A Most Epigrammatic Man: Benjamin Franklin
In the above passage, the portrait of a polymorphous man was drawn. Now I, playing the role of amateur sketch-artist, will try to delve into the corners of this chameleon of a man and find what lessons there may be. I look, for not only my own edification but for yours as well, at the curves and the subtle lines that enrich this man—and by extension, all of us, for we live in his mold. It’s only there one will find what’s most appealing, most vibrant, and above all, most salient for an audience thirsty for wisdom and inclined toward art. In recovering them, these morsels, that is, we string together a uniquely American aesthetic that has traveled quietly throughout a landscape of time.
Certainly, one man can’t hope to capture Benjamin Franklin in all of his nuance and subtlety of hue; the known spectrum of color isn’t sufficiently vast. He was a man whose discoveries hastened the coming of modernity; a politician whose statecraft baptized a land; a thinker whose thoughts enlightened the world. What the humble biographer can attempt, though, is to list a few of this foremost Founder’s most colorful witticisms and most enduring words. These, to borrow a Gallic term that Benjamin the Francophile would doubtless permit (if not encourage outright) are his greatest apercus, his greatest epigrammatic hits.
A deist himself, the first of Franklin’s quotes combines the pagan and the Christian; the Dionysus of old and the Jesus of new. “Wine” says the ever-skeptical Franklin, in a moment of oenophilic admiration and godly thanks, “is constant proof that god loves us and loves to see us happy”.
No drunkard myself, I’ll raise a glass to this cheery insight; it’s worth at least a shot. But in the raising of my glass, I shan’t raise a dispute. It’s said “in vino veritas”, and I consider this a legitimate, if not salubrious endorsement of drink. In a world of lies, falsity, and deceit, this power of wine is one that recommends itself to us well. But in places other than the bottle, truth surely is to be found, and Franklin is a prime and overflowing source. In the final analysis, then, it’s within Franklin’s always secular, though perhaps less frequently sober mind that truth is to be reached. Even so, that needn’t diminish the appeal and enjoyment of the vine, for whose presence on earth we thank a nameless, perhaps bibulous di-vine benefactor—one who smiles at and laughs with us from above.
Franklin next advises us to “Wish not so much to live long as to live well”. Luckily, our old friend alcohol serves us as no other in this regard; he (though sometimes she) is able to assist us in achieving a hasty and epicurean end—the very type that Franklin the bohemian prescribes and seeks.
Conceived in another, more familiar way, one might describe his apothegm as the famous “quantity versus quality” decision. The choice, it’s said, is yours to make. Too often, though, it’s a binary thing; one would be thought intemperate to hope for both a long and a blissful life, but is their combination really too much to ask? The consensus, at whose results I can’t help but bristle, is that, indeed, it is: we may only choose one.
That said, the latter, at least so far as the octogenarian Franklin was concerned, is to be preferred above the former. A latter-day Founding Father, President Abraham Lincoln, is claimed to have said something along that vein. “It’s not the years in a life that count”, the sixteenth president is attributed to have said, “but the life in the years which matter most”. This was a statement of prescience from a president if ever there was one. He was of course fated to die prematurely with a shot to the head, but one wouldn’t have guessed his to have been a life wanting in excitement nor fulfillment; he lived in his fifty-six years a life of that many men and probably many more.
But even a relatively young man, though he may have discovered fulfillment in life, will be understandably hesitant to go in haste toward the dying light. One can forgive such trepidation, but Franklin quiets our anxieties about our mortality. To live briefly like an Epicurean and die quickly like a Stoic is his prescription for a happy life, but such a course is easier said than done. Our first urge, after all, is to preserve ourselves—self-evident in the saying, but a fundamental Maslowian truth. Though the suicide may quibble, this remains to be so, no matter the emptiness that might torture his too-long life.
