JANUARY 15, 2011 10:46AM

Why Benjamin Franklin Is Cool

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The founding fathers were mostly cool.  George Washington possessed discipline, discernment, and integrity, but seems aloof and was a bit too fond of fitted uniforms that displayed his muscular physique.  Thomas Jefferson had a brilliant mind, wrote the Declaration of Independence, advocated a “wall” between religion and the state, and sent Lewis and Clark on their exploratory way, remained a slaveowner despite an emancipator sensibility.  James Madison wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, defended religious freedom, successfully prosecuted the War of 1812, and married the sprightly, party-loving Dolly, but he too owned slaves. John Adams ferociously advocated independence, but presided as president over the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts, which nullified free speech.  Patrick Henry gave an inspiring “give me liberty or give me death” speech, but advocated state taxes to support Christian religion and opposed the Constitution  because it abrogated states’ rights. 

 

But for me, the founding father who is totally, florescently cool, is Benjamin Franklin.  Why?  Not because his unremitting industry enabled him to retire wealthy enough at 42 to pursue public projects; not because he invented bifocals, established a library, and discovered electricity; and not because he is on the hundred dollar bill.  Benjamin Franklin is cool because he possessed a rare gift: the ability to laugh at himself.

 

Here’s one small example in an autobiography filled with such examples.  At 16, Franklin adopted vegetarianism. Not long after, however, he was tempted by Cod.  While on a voyage from Boston to New York, he is stranded due to lack of wind on a small island.  Some of the others in his group begin fishing, catch some cod, and cook them over an open flame.  Now  Franklin considered eating fish “a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any injury that might justify the Slaughter.”  However, he had always been “a great Lover of Fish,” and when the delicious smell of cod “came hot out of the Frying Pan,” he “balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination,” until remembering “that when the Fish were opened,” he “saw smaller Fish taken out of their stomachs.”  So, Franklin reasons, if the fish eat one another, he sees no reason why he “mayn’t eat” them.  “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature,” Franklin concludes, “since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

 

And right there, in that slippery watermelon seed of a rationalization and the deadpan conclusion he draws from it, we see Franklin’s coolness.  Franklin is a man of the Enlightenment, an age that viewed reason as the means of human perfectability, yet he knows that reason can justify inclination over principle, appetite over precept.  He knows that self-indulgence often suborns the best of intentions, that we are often bridled by our desires and led away from our moral resolutions, that the embodied senses can be smithy furnaces that render our ethics pliant.  Long before Bohr and Heisenberg appeared on the scene, Franklin saw an uncertainty principle at work, in human nature itself.  We are complex, sometimes self-deceiving, unfitted for moral absolutism.  We are, as Alexander Pope says, “darkly wise, and rudely great”—The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.”  Yet, Franklin can live with such irreconcilable aspects of human being, unshivved by the kind of guilt Augustine felt at stealing some pears from a neighbor’s tree, perfectly OK with the fact that we sometimes shadowbox with reason and experience a small fall from grace.  And Franklin gives us this picture of human contradiction in a “the joke’s on me” spirit.  It is a mini-sermon delivered not in the thunderous, apocalyptic tone of a jeremiad, but in an avuncular, good-natured tone of self-mockery.  That’s cool.

 

But self-mockery, I think, is actually more than cool.  It is necessary.  People who can mock themselves understand that all assumptions about the world and our place and action in it are contingent and mutable.  They will not be immobilized in rigid systems of belief, systems that induce anxiety when threatened, violence when violated.  They will not resist the challenge to look honestly at themselves, will not resist the sallies of doubt about why they do what they do, think what they think, believe what they believe.  They know that reason is flawed, that it rationalizes, that it succumbs to confirmation bias, and that it elevates and ennobles us only in proportion to the constancy of our willingness to place it under critique. This is what Franklin teaches.  It is cool.  It is important.  Our capacity to live together and deliberate together, to find reciprocal trust in each other, to understand that human pursuits and perspectives are never reducible to one  idea of what is absolutely, irrevocably, comprehensively good or true, depends on it.

