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John D. McCall

Is there any thing in his civilization that Ben Franklin didn’t comment on? He expressed views on everything from air pollution to fruits containing Vitamin C. Even so, for this great diplomat, discretion was the overriding rule. Remember he signed some early work “Silence” – “Silence Dogood,” and his autobiography was famously silent on many events.

So the mind of Benjamin Franklin remains his secret. Still, through his actions and writings, we can make defensible guesses. In that way we can say that, through his bifocals, Ben Franklin was farsighted -- a genuine, if inconsistent, pioneer on the issues of race, gender, and the environment * now in the headlines, but …

What Can Ben Say to Civilization Today?

In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin revised “old sayings” that perhaps contained wisdom deeper and more ancient than civilization itself – that set evergreen joys over breakable toys. Though Ben can’t help with software, he says much about living. From modern thinkers, we can learn handy ways – from the ancients, wisdom’s rays. Franklin expressed these sayings (and those he created while immersed in that lore) in a style with the spontaneity of lightning. (In an effort to introduce new readers to the Almanac, I have tried to convert Franklin’s brilliant sayings into colloquial rhyme. **) So blame me for the rhymes and credit Franklin with the shrewd judgments. They can clearly apply to today’s awareness of the irrational, undermining forces within: “Bate and snap: I’m my trap.”

Judgments without Judgment

How did Franklin come by his critical judgments?

We all know that the revolutionary Franklin was a critic – as we all are today. In the past, any questioning was automatically questioned. (Socrates didn’t please). Now questioning is expected from almost every blog site and editorial.

Yet, unlike those sources of inspiration, Franklin tried to be slow to judge – very. He derided speedy judgments without judgment. Whenever practical, he delayed judging for years since even historians sway the battles their way. And, anyway, Ben didn’t expect every wrong to be righted since each temperament is “clay … in cement.” And some heads aren’t the right size to be advised. So after each huddle, they’re still in a muddle.

And suppose the advice is understood and accepted – and a law is passed against something found wrong. What might happen to that prohibition? When Adam resists, the snake finds new twists.

Even so, neither Ben’s skepticism over the revision of human nature, nor his scientific inclination to await the evidence, paralyzed him. And, as a scientist, this “tamer of lightning” loved to try out fresh solutions. He kept hopping into civic affairs quicker and more often than any of our other Founders. He addressed wrongs, not just with barbs, but also through example. And Ben, who would have been fascinated and impressed by today’s achievements, balanced his social criticism of wrongs with realistic expectations. He also endorsed the habit of an almost scientific examination of ones own stupidities and wrongs, comparing them with his well-known list of ethical values he called the “Thirteen Virtues.” ** These aspects of his views sometimes get neglected in the discussion of a smattering of social wrongs discussed below.

Perhaps, in our diverse culture, the word “wrongs” deserves quotation marks, at least before the “wrongs” are defined.

What are “Wrongs”?

It’s easier to commit a wrong than define one. Ben spent more time in worthwhile work and pleasure than in analyzing the concept of evil. And this essay is confined to the wrongs of civilization, excluding savagery, programmed and calculated or not. The practical Franklin might agree that a “wrong” is something civilization disapproves of (at least, in theory) – or ought to.

If so, what qualifies as a “wrong”? Consider gossip’s nasty crack. Who can glue a reputation back? But is a failing that is so common a serious wrong? Well, a lot depends on your viewpoint. Are jockey and steed always agreed? And what about prospective wrongs, when little illicit habits thrive like complicit rabbits?

But Franklin focused on “wrongs” full grown and obvious -- like greed.

“Wrongs” through Self-Defeating Greed

Was Franklin, at heart, a fervent fan of greed? Well, no, but remember he wrote “The Way to Wealth,” urging his readers to get rich and showing them how, based on years of advice in his Almanac. (By consolidating his sayings, Ben inspired this essay which puts together many of the rhymes I had issued before only separately.) But Ben preached and practiced “doing well by doing good,” for instance, for a share of the profits, he set up his apprentices in their own printing shops. During Ben’s lifetime, once rich (and even before), he served his city, State, and country.

Greed, by contrast, has (at best) little interest in its impact on others; and almost every civilization seems to have suffered from such callousness. One person is publicly ridiculed when another is celebrated. (Peter is “roasted” because Paul is toasted.) And even family feelings can be orphaned in business dealings. And, one situation (in some degree) exists in almost every country:

Workers in rattraps?
Fat cats have mishaps.

So, of course, shortsighted mistreatment and intimidation can backfire from their victims. (Hate snares what scares.) And backfires unforeseen can seem ridiculous. But greed’s result is more often in its own misery. Joy sniffs Greed and won’t crossbreed, while Midas chokes on gold jokes. And here, perhaps, is the root of greed’s basic irrationality:

“All’s mine in perpetuity.
(Morgue, forward my annuity.)”

Greed pretends that possessions can yield a final answer, but pretenses come in many forms.

Wrong and Silly: Pretensions

Did Franklin indulge in pretenses? He did. And not only with the famous coonskin cap, which he affected in order to woo the French to the American side in our Revolution. Even as a young man, he focused on his image. He was not only “early to rise,” he made sure the world knew he was – by clattering down the street (near dawn) with his cart. But he used affectation as a patriot. He not only clattered, he worked. In short, he employed imagery.

