believed in having the humility to be open to different opinions. For him that was not merely a practical virtue, but a moral one as well. It was based on the tenet, so fundamental to most moral systems, that every individual deserves respect. During the Constitutional Convention, for example, he was willing to compromise some of his beliefs to play a critical role in the conciliation that produced a near-perfect document. It could not have been accomplished if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle. Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies.
More important, Franklin did in fact believe, uncompromisingly, in a few high principles--very important ones for shaping a new nation--that he stuck to throughtout his life. He was ever unwavering to his opposition to arbitrary authority. rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit and virtue and hard work.

His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people". Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.
From the age of 21, when he first gathered his Junto, he held true to a fundamental ideal with unwavering and at times heroic fortitude: a faith in the wisdom of the common citizen that was manifest in an appreciation for democracy and an opposition to all forms of tyranny.

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