William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude

When I read the first lines of the introduction, which had William Penn expelled from Oxford, traveling Europe, serving in the navy, then studying law, I started to expect a character quite different from the previous two books. Yes, he became a Quaker, but he was also imprisoned in the Tower “combines with the acute common sense of Franklin, the spiritual elevation of Woolman.”

However, the book was written when William Penn was in a sober mood, and the aphorisms in it come through as well-meaning platitudes at first glance.

Unfortunately, like many platitudes, thinking about them can be a fatal mistake and it is incredibly annoying when they are for the most part valid points. Like the teachings of Christ, they are simple, but the fact they are simple does not mean they are easy to refute or easy to follow. In fact it can be easier to tie your mind in knots to think of an alternative meaning, than accept what is given at face value—there’s an interesting TED talk, A. J. Jacob’s Year of Living Biblically that neatly illustrates the problems that can occur when taking things too literally.

At other times, translating William Penn’s message for the modern world is much easier. Take this piece of advice, written in the 17th century, but could almost come out of the latest 43 Folders blog post on the importance of a zero in box for email or the dangers of multitasking

They that are the least divided in their Care, always give the best Account of their Business … so if it falls out thou hast more Affairs than one upon thy Hand, be sure to prefer that which is of most Moment … He that Judges not well of the Importance of his Affairs, though he might always be Busy, he must make but a small progress.

Plus ça change, as the French (apparently) say over their milky coffee.

Many of his other thoughts echo the practical, puritan wisdom of other Quaker writers. A distrust of ornament for ornament’s sake, whether it’s in the form of rich food and drink, or in speech.

There is a Truth and Beauty in Rhetorick; but it oftener serves ill Turns than good ones.
T’is certain Truth is least indebted to it [rhetoric], because she has least need of it, and least uses it.

With Ben Franklin, he believes in practical wisdom, there is no point in having a truth if it is not a living truth, or the speaker is not the embodiment of it. For us, that might be “Don’t go to a fat personal trainer”, for William Penn, it was “That Minister whose Life is not the Model of his Doctrine, is a Babler rather than a Preacher.”

Most important of all is recognising what is the most important thing in life and paying due attention to it. I smiled at the comment that most people pay more attention to the raising of their dogs and horses than their children; I smiled less at the thought that

It is a preposterous thing, that Men can venture their Souls where they will not venture their money. For they will take their religion on trust, but not trust a Synod about the Goodness of a half crown.

In the end, I’m not sure where that leaves the modern reader. William Penn provides some clues in the work, with comments such as, “it is a reprovable Delicacy in them, that Despise truth in plain Cloths”, and some reflection recognises the truth in this. Plain does not mean “should be dismissed lightly or ignored”.

Unfortunately, living in London, I am more likely to see ridiculous clothes than plain clothes. Unfortunately, living in London, I have learned to see straight past them too.


John Woolman—Origins, ends and the choices in between

The origins of things

Self-examination may need to have limits in order for anything to get done. As soon as a person has to rely on someone else to do something for them, whether cooking dinner, mending clothes or any sort of trade, compromise comes into things. John Woolman was also sensitive to the origins of things. Coloured cloth (because of its relation to slavery) was one example of this, and interesting because he tried to put thoughts of its origins aside

The apprehension of being singular from my beloved friends was a strait upon me, and thus I continued in the use of some things contrary to my judgement.

As you can imagine, this ended in troubles and he was taken sick. A sickness that only ended when he realised the cause of his illness was his “conformity to customs which I believed were not right.”

Inevitably, most of these customs (or enjoyments of the good life) had roots that could be traced back to slavery. On example was his refusal to eat sugar, because of the plantations. Another one arose when looking to take a boat to the West Indies, he experiences

… a continual trial for some months past …whether, after the full information I have had of the oppression which the slaves lie under who raise the West India produce … it is right for me to take passage in a vessel employed in the West India trade.

But every time I started thinking he’d gone too far, I thought of a modern parallel. For example, child labour making footballs for the World Cup, or the factory conditions for the assembly of Apple’s iPhone. Social responsibility is a real concern for modern business, at least annual reports and websites make proud mention of it; whether their social reposnsibility actually affects behaviour or extends further than a “tut” is questionable.

The rise of the internet can turn these “tuts” into “Tweets”, but this “clictivism” can also serve as a panacea, a dangerous substitute for action. The difference with John Woolman was that for him, a change in belief necessitated a change in action—not only for himself, but for everyone he came into connection with.

The ends of things

Just as the origins of things can cause problems for a sensitive conscience, so can the purpose to which things are put cause heart searching. Ben Franklin had mentioned instances of Friends who paid tax for the war efforts under various guises, calling it grain tax (code for gunpowder), or, even better, not enquiring for details of where it went. Again, John was a less pragmatic man, and stuck by his principles.

From the steady opposition which faithful Friends in early times made to wrong things then approved, they were hated and persecuted by men living in the spirit of this world, and suffering with firmness, they were made a blessing to the church, and the work prospered. It equally concerns men in every age to take heed to their own spirits.

