Thursday, January 5, 2012

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I just finished Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. I highly recommend this one. It is fairly comprehensive, yet very readable account of Franklin’s life. Like most worthwhile biographies, it contains a multitude of ideas worth pondering.

One of Isaacson’s principle themes is that Franklin was a supreme thinker, but he was a mostly practice thinker. He had very little interest in higher-level concepts. This was true for all of Franklin’s various pursuits including science, philosophy, theology, politics, etc. For instance, Franklin’s writings encouraged various “good” and efficient behavior aimed at making a person a success. Abstract and metaphysical concepts relating to this behavior, such as virtue, Forms, pleasing God, etc., had little place in Franklin’s worldview.  Isaacson makes a strong case that Franklin could be pigeonholed into a class of practical men who have little inclination to theorize about such nonconcrete ideas.

Reading the Franklin biography, I was struck by the diversity of fields that man successfully delved into. He was truly a Renaissance Man. This Founding Farther made important contributions to philosophy, science, newspaper publishing, business, and American Society in general. Furthermore it can be argued, and Isaacson does, that Franklin achieved one of, and perhaps the greatest, diplomatic success in American history. He was the architect of the alliance with France that was essential for the survival of the young United States. On top of this, his role in the creation of the Declaration of independence as well as the Drafting of the US Constitution had a profound effect upon American History as well current events. If one looks at the political happenings of the current American government, one we see a process partially shaped by Franklin.

I think that it is inconceivable that a citizen of the 21st century could achieve this level of success in so many diverse areas as Franklin did. I would argue that there was detailed knowledge relating to these various fields back in the 18th century, thus making it easier to be so accomplished in such a wide variety of pursuits.

I also believe that the world was more tolerant of generally smart people poking around in professions with no formal training or education back then. Just imagine a successful newspaper publisher and/or columnist today deciding to conduct research in electrical engineering, with no formal background in the field!

I am not minimizing Franklin’s accomplishments. He was a genius. His genius was just very compatible with his time.

Anyone with additional interest in Franklin’s great diplomatic success in Europe might also try with Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. I read Schiff’s book about a year ago. It is an intricately detailed account of Franklin’s mission to France from 1776 to 1785. Since her work covers such a specialized topic, I would say that Schiff’s book is for those who have a serious curiosity in that diplomatic endeavor.


Rick S said...

Late to the party on this one... The US and world population was much smaller in Franklin's day, so there were fewer brilliant people to go around, in addition to the factor you noted: that the body of knowledge in any given field was still small enough for an ambitious person to master in a short time. Franklin wasn't the only person with diverse accomplishments in his day; Samuel Johnson in England was very comparable in many ways, and even among the founding fathers, Jefferson and Washington had huge achievements outside of politics. Contrast with, say, Herman Cain, who is considered overambitious for attempting to be both a politician and a pizza executive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Rick,

Better late then never!

Indeed Samuel Johnson was enormously accomplished and was another of these "Renaissance Men".

Ha, Ha regarding Herman Cain.

Subsequent to this book I read "Radicalism of the American Revolution" by Gordon Wood. As per Wood many of the other Founders really looked down upon Franklin's capitalistic achievements as they felt that anyone involved in the free market was unfit to lead. They also would have disapproved of Cain as well as Mitt Romney. said...

Thank you for your review of this book, which I too enjoyed although I did not expect to. I read it only because I had been impressed by Isaacson's skill in his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs. It must have been a leftover from high school history, but until I read the biography I had a picture of Franklin as a sanctimonious bore. It is good to learn otherwise even though I too come late to the party.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Nancy - I actually have not read Isaacon's other biographers which I believe to be more famous. My wife did read the Steve Job's book and really like it.

I think that many historical figures who appear to be dull on first glance present surprises to us when we look closely at them.

James said...

Pardon the timing of this comment, but I couldn't help noticing yet another parallel in our reading with this review of Franklin. It was just three months later at the end of March, 2012, that I also read Issacson's Franklin Biography (
I agree with your assessment and also enjoyed dipping into Stacy Schiff's take on Franklin's life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey James - No problem on the timing as I look at these posts like enduring records that I woulld hope promote conversation.

I will take a look at your post. Since this post I have also read Schiff's Cleopatra which I found to be one of the most entertaining history books that I ever read.