Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Benjamin Franklin Project

(another one of my papers from the American Literature classes at the Uni)

Have you ever seen a Swiss army knife? One of those which include thousands of different gadgets, where you have a saw, a corkscrew, a compass… Well, Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) was just like a Swiss army knife! The ultimate all-in-one guy – civil rights activist, diplomat, revolutionary, writer, printer, inventor, scientist, politician, musician… You name it, he’s got it! No wonder he’s all over the 100 dollar bills ;) No matter what I write about him it won’t be anything new and one page is way too little space for such a fascinating persona anyway… So I decided to give you some curious info instead of enlisting dates and well-known facts, taken right out of his biography.
Did you know that there’s a psychology term named after Benjamin Franklin? The so called “Ben Franklin Effect” - a person who has done someone a favor is more likely to do that person another favor than they would be if they had received a favor from that person. Similarly, one who harms another is more willing to harm them again than the victim is to retaliate. And I quote Franklin’s words - "He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
Benjamin Franklin is famous for the historical kite and lightning experiment he did in June 1752. But did you know that he was not the first to perform it? Thomas-François Dalibard and De Lors conducted it at Marly-la-Ville in France a few weeks before Franklin's experiment. In his autobiography (written 1771-1788, first published 1790), Franklin clearly states that he performed this experiment after those in France, which occurred weeks before his own experiment, without his prior knowledge as of 1752. According to author Tom Tucker, Franklin never actually performed the famed kite experiment, but rather published his account of it as a hoax, possibly to endanger his detractors. And Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters tested the experiment themselves in one of the episodes ;)
Benjamin Franklin is not only part of the American history, but also a part from modern pop-culture – from cameo appearances like those in “The Simpsons” and LucasArt’s PC adventure “The Day of the Tentacle” to references in Hollywood blockbusters like “Back to the Future” and “National Treasure” (where the main characters trying to collect clues left by Franklin to discover a treasure that he supposedly hid. The character played by Nicolas Cage was named "Benjamin Franklin Gates").
In 1781 Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (or at least some sources say that it was Brussels, cause the exact name of the academy is never mentioned in that letter and it the one we have today is a transscription made by a friend of Franklin). Franklin, being a distinguished American scientist, was asked to contribute to an early volume of the Proceedings. He expressed his opinion of the new Kingdom by writing a paper on farts, Hank Greely comments: George Sassoon's comment on Franklin and farts prompted me to do some Internet research, which revealed the following fairly lengthy and discursive discoveries. Franklin did publish a humorous, satirical letter about farts, addressed to "the Royal Academy of *****" in about 1781. Presumably, it wasn't written for any real academy, but, in any event, he could not have done it for an Academy of the Kingdom of Belgium, because that kingdom would not come into being until 1831. His letter on farts can be found in a little book called “Fart Proudly”, which contains various satirical works by him. These include essays on subjects such as On Choosing a Mistress and Rules on Making Oneself Disagreeable.
Here are some selected lines from the letter:
“It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.
That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.
That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.
That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.”
(Well, now, these paragraphs made me laugh for sure!) As you can see, it’s funny and quite witty. Reminds me of Aleko Konstantinov’s style and his “Bai Ganio”, in which the author describes his character’s rudeness, tactlessness and lack of discretion in a mild and polite way – almost like a delicate hint. But of course that is done on purpose – the reader immediately grasps the real nature of the situation and Bai Ganio’s abrupt attitude and the intelligent high-style of the story makes it sound even more taunting. The use of polite and exquisite tone to describe the farting phenomenon makes it all sound sarcastic and the word-play is fine example of Franklin’s clever remarks and original humor. Aleko Konstantinov on one hand was one of the people who helped the newly liberated Bulgaria to form its “гражданско общество” and gave some of the first examples of social criticism in his writings and feuilletons. And Benjamin Franklin on the other hand was known as one of the Founding Fathers, so his role for the forming of the American nation was quite similar to some degree.
And now let’s move on to a certain part of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography that left me quite fascinated - the part where Franklin describes his way of seeking peace, harmony and moral perfection.
“It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I bad imagined. While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.
… I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning.
These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; …
…But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it;”
And while nowadays some may find these virtues old-fashioned or too conservative, I still think that most of them should never go out of fashion. Benjamin Franklin’s determination towards better self is admirable. One could easily draw a parallel between his list and God’s Ten Commandments or some Buddhist teachings for example. Following your own ideology and principles, seeking balance and reaching for perfection – that gives you the satisfaction of knowing you live your life right. And as Franklin states it’s more or less a matter of habit – once you get used to follow the short list of simple rules you know you have become a better human being. And it’s not that hard, especially when you have a role model – “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” got me pretty impressed. I think that every one of us, and especially the children, needs some kind of a guiding light, a person or a character, whose example you can follow. “What would he do in a situation like that?” or “I shouldn’t do that, it’s not right – he would never do such a thing”. Jesus, Socrates, Superman or Obi-Wan Kenobi – it always helps when at hard times you have someone to look up to. Their simple guidelines and universal values help us form our own look at the world. Looks like Benjamin Franklin found his role models and the result is quite evident – today he can be your role model himself.
And finally I’d like to go through Franklin’s Articles of Belief and Religion. I think back in those days such an opinion was maybe too scandalous for some churches and I imagine that some religious figures criticized Franklin for these articles. But it is amazing how profound and open-minded his reasoning is – there is not a single trace of religious conservatism, let alone any fanatical beliefs. Just a few lines above he was imitating Jesus Christ and now he is speaking his mind, sharing with the reader his own interpretation on God. Through the lines we can see his intelligent point of view, maybe way ahead of his time – realizing that man is not an all-mighty conqueror of the world, but at the same time he’s not just some helpless pawn. Benjamin Franklin manages to find the perfect balance between the scientific and the religious. And not making any persistent claims about the true religion – for one of the main principles of Christianity is tolerance, is it not? I’ve always wondered where’s the tolerance in waging a war in God’s name or forcing others to abandon their legacy and traditions and accept your religion. Benjamin Franklin was a true Christian, following the principles of Christianity, but at the same time not being a slave of some dogmatic or radical views, constantly questioning the Universe and exploring the world around him with curiosity.
“I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves.
For I believe that Man is not the most perfect Being but One, rather that as there are many Degrees of Beings his Inferiors, so there are many Degrees of Beings superior to him.
Also, when I stretch my Imagination thro' and beyond our System of Planets, beyond the visible fix'd Stars themselves, into that Space that is every Way infinite, and conceive it fill'd with Suns like ours, each with a Chorus of Worlds for ever moving round him, then this little Ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow Imagination, to be almost Nothing, and my self less than nothing, and of no sort of Consequence.”
From all I’ve read so far, about and by Benjamin Franklin, I can conclude that he was one of those men who leave a bright trail in history (and by “bright trail” I don’t mean just electricity ;)), not only of their own nation, but the world. One couldn’t help but admire him. It seems like his knowledge and interests spread in every sphere of life. Speaking of literature his works are still popular nowadays, more than two centuries after his death; from witty articles and feuilletons to scientific works, from modest autobiography to open-minded articles on religion. He left us a legacy of wisdom and virtue, which no doubt will carry on with the next generations.
And as his epitaph, which he wrote himself, says
“Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended”

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