Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Benjamin Franklin: A Note to Myself

Earlier this year, I decided to postpone my ambitions to pursue Doctoral studies, primarily for financial reasons, and drew up instead a plan for self development which does not cost much. The plan included working diligently on this blog, with a certain number of posts every month and more meaningful ones, and reading a certain number of books every month: Six months on, I failed on both counts, though this made blog postings more frequent (but more diverse) and I am indeed reading more books cover to cover now than I did last year.

This commitment, however, is the reason why I ended up making the endeavour of reading Ben Franklin's biography, 500 pages and all. I love biographies, but haven't read one from cover to cover in a while, primarily owing to their usual lengths compared to a 200 page book otherwise. Franklin's biography was sitting on my bookshelf and my To-Read list for a while, and I am glad I finally made the effort and finished it within a reasonable time (one weekend, plus a great part of a Monday evening). Indeed, several things were 'favourable' for me to be able to do this: Brazil's poor performance in the World Cup saved me time from watching the final games, as well as my current state of withdrawal, somewhat due to my depressed mood, made me home-bound and free of social commitments that I would otherwise have.

However, the fact that I could manage to read this book even when I was not the happiest or most focused, and more, that just reading a book lifted my mood in the middle of depressing times, are testaments of Walter Isaacson's fine writing but also the fascinating life and apparent greatness of his subject.

I would like to say I considered Ben Franklin one of my heroes, but that appreciation grew from watching the National Treasure movies rather than any serious commitment to learn about him. This current effort remedies that, but also heightens my appreciation rather than taking away the appeal of magic (as in National Treasure). And, besides, this book was full of amusements too, and rather profound ones. Apart from Franklin's famous ('Early to bed and early to rise, Make a man healthy, wealthy and wise') and not so famous aphorisms, there are brilliant stories and observations (Franklin taking away the King in a Chess game, and after being told that one never takes the King out in Chess, he answers 'we do in America'); discussions about his enthralling social life (all the coffeeshouses, associations etc), inventions and experiments (with electricity, gulf stream, subscription public library, fire service) and the tale of his rather inconsistent personal life. This is full of brilliant men, though Joseph Priestley perhaps gets less than his fair share of ink, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, the various English lords and French aristocracy, the intellectuals of Paris salon (including Voltaire, Turgot, Concordet and even Du Pont) and reflections on practices and cultural lives of the time (My favourite happens to be the reflection on Franklin's style in Paris which John Adams found repulsive, but which the French appreciated, and a comment explaining the wisdom of such behaviour: 'To look idle in America is sinful, to look busy in France is vulgar').

In many ways, a tale of such a life is a feast, particularly for those who are in search of 'middling' (i.e., middle class) virtues. In fact, Franklin's tale is a reminder that one does not need to be a socialist to see that increasing concentration of wealth and the inheritance of social and financial privileges - a huge issue today - is not just anti-poor, but also against the entrepreneurialism of the middle classes, and in fact, against progress. While Franklin's observation that he finds the Chinese practice of honouring the parents when sons become distinguished so much more logical than hereditary peerage, he was making a point worth taking note today. Despite being a successful businessman and a lifelong advocate of thrift and hard work (he opposed 'benefits' because this would make the poor lazy), he argued that once someone acquired what he needed to live comfortably, all wealth beyond the point should be state property. He was ignored and such suggestion indeed may sound ludicrous in the context of modern economic dogma, but accumulation of wealth (and increasing concentration of it in the form of assets) is one of the biggest challenges to maintain a dynamic and innovation-centric society.

The pinnacle of Franklin's life is indeed at its end - no gentle degenerative old age retirement was there for him - when he played such a central role in the making of America. In fact, it is hard for me to avoid the comparison of this tale with that of the making of India. There are so many similarities to note, in terms of ideas, sentiments, values, compromises and formulas they came up with, but I also find Franklin's (and others) humility, realism and compromise, and the insistence of making a clear break with the British, quite divergent from the patrician approach of the Indian process. In fact, while America has grown out of these humble roots and assumed the imperial pretensions and practices over time, the making of the American constitution should still be studied closely by the students around the world, if simply for the deep realism and acceptance of fallibility that was inherent among its makers.

Such tales of idealism mixed with realism, of a 'pragmatic' life free of dogma, one of cosmopolitan engagements but yet deeply patriotic, are always appealing to me. One may surely say that this belongs to a lost world and these values are therefore outdated (I was brought up by my grandfather who subscribed to many of these values, including the 'early to rise' one, which, unlike Mark Twain, I did appreciate and still practice) - but one familiar with history of ideas will surely know the cyclical nature of them. We seem to believe in something, then overdo it, and then return to a previous maxim, perhaps with equal fervour. We have swung too far away from Franklin's world that it seems appropriate to plot a return to it.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Franklin - Adams - Jefferson. Yes please revisit the next two. You will enjoy.

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