Autobiography On Ben Franklin Essay, Research Paper
Franklin’s memoirs, his Autobiography, project a Benjamin Franklin who is a highly self-conscious individual able to reason himself into a life of self-control, self-improvement, virtue, and multifaceted success. To what successful ends does this Franklin apply himself? Some may argue that Franklin takes no action but that which ultimately benefits himself. This paper argues, however, that the Franklin we see in the Autobiography-as author, as boy, and as young man-is not merely self-serving (in the positive sense) but also other-serving. Indeed Franklin has eliminated self-denial from the picture, but has he eliminated self-sacrifice? When the interests of self and society seem to conflict, we discover a Franklin who from almost the beginning tries to find a way to be a good citizen as well as a good man, a friend both to himself and to others.
What shall we make of the motives the author gives for writing the Autobiography itself? Franklin explicitly lists eight reasons (Lemay 1307-8): (1) his son (though anyone may become Franklin’s moral descendant) may have a filial interest in the events of his ancestor’s life; (2) Franklin has the time and ability to write a good memoir; (3) his moral posterity, desiring self-improvement, may want to imitate those actions, “suitable to their own Situations,” that led to Franklin’s successes; (4) composing his autobiography provides Franklin the pleasure of recollecting his successes; (5) recording his memories permits him to return continually to more pleasures of recollection in the future; (6) old men, as a rule, tend to repeatedly recount their lives; (7) Franklin aims to gratify his vanity; (8) he desires to acknowledge God’s part both in leading him into success and in making his efforts successful. Of these eight, (2) is merely instrumental, (8) is beyond anyone’s control, (1) and (3) overlap considerably, and (4) through (7) overlap as well.
Franklin’s insertion of the phrase “suitable to their own Situations” emphasizes from the start that Franklin has in mind a more diverse audience than himself and his son. The author envisages a book available to anyone. Through specific examples it teaches general means and methods that may be used to different degrees in different situations. Franklin charges each member of his audience to command an independent reading of the book, even to the extent of deciding whether to read it in the first place: “this may be read or not as any one pleases” (Lemay 1307).
More telling, while reasons (4) through (7) are characterized primarily by simple vanity, Franklin creates the paradoxical oxymoron of useful vanity: vanity “is often productive of Good to the Possessor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action.” Even Franklin’s professed inclination towards doting self-love ostensibly carries an outward component. The reader begins to notice that Franklin sees writing the Autobiography not as merely self-indulgent words but as a moral action valuable to others. For rhetorical reasons he explains later, Franklin remains content merely to suggest his strong moral purpose.
Having begun to examine Franklin as author, let us examine him as the historian in the narrative. This Franklin finds that his family name had a noble public presence in the distant past of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Franklins of old had “great possessions” and served admirably on juries; Chaucer’s Franklin was “worthy . . . generous, just, . . . Renown’d for courtesy, by all beloved” (Lemay 1308-09). But this Franklin also finds himself, quite humbly, “the youngest Son of the youngest Son for 5 Generations.” Nevertheless, his great-great-grandfather was an ingenious freethinking Protestant, his grandfather worked until he was too old to keep going, and his father and uncles became important in public affairs. (Lemay 1308-12, 1314-15) We justly conclude from this genealogy that Franklin prepares to set himself up as a model through his ancestors, especially via the image of the transmigration of the virtuous character of his uncle Thomas into Benjamin himself (1310). But the ancestors perhaps are models enough, described well enough for us to understand the broader lesson: Fortune’s wheel may bring any Franklin high or low into the world, but industry and ingenuity make the real difference in both personal and social success.
Lest we read Franklin’s history of his ancestors as a mere exercise in Franklin’s own vanity (Franklin’s overweening pride only becomes more pronounced later), he punctuates the first part of the narrative with two initial, humble glances at Franklin the boy (Lemay 1310-11). In the first instance, the boy is dwarfed by his older relatives. Benjamin does nothing but observe. In the second, we note that the first real action attributed to the boy is a failure: he neglected to practice the shorthand skill that his uncle had taught him, and so Benjamin forgot it. This lesson to the reader is drawn from shameful failure: in the presence of your betters, keep quiet and observe them, but stay alert and put into practice right away what they have to teach. Franklin the author must be aware that the careful reader tacitly assents to this encouragement (if he chooses to continue reading) to assume the same position toward the author as that of an apprentice boy to his master, remembering all the while this failure. Each of these Franklins is acutely self-conscious and concurrently aware of the moral and practical situations of others.
