FRANKLIN’S VIEWS ON CIVILIZED WAYS
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
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
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
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
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:
… 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.
* “The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin” by James C. Humes succinctly
** The verses can be readily compared with the original prose sayings on the
website http://www.benandverse.com, 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