The Price of American Idealism

Benjamin-Franklin-U.S.-$100-billSomewhere in the past, nearly every American student read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, but I only teach excerpts, and one moment always tells me why. In the middle of discussions of his life’s minutia—the people and events Franklin met—he says:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.

For me—and probably for many 21st century minds—this declaration is a punch line. A human seems as likely to reach “moral perfection” as to row across the Pacific in an ice bucket or to handwrite the sum of Wikipedia’s entries, from memory, on the back of a postage stamp. We would need a lifetime to debate what “moral” is and then another to address “perfection.” Then we could begin disputing what project might bring us there. By the time we resolved just that much, we would need to begin again.

At least Franklin calls his endeavor “bold and arduous.”

And you have to stand in awe of his chutzpah. Franklin wants “to live without committing any fault at any time” and “conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into.” He says, as if he were compiling this week’s grocery list, “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

He aspires to 13 virtues, each of which he delineates and describes. Among them are temperance, industry, sincerity, and chastity. He also desires silence, order, justice, and more. He plans to take these virtues one at a time and master each before moving on. His last virtue is humility, which—given what’s gone before—seems especially ambitious. Anyone who attained one of his virtues would rightfully feel a little boastful.

Every year when I encounter this passage, my inner John McEnroe screams, “You CAN’T be serious!” However, I’m much more restrained in class. “How should a reader regard Franklin’s plan?” I ask, “Is he sincere in the endeavor he describes or should we regard his proclamations as ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and intended to lampoon the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and order?”

They don’t know the biographical Franklin as I do, his reputed dalliances, his affection for fine wine and iconoclastic company, his acrimonious disputes and denunciations. They don’t know that among the inventions credited to him is an improvement on the condom.

At the end of his list, Franklin admits his intention was really to attain “the habitude of these virtues”; that is, he hoped to achieve all the signs of attaining them. Franklin says, “Constant vigilance was to be kept up” in order to “guard against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.” The appearance, it appears, was all that mattered—to show them was, in large measure, to be them.

Routinely, a few students defend his sincerity—he is Ben Franklin after all—and they like to believe he means exactly what he says. When he turns to the 13th virtue, humility, they laud what they perceive as an honest admission:

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added humility to my list, giving extensive meaning to the word.

This moment, they say, is a demonstration of Franklin’s self-awareness, proof that he looks truly at his shortcomings and means to do better. And if he falls short, they argue, he is at least trying, and some virtue lies in the effort regardless of its outcome.

Their defense is charming. It goes a long way toward restoring my belief in the positive power of American idealism and—as they insist they believe in Franklin—they insist I believe in them. A better day lies ahead.

But then I read the next sentence, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” Pride, he says, is our abiding sin. “Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases,” Franklin admits, “it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” That’s the moment I really hear Franklin speak—we will never be perfect because we’ll spoil it.

Franklin concludes, should he achieve humility, he’d be proud of it.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so infected by 21st century irony and accepted Franklin at his word. I wish I didn’t see him doubling meaning. Believing what he says could make me a better person, but, if that was Franklin’s hope, that the common, unsophisticated man—not knowing him—would take him at his word, he misunderstood humanity and the devastation arising from the ambition he fosters. Maybe we shouldn’t want perfection if it means flailing at whatever version appeals to us at the moment. Our effort does damage as well as good.

I wonder if we should write another autobiography, one sincerely facing flaws we’re heir to, one listing our abetting faults and creating a plan to acknowledge them squarely.


Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Ben Franklin, Doubt, Essays, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, High School Teaching, Hope, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts

15 responses to “The Price of American Idealism

  1. I don’t know, but after the night I’ve had it’s nice to see a familiar face pop up– yours, not Ben’s.

    Have a good weekend.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you… and likewise. I hope you’re doing well. –D

      • Thank you. I’ve had some personal setbacks, which I’m hoping I can at least turn into one blog post. (lol) I know I promised the drawing deal, I haven’t forgotten about that, and I have not only read your book, I’ve highlighted and taken notes. (future questions?) I’m just really bogged down by life at the moment, haven’t had time to read/write/blog, so when I saw “Signals” pop up last night, it was just that– a signal. Thanks for asking, and hope you and your family are doing well yourselves.

      • dmarshall58

        I hope you’ll be back at it soon. Your readers miss you. I’d love to talk about my book too. It’s strange when such an act of labor becomes so a quiet. My reviews on Amazon have been great, and I appreciate them, but I worry whatever ripple I’ve made, dissipated almost as soon as it begin.

