“While some would name Benjamin Franklin as the American breakthrough thinker, that distinction more justly belongs to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Where Franklin counseled prudence and moral circumspection, not unlike an Old World uncle, Emerson proclaimed the ecstatic universe and intimated that the unloosed American self was especially well-placed to lead the celebration.” (Valiunas)
When it came to progressive thinking and application, Benjamin Franklin was the resource for the self-made man. Emerson, on the other hand, lived off his wife’s money. Both eschewed organized religion, both believed in the American Dream. Franklin wrote The Autobiography (Franklin) for his son, but also for everyone. He did believe in the value of virtue. Emerson also believed in improvement of the self, but for only for the benefit of the self. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Would they agree or disagree? Their literary works show their personal beliefs regarding virtue and personal values and benefit to self or to mankind.
In “The Autobiography” (Franklin231) Benjamin Franklin lists thirteen virtues he believes are vital for success. He also discusses his attempts at self-perfection and his methodology for tracking his progress. Franklin stated that, “My intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues.” (Franklin 285) Listing them in order of importance to him he began his daily practice of reviewing his actions and marking his progress.
Emerson, on the other hand, opposes the idea of values believing that virtue is a personal decision. In his essay, “Self Reliance,” Emerson defines how to find morality. “Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine … Their works are done as an apology… My life is not an apology, but a life.” Virtue is intrinsic with Emerson. “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Emerson, “is best remembered, after all, as an advocate of the self against the claims of society. However, Emerson believed that education is a lifelong practice of discovering or receiving relations that attach us to one to another and to the world. This practice helps us to develop self-knowledge and self-transformation.” (Williams)
He was not an advocate of conformity. “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” (Emerson 537) He believed that men should trust themselves and allow the discomfort of others to “put on and off as the wind blows.” (Emerson 537) “Although he did focus on the self, he recognizes that the improvement of each individual eventually leads to the improvement of society as a whole.” (Williams)
Many contend that our forefathers, particularly Benjamin Franklin, established the United States upon Christian values. While it is true Franklin describes a set of values or virtues he believes will lead a person to moral perfection in his autobiography, these virtues were not necessarily based on Christianity. His morality was based on rational thought from an Enlightened mind.
Franklin writes, “Tho’ I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an Opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted.” He had difficulty finding a preacher with which he agreed. Upon hearing a scripture from Phillippians regarding that which is “of good report, if there be any virtue… think on these things.” (Franklin 283; Philippians 4) While disagreeing with the preacher on what those values might be he came to the conclusion to embark on the “Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” (Franklin 284) Even though he was not comfortable with any organized religion, Franklin did not completely dismiss God in his life. He wrote, “And conceiving God to be the Fountain of Wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his Assistance for obtaining it.”
At the time of the Enlightenment many were questioning organized religions and the necessities of priests and rites. More exposure to religious texts led many to question what they believed. In addition the advancement of the sciences led many to question what had been blatantly taught for centuries as truths. Emerson’s writings expressed, “Among the impedimenta blocking access to the true self was that old-time religion—specifically, Christianity, whose original spirit had been deformed by its outworn institutions.” (Valiunas) “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.” (Emerson 535)
Ethics, morality, virtue, values, whatever name you choose to give them, are part of our collective American experience and societal acceptance of certain behaviors. Franklin wrote, “In this Piece it was my Design to explain and enforce this Doctrine, that vicious Actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful… it was therefore every one’s Interest to be virtuous, who wish’d to be happy.” Emerson writes, “And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.” (Emerson 544)
Franklin probably would not be surprised that, “in our present times the deepest cultural divide in America is between the secular believers in science and the faithful who believe in God. Nor would it have surprised him that in the world at large the great divide now is between tolerant liberal democracy and militant religious fundamentalism.” (Weinberger)
The idea that values, virtue, morality and ethics need to go hand in hand with religion is not something these authors would agree with. Choosing to be a good person for personal benefit, for the benefit of mankind or for a higher cause that is personal to you is justifiable and probably admirable. While Emerson would encourage perfection of self for the sake of self, but for the benefit of all; Franklin would also support self-improvement for both selfish and unselfish reasons. While they may not agree in practice or pursuit, they would agree that improvement of self is an advantageous endeavor.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York. 2008.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY. 2008. 533-550.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY. 2008. 231-292.
Weinberger, Jerry. “Benjamin Franklin: Philosopher of Progress” Good Society Journal. 2008, Vol. 17 Issue 1 20-25 Web September 24, 2011.
Williamson, Amy Wesley J. Null. “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Educational Philosophy as a Foundation for Cooperative Learning.” American Education History Journal; Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 35 Issue ½, 381-392 Web September 24, 2011.