Digital

Exclusive online content

Ben Franklin’s Cult of Drabness

By: Michael Knox Beran
April 10, 2018

he spiritual life of Englishmen in the Age of Reason, insofar as it is reflected in their literature, makes for dreary reading. A great emptiness lies between the riches of 17th-century devotion—the King James Bible’s prose and the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, for example—and Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rediscovery of the soul towards the end of the 18th century. This emptiness is broken only here and there by cries from the depths like those from Samuel Johnson.

Benjamin Franklin, an Englishman of the American colonies, was a wanderer in these spiritual deserts. Born in Boston in the waning days of Calvinism, he early rebelled against the Puritan faith, and as a young printer in London came under the spell of Dutch émigré Bernard Mandeville's ethical relativism. Much taken by the idea that nothing is good or bad but that thinking makes it so, he had a go at fashioning a beyond-good-and-evil philosophy of his own, and in 1725 he brought out his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, in which he concluded that “evil doth not exist.”

He soon saw that his “little metaphysical piece” was “not so clever a Performance” as he first thought it. But where he went from there is a matter of debate. Thomas Kidd, in his engaging study Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, portrays a man who rejected Calvinism's dogmas but remained influenced by its culture. Rather like George Santayana, an unbeliever who thought Catholicism's poetry useful in reconciling the bewildered soul to the difficulties of life, Kidd’s Franklin finds in the ethical effluvia of Puritanism—its early-to-bed, early-to-rise ideals of abstemious industry—a source of insight into how to get on in the world.

A distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, Kidd gives us a Franklin intent on evolving a “Christianity based on virtue and reason, not doctrine,” and a practical code of “ethics and self-improvement.” Believing that we worship God best by living best—that is, most prudently—Kidd’s Franklin is the pioneer of a “doctrineless, moralized Christianity” that in certain directions anticipates the self-help spirituality preached by such television seers as Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey. And yet there remains in Franklin’s religion, as Kidd describes it, a core of conventional Christianity. As he lay dying in Philadelphia in 1790 Franklin composed this testament:

Here is my creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

Kevin Slack, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College, paints a very different Franklin in his closely argued monograph, Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue. If he's right, Franklin’s dying words must be read as a concession to opinion rather than a declaration of belief. Rejecting the “Christian belief in a provident supernatural deity,” Slack’s Franklin developed instead a theology of nature. In his 1735 A Defense of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill’s Observations, he argued that the “great Laws of Morality and Virtue” are “discoverable by the Light of Nature” and could be ascertained by any reasonable man. Slack’s Franklin is a philosopher in the Western natural law tradition who conceived philosophy as “a rebellion against the rule of fatherly authority by divine fiat.” God was simply another name for reason, and providence but the prudent application of man’s rational faculties to his worldly problems. Reason “orders the mind and the political laws,” Slack writes of Franklin’s views, even as it “mends the scheme of providence to impose habits of industry on natural inclinations, channeling them toward useful ends.”

Having discovered the “true religion of nature,” Slack’s Franklin could dispense with the “cruel tyrant of a supernatural deity.” Yet as a philosopher he was conscious that most of mankind was incapable of genuine philosophy. Unable to perceive the truth, they languished in the realm of opinion. The great lawgivers—and Slack’s Franklin “understood himself as a lawgiver in the classical sense, who by his laws shapes the character of a people”—had therefore to devise or acquiesce in fables suitable for the benighted multitude’s consumption. Smiling at the folly of a supernatural God, Slack’s Franklin nevertheless invoked Him to keep the mob in line. To this end he composed his “Doctrine to be Preached,” in which he warned the rabble of an omniscient deity who rewards virtue and punishes vice in the hereafter.

Which is the true Franklin? The esoteric initiate portrayed by Slack is a good deal closer, in his philosophic certainty, to the French lumières of his day than to their Anglo-Scottish counterparts. Where Kidd’s Franklin resembles David Hume in his aversion to dogmatism, whether founded in God or reason, Slack’s comes close, at times, to being a doctrinaire rationalist who is convinced that he has figured it all out. There is no saving modesty in his rationalism; it would seem to have more in common with Robespierre’s culte de la raison than with Socrates’ or Montaigne’s philosophic moderation. Because the laws of nature are discernible by any reasonable man, any reasonable man can hope to promulgate, as Slack supposes Franklin did, “a new kind of virtue,” and can aspire to create from scratch a rational political regime in which such virtue will flourish. The best of all possible polities turns out to be a commercial republic on the American model.

