Guest post by Douglas Anderson
The third part of Benjamin Franklin’s memoir begins with a little memo that he wrote to himself nearly three-hundred years ago this May 9, giving it a title that I have taken the liberty of modifying for this post. I doubt that he would object, any more than he objected to the plagiarized sermons of a young Irish preacher who created a stir in Philadelphia in 1734 by delivering good sermons written by others instead of bad ones that he wrote himself. The twenty-five-year-old Franklin’s “Observations on My Reading History in Library” concludes that the great “Affairs of the World” amount to a repetitive cycle of order and disorder, union and fragmentation, driven by the divisive clash of human interests. People only briefly succeed in suppressing private goals to pursue the general good, before those private ambitions break us into antagonistic and acrimonious parties. I wonder whether Franklin would be pleased or discouraged at the extent to which our present political and cultural climate confirms the brash conclusions of an obscure printer’s journeyman in 1731?
For the last several years I have been thinking about Franklin’s famous cartoon of a segmented serpent, applying it as an emblem to his own writing and his life. But how might it apply to our present circumstances?
Like all election years, this one is marked by intense partisan passions and intemperate language, amplified by media that Franklin could never have envisioned, perhaps, but which he would have understood. He refused to run abusive articles in his own newspaper, even when potential contributors insisted on the “Liberty of the Press,” reasoning that while the “press” might literally be free to anyone who could pay for a printer’s services and supplies, the Pennsylvania Gazette under his leadership had an obligation not to spread “Detraction” and augment “Animosity” among its readers. His paper was an instrument of union not mutual recrimination. The media were not public conveyances but public trusts, in Franklin’s eyes, guardians of the public temper as well as vehicles of information, instruction, and pleasure.
Most of the personal virtues that Franklin is famous (or infamous) for recommending in his memoir have political as well as ethical significance. “Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty,” he reminded himself when he sought to conform to standards of “Justice.” In the pursuit of “Sincerity” he tried to “Use no hurtful Deceit,” to “Think innocently and justly” and “speak accordingly.” Moderation required him to “Avoid Extreams” and “Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
Each of us resembles a contentious city or a complex nation in miniature: debating wrongs and benefits with ourselves, balancing between hurtful and innocent forms of deceit, torn between resentment and restraint. Self-government begins with the self, not with the community, Franklin believed, but it was not a matter of adherence to simple formulas or prescriptive rules. The harnessing of character in the interests of doing good was an imperfect process in the most literal sense: ongoing, incomplete, unfinished.
Early in his career Franklin abandoned the religious tradition in which he had been raised when a Presbyterian minister managed to turn a verse from Philippians into a sectarian screed: “Finally, Brethren, Whatsoever Things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these Things,” Franklin remembered the verse to have urged. No sectarian doctrine, no partisanship, scarcely any marks of ideology or religious tradition characterize these six momentous “things” that we are to think on. And in thinking on them, Franklin might have suggested, we stand the best chance of breaking the futile cycles of history that his library memorandum described with such prophetic clarity nearly three centuries ago.
Douglas Anderson is the Sterling-Goodman Professor of English at the University of Georgia and the author of several books, including The Unfinished Life of Benjamin Franklin and The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin, also published by Johns Hopkins.