        Don’t worry about the picture. It’s yours when you want it. –D

  2. StA: perfection, even if only in the form of god, pursues us. i myself conceived the bold and arduous project at 13 out of a desire to be worthy of the demands (as i understood them at the time) of the boarding school i was attending. the project, of course, only deepened the guilt and underlying sense of inferiority i was enduring.

    learning to love what is is hard. maybe that is why we need to enter the narrow confines of the moment, a citadel from which to resist the temptations of comparison. and then there are anti-depressant medications, which can erase for a while the oppressive sense of being evaluated and restore faith in the bone.

    love your neighbor as yourself. see god in the beauty of a naked woman, the insanity of the Newtown shooting, the Big Bang. this might not drive us mad; possibly, it will make us happy. learn that there is a bad crazy, and a good crazy. RT

    • dmarshall58

      I think Franklin pointed his crazy in the right direction, at least. I can accept his idealism as sincere, though I don’t really (can’t really) know. My trouble is more with the guilt and sense of inferiority to which he seemed immune but which afflicts just about everyone else taking up his project.

      It’s entirely unreasonable to expect him to appeal to our 21st century perspective, but I think I might enjoy learning how much he loved naked women, how he felt about the violence of his own age, how the discoveries of his life and times inspired him. I like Ben Franklin, really I do, but there’s something coy (and a touch condescending) in his writing that makes me wish for more candor, more realistic appraisals of human nature, more trust in his readers.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. –D

  3. kthorpe

    I’ve read it, not studied it… but my own opinion of that whole virtue-attaining thing was that he really did think he could do it, and found out he couldn’t. His recounting of it seems to be a mixture of ironic eyebrow-raising at his younger self, as well as ernest exhortation to his audience in behalf of the virtues and striving to meet them.
    In addition, bearing in mind that Franklin saw himself as equally spiritual or more spiritual than his orthodox contemporaries, without their study of or devotion to the Bible or any kind of divine revelation other than what he found in his own head (a most remarkable form of hubris), it’s not surprising that the young Franklin should meet the task of attaining moral perfection with full expectations of victory.
    Finally, I’d like to point out that a very common form of pride in the 21st century is the prideful notion that we are so much more reasonable, rational, and accepting than previous generations. Our society has rejected so many of the ideals of the past, lampooned them publicly and privately, and essentially lost our moral compass, that we can make fun of historical figures for their dalliances while defending our contemporaries for the same thing. We can shake our heads at Ben for improving the condom while passing them out to highschool-age girls in homeroom. We can mock the faithful, devout religeuse of the past in the full assurance that “know one can know what or who God is,” despite the constant reassurance to the contrary by the majority of mankind for our entire human history.
    In fact, in the face of a failing economy, failing schools, failing families, failing marriages… I’d say our society would do well to look back humbly on older societies and ask, “What were they doing right? What did they know, that I don’t know?”

    • dmarshall58

      I hope I didn’t leave the impression I sneer at Franklin’s perspective as quaint or naive. He WAS a product of the Enlightenment, and you’re right that we could use some of those ideals in the present. Perhaps he was serious at the time he tried to achieve moral perfection and perhaps he’s serious in hoping others will follow his lead. In any case, our own hypocrisies are no better or worse than theirs, and people are people in any time. Progress, I believe, is fiction. We gain and we lose about the same.

      I don’t even really disapprove of Franklin’s project–how can I when I would never conceive of doing anything so bold?–and I mean it when I say my students’ faith in his sincerity is inspiring. However, moment to moment, I have trouble finding Franklin in his writing. His “ironic eyebrow raising” (which is very well-put) stands side-by-side with his exhortations, and his sense of his capacities sometimes seems disingenuous, comic even, designed to influence one audience while amusing another, more knowing, audience. So much seems to be said with a wink that I don’t know whether I can both believe him and appreciate his intentions fully.

      Elsewhere in the Autobiography, Franklin talks about a visit to Philadelphia from George Whitefield, a prominent voice in the First Great Awakening. Franklin approves of Whitefield’s effect on Philadelphia’s citizenry and marvels at Whitefield’s ability to extract monetary support from skeptics like himself, yet he can’t take Whitefield seriously. Though Franklin approves of Whitefield because his visit inspires people to sing psalms and correct immoderate behavior for a while, when Whitefield prays for Franklin’s conversion, Franklin scoffs. This episode makes me wonder if Franklin imitates the approach he attributes to Whitefield, aiming for influence through appearance and not belief or faith.

