B. FRANKLIN, MORALIST.
PRINTER, PATRIOT, SCIENTIST, INVENTOR
- - - and PHILOSOPHER
T O SOME BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IS KNOWN AS A SKILLFUL DIPLOMAT AND INTREPID SCIENTIST, ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT AND INFLUENTIAL FOUNDERS.
Yet Franklin is also known as something of a didactic boor, droning on about self- denial, discipline, and “virtue.” D.H. Lawrence saw in him the personification of Nietzsche’s last man, while Max Weber saw in Franklin the archetype of the Protestant ethic at work in America—bland, bourgeois, and eminently prosaic.
There is something—a little something—to these claims, according to Jerry Weinberger, who teaches political science at Michigan State. Yet Weinberger’s Benjamin Franklin Unmasked offers a revolutionary reevaluation of Franklin’s thought, one that unveils Franklin as a far more subtle, complex, and subversive thinker than most have cared to notice.
There has been a spate of biographies reviving interest in the Founders recently, but this is not a biography. Rather, it is an attempt, through a close reading primarily ofFranklin’s Autobiography, to plumb the depths of Franklin’s mind and figure out just what he thought about the big questions. And contrary to Franklin’s reputation as a humorless stiff, Weinberger reveals him to be a surprising and impressive thinker—a kind of American Socrates who mercilessly refuted his philosophical
interlocutors, and whose profound philosophical probity was laced with ironic skepticism. Reading the man’s Autobiography as the key to his thought, and as his guide to philosophical reflection and self-knowledge, Franklin emerges in these pages as a serious thinker who approached the most important questions with the utmost gravity—and wit.
Weinberger is a scholar schooled by the philosopher Leo Strauss, which means,inter alia, that he aims to understand Franklin as Franklin understood himself, and there is no better place to begin to understand a thinker than in his own writings. Weinberger reads Franklin closely, and thereby cuts to the core of the real Ben Franklin, taking seriously the alternately serious and jesting façades that Franklin presented to the world. Lik e Socrates, Franklin used various methods—what Weinberger calls Franklin’s “ironic layers”—and spoke to different people in many different ways as he pre sented his political and moral ideas.
On the surface, he reassured readers about decency and morality by exhorting them to conventional respectability. Yet he also purposefully left a host of clues that are intended to lead careful readers to consider his genuine views.
Weinberger carefully follows Franklin’s evasive rhetoric, attending to his seeming contradictions, since a man as obviously intelligent and thoughtful as Franklin would not have been ignorant of the contradictions he left in his writings. Franklin recounts his youthful ir-religion, which led him to the brink of moral nihilism, while claiming elsewhere that he “never” doubted the existence of God; he generously offers certain precepts that will surely lead to lives lived ethically and virtuously. But on the other hand.........
Weinberger shows how it is possible to resolve each contradiction by taking the more heterodox reading as closer to Franklin’s true understanding. To be sure, Weinberger’s reading is itself unorthodox: But consider the paradox of Franklin’s views on the equal nature of rights, the foundation of the Declaration of Indepen-dence. Franklin believed men were equal, in a certain way, but he was consistently reluctant to endorse Thomas Jefferson's notion of human equality, informed by John Locke, that all men are equal in a state of nature, and he rejected the idea that all men are equally loved in the eyes of God. It was manifestly false, Franklin claimed, that all men are equal in intelligence, ability, natural goodness, or innate dignity.
However, Franklin, in a round-about way, did endorse the idea that men are equal on the grounds of their mutual ignorance, vanity, foolish opinions, and pretensions to truth: The fact that human folly and imperfection is universal is the true root of equality . In this manner he cuts down our moral pretentiousness but, as Weinberger points out, he does so for the sake of a truly common human morality.
Such conclusions are unlikely to flatter anyone, but the truth, as Socrates pointed out, is often unpleasant. For his unorthodox views Franklin acquired the reputation of a religious skeptic and earned the scorn of many of his good and morally up-right fellow citizens. He was even forced to flee Boston at 17 after he acquired a large reputation for ir-religion. That reputation was, Weinberger argues, well deserved. At the foundation of Franklin’s philosophical reflections is the principle, following Francis Bacon ,whom he revered, that it is imperative to accept the world as it is, not as we would hope for it to be.
Franklin was no naive and overly optimistic cheerleader of the Enlightenment, either, his irreverent stance toward religion notwithstanding. Franklin’s lifelong enemy was dogmatism of any kind, and he excoriated the “most impious free thinkers” for being dogmatic believers in a manner, too. He teased the high-minded skeptics of the age for their simple-minded credulity, pointing out that it is hardly easy to disprove spirits” and that it is irrational to deny out of hand the possibility of the divine without knowing for certain the true nature of reality. Franklin’s first youthful crisis of faith affected him for his entire life, and is one of the keys to understanding his philosophy.
Weinberger’s previous work includes a study of th e ideas of Bacon, and he emphasizes Bacon’s influence on Franklin’s own way of thinking. We can see Bacon’s influence on Franklin most clearly in his attempt to offer guidance for moral life in the absence of ethical certainty. Whereas Lawrence and Weber took at face value Franklin’s advice on living virtuously—guidance based on realistic and pragmatic self-improvement——Weinberger demonstrates how Franklin’s guidance for living morally is considerably more complex. He was guided by philosophical skepticism and rejected any clear and unimpeachable guides for living. But as Weinberger also shows, Franklin was a realist who recognized that society depends, to some degree, on false opinions and the necessity of dogma, all the while keeping his distance from claiming certainty about morality. And as with Bacon, the morality that Franklin ironically advocated was based on what human beings could achieve in this world, and not on a superhuman or divine standard.
Franklin was a political creature, but one whose philosophical cast of mind inured him against the anger and indignation typical of politicians. He was also a benev-olent free spirit, whose aim in writing was nothing less than liberation from the shackles of ignorance for all who would think for themselves. This useful volume has the virtue of being an education in itself, and will pay rich dividends for those willing to learn from this charming American Socrates.
The WEEKLY STANDARD
January 16, 2006. (Pgs. 45-46)
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