The Casual Blog

Tag: Benjamin Franklin

Recovering, reading about B. Franklin, and addressing climate change

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This week the weather in Raleigh was mild, and it was pleasant to walk to work. The walk takes 15-20 minutes, depending on how I catch the lights and whether I’m trying to get there for an early meeting. When I wasn’t especially pressed, I made a few pictures of people working and playing.
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Now, after two weeks from our return from Dominica, my various wounds (assorted bruises, scrapes, and blisters) are mostly healed up. The most worrisome, my severely sprained right hand, is still swollen and sore, but hurting less, and I’m able to play octaves on the piano, though not loudly. It reminded me of when I first tried to learn to catch a football as a little kid, and jammed up my fingers.
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It is remarkable how the body can overcome and regenerate. In fact, did you ever notice how sometimes a new injury seems to help an old one to heal? My nagging shoulder issues, which I’ve been trying to get over for several months, seem to have gone away, cured or obscured by the addition of new, more pressing discomforts.
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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re still full of memories of our friend Scott, who shuffled off this mortal coil right after leading our Dominica trip. He managed, by being an unusually vibrant and generous person, to hook himself into the fabric our lives, and his departure has ripped that fabric. We’ve been talking about him, his good deeds and his goofiness, and looking back at photos. For therapy and comfort, I’ve been rereading some of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s poetic memorial to his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. Yes, it rhymes, in a style that’s way out of fashion now, but it can still speak to us. It takes grief and loss seriously, and delves deep.
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As I’ve noted before, my favorite founding father is Benjamin Franklin. Last week I finished another biography of him, by H.W. Brands. Franklin was a protean genius with many aspects, and so the biographer will inevitably neglect some of them. Brands is most interested in the political and literary Franklin, and less in the scientist and philosopher. But in describing Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in England prior to the revolution and his diplomacy in France during it, he gave me new perspectives on the war. For those of us who cut our historical teeth on revisionism, it is reassuring that Franklin, who loved England dearly, could conclude that there was no alternative to war.

For all Franklin’s enormous fame during his lifetime, it’s interesting that there are significant gaps in the record, and much we don’t know about his inner life. But what keeps shining through is his insatiable curiosity about the natural world and his constant effort to make the human world better. It’s also inspiring to me, as I get on in years, that a good portion of his greatest achievements, including helping invent and establish American democracy, were in the last quarter of his long life.
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Apropos of making things better, there’s a good short op ed piece on climate change by Tom Friedman in the NY Times, which poses a question I’ve been wondering about: “How do we do something about [global warming] at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life[?] He also quickly hones in on the central moral and political quandary – the conflict between the welfare of this generation and future generations: “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next generation.” (Quoting Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher.) Friedman argues for urgent change, including a carbon tax and energy efficiency standards. This seems sensible, at least as a starting place.
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On Sunday I took a walk through Raulston Arboretum, which I try to do once a week, but missed recently. I completely missed the irises — they’d come and gone while I was traveling. But the roses are in full bloom, and there are some remarkable lilies.
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Benjamin Franklin, my hero

Benjamin Franklin is my favorite founding father.  There are chapters in the lives of others that I admire — Washington’s bravery, Jefferson’s eloquence, Madison’s political vision — but even these giants had glaring flaws and failures.  But Franklin’s life as a whole is extraordinary, with many varied chapters — printer, author, scientist, inventor, politician, revolutionary, diplomat.  He was, truly, a Renaissance man.

I’ve been reading, or re-reading, his Autobiography.  I have a memory of reading it as a sixth grader, but the book must have been a simplified and expurgated children’s version.  Franklin’s writing is mostly plain and direct, not much concerned with literary effect.  His writing hurries toward his main objective, which is to tell what he has learned about how to live.  He believes unequivocally in the virtue of hard work, honesty, frugality, and temperance.  He very much wants to communicate the value of these habits and attitudes.  But he does not appear dour or gloomy.  Rather, he seems mostly cheerful.  He strikes me as lively and always curious, a person who enjoyed both people and ideas, who had fun.

How did he manage to be so accomplished and productive?  I think a large part of it was due to the old-fashioned virtues he promotes, like diligence and honesty.  The man worked very hard and mostly kept to the straight and narrow.  But another quality, which he does not (at least so far as I’ve read) discuss, was also important: unselfish caring.  Franklin cared about other people, both as individuals and as communities, and dedicated much of his life to helping them.  He was generous with his gifts.  That generous spirit made him a happy, productive person.

In the Autobiography, Franklin does not conceal his moments of weakness and mistakes.  He’s human — but a really remarkable human.  I’ve been realizing how much his example impressed me as a child and influenced my development.  For a role model, one could do much worse.