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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Part Two

Part One, third section

Part Three, first section

Summary

Part Two opens with the letters to Franklin The first is from a Mr. Abel James, and it comments on Part One of the Autobiography and the outline of the rest of the work, both of which Franklin had shown him asking for his opinion. Written in 1782, the letter encourages Franklin to complete the work. The second letter is from Benjamin Vaughn, and it is dated January, 1783. Having seen the outline and parts of the book itself, Vaughn encourages Franklin to continue with the book because, when published, the book may be of great use to others who are looking for a model by which they can better their lives. Perhaps more importantly, Vaughn argues that the publication of the Autobiography will prove to the English that the Americans are a great people of virtue and industry, and America is a country which has great economic mobility.

Franklin, who is writing from France immediately after the Revolution ended, returns to some of his old accomplishments. He mentioned that the library he started in 1730 was a big success. He had bought books from England because there were no good bookstores in Philadelphia. His library, he writes, helped "reading become fashionable...[and] people become better acquainted with books." Nevertheless, fearing resentment from others because of his increasing success and fame, Franklin writes that he did not take too much credit for the library when it first started.

As the library is started, Franklin himself is just starting a new family with Miss Read, his new wife. He uses the library for his own mental development, and meanwhile he manages to support his family based on "industry and frugality." He saves money wherever possible. He remains a firm Deist, but he mentions that he respects all religions and dislikes religious strife. He does not ever attend "public worship," and he finds fault in some Christian theological interpretations of morality.

Continually obsessed with self-betterment, Franklin consents "to the bold and arduous project of arriving at Moral Perfection." He creates a list of 13 virtues that are, in order: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. He sets about creating a weekly plan by which he will develop one virtue per week, eventually perfecting them all. He focuses on one virtue per week, keeping track of his successes and failures in a small book he keeps with him at all times. He also develops a daily planner to help him acquire Order. Franklin finds many faults at first, but over time he manages to correct most of them. He finds that Order is the most difficult for him to acquire, partly because Franklin's good memory makes Order not as necessary. However, Franklin ends up being pleased with his inability to perfect all his virtues, deciding, "a speckled axe is best....A benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance." Franklin writes that although he never became perfect, he did become happier. He writes about his hope that all his descendants who read his Autobiography will derive the same enjoyment and benefits from acquiring these virtues.

Franklin adds that the list of virtues are likely to appeal to people of all religions. They are not geared specifically at any one particular faith because Franklin stresses their utilitarian benefits rather than their moral benefits. He mentions that Humility was added last when his friends started to complain that he was too arrogant. To make himself seem more humble, he used such phrases as "I conceive" or "I apprehend" rather than "certainly, undoubtedly," etc. Franklin writes that he afterwards started enjoying conversations more. However, he found his pride impossible to vanquish. In fact, he sardonically mentions that he became so humble so as to be proud of his own humility.

Note: In 1784, Franklin once again stops writing his autobiography. He resumes back in America, four years later, in August 1788.

Commentary

While Franklin's inclusion of two highly congratulatory letters at the beginning of this section may seem arrogant, it provides a framework that explains why Franklin is writing on virtues. Both writers imply that an autobiography such as Franklin's can be of great use to others because Franklin has lived a life of great virtue. For the betterment of society, Franklin ought to make his life public. That way, others can try to lead similar successful lives and rise up into prominence. The general manners of the 18th century will be promoted if this book is released, say the letter writers. Franklin uses these two letters to explain why he writes an entire section on the improvement of one's virtues. He seems to want his autobiography to be as useful as possible towards the betterment of others. This also adds a new twist to the book; it is no longer just the story of Franklin's life told so as to let his son know about his father. It is now also a general-purpose self-help manual.

Of course, Franklin's mention of his goal of achieving "Moral Perfection" is meant to be humorous. Franklin is stating in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that he does not think man can really be perfected, and he is mocking the 18th-century optimism that promoted the belief in the perfectibility of man. In one sense, Franklin may also be mocking his own youthful idealism. Franklin enjoys being ironic and humorous throughout the biography, and this is one of the times in which he does so.

At the end of Part One, it may be useful to reflect upon Franklin's writing style. Compared to many authors of the 18th century, Franklin's style is noticeably concise and easy to read. He gets to the point very quickly and reports on the important facts rather than the secondary ones. It is oftentimes remarkable how much information and how many stories he can fit into a single page. Franklin carried that style into his newspaper writing, and it has survived there right up into the present. Franklin played a major role in developing journalism as a terse form of writing, always sticking to the point. Also, while some of the anecdotes in the Autobiography are slightly unclear, Franklin rarely tells tangential stories unless they contribute directly to whatever point he is trying to make. Furthermore, he always finds the shortest way to express any particular thought, a fact that is evidenced by his prolific coinage of aphorisms. Its accessibility may be another reason for the enduring popularity of Franklin's Autobiography; as an 18th-century work, it is certainly among the most easily read and understood.

At the end of Part Two, we see Franklin again struggling with the issue of his own vanity. To his credit, he is more than willing to confess that he could never quell his pride, even though he did his best to feign humility. Nevertheless, the very act of publishing an autobiography in order to lay out one's life as a model is itself a vain act. This is one of the more common criticisms of Franklin. Many have argued that he is too hypocritical in his overt praise of humility. Other critics, however, have been unfazed by this apparent contradiction. Either way, Franklin himself is clearly aware of the humility vs. pride problem, and there are times in the Autobiography when he is obviously confessing his own faults so as to be honest.

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