Saturday, February 18, 2012

Benjamin Franklin and the American Enlightenment

By Dr. Richard Beeman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania

I found this neat article here.

A taste:

In turning Franklin into a caricature, we obscure the substance of his contributions to what historians have termed “the Age of Enlightenment,” which was, in reality, not so much an “age” as an “impulse,” fuelled by a heightened sense of optimism about the ability of men and women to use their rational powers not only to understand the laws of the universe, but also to devise means by which to use those laws for the betterment of mankind.

Franklin’s contributions to enlightenment thought far transcended the boundaries of his own country: his reputation as a scientist and as a philosopher was, deservedly, an international one. Yet we must not, in our urge to free Franklin from the baggage associated with his image as “typical American,” divorce him entirely from his American upbringing and experience. Despite the fact that he spent nearly 27 years of his life outside the boundaries of North America, his temperament and habit of mind were shaped in countless ways by the natural landscape and social structure of America. The extraordinary novelty and variety in that landscape would give to Franklin, in common with many other American enlightenment figures a sharpened sense of empirical observation and induction: the more open-ended social structure of eighteenth century America encouraged in Franklin an optimism about humanly-created institutions - be they legislatures or fire companies or colleges – that citizens of European societies, more heavily encumbered by tradition, would have found difficult to share. Perhaps more important, Franklin’s own life experiences and accomplishments would serve as models – as he wished them to do – for countless Americans both in his age and in subsequent generations.


Phil Johnson said...

Of course, Jonathan, deep thinkers have turned this question over in their minds for a long time.
Marx told how we are shaped by our environment.
I think the answers to the question tell us about American exceptionalism. What has made us exceptional is our environment. Thanks to King George III and his proclamation to enact a major assault on our forebearers that forced them to be indignant in their desire to cast off the chains of tyranny.
Come on already with the silly sign in process.
If you don't like someone's post, just delete it. Other than that, the hurdle is just a foolish waste of time. And, it discourages what might be an excellent post by some person here for the first time. What's the purpose?

Anonymous said...

Goodness, do you really think this:

in reality, not so much an “age” as an “impulse,” fuelled by a heightened sense of optimism about the ability of men and women to use their rational powers not only to understand the laws of the universe, but also to devise means by which to use those laws for the betterment of mankind.

Is true? What arrogant, modernist baloney.

Do you really think that mankind did not use "reason" before the so-called "Enlightenment", or change their world? Go read some Aquinas, for Pete's sake (if you can understand it, that is). Goodess, the Portuguese were sailing round the world in the late 15th bad the early 16th century. What do you think, the peoples of Europe lived in mud huts? It is a modern conceit (and here I use Modern in the broader sense) that all that came before was darkness and superstition.

The is more a reverberation of Renaissance anti-medieval propaganda than much else. In fact, without the Scholastics what came later would have been intellectually impossible.

Moreover, there is much Darkness in your "Enlightenment" the oppressions of the crowns of Europe, the Napoleonic wars, not to mention the creation as a large enterprise of the African slave trade. There were also many Modern superstitions and Pseudo-sciences: mesmerism, "magnetism", and all sort of other claptrap.

The "Enlightenment" got us the French Revolution and Bonapartism. Both Lenin and Stalin claimed to descend from the "Age of Reason". Mao, famously, claimed to be fulfilling the rationalism of the Western Enlightenment. Little light about there, I can tell you. Let us not conflate "optimism about reason" with narcissism, cupidity and the zeal of fanatics.

Much of what passed for the "Enlightenment" was really just an alloyed antinomianism. It is not an accident that the Left, like the Bonapartists, loves preening as the natural successors to "The Enlightenment".

If there was an acceleration of the science and praxis in the 18th and 19th centuries, the greater part of it is most likely is due to the much expanded wealth of Europe, a wealth which allowed a broader application of the talents of the Europeans. The impressive gain in wealth, education, population, agriculture productivity, etc, from the Renaissance onward certainly cannot be attributed to Gaulic effetes such as Voltaire.
(And let us remember that much of this wealth was enabled by the conquest of the New World, and the Ancient World.) The "heroes" of the Enlightenment stake claim they deserve not.

Again, the notion of "The Enlightenment" that you and the quoted author posit is mostly a late 19th century and 20 century conceit, and rather different from the actually sub culture or "impulses" of those times. Here the author gives the game away with his rather loopy notion that an "age" is characterized by some vague collective "impulses"; this is a purely 20th century concoction, and a rather shallow, middle-brow one at that.

While this myth is not solely a fiction of the Left, it is their province. They use it as a cudgel to herd the rest of us into darkness.

Anonymous said...

Marx a "deep thinker"? Too funny. Only a Marxist would think that.
In any event, it is hardly a "deep thought" that we are "shaped by our environment". An illiterate 8th century Tuscan shepherd could have told you that.

What a absolutely ridiculous assertion. But it is typical of what I say: Mention "The Enlightenment" and the Marxist come out of the woodwork. Such hilarity!