      Idealism is wonderful, and we could use more of it, but we could also use more sincerity, a clearer sense of humanity’s limitations along with our desire to make the most of ourselves. Thanks for your thoughtful comments! –D

      • kthorpe

        I need to re-read the whole thing again 🙂 My thoughts are all coming from having read it once, rather than many times as you have done. 🙂

        My overall assessment of ol’ Ben was that he could not and did not accept what I guess we’d call “organized religion” (a grossly oversimplifying term, but that’s a HUGE can of worms, yeah?)– but he did accept a sort of universal morality– one that C. S. Lewis would later write about with great sensitivity, calling it the “Tao” for short.
        His great belief in his own ability to a) know what was wise/right and b) influence others was one of his most marked characteristics.
        And in that arena, he really did to tremendous things.
        So he could marvel and admire the sincerity and good effects of the preaching of Whitefield, even support it– while personally rejecting the heart of it.
        Seems to me a lot of people do just that same thing. Matthew Parris for one. I don’t have access to the full article, but this site gives some extensive quotes:
        Thanks for your thoughtful replies 🙂

      • dmarshall58

        As you said, Franklin really did tremendous things. His influence was immense–he may be more responsible for forging the American character than any other “founder.” I’m generally proud of the idealism he fostered in us. I like his idea that we could be more than we seem to be, that we don’t have to give in to baser natures. My problem with him might well be mine–and more practical than philosophical in the end. How do you address what he meant when, clearly, he approves of habilitude in place of sincerity? What is sincere then, and how do you teach his work responsibly? If you have an answer to that, I’ll be very happy. Thanks for your thoughtful response. –D

  4. A bit off subject I know, but I’m immersed in reading Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. It gives a very detailed account of the complete lack of idealism and morality in corporate America /UK which exists today.

    • dmarshall58

      Sounds like my kind of book! It shocks me that corporate America makes such use of the 14th amendment, which was intended to be an instrument of citizenship and civil rights. If you want to be a citizen–regarded as a fully fledged “person” instead of a nameless, faceless institution–you ought to accept responsibility as well. Franklin understood citizenry, at least. He may not have been altogether honest, but he wanted us to be good, whatever the motive or cause. Thanks for the suggestion. –D

  5. kthorpe

    Hi David– First I must say I’m honored you’re discussing this with me! I fully realize this conversation is over my head 🙂
    But if I had to make a reply (which I don’t, so I guess this is more self-indulgence than anything else), I would say the issue of sincerity is as complicated as the human heart, and therefore one that can hardly be discussed at all deeply without getting into very murky waters. To sum up briefly what I guess I think (and again, I really need to re-read but I think we’re getting more into a general view of life more than just Ben Franklin’s life, so forgive me):
    1) It is possible to be insincere with honor.
    For instance, if a man does not love his wife, but rather than leaving her or having an affair, he chooses to behave lovingly toward her and set the course of his heart straight through prayer, meditation, and patience.

    In this case, sincerity almost becomes a synonym for the emotional feeling of amorousness or infatuation or what have you. Because to ACT lovingly out of a desire to do good can be the definition of love. So is he being insincere? In one way, yes; in one way, not at all. Either way, it is an honorable course. Perhaps this could be what Franklin refers to when he says he cannot be humble or patient or what have you (i. e., he cannot produce those feelings within his heart) but he can behave that way. And perhaps, like many, he feels that is “good enough” in a sense because he believes that it is impossible for human beings to feel the right way inside, but it is good for them to act the way they ought to act anyway.

    2) It is possible to be insincere with dishonor.
    For instance, if a man has chosen to cheat on his wife but hides this from her, behaving as if he were faithful and loving.

    In this case, the man is DOING something to the detriment of three human beings: himself, his mistress, and his wife. Hiding behind a screen of loving behavior only makes it worse.

    If Franklin is endorsing this view– that good works can be used to disguise works of guile or malice or disloyalty– then this of course is just plain wrong. Perhaps he would/did disagree, but I think that would be hubris.

    3) It is quite likely that one can only conjecture what he actually thought about any of these things since “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and very often we deceive our own selves about our motives, opinions, and feelings, revealing their true nature only under duress or in moments of surprise, and hardly when we sit down to write an instructive autobiography…

    Forgive the treatise. 🙂


    • dmarshall58

      I haven’t responded to your comment because I don’t really have anything to add to your very insightful writing here. I do think there’s such a insincerity with honor, and Franklin likely meant to set a better example than he might have been able to actually live. And he may have sincerely desired perfection, and perhaps whether that life was in appearance or reality matters less than 21st century readers might believe. In any case, we are all so imperfect now, and, as I said, perhaps idealism on Franklin’s scale might do us some good. Thank you for giving this post such thoughtful attention. –D

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