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.


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