What is truly risible here is that collectivism is actually an ancient vice: It is an avatar of the remote, antediluvian past.

There are few thing more regressive than self-proclaimed "Progressives". That your "Enlightenment" for you.

Jonathan Rowe said...


If you weren't so insulting I think you may make valuable contributions here.

is characterized by some vague collective "impulses"; this is a purely 20th century concoction, and a rather shallow, middle-brow one at that.

Actually I found that it was Kant in the late 18th Cen. who first posited this meme. Though the meme may not have taken off until the 20th Cen.

Phil Johnson said...

I always figure--in academic concerns--that content is more valuable that style.
It's probably good mental exercise to do the password puzzle anyway. You appear to have final control at this site and I have no problem with that at all. But, there is a problem you should consider dealing with. Turning people out because you don't like them doesn't make a lot of sense in circles where there are professional educators--no just amateurs. I have always had great respect for professionals. Am I correct in thinking that the difference between the pros and the amateurs has to do with ethics?

jimmiraybob said...

Jon - "But the 'system' has to have some kind of divine trump."

There's a review at Political Theology that might shed some additional light, including:

"As such, faith is not related to belief in the existence of God but to an experience that is shared by agnostics, atheists and theists alike. Faith, we might say, is a/theistic, cutting across such distinctions."


"However, Critchley also suggests that the faith of those without faith in a particular religious tradition ‘reveals the true nature of faith’ and that it is perhaps more faithful precisely because it is faithless."

jimmiraybob said...

Apologies, my previous comment was meant for the Tea with Simon Critchley post. I thought it had disappeared because of the HTML link.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually Anon's comments point to an extremely important question (one that has been vexing my mind) about modernity and progress. I don't have a clear cut answer. And there's been a lot said by very formidable scholars (I recall Cato's symposium on modernity that got King of Ireland's ire) and I don't think they know either. Diverse figures from Jack Goldsmith to Gary North to Niall Ferguson to Deirdre Mccloskey understand the issues; but even their pet theories can't prove themselves in a smoking gun sense.

But the tale is something like this: Ancient Greece invented science and they pass the torch to the Romans. Christianity inherited the tradition and despite the excesses of the "dark ages" you had key men like Aquinas and the other scholastics preserving that tradition. Then you had the Renaissance and Reformation, all important moves on the board.

But here's the rub: If you compare average standards of living in Western culture around Jesus time to around the end of the 18th Cen., you saw some notable improvements/breakthroughs but where it really matters, there really wasn't much of a lifestyle/materialism difference. It all started to take off during the early 19th Century. If you want to talk about who planted the oldest seeds you can go back to Ancient Greece. But it all started to take off just during and after that period of time historians term "the Enlightenment." And it was mainly centered in the "Anglo" areas. And there were connections between and among the Anglos. There was a lot of migration done between Great Britain and America and notable figures kept in close correspondence. Guys like Franklin and his "honest Whigs" which included guys like Richard Prince and Joseph Priestley had their meeting spots on both ends of the Atlantic. They sought a unifying rational science: A science of nature, theology and politics. They might not have been good at all three but guys like Franklin, Jefferson, Priestley, Price were at once natural scientists, political scientists and theologians. And they had guys like Isaac Newton and John Locke who did something similar beforehand.

Phil Johnson said...

Oh, I am starting to get it, Anonymous. YOU are ONE of those chosen greats. And having discovered the Absolute Truth you have come here to awaken the sleepers from their slumbers. Something about your patter has a familiar ring.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno, Jon. The Catholic city-states of Italy [Genoa, Venice, etc.] in the 1400s get extremely wealthy via trade. Spain and Portugal get richer as they go global in the 1500s. France does well until the king plunges them into a fiscal crisis---the "Enlightenment" solution of the French Revolution and dismantling the ancien regime down to the ground results in chaos and murder, and Emperor Napoleon is in charge within a few years.

And I think it's quite disputable that the peace Britain made after its civil wars of the 1600s was the product of Enlightenment more than Protestantism simply getting its act together and halting the fratricide.

Religious pluralism is achieved by the gun and the sword at least as much as by the blatherings of John Milton. [And as we know, John Locke doesn't even publish his Treatises on Government until after the wars are over, 1688!]

And America never had those sectarian wars, aside from killing the occasional Quakers, who were annoying. How colonial America was substantially better or different in a material sense than Elizabethan Britain would have to be argued. Aside from the prosperity brought by trade, it seems about the same to me.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom: You are talking about wealth in a relative sense. I'm referring, mainly to material progress brought about by technological breakthroughs. Jefferson and Washington were rich as Hell; but they still had no heat in the winter, air in the summer, indoor plumbing, cars, trains, airplanes or anti-biotics when they got sick.

Re economic progress, I need to read up on the Catholic city states of Italy. But did they really have a system that worked as efficiently as those who put, for instance, Adam Smiths' into place?

