So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.—The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
This quote sums up the demure cynicism of its author. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was typical for his epoch in being a skeptic, but unusual in that his criticism could be turned just as easily on intellectual fads, like the deism he embraced. For example, in The Autobiography Franklin recalls how as a captious young man he “perverted” others with his freethinking and then came to regret it when he saw how his friends’ behavior changed for the worst. “I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.”
Franklin was raised in a pious Presbyterian household. Although he rejected the beliefs of his childhood, he continued to appreciate the role of traditional religion. In one respect, it is not difficult to understand his repudiation of strict predestination and belief in a capricious God. Hence Franklin opined that “vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful.” (Franklin was not so far from orthodox belief as he may have imagined.) Usually men retain the prejudices of their upbringing even when they reject its outward tenets, yet this entrepreneur from Boston was truly broadminded. He evinced a respect for devout Catholics that was typically lacking in the English colonies.
In the pages of his memoir, Franklin emerges as a genial if slightly vain individual—it is excusable given his immense talents. Aside from a lack of fussiness about food, no doubt due to a New England upbringing, Franklin is an epicurean given to lofty pleasures and “moderate” in his transgressions. One can see why the high moral tone of The Autobiography impressed many (though Franklin could be more risqué in private correspondence). His most disarming quality is that he is as candid about the consequences of moral “errata” as he is about their commission. While he may joke about human foibles, he never glamorizes vice. The other sympathetic point about Franklin is that he was a bibliophile in an age when books were expensive and hard to come by. He recalls that while traveling to Philadelphia in the 1720s, the colonial governor of New York “treated me with great civility, show’d me his library, which was a very large one, and we had a good deal of conversation about books and authors.”
Benjamin Vaughn, who heard of the outline of the autobiography through a mutual acquaintance, wrote to encourage Franklin:
The nearest thing to having experience of one’s own, is to have other people’s affairs brought before us in a shape that is interesting…. and what more worthy of experiments and system (its importance and its errors considered) than human life?