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.


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