Pretensions, on the other hand, don’t always serve a constructive purpose.

Civilization doesn’t just suffer from greed; some impulses are even sillier. These come from a swollen ego – and its counterpart in the world, social pretensions. They can still be mischievous, and occasionally insidious when it comes to moral hypocrisy (“shared your ache, pass more cake”).

And some pretensions can reflect terrible crimes, especially, through ugly distinctions based on birth. Yet very slowly, at the sacrifice of many, over generations, the grave wrong of bias (in many of its forms) thankfully, seems to be fading,

But, of course, now riches have largely replaced the status of birth, not always smoothly. (Sudden gains? Growing pains.) So nowadays talent is rewarded more directly, for instance, in technology. But a pride in technological skills has brought with it many forms of inglorious piracy. (Hi-tech … clicking hackers are just mousy safecrackers.) And you may still get a snob’s invitation – to refrigeration.

Yet the critics of success aren’t always admirable. Sometimes, the motive is perverted malice: the twisted wheel burns to squeal. And, occasionally, idealism is a cosmetic for ambition for power, which in some respects is a kind of greed as well as pretension:

“Down with elites!”
(Quick, grab their seats.)

At other times, the response to pretensions, especially through fancy goods, is right on when the “big stickers” earn snickers. And skepticism is sometimes applied to well-paid professions like the law. And, from unfairness in the courts, springs a sad conclusion: the law’s seesaw does flaw its awe.

Now pretensions in society are as old as civilization, but another stupidity seems, while not unique to our era, more pronounced – a type of “hope” that is the enemy of hope.

Deflating Stupidity: Counterfeit Hope

In America, for example, as many have noted, the pursuit of happiness is sometimes mistaken for the right to its attainment. But when this expectation is not delivered, and the pretense is discovered, hope can turn inside out. And politicians of all kinds can play to false hopes in the performance of government – if only it’s expanded or cut back. But not all political appeals are false; as Franklin said (this time in his own words), “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Naturally, this warning implied Franklin’s ardent hopes for our Revolution.

Did Franklin easily give up – when say, he got a king to join a revolution? Even so, he didn’t fall for arrogant overconfidence. For one thing, it can rob life of the joy of appreciation by presuming that luck is automatic – until the shock of reversals. (No worth ‘til dearth.) Or “hope” may simply take wishes for horses: Hyped up hope may be legal dope. So rosy glasses crack in crashes.

Yet confidence and hope are such good friends to civilization, even when irrational, that Monopoly money can, for quite a long while, make us truly rich. And think of the widely shared but unproven assumption of eventual recovery that helped us through our Depression. (Of course, a lunatic optimism, along with greed, brought on the Crash.)

But what of today’s consumerism (itself just a symptom) that depends on ever recurrent hope as well as pretension and greed? Well, consumerism is an ancient, if potentially discredited, creed. Franklin found its victims lobster fed, but in the red.

Yet Ben might find consumerism even more conspicuous these days. Would he detect a fair segment of the economy perched on nothing broader than the narrow edge of a credit card, with its obliging usury? Now that is confidence.

And where would “confidence men” be without confidence? Generally, “those unable tilt the table” – so we seem to get pleasure (not quite moral itself) when clever types outsmart themselves:

“Judged crafty?
… Jail’s drafty.”

But can the “crimes” of civilization, legal or otherwise, be reformed?

Can We Civilize Civilization?

Aren’t we often too hard on civilization, especially with our pet peeves? Franklin thought we could be too picky. (Finicky’s spouse is a life-long grouse.) Certainly, civilization is more than a list of our ills, whatever our view of the world after seventeen minutes of “call waiting.” Civilization very often displays generosity and common sense, but can we deal with its greed, pretension, and desire masquerading as “hope”?

Ben isn’t short of advice – volumes of it – enough to crush the shrewdest mind, the most fervent spirit. However, many have tried to live up to that famous summary of practical morality, the “Thirteen Virtues”? But even Franklin, despite trying, couldn’t master these hard rules. However, considering his many successes against odds, he might have a key to our ills.

If so, what was the clue to his victories? Just discipline? Brilliance? Or was it also an attitude of understanding and half-hidden compassion? Though a master at protesting wrongs, the ironic Franklin knew that he shared them, so they amused as well as appalled him. Was this irony a key to his balance and an energy used (with a smile) for our welfare?

He created our first political cartoon, urging practical unity. Would he perhaps extend this idea in our era so that more of us pursue his example? An era addressed to channeling some of our distorted ambition into truly workable, and mainly mutual, social objectives should be civilizing (providing the process does not become grimly conformist).

Surely even more civilizing is the twinkle of freedom from Ben. From that, expect perspective from his spectacles. Expect lightness from his lightning.

His Almanac is for all time.

John McCall


* “The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin” by James C. Humes succinctly explains how.

** The verses can be readily compared with the original prose sayings on the website, available through Creative Commons, without copyright restrictions if the author’s name is cited and, if practical, also the website. (That website is also one of many sources for Franklin’s “Thirteen Virtues.”)

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