Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Franklin again

My interest in Ben Franklin's autobiography, which had begun to flag, was revived by yesterday's reading of chapter 8.

He observes that "few in public affairs act from a mere view of the good of their country, whatever they may pretend, and though their actings bring real good to their country, yet men primarily considered that their own and their country's interest were united, and so did not act from a principle of benevolence" and "that few still in public affairs act with a view to the good of mankind."

He discusses Poor Richard's Almanac, first published in 1732, and mentions he considered it "a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books."

He discusses his newspaper and says he took care to exclude "all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press--and that a newspaper was like a stagecoach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place--my answer was that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction, and that having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice."

He goes on: "Now many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring States, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most perncious consequences."

He mentions a minister found to be plagiarizing sermons: "I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others than bad ones of his own manufacture."

He begins studying languages in 1733, learning in turn French, Italian, then Spanish. He then realizes he understands much more Latin than he would have imagined possible and questions the conventional wisdom of learning Latin first: "We are told that it is proper to begin first with the Latin, and having acquired that it will be more easy to attain those modern languages which are derived from it; and yet we do not begin with the Greek in order more easily to acquire the Latin. It is true that if we can clamber and get to the top of a staircase without using the steps, we shall more easily gain them in descending; but certainly if we begin with the lowest we shall with more ease ascend to the top; and I would therefore offer it to the consideration of those who superintendent the education of our youth whether, since many of those who begin with the Latin quit the same after spending some years without having made any great proficiency, and what they have learned becomes almost useless, so that their time has been lost, it would not have been better to have begun with the French, proceeding to the Italian and Latin. For though after spending the same time they should quit the study of languages and never arrive at the Latin, they would, however, have acquired another tongue or two that, being in modern use, might be serviceable to them in common life."

He uses the death of his own son by small pox to encourage parents to inoculate their children.

He touches upon his own interest in public affairs and discusses the establishment of the Union Fire Company.

I don't think I'm going to require S. to read all of the autobiography when we do American lit next fall, but he's definitely going to have to read chapter 8.

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