T.S. Eliot said the English in the 18th century possessed a “mature mind: but it was a narrow one…especially in the scale of religious feeling.” The shortcomings are evident in Franklin. He was genuinely wise, but when reading him today one is conscious of whole realms of experience with which he was either unacquainted or had no language to describe. He mocked the Calvinist theologians who spilt oceans of ink quibbling over obscure points of superstitious fancy, yet his own idea of religion was, like theirs, almost wholly a matter of words, and indeed almost wholly a matter of prose.

Of the living poetry of religion, he knew next to nothing; the Calvinism in which he was brought up had interdicted all its arts, from sculpture and painting to ritual feasting and the more elaborate liturgical forms. It is true that, on a visit to Flanders, he caught a fleeting glimpse of an ancient living religion and was much taken with the pageantry that was an element of its poetry. But his own sketches for new and improved devotional practices—complete with readings from “prominent natural theology writers” intended to inculcate virtue—have all the charm of what D.H. Lawrence called a “barbed wire moral enclosure.” Beauty of form, whether in the worship of God or the conduct of life, was a luxury the prudent soul avoided.

In Franklin the old Puritan iconoclasm had been sublimated into Yankee parsimony. Utility was his standard; the teaching of Aristotle, that to “be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls,” was alien to him. In this he anticipated the “elaborate and deliberate ugliness” of the civilization G.K. Chesterton deplored. From the cattle-pen spaces inspired by Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s theory of functional segregation to the lightly dressed hog troughs of the suburban shopping center, we pass a good deal of our lives in places that rot the soul. These places are a manifestation of a more profound shortcoming already evident in Franklin’s philosophy of life, which would know the good but is impatient of its connection to the beautiful and noble. Franklin is cut off from the old Western idea that we fulfill a part of our nature when, in the phrase of Aristotle, we “take possession of the beautiful.”

It is not, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, that “the sight of the ugly makes men bad and gloomy.” The Athenian citizen or the medieval Christian, with their cults of classic or of Gothic beauty, were as badly behaved as we are. But each was continuously confronted, as we are not, by a living poetry that urged them to rise above complacency in the ordering of their days. Each would have had some inkling of what Plato meant by his meditation on the relation between poetry and order in The Laws, and some sympathy for the Bishop of Digne’s assertion, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, that the “beautiful is as useful as the useful…. More so, perhaps.”

It was Santayana who observed that the poetry which intervenes most effectually in life is likely to be religious poetry. We moderns resist the idea; in our great books courses we read the tragic dramas of Athens as though they were works of secular art, when in fact they were composed in the shadow of Apollo and Dionysus, and were about as secular as the Latin Mass. But in an age which, like ours, rightly values secular pluralism and the freedoms it confers, we can’t have this sort of poetry intervening in our common life. And so we read sages like Franklin in the hope that they will reconcile us to what has by default become our living religion—the poetry of utility, the adoration of what John Ruskin called the “Goddess of Getting-on.”

Alexis de Tocqueville might have had Franklin in mind when he said that the modern democratic man will “habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful.” There is hardly a town in the United States but bears out the truth of the observation—“the pull,” H.L. Mencken said, “is always toward ugliness.” The American, as a rule, shrinks from beauty as from a thing fatal to his practicality; his humane arts are hid away in little mausoleums of dead culture—the concert hall, the museum, the great books colloquium—carefully walled off from the living world beyond.

We read Benjamin Franklin, as I say, to justify this state of affairs to ourselves. Like other philosophers of the revolt against the soul, he teaches us to put up with more drabness in arts and manners, and more superficiality in the question of how to live, in order that we might have personal liberty and quantities of cud to chew. It is not a bad bargain, and I can’t see my way to a better one. And yet like most bargains, it leaves something to be desired.