Summing up: the personal trumps all

In the end, John Woolman’s conviction was that personal truth was of ultimate importance and that came from God. Like Ben Franklin, he believed that this did not always come naturally, and although he didn’t have a set of 13 rules, he believed that people needed to constantly practise self awareness.

That where a people who are convinced of the truth of the inward teachings of Christ are active in putting laws in action which are not consistent with pure wisdom, it hath a necessary tendency to bring dimness over their eyes.

Unfortunately, dimness isn’t always easy to recognise. It can come as we get busy, as we get families we need to care for, as we get obligations. Reading his journal, I kept thinking, that’s fine in theory, but in practice… But John Woolman had all of these, what he also had was his own set of priorities. Ultimately they are different priorities from mine, but he made clear that all these things are a matter of choice. They may not be easy choices. They may not be popular choices, but they are choices.

We may see ourselves crippled and halting and from a strong bias to things pleasant and easy find an impossibility to move forward; but things impossible with men are possible with God; and our wills being made subject to his, all temptations are surmountable.

At the risk of setting the foundations for a mid-life crisis, I agree there is no requirement to follow what society would have us do rather than what our inner voice tells us. We need to rediscover some sort of personal truth, some absolute, but to rediscover it for ourselves. The trouble is, as John Woolman’s points out, the absolute is usually the one thing we don’t want to see.

His solution is to turn to God.  It’s a poor substitute, but for now, my solution will be moving to the next volume in the five foot shelf.

John Woolman’s Journal – A puritan, personal truth

John Woolman’s Journal presents a distillation of the puritan side of Ben Franklin. The two men were very similar in many ways, but if given the choice, I would much rather have Ben over for dinner. Whereas Ben Franklin was pragmatic in accepting of the weakness of human beings (as in his non-judgemental discussions of the ways reason can be shaped to meet the most desirable end or the fable of the shiny axe), John Woolman was a lot less forgiving. On the other hand, his cause was one where there wasn’t much room for negotiation.

The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable.

Knowing thyself: the importance of a personal truth

To be fair, he was unforgiving on himself more than anyone, and was often in a funk as he weighed what his conscience told him was correct against the mores of his time.

John Woolman followed the dictate to “know thyself” in that his journals are full of soul searching. But if external actions are what counts, then he comes out of it all with top marks. He was a retailer, and as aware as any that goodwill and presenting a nice face to customers is important. But despite his constant internal struggles as to what might be the best thing to do in any situation; his ultimate decisions were all based on what was the right thing to do, rather than what was expedient.

Tradesmen and retailers of goods, who depend on their business for a living, are naturally inclined to keep the good-will of their customers; nor is it a pleasant thing for young men to be under any necessity to question the judgment or honesty of elderly men, and more especially of such as have a fair reputation. Deep-rooted customs, though wrong, are not easily altered; but it is the duty of all to be firm in that which they certainly know is right for them.

Most people seemed to recognise his sincerity (or knew enough of his obstinacy), and when he explained his reasons for decisions (and he was always ready to enter into conversation and examine his motives), they were accepted.

About this time an ancient man of good esteem in the neighborhood came to my house to get his will written. He had young negroes, and I asked him privately how he purposed to dispose of them. He told me; I then said, “I cannot write thy will without breaking my own peace,” and respectfully gave him my reasons for it. He signified that he had a choice that I should have written it, but as I could not, consistently with my conscience, he did not desire it, and so he got it written by some other person. A few years after, there being great alterations in his family, he came again to get me to write his will. His negroes were yet young, and his son, to whom he intended to give them, was, since he first spoke to me, from a libertine become a sober young man, and he supposed that I would have been free on that account to write it. We had much friendly talk on the subject, and then deferred it. A few days after he came again and directed their freedom, and I then wrote his will.

He is very aware that his truth is a personal one, even though it may have come to him from God. This meant that other people were still practicing the “old” ways, and the fact that some of these people were older, richer and more esteemed than him, made changing their ways a difficult matter.

Through the humbling dispensations of Divine Providence, men are sometimes fitted to his service. The messages of the prophet Jeremiah were so disagreeable to the people, and so adverse to the spirit they lived in, that he became the object of their reproach, and in the weakness of nature he thought of desisting from his prophetic office; but saith he, “His word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I was weary with forebearing and could not stay.” I saw at this time that if I was honest in declaring that which truth opened in me, I could not please all men; and I laboured to be content in the way of my duty, however disagreeable to my inclination.

Conscience is sacrosanct

But just because something is hard, or painful, or might mean offending others, is not reason not to do it, regardless of the consequences. He admired the martyrs, men like John Huss, who

contended against the errors which had crept into the church … He modestly vindicated the cause which he believed was right; and though his language and conduct towards his judges appear to have been respectful, yet he never could be moved from the principles settled in his mind. To use his own words: “This I most humbly require and desire of you all, even for his sake who is the God of us all, that I be not compelled to the thing which my conscience doth repugn or strive against.” And again, in his answer to the Emperor: “I refuse nothing, most noble Emperor, whatsoever the council shall decree or determine upon me, only this one thing I except, that I do not offend God and my conscience.” At length, rather than act contrary to that which he believed the Lord required of him, he chose to suffer death by fire.

