Book Review – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I just finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson.  Tremendous book about the life of Ben Franklin.  As Mr. Isaacson says in the later chapter of the book, most of us know Franklin as a caricature from the TV and print ads we have seen with a representation of him in them.  Mr. Isaacson brings out the full information about Ben Franklin, warts and all, in this book.  His concluding chapter, I think, is the best of the book and brings it all together.  In this chapter he quickly reviews the opinions that writers and famous Americans have had of Mr. Franklin, both good and bad.  I think he concentrates more on the bad than the good.  However, after doing this, in a section he calls “The Ledger Book”, he does an excellent job defending (if that is the correct word to use) Mr. Franklin.  I think this paragraph, among others in this section, sums it up nicely:

When Max Weber says that Franklin’s ethics are based only on the earning of more money, and when D.H. Lawrence reduces him to a man who pinched pennies and morals, they betray the lack of even a passing familiarity with the man who retired from business at 42, dedicated himself to civic and scientific endeavors, gave up much of his public salaries, eschewed getting patents on his inventions, and consistently argued that the accumulation of excess wealth and the idle indulgence in frivolous luxuries should not be socially sanctioned.  Franklin did not view penny saving as an end in itself but as a path that permitted young tradesmen to be able to display higher virtues, community spirit, and citizenship.

In today’s world many want to do something spectacular for society and Franklin has been criticized for promoting the mundane elements of a civil society.  Mr. Isaacson quotes directly from Franklin’s autobiography to provide a defense of the importance of these mundane tasks.  The following is Mr. Franklin’s defense of his efforts to get the streets of Philadelphia paved:

Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that though dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance, yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and it frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.

What I have taken from this is that it is the mundane that is important.  As an engineer I see this every day from the design of streets to the construction of water and sewer systems.  They are not flashy but are things needed to make life work in the world.

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