Benjamin Frankiln's Recollection of Life in The Autobiography

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In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, aptly titled The Autobiography, he recounts many important experiences from throughout his life that shaped him into the great American figure he would be remembered as. On the opening page, Franklin reveals that he wrote the book as if writing a series of letters to un unnamed son instead of as a typical autobiography. He goes on to admit that he’s made mistakes in the past and to remember that past was a way to relive it and recognize those mistakes. By stating his desire to “change some sinister Accidents & Events” (Franklin 3), Franklin indicates how important it is for his son to observe as he amends his mistakes so that he, the son, does not make the same ones. Both sin and virtue play pivotal roles in Franklin’s life and the way he presents himself to others. Instances occur where Franklin is shown gloating about his great accomplishments and he puts emphasis on his need to live an upstanding life free of moral disparigance. Throughout his story, Ben Franklin tells his son of the many virtuous acts and momentous achievements he amassed through his life which brings up the question whether he seeks his own approval more so than the approval of those around him.

Franklin looks back on his great love of books, particularly Dr. Cotton Mather’s Essays to do good wherein the minister preaches about the importance of human courtesy and doing good unto others. He concludes that Dr. Mather’s essays “gave [him] a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life” (Franklin 13). By expressing the fact that Dr. Mather’s words played such a pivotal role in his ambitions, it creates the assumption that the Franklin’s life has been a quest for self-betterment instead of the betterment of the world. Throughout his letters, Franklin recounts his scholarly achievements such as learning multiple languages and founding what is now known as a public library. Most of all, his entire reason for writing the autobiography was to recount several key mistakes he had made in an effort to correct his faults using hindsight. Similarly, Franklin introduces his admiration for Dr. Mather’s essays by emphasizing his enjoyment while reading Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Interestingly enough, the story depicts a typical man’s journey to release his feeling of guilt and self-hatred over his sins. The Franklin’s choice to include Pilgrim’s Progress in his list of influential texts is an obvious reference and parallel to Franklin’s own journey to absolve himself of his sins. Most people tend to attempt to correct and make up for mistakes as soon as they can after they occur if they bother to at all, yet Benjamin Franklin differs in his great desire to relive his life through The Autobiography in an effort to rectify past missteps far after they had come and gone.

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In Part 2, Franklin tells his son of his Quaker friend who questioned Franklin’s humility and suggested an addition to his list of virtues. Franklin who was by then somewhat of a scientist of virtue, made a point of illustrating charts that mapped his progress in “acquir[ing] the Habitude of all these Virtues” (81). This Quaker suggests that Franklin is in fact too proud, which shakes Franklin’s sense of hubris enough to motivate him to prove the Quaker wrong in his accusation. After a halfhearted effort to achieve Humility, which he could not “boast of much Success” (89), Franklin came to the conclusion that Pride was the hardest trait for a man to put aside and it will inevitably show itself no matter what someone does. Even though Franklin’s willpower is stated to be of remarkable strength, he chooses to acknowledge Pride’s role in his life and accept defeat in his attempt to practice his idea of total Humility. His choice to acknowledge his pride directly relates to his opinions on Vanity at an earlier point in his biography. Franklin glorifies the concept of Vanity to his son and reasons that it is in fact a productive trait to possess and he feels no shame in it. By the time Franklin had made the decision to write his own biography, he had already reached the point of accepting his Vanity and his Pride as natural human traits and as such does not seem to feel any guilt about his failure to add Humility to his list of virtues. This correlation indicates that Franklin’s own revelations and opinions of himself are held in higher esteem to himself than any other.

Given the era that Franklin lived in it comes as no surprise that the subject of Religion appears several times throughout the book as a temptation that Benjamin Franklin makes a point of avoiding. At the age of 15, he began to “doubt of Revelation itself” (55) because of several disputes within books he had read and had concluded that he had collected enough information to draw him to Deism, the belief that while there is an all-powerful being, they do not actively interact with the universe. Franklin would go on to found several scholarly and Deistic groups during his life, which indirectly functioned on the principles of organized religion, including the exchange of ideas, a set moral code and relevant texts. Even further into his life, Franklin crossed paths with Rev. Whitefield, a Puritan preacher whom Franklin would come to admire and support. Franklin stood in awe of Whitefield, “for his Eloquence had a wonderful Power over large Collections” (103). Although Franklin considered himself a Deist and rejected organized religion, its structure and presence are constant throughout his life and he would exhibit respect for the institutions by incorporating several principles into the foundation groups like The Junto. This respect for religion would also be applied to his decision to join the Freemasons. For relatively unknown reasons Benjamin Franklin would deny his infatuation with organized religion and instead embrace it through his own accomplishments.

At first glance throughout his biography, Franklin gives the impression that he prides himself on how his peers see him and how society receives him, but after some closer reading into his life, from his list of virtues to the influences of Dr. Mather, it becomes apparent that Franklin was his own worst enemy throughout much of his life rather than his peers and their judgments. Franklin placed such great pressure on himself to succeed and to achieve national respect for his enormous contributions to science, publishing, design and the new American society that he made what he would later view as mistakes and shortcomings in life. The Autobiography itself was written to allow Franklin to amend some of his mistakes and let go of any self-resentment in the eyes of his son. Though these arguments appear as rebellious against Benjamin Franklin’s hubris, it can also be said that these elements helped fuel his ambition and lead to great discoveries. After all Franklin’s infatuation with self-betterment was arguably responsible for the creation of a great many components of society today, in which case no criticism can be dished out – Franklin deals with enough critique from himself that he doesn’t need any more from outside sources.

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