The idea of a short, albeit well-lived life, is one that pervades Franklin’s thought. It pops up time and again, making it clear that he thought deeply about his own mortality, even as he achieved legendary success both here and abroad. Here it is spelled out in the full grandeur of his wit, evident in the following passages:
“Some people”, wrote Franklin, this time in his famous almanac, “die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until seventy-five”. The extent of my own years puts me in the category of the former—a mere stripling of a thing just one-fourth of a century old. Yet I have frequent occasion to converse with the latter—a group, which we might call “geriatric” but which might offend—whose coming days are far fewer than those that have passed.
Having had and enjoyed those conversations with both young and old, I can say that Franklin’s words ring true. It seems as though at the age of twenty-five, the very moment at which the brain’s synapses become concrete and the body readies itself for a second act, people enter into an odd tenure of stasis from which they can’t be stirred. From juvenescence to senescence, the transition from action to inaction comes and goes in a blink and we’re paralyzed by the change. It becomes a kind of self-induced mental immobility that persists throughout life and ends finally with an actual rigor mortis in the grave. No longer will the spirit grow nor the brain reach. No heights will be scaled, no depths plunged. The new adult, whose claim to that designation still remains fresh, will swallow whole this strange opiate that is age. He’ll settle in for a mental slumber from which he can’t be roused until it’s too late. If that’s the case, what’s the use, Franklin and I wonder, of a half century if it’s to lack the vitality that is the essence of man?
To breathe this air but to find in it no inspiration is a mortal sin. It’s also sad. Though not a poet, (the one arena in which Franklin found only limited success) the sage of Philadelphia did possess a tragic sense. He decided, tackling a large and forbidding theme, that “life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late”. Again, Franklin grapples with the gravest of concerns as they pertain to life: quality, quantity, brevity, and, of course, mortality. We age ourselves too soon while our education arrives always too late. We notice this only with hindsight. We’re made to defer our fullest acquisition of wisdom until a time when we can hardly think.
How are we to reconcile this fate? An antidote is on hand, but to capture it, we must turn to a different, and in this instance, a second-wave founding father.
From the sage of Philadelphia to that of Concord, we turn on our heels and dash toward New England where wisdom can’t help but be found. We do so in the breathless philosophical haste that compels us forever to seek—as did Socrates, as do we. There, just outside of Franklin’s own birthplace at Boston, we find none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson—chief architect and engineer of the American way. Essayist, naturalist, Transcendentalist, lecturer, voyager, and promulgator of all things reliant on the self, Emerson continues to be our unacknowledged American creed. He, with the help of Franklin, forms the American backbone—supple, erect, industrious, sagacious, and wise at its core.
Given a hundred years to think, Emerson provided a beautiful response to Franklin’s quote. He said the following in response to old Ben’s anxiety about wisdom’s tardy acquisition: “To finish the moment”, Emerson said, “to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, that is wisdom”. Henry David Thoreau, crude compatriot and admirer of Emerson, would expound on this advice, urging us to live in each season as it passed. He’d tell us, seated within a mile of civilization at his Walden shack, that we ought to breathe the air, taste the fruit, drink the drink, and resign ourselves to the moment and the influences of each. I doubt Thoreau’s prescription would be too sensual for Franklin’s taste, but Emerson, as always, was best in identifying where wisdom lay. It’s in every breath—if only you’ll notice.
Listed above are but four of Franklin’s quotes; below could be many more. In anticipation of Marcel Proust, Franklin reveals to the French novelist that “Lost time is never found again”. In six words, seven volumes are brought to rest. Franklin’s is a terse, practical answer to Proust’s probing, inexhaustible search.
But, in the final analysis, like Proust, Franklin is always worth the read. He’ll always have resonance in the chambers of our hearts. His quotes, be they on matters practical, political, economical, farcical, or temporal—whatever they may be, they’ll find in our soul an inviting home. The imprint of Franklin—so splendid in color and vibrant in hue—accentuates us all. Let us wear, hear, and speak the words of our forgotten Founder with pride.