Friday, December 11, 2015

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Healthy, wealthy, and wise
Benjamin Franklin began writing his autobiography in 1771 for the benefit of his son William. When he died in 1790, the work was unfinished. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was first published in France in 1791, and in England in 1793. Since then, as more material was discovered more was added to the text of subsequent editions. The editions in print today generally consist of four parts, covering Franklin’s life up to about 1758. It’s a relatively brief work—given Franklin’s extensive accomplishments—and written in a brisk, unassuming, and conversational tone. Despite its advanced age, the language is surprisingly contemporary with few awkward passages to impede modern readers. In fact, 21st century readers can still learn much from Franklin. His autobiography is not only a history lesson but also a sort of self-help book in which Franklin divulges his wisdom on life.

If you’ve ever worked in the printing industry (as I have), you’ll enjoy the book all the more. The first half of the book details his course in establishing himself as a printer and newspaper publisher in Philadelphia. Book lovers will appreciate the details Franklin provides on his founding of America’s first public library. This institution grew out of a club called the Junto which Franklin formed with several friends, to aid each other in mutual intellectual and moral improvement. Franklin is very candid about his religious views, describing himself early on as a deist, meaning he believes that God created the universe but does not interfere in the natural course of the universe. Though his views disagree with those of the prominent Christian sects of his day, he recognized the social and moral benefits of organized religion, participated in religious services, and appreciated a well-written, practical sermon.

The Autobiography is a practical sermon in and of itself, as Franklin outlines his own personal guide to the good life. He presents his plan for attaining “moral perfection,” listing 13 essential virtues, and his attempts to cultivate each of them. Though he readily admits he never achieved the perfection he sought, he avers that his life has benefited greatly from trying. And looking at his life, that’s an assertion that’s hard to dispute. Reading The Autobiography harkens one back to a time when a gentleman of a certain class, through intelligence and hard work, could literally achieve whatever he wanted in life. Opportunities abounded, and Franklin took full advantage of them. Prior to the age of specialization, he was able to excel in business, politics, philosophy, letters, and science.

Despite the great admiration I have for Franklin, even I have to admit there are some extremely yawnworthy passages here, but it’s worth slogging through them to get to the good stuff. I found Franklin’s political endeavors the least interesting, such as when he recounts certain legislative squabbles in great detail. There’s also an entire chapter on how he acquired horses and wagons at the request of the British military. Those hoping for cameos by Washington, Jefferson, and the like will be disappointed. All this took place before the Revolution, of course, and the only names likely to be recognized by history buffs are perhaps those of various British governors.

I’m sure there are more complete biographies of Franklin out there, but there’s certainly something to be said for getting one’s history straight from the horse’s mouth. Though you may not get the full story of his life, reading The Autobiography will surely give you a taste of what it might have been like to meet this remarkable man and bask in his wise and witty conversation.
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