The excesses of the continental Enlightenment in France may be bad; but it shouldn't poison any wells because poisoning the well is a logical fallacy. Sometimes modernity's amazing breakthroughs do a lot of bad, or at least have the potential to so do (like the atom bomb).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Jon, my real objection to the Enlightenment thesis, crediting the progress of the Western World to it, is that the timeline doesn't add up.

There is a good argument that the Enlightenment and its French Revolution ideals actually were furthered by Emperor Napoleon's military adventures across Europe.

But me, I'll stick with the modest American advances before that in the 1700s, and the English ones before that in the 1600s.

To this day, America and the UK---incl the Anglosphere like AUS and NZ---outstrip continental Europe and its Enlightenment.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't pay much attention to France; they've got good quinine and literature I understand.

The way I understand progress, most of it came from the Scots-Anglo-American Enlightenment. And it was Germany that was the cultural superstar ... that is until the post-modern period, WWI, WWII and all that. But that's a whole 'nother story. I think it was Allan Bloom who said Enlightenment ended when Heidegger became a Nazi.

jimmiraybob said...

Jon - "Ancient Greece invented science and they pass the torch to the Romans. Christianity inherited the tradition and despite the excesses of the "dark ages" you had key men like Aquinas and the other scholastics preserving that tradition. Then you had the Renaissance and Reformation, all important moves on the board."

Jon, this is just too simple. The progress of the scientific method leading to what would be considered modern science - materialistic, naturalistic as opposed to supernaturalistic - is not linear. It leaves out contributions by the ancient and Medieval Chinese, Babylonians, Egyptians, Arabs, etc., and the large-scale preservation and increase in scientific and mathematical understanding that occurred in the Byzantine world of the east that slowly trickled into the west after the west had largely lost any intellectual momentum.

Yes, there is a strain of intellectual inquiry that passes through the monastic orders and then the universities and scholasticism, but within that tradition was almost a sole desire to reconcile an Aristotelian or Platonic method with the Bible - essentially science/philosophy to prove and explore God and to build a right way of thinking and living within the parameters of the Church.

It's not until you see spurts of philosophy and science and ancient sources coming in from the east that excitement is encountered in knowing and using more mundane methods toward more mundane concerns. I'm speaking of the intellectual change that is called Renaissance Humanism*; not a specific system but more a way of looking at and knowing the world that strayed from the more conservative (and stale according to many at the time) scholastic methods and curriculum. Nauert** and others have drawn the conclusion that it was the earlier humanistic emphasis on more worldly matters and its faith in the human condition and intellect, slowly spreading from Florence north and west, eventually to the British Isles, that led to what became known after the fact as the Enlightenment.

And yes, the change in emphasis from training clergy and theologians (scholastic approach) to an approach that would better accommodate merchants, business leaders and secular politicians and ministers was directly influenced by improving economic conditions in large part due to changes and increases in foreign trade.

* not opposed to the church or even Scholasticism, which kept chugging along, and promoted by pious Christian men as well as more secular thinkers.

** Charles G. Nauert, 2006, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. This is a very good resource to use to map out the "beginning" of Enlightenment thinking.

And, regarding science in the Medieval period and preparation for Nauert's book, I'd recommend Norman F. Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages. I see this and Nauert's work not as being the only good sources but as good, scholarly presentations that are helping me get to a point that I can think about KOI's (and everyone's) question of where did these ideas come from? (With lots of stops to dig up primary sources that are cited.)

Jonathan Rowe said...


You raise good points and you are right that I should not ignore the non-Western contributions to scientific progress and civilization.

I don't think there is any "settled" answer as to why it all started taking off shortly after 1800. (And in the geographic location(s) where it did.)

I know the Straussians, interesting provocateurs they are, have some really off the wall ideas. But one where they may spot on -- and one that was (as far as I know) independently verified by Deirdre Mccloskey was changing views on commerce. Or the greater "respect," if you will, the merchant class had garnered during the period of time termed the Enlightenment. The Straussians' larger thesis is politics became much more "man centered," (or humanistic) that is based on meeting man's material needs. As opposed to being focused on virtue or God's holiness or what have you. Out of this they read in esoteric atheism of the philosophers, which is way off. (Though there was esoteric heresy; because before the Enlightenment being an open heretic could get you killed. And in fairness to TVD's anticipated response, yes I know a few Protestant sources predated the Enlightenment with notions of religious liberty and right to be an open heretic.)

jimmiraybob said...

The expansion of intellectual inquiry requires at least three things, enough wealth and social security to support "leisure" studies, a secure political and societal space to allow inquiry to lead where it leads, and individual and collective intellectual capacity and curiosity.

Add to that cumulative improvements in instrumentation that expanded the potential for observation: think telescope and microscope and the profound innovations that took place since their introduction. Every improvement in the ability to observe is accompanied by an increase in theory which leads more advanced instruments, improved knowledge base and theory and to more more questions that starts the cycle over.

Many facets of algebra and the calculus had been worked out by the Greeks and Arabs and the Persians (Egyptians, Indians, etc., but had been lost