It is as an older boy that the young Franklin first shows his ability to combine personal and community aspirations, what the author calls “an early projecting public Spirit.” Learning the personal skills of swimming and boating made him captain of the kids’ canoe and ultimately “a Leader among the Boys.” Then, as leader of a project to build a little fishing wharf using stolen stones, Franklin learns his first lesson in balancing private interest with the public good. Remarkably, in organizing the transport of the stones, the young Franklin has put the public interest (in his boyish eyes) ahead of private property, perhaps also ahead of his own interests (he may be the best swimmer and boater, but it is left unknown whether he is the best fisherman). His first inclination, to serve his comrades with a useful project, here overshadows the moral scruples of which his father must convince him.
At home, however, the young Franklin is bookish, intently devoted to his own personal improvement. Yet even in his reading-Bunyan, Defoe, Mather, and others-we note a few fair signs of “public spirit.” Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, while primarily about the individual struggles of Christian, includes a long harangue against Talkative, who is all words and no deeds; this sequence probably provides the majority of Franklin’s source material for his later discourses against those who dispute theology but do not help others. Defoe teaches him about projects (probably group ones), and Mather teaches him “to do Good, which perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future [public-spirited] Events of my life [including the creation of Silence Dogood]” (Lemay 1317). Also, bookishness does not exclude sociality; Franklin merely starts to spend more of his time with bookish friends such as John Collins and James Ralph, and, much later, friends who would become members of the Junto (Lemay 1361-62). As author, Franklin is able to put all his days of lonely study and lonely meals to a social use; he teaches his audience the values of frugality and temperance and then even leadership in bookishness. As leader of the Junto, Franklin goes on to inspire his friends to become co-builders of a subscription library and even a new nation.
We gain a clearer insight into young Franklin’s efficient blending of personal and community goals by examining his studies of rhetoric and religion. Any good rhetorician must be acutely aware of his audience, but Franklin’s studies include balancing this against a deep self-awareness. Franklin knows that he enjoys a good win against even a deserving superior opponent, but at the same time he gradually learns that to do good, one must less often wear the duplicitous mask of “the humble Enquirer & Doubter” and more often take up the compassionate habit of “modest diffidence.” Franklin admits that his own pleasure must come second to a careful stewardship of his “Power of doing Good” (the lesson is likewise for his readers). Although Franklin focuses on learning rhetoric as the instrumental means of persuading men, he does so in order to better accomplish ends that benefit society at large, ends that may not necessarily benefit himself.
Regarding religion, Franklin notes that he “grew convinc’d that Truth, Sincerity & Integrity in Dealings between Man & Man, were of the utmost Importance to the Felicity of Life” (Lemay 1359). Here Franklin claims that happiness comes not merely through one’s own hard work, independent of teachers, pupils, or peers, but rather through one’s loyal relations with others. Though Franklin considers this far forward of his discussion of his formative years, it is clear that Franklin places religion, which has the potential to be intensely personal, in a thoroughly social context.
Many readers may have trouble recognizing the moral worth of Franklin’s blatantly self-aware Autobiography. Franklin at times can seem merely self-serving. But by going through each major scene of Franklin’s early life in the first part of his Autobiography, we recognize that Franklin maintains a firm awareness of others. He sees others not as just gawkers at the great and mighty Franklin, which some are, but as people with their own ends, indispensable members of a nation being built collectively. His readers best learn from Franklin’s own self-awareness and efforts at self-improvement, and Franklin is pleased when they do start to take initiative in matters larger than themselves. Franklin conveys a concern for others that at times even eclipses his concern for himself. As moral descendants of Benjamin Franklin we find profound moral worth in his extraordinary combination of self-serving and other-serving. Benjamin Franklin is simultaneously a friend of self and a friend of society.