 

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Ben Franklin is probably the most brilliant American of all time. Our Renaissance man. Cool, unfortunately, in the old sense--to wife and son. But as his French hosts in Paris said, "Ça ira."
He is the best of them all. I read a biography many moons ago about him that is still one of my favorites. The ability to laugh at yourself is something this country needs right now. Johnny Carson reminded me of a modern Franklin. Not with the inventions, although he invented many characters, but his self-depreciating humor. People loved him because he would cut down both parties, and I think he never said which he was, which was his greatest asset. I may re-read Franklin again, I really enjoyed the book!
Jerry, once again... sigh.. you floor me with your words. I did not learn a lot about him in the Canadian school system but I have sold many videos etc about him which I have watched.
" Our capacity to live together and deliberate together, to find reciprocal trust in each other"

Now there is a big one that I wish people wold take one baby step each day towards fulfilling it.

I bow to you kind and very smart sir,
rated with hugs
This is a brilliant piece, Jerry, particular in light of the current mood in our country. Your last paragraph is pure gold and should be required reading for everyone citizen. If only...
And this: we sometimes shadowbox with reason and experience a small fall from grace. I love that.
Excellent. Rated.
Ahem... I really can speak English, although one would never guess it by reading my comment. I can only plead that it is too early in the morning for my vast intelligence to shine through! ;-)
Ben Franklin is a personal hero of mine. I loved learning more about him in your wonderful post.
rated with love
I like Ben Franklin from the little I know about him. People who don't take themselves too seriously are always better company than those who do. This piece makes me want find one of those biographies and learn more. Thanks.
James Madison "successfully prosecuted the War of 1812"?!! I suppose that if you consider getting yer butt kicked back of the 49th parallel by the Brits (Canadians in truth if not yet called such) and having us burn down the White House, a "successful prosecution", then you have a point.

Otherwise I thought this a great essay. One of the best in some time.

.
"People who can mock themselves understand that all assumptions about the world and our place and action in it are contingent and mutable."

I wish self-mockery in the present day was that noble, but it's all too often mixed with a certain smug self-satisfaction and could benefit from a dose of sincere humility.

As to the importance of understanding the mutable nature of the world and our beliefs, I wholeheartedly concur with you--and with Franklin.
Thanks for the enlightenment!
Thank you for this informative peek inside the life of Benjamin Franklin!
It is cool that he could laugh at himself and recognize his fallability. But at this critical juncture in American history, people of conscience (those aware of right and wrong and who care when they come down on the wrong side) cannot afford to flirt with moral relativism...
Of course we can delude ourselves, but together we can arrive at consensus regarding right and wrong...
Franklin was brilliant and unerringly (or erringly) human. My high school English students were assigned to read Franklin's letter to his gout and then to write a letter to a part of their bodies. You would not believe what I got!
Benjamin Franklin was my imaginary friend when I was a kid. I read a kid's version of his autobiography, and used to talk to him about things. Miss ya, Ben.
rate
Love your metaphors: fluorescently cool, slippery watermelon seed of a rationalization, shadowboxing with reason. They are cool, bubba. You are cool. But the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, I fear, would have heated both you and Franklin at the heretics' stake. Me, too.
I read the Autobiography of Franklin in high school and gave a speech based on the "13 virtues" numerous times before the Rotary Club (for a school competition).

I have been in love with Franklin ever since. His discussion about the follies of debating people over trifles, was something I learned much from as a young man. I should read the Autobiography again, in my 30s, as I am sure to draw new lessons from it at this time in my life.

BTW: This is one of the best essays I have read on OS. It combines history with ethics and human-insight/interest.

I am very happy you have joined us in OS and can contribute insights such as these. I am now a very big fan of yours and all that you write!

8) 8) 8)

rated!!!!!
Jerry, thanks for this: "...reason is flawed...it elevates and ennobles us only in proportion to the constancy of our willingness to place it under critique."

The counterpart in religious circles is that unless we have experienced doubt, we have not experienced faith. Pretty much the same result.
Sorry I'm late Jerry.
Your writings and lessons are always nothing short of brilliant. I learn something new everytime I visit your blog. Thank you.
Jerry, this is absolutely a gem of an essay. You are so right--about Ben, about the powerful antidote that is self-effacery (word?), about the need for us all to ratchet down the dogmatism and indulge in some salutary Uncertainty. And elegantly written, too.
Excellent, thank you. I've always regarded self-mockery as endearing and a sign of humbleness - never thought of it as being cool. You you presented it in another light - eloquently.
What an interesting writer you are.Thanks for that wonderful post.