One of the difficulties with attending to the inner life is the difficulty of knowing whether it is the voice of God, or something telling you what you want to do; some form of distorted reason that rather than asking you to do something you don’t want, is a reverse pride or self mortification, asking you to do something beyond what is required. John’s family may have felt some of this, as his life seemed to be lived constantly on the road travelling around the country, attending meetings and sharing his vision.

Time and again his belief in the importance of truth and the inner life trumped everything else.

In the difficulties attending us in this life nothing is more precious than the mind of truth inwardly manifested; and it is my earnest desire that I this weighty matter we may be so truly humbled as to be favoured with a clear understanding of the mind of truth and follow it.

In other words, once we had found out what God wants of us, there is no escape from it. In some ways it might be better never to have known, because ignorance (perhaps labelled innocence) is at least some defence.

Should we now be sensible of what he requires of us, and through respect of the private interest of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in fairness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, god may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this matter.

The truth can be a pain and oblige us to do things we don’t want to do at times. It is not always convenient, but in John Woolman’s mind there is no shirking from it. The truth is better made clear, and damn the consequences.

Ben Franklin and the art of practical self improvement

My second day with Ben made me feel lazy.

Here was a man who founded hospitals, fire stations, libraries and schools, who build roads and commanded armies. Or rather, who was responsible for making these things happen – chiefly motivating people to give money, organising the work, and, most importantly, trying not to take too much credit for what was achieved. As someone who struggled to get regular numbers for a touch rugby team, I have more than a little appreciation of what sort of effort this takes.

The thought then came, well, aren’t some people just born to do these things, to take control? (As always) Ben had an answer to that too:

As no end likewise happens without a means, so we shall find, sir, that even you yourself framed a plan by which you became considerable; but at the same time we may see that though the event is flattering, the means are as simple as wisdom could make them; that is, depending upon nature, virtue, thought and habit

… Our sensations being very much fixed to the moment, we are apt to forget that more moments are to follow the first, and consequently that man should arrange his conduct so as to suit the whole of a life.

In other words, while people can become who they are by accident, successful people don’t usually follow this path. Instead, Ben counsels deciding what you want to achieve, then making a plan to achieve it.

(As always) Ben had some instructions on how to do this as well – his famous 13 virtues.

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. 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.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

By following these rules, he was determined to make himself a better person, but he acknowledged that following them was not easy, and just as by reason we can convince ourselves that what we desire is what is good for us, so we can label faults in ourselves as natural, especially when they can be hard to correct:

I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn’d, while the smith press’d the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” said the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.”

His own aims, he said, were the betterment of (hu)mankind. He wasn’t devoted to any particular sect, but rather concentrated on what was good, and, as in this description of a preacher, he judged the worth of something by the effect that it had. there was no point in having rules effect of what was said.

but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

As a digression on this Herbert Dreyfus, a professor at Berkley, has a course available as a podcast called Man, God and Society in Western Literature. The distinction he makes in the above passage reminded me of a lecture in the course discussing the Gospel of John, and how Jesus was a disruptive force because he was the catalyst for transitioning society from the (Jewish) rule bound system to the Christian principles-based system.

In the former, whether you were a good person was predicated on your external actions (i.e. in following the 10 commandments, things such as “Thou shalt not steal”), in the latter, your internal thoughts and feelings make a difference and the 10 commandment “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” becomes representative of this, because “coveting” is not something you can physically stop yourself doing. What is needed is to change the whole person, rather than just their visible actions – though I’m sure Ben, as a pragmatist, would be content with something less!

For me, it’s a similar shift that Ben is making; the niceties and rules of what religion we practice or doctrine we follow is not the important thing, what is important is the principles on which those rules are based, the reasons for those rules. We must not confuse cause and effect “vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful.”

For me, that’s a good place to leave off with Ben. Ultimately, he believed in personal responsibility and that people should better themselves – kind of like what I’m attempting to do in ploughing through this five foot shelf of reading.

It’s a great choice of first book to reinforce the project and make us all little Bens. Now if only I could find those instructions about flying kites in a thunderstorm…

In the beginning was Ben

Opening at page one of my Harvard Classics, I begin with Ben Franklin. It seems Dr Eliot has pitched up a nice soft opening for my reading, the autobiography is an easy read, but it has a lot to ponder on. Ben wasn’t the easiest of people to get along with, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. At the same time, though, he did have a lot of self insight and realised he was as susceptible to weakness as anyone, as per the passage below:

In my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

When discussing free thinking (and without going to the extremes of Nietzsche), he also makes an important distinction between what might be true (free thinking) and what is useful (people who practice free thinking are not automatically good people because of it, in fact, when he reviews is acquaintances, he begins to think that the reverse might be true. Following that line of thought, he encompasses means and ends, coming to the conclusion that

though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it [Revelation], or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures.

In other words, Ben seems to be a man who has a tremendous drive (entrepreneur par excellence and can’t help organising and directing other people wherever he goes), but can also takes a pragmatic approach to recognising beliefs outside his own, and what they can achieve.

It’s been a few years since I tried to reflect properly on reading, so thanks to Ben for giving me a bit of oil to help start the gears creaking once again.