Tuesday, May 25, 2010

have you read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin?

The second part of his autobiography is written in 1784.

I hadn't realize how thoroughly some of his ideas have permeated American culture. In many cases, his ideal really is the American ideal. Weird. Sure, I knew Franklin was a patriarch of American culture, but I didn't realize the extent to people who have never thought about him, except for 50 bills.

For instance, Franklin by his old age seemed quite set in his ways and quite dismissive of beliefs that incorporated "dogma" and doctrine.
He seemed to be only interested in religious thought that focused on practical civilized good-behavior.
He didn't much care why someone did something, just how they did it. Their habit. That's quite like American churches today, but also Japanese Shinto and many other world religions.
He had no use apparently for spirituality, or for what was in a person's heart unless it affected their habit.
So as to not slur Franklin, please let me quote his Autobiography:

"Tho' I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted... [the] Discourses were chiefly either polemic Arguments, or Explications of peculiar Doctrines of our Sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting and unedifying, since not a single moral Principle was inculcated or enforce'd, their Aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens."
and again
"...these I esteem'd the Essentials of every Religion, and being to be found in all the Religions we had in our Country I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mixed with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm Morality, serv'd principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another."

He didn't get everything he wanted though. He was very much a humbug, and there would be nightlife in no city in America if he had his way. Alcohol would be much harder to obtain. Live music and theatre wouldn't be so important.
I wonder, though, did he partially succeed? I have heard that America seems very dull compared to many places in Europe. How does it compare with other parts of the world?

I want to say though that I continue to have a deep respect for the man. Much of his philosophy is brilliant. It is so very true that It is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright in reference to morality. Also, when Franklin observes that wise men are usually quiet and don't enter into arguments. And then when he teaches about making it a habit to say things in a less provocative way, to ease communication ("I apprehend this..." or "It seems to me that..."). It's just his ideas feel pretty empty on occasion.

An aside here: I don't know if you've heard of him, but Cotton Mather was just before Franklin's time and wrote a well-known book or two, one titled "Essays to Do Good" which Franklin read as a kid. Sounded worth trying to find online or elsewhere.

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