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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Themes

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Self-Improvement

Beginning in childhood, Franklin remained consistently and intensely dedicated to self-improvement. In the Autobiography he describes his continual reading and his writing practice, his study of Joseph Addison's prose style in the periodical essays of The Spectator, his determination to "arrive at moral perfection," and his careful observation and grasp of opportunities for work and income.

On the civic level, Franklin stays ever on the watch from an early age for opportunities to improve the life of the community through joint action. Indeed, he specifically declares that the Junto, the club he founded with his friends, was established "for mutual improvement." The Junto begins a string of successes when it organizes and maintains a public subscription library in Philadelphia.

Franklin's persistent goal of self-improvement was not founded on the principles of any particular religious denomination: in fact, he explicitly declares that he was of no sect at all. Just as importantly, however, he was convinced of the existence of a Deity, and that "the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man." He reasoned that self-improvement enlarged one's capacity to do good to others.

Public Spirit

Franklin's zealous involvement with public-spirited endeavors closely relates to his belief in self-improvement. A realist, Franklin concedes that "those who govern hav[e] much business on their hands" and therefore do not often "take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects." All the more reason, then, that men of leisure—such as he considered himself from his early 40s onward—should join together and expend the effort that made useful municipal improvements a reality.

Franklin's career furnishes countless examples: a lending library, street paving, an academy, upgrading of the postal service, a fire department, and a newspaper. Some of these activities contributed handsomely to Franklin's income. It is therefore accurate to say that he did well by doing good. The motivations, style, and results of philanthropy in the 18th century are interestingly comparable to the leading features of philanthropy in modern times.

Scientific Inquiry

Franklin's scientific curiosity made him one of the central figures of the 18th-century Enlightenment—a cultural flowering that affected almost every field of human endeavor in Europe and North America. Perhaps the clearest epitome of Enlightenment thinking was the effort in France, led by Denis Diderot, to create a compendium of all human knowledge and arts, known as the Encyclopédie (or Encyclopedia). This work, which involved the labors of hundreds of editors and writers, appeared in a multivolume first edition between 1751 and 1773. Not unlike the ancient library at Alexandria in Egypt (or the modern attempt by Google to make available all the world's knowledge), the goal of the Encyclopédie was, in Diderot's view, to change the way people think. Its subtitle was "a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts."

Franklin's thinking, as demonstrated in the Autobiography, was completely in tune with that of the French philosophes, as they were known. His famous (and dangerous) experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm in Philadelphia in June 1752 was only the tip of the iceberg. In 1739 he invented split-lens bifocal spectacles. In 1741 the Franklin stove came on the market. The lightning rod was a byproduct of Franklin's studies of electricity. In the 1770s Franklin became the first person to chart the course of the Gulf Stream. And the list goes on.

Useful Living

This theme is closely linked to "self-improvement" and "public service." Time and again, the words "useful" and "utility" occur in the Autobiography, always in a positive context. Franklin describes his friend Dr. Fothergill, for example, as "a great promoter of useful projects." In his childhood young Ben was compelled to juxtapose usefulness with honesty in the episode of building a wharf with stolen stones. In adulthood, however, Franklin's scale of values and priorities places usefulness at or near the top.

In an intriguing paragraph near the end of Part 2 of the Autobiography, Franklin discusses his "scheme" to achieve moral perfection in terms of its sect-blind utility. He says that his plan, though it was "not wholly without religion ... might be serviceable to people in all religions." Franklin therefore contemplated writing a short book entitled The Art of Virtue, noting the practical advantages of each virtue and the corresponding drawbacks of its opposite vice.

Curiosity and Innovation

One of the chief pleasures in reading Franklin stems from his infectious enthusiasm for exploration and his openness to new ideas, fresh inventions, and original ways of doing business. Franklin would be comfortably at home, one feels, in the age of digital technology. His appreciation of efficiency and convenience never tramples on his respect for the individual: he is (usually) just interested in an approach that will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

In this respect Franklin benefited enormously from the long stretches of his experience abroad, especially in London and Paris. Today, it is hard for us to conceptualize the gulf—in economic, political, and social terms—between life in the colonies and life in continental Europe. Even prosperous, high-income earners like Franklin and George Washington led lifestyles in the colonies that were pitifully modest by comparison to their counterparts in Britain and France. A man of great ambition and outstanding talent, Franklin was psychologically ready to embrace almost any expedient to bridge the civilization gap between the Old World and the New. For Franklin, curiosity and innovation formed an effective strategy to level the playing field between two disparate, unevenly endowed cultures.

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