Benjamin Franklin Wasn’t a Bad Ass, But It Doesn’t Matter: Finding Complexity in a Figure of Virtue

A Page from Benjamin Franklin’s Journal. The Harvard Classics. Vol. 1. 1909

As observed during my study of Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is the troubled, sinful characters that draw more interest and attention, such as the most intense of rebels, Lucifer, or in the book, she who is the tender of nature, curious and drawn towards the edges of the garden, Eve. I sometimes wonder if our attention veers toward those who transgress because we are in one of those decadent social collapse eras Paglia discusses, but as history demonstrates, the fascination with transgressors is a tendency that holds throughout time. It’s a tendency we can see in audiences of tragic Greek plays, like Medea or Oedipus Rex. The protagonists are the insanely vengeful or terribly cursed. We might also consider the mad emperors of Rome, the tales of their cruelty outliving the reigns of more temperate men. We could also look to the tortured tragic heroes of renaissance drama or the conflicted, love-stricken knights of the courtly love tradition. Even the vampiric waifs of romantic literature demonstrate this tendency. It really comes down to human nature. In our imperfect state, many people find comfort in micro-analyzing the flaws of others. It confirms the idea that the imperfection within is not unique to us but is something manifested and reflected in larger archetypes and historical figures. On the other hand, history has also proven that trends of interest change like the tides. What one generation finds interesting is the next generation’s burnt toast, which makes me think that figures of virtue will start drawing more attention in the next decade than we have seen in a while.

That being said, Benjamin Franklin is a figure of virtue who has recently drawn my interest. I grew up thinking about him in the flat, oversimplified tones that are predictably painted in most public schools. When I was a student, the dullest portions of his writings were excerpted, and the students confused him with the Quaker Oats man. Most people I know generally think of Franklin as someone daft, his virtue reeking of naivety and uncouthness, a silly old man, which is really unfair considering how savvy he actually was in high tension, high stress situations amongst people of all social statuses and differing customs. I have known some people who have celebrated him, but only if they were using him as an example for the historical basis of successful vegetarianism. The P.E.T.A. types would talk about him with admiration but only because of his “benevolent” dietary preferences. I may not be so different from the rest. During my life long studies, I have also found darker, troubled characters more interesting. However, as time passes, I find that I am actually more drawn to figures of virtue because what has become incredibly clear to me is that it is more difficult to get it right than it is to get it wrong. By contemplating figures of virtue, I have discovered that they don’t lack complexity. If anything, they may be more complex because they somehow transcend their natural lower impulses and thus evade tragedy or are able to remedy disorder. When I started reading Franklin’s journal entries, I found him to be an intelligent assessor of what would benefit his community and how to start contentious yet vitally important projects. He masterfully could create opportunity despite hardship and opposition. I was surprised to discover that despite his commitment to virtue, he was aware of his own weaknesses and those weaknesses were expressed so that his readers, mainly his descendants as he explained, might benefit from them. The idea is that imperfection is part of the human condition, and so when someone has a flaw, one should work on it but not torture themselves in rumination. In his writing, I did sense a bit of a fixation on temperance, something most modern readers would roll their eyes at, but he does go at great lengths to explain the foolish decisions of drunken men who ruined businesses or acted with cruelty. He must have striven for temperance in an attempt to avoid the foolish errors he saw around him. His actions and words illustrate that he was a good, if somewhat plain, man, and that goodness fascinates me because he isn’t stupid, shallow, or annoyingly self-righteous as many figures of virtue are painted to be. In the text, he doesn’t seem the sheep. His virtue isn’t about blind conformity. It’s about caring for oneself and others and being guided by wisdom.

There are other figures of virtue that captivate the social imagination too, not just in an “insert social hero here as a substitute for Jesus” kind of way, but it is my observation that many of these figures of virtue who genuinely fascinate the masses do because they are painted by corporate media as virtuous. Some of the figures of virtue may be flawed in a hip anti-hero type of way, sticking it to “the system” or are perhaps somewhat psychedelic even if in just a spiritual sense. Obviously, there are other figures of virtue that fascinate, like clever Odysseus, but when people aren’t regularly exposed to them or have a knee-jerk anti-intellectual response to old tales about virtuous men, they tend to discount them as boring without actually having examined their stories. In this era where the tearing down of Western culture has been popularized, I suppose that some figures of virtue are sometimes viewed as uninteresting because they uphold social codes in a time when so many people want to replace older codes with newer, untested ones

I have tried to imagine Franklin as an Instagram persona, but I can’t quite see it. Franklin’s writing is sprinkled with what looks like bullet journal entries, yet he doesn’t come off as a petty type-A personality whose life is devoted to pristinely organized journals and nothing more, not to say that bullet journaling types are that way (don’t get me wrong). From his writing, it’s clear that he was a man of deep thought, varied interest, and relentless effort, a man incredibly deep while maintaining an air of proactive humanity. He doesn’t come off as self-centered or elitist. His writing has the power to guide an introvert like me into the mind of a successful extrovert who actually has a meticulously tended inner universe, a microcosm that he takes seriously without losing his levity. It’s striking how he balances it all so naturally. It reminds me of Wu Wei, one of the first things I learned about at the Buddhist Temple. Wu Wei is actually a Taoist concept — effortlessly going with the flow and thus prevailing without trying. It’s one of those instructive paradoxes.

Obviously, Taoist concepts wouldn’t have been part of Franklin’s world view; however, as he tracks his approach to both the seemingly endless days as well as the troubles that arise, the reader experiences it as an effortless flow. Even so, his writing reveals that it wasn’t so effortless as he traversed his reality. It is just the retrospective examination of his writing that smooths together the trajectories of his reasoning while, of course, the remove of temporal sensation makes it seems as if he just knew how to deal with everything in the best possible way and his errors seem like the inevitability of life or Fortune rather than the result of his own flaws.

At this point, I have to make a confession. I’ve already explained my lifelong interest in darker, tragic figures and have mentioned a more recent interest in figures of virtue. Despite being very interested in figures of virtue, the admission I have to make is that I do love the “bad ass” archetype. I’m talking about the outlaw archetype, gun slinging and refusing to bow. My all-time favorite movies, books, and histories are about these types of people. I wouldn’t call Franklin a bad ass. I would call him brave, industrious, and incredibly intelligent, but even with his flaws, I don’t see an ounce of outlaw in him. It doesn’t matter though: Franklin is one of my favorite figures of American history. It might take skill and strategy to be a bad ass, but it is even more difficult to be an authentic figure of virtue, one who is honest about his flaws and doesn’t shirk his humanity while still consistently striving for a better inner state and a stronger community as a whole.

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