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World's Most Influential People: Benjamin Franklin

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“From Lightening to Enlightenment: The Legacy of Benjamin Franklin”

Benjamin Franklin was a prominent leader of early colonial America, and his legacy and influence on American government can be seen to this day. While the outsized impact that he has had on the development of the United States is not seriously questioned, it is worthwhile to look at his life from the perspective of both the modern era as well as his own. Only when considering each can his life’s work be truly understood and appreciated. In examining his life there are two main competing rubrics that will be used: the ideas of enlightenment, and practicality. These dueling perspectives are the primary methods of analysis. Often unrecognized, nearly all serious discussions invoke these principles. For example, by arguing against a candidate as being idealistic but impractical, or critiquing a modern art piece for having no clearly decipherable meaning, the ideas of enlightenment and practicality are important analytical tools. It is only through these that Benjamin Franklin’s intellectual life and legacy can be properly appreciated and understood. As a reference in this study, particular focus will be given to two separate writings of Franklin, “Articles of Belief” and “The Way to Wealth”, which were published in 1728 and 1757 respectively. In conducting this examination, it will be seen that Benjamin Franklin is unique figure who is both enlightened and practical, and who continues to have meaning and relevance to this day.

Enlightenment is a concept which often seems to lack a clear, decisive meaning. Although it is used in connection with dozens of historical, political, intellectual, and religious movements and periods, it has almost become overused to the point where it lacks any objective meaning and is just a catch-all adjective which can be used in any context. To have any hope of judging the extent of Benjamin Franklin’s enlightenment, the principle of enlightenment must be firmly defined and established. The general principle of enlightenment is defined by Random House Unabridged Dictionary as, “a philosophical movement of the 18th century, characterized by belief in the power of human reason and by innovations in political, religious, and educational doctrine.” In addition to the enlightenment movement itself, it is also valuable to consider the modern meaning of the word itself. This is given by Oxford Dictionary as, “Having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.” Taken together, while these definitions largely reinforce each other, they also serve to refine what is means to be enlightened. Enlightenment is characterized by being intellectually innovative and holding modern, and well-founded viewpoints. Though there is obviously a great deal of subjectivity involved, Benjamin Franklin seems to easily meet this standard. To draw an example from his writings, in “Articles of Belief”, Franklin ponders man’s inherent worth and significance saying, “this little Ball on which we move, seems, even in my own narrow Imagination, to be almost Nothing, and myself less than nothing and of no consequence… I imagine it great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect, does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man.” While some conventions regarding word use and sentence structure have changed since Franklin’s time, his writing is otherwise indistinguishable from many current writings. Modern thinker Carl Sagan presents a similar argument in his book1 on the famous photograph, “Pale Blue Dot”, “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different… On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Though separated by over two hundred and fifty years, both Sagan and Franklin give similarly constructed arguments on the value of humanity. Franklin may lack the tools of Sagan, but his analysis is equally relevant today. But enlightenment is about more than just modern thinking, it also requires an intellectually rigorous argument behind that thinking, and the earlier selected quotation, as well as other writings of Franklin give clear testimony to the depth of his logic. Benjamin Franklin’s modern and rational writings clearly identify him as being very enlightened, particularly for his time, but even for the modern era. However, there is no necessary link between being enlightened and being practical.

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One issue which befalls many enlightened writers is the failure to make practical arguments. For instance, Plato is easily regarded as one of the great thinkers and writers, but he doesn’t make practicality a priority. As a result, though he may make interesting points, such as arguing in “The Republic”, that a country should be ruled by a group of people who give up possessions, the relative impracticality of his proposals limits the applicability to real world problems which makes his writings less valuable to future generations. Rather than having strictly scholarly value, Benjamin Franklin distinguishes himself by maintaining a high degree of practicality, or as an acquaintance of his might term it, “Common Sense,”2 which enables his writing to be easy understood and appreciated by individuals of all educational levels. This is clearly displayed in his piece, “The Way to Wealth,” which liberally borrows selections from Poor Richard’s Almanack, a tome written by Franklin. “The Way to Wealth” is filled with examples which attest to his wit and wisdom, such as, “If you would be wealthy… think of Saving as well as of Getting: The Indies have not made Spain rich, because her Outgoes are greater than her Incomes,” and “Creditors… have better Memories than Debtors… Those have a short Lent… who owe Money to be paid at Easter.” These are each instructive, and understandable, and as would be expected for an 18th century writing, are tailored to 18th century situations. Benjamin Franklin’s advice was splendid then, and it remains practical today. He has the rare gift of being able to write both scholarly and philosophically as well as simply and practically.

Benjamin Franklin helped found the America we know and love today, and through a careful examination of his writings, particularly “Articles of Belief” and “The Way to Wealth”, a greater understanding emerges. His arguments are well-articulated and rigorously supported, and his advice is impeccable. He is the rare person who can write for the scholar and laymen alike. He is both enlightened, and practical, and it is a blessing to have access to his writings. But access alone means little. Information must be used to be of value. The real takeaway from Franklin’s writings is actually given by himself in “The Way to Wealth”: “They that won’t be counselled, can’t be helped.”

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