Thursday, November 10, 2011

A prayer for wisdom from a surprising source

"O powerful Goodness!  bountiful father!  merciful Guide!  Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest.  Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates.  Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favours to me."

-  Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American founding father, from his Autobiography, quoted in In God We Trust:  The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, edited by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers:  1958), pg. 30.


jimmiraybob said...

There are more surprises in the autobiography.

From his list of vitues: 13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

As Ben set out to examine his life in light of his own adherence to these virtues he composed a little book in which he posted some attributed quotes regarding wisdom and virtue. As he wrote,

"I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day. "

The quote that you show was composed by Ben, "And conceiving God to be the fountain of wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it; to this end I formed the following little prayer, which was prefix'd to my tables of examination, for daily use."

He also quotes a prayer from "Thomson's Poems, viz.:

"'Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme! O teach me what is good; teach me Thyself! Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, From every low pursuit; and fill my soul With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!'"

And, a line from Proverbs of Solomon, "'Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.' iii. 16, 17."

No doubt that he felt these to be inspirational. he also includes lines from Addison's Cato and from Cicero.

In summarizing his efforts he includes, "I enter'd upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu'd it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris'd to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish."

And to the future, "it may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written. What reverses may attend the remainder is in the hand of Providence; but, if they arrive, the reflection on past happiness enjoy'd ought to help his bearing them with more resignation."

jimmiraybob said...

RE: "...he felt religion, broadly speaking but not exclusively (he also readily relies on pagan sources for inspiration)..."

Actually, I shouldn't make a distinction merely between pagan and religion as pagans were a religious bunch - Cicero speaks of the gods and even god (singular) and also spoke of a divine providence.

I probably should have written, "not exclusively from monotheistic sources."

Socrates on the other hand....who knows?

jimmiraybob said...

My second comment disappeared, presumably because I included a link in HTML.

Here's the Franklin source:

To put the second comment above in context, here's a recreation of the lost comment.

It's debated whether Ben was sincere in his religious attestations but used them to boost his street cred and sales. He certainly knew his audience and was consciously aware of what would affect sales:

"It will be remark'd that, tho' my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any of the distingishing tenets of any particular sect. I had purposely avoided them; for, being fully persuaded of the utility and excellency of my method, and that it might be serviceable to people in all religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should prejudice any one, of any sect, against it."

I happen to think that he was sincere in his conception of and appreciation for a great author of the universe, "Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme!" or God, and that he felt religion, broadly speaking but not exclusively (he also readily relies on pagan sources for inspiration), was useful in honing the virtues that he staked out and thought were important for the health and wealth of the individual, and which the founders felt were necessary for the health and wealth of the Republic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When Ben writes about God, he reminds me of nobody as much as David and his Psalms. They love God, in a way that deists cannot and [it seems] even many Christians do not.

Deism's God may have more to Him than just the cold, blind watchmaker: providential, a just patriarch. But this isn't how David and Ben write about him. They write as admirers, and lovers.

I write about religion a lot but God very seldom. I find myself quoting Ben more than full-on Christians, for the reasons that he gives in the last bit.

Thx for the cites, JRB. I also think there's a vein re Cicero about the Epicurean vs. the Stoic conceptions of the divine: I put Jefferson with the former, Franklin with the latter. Since Tom and Ben are so frequently lumped together, I think there's a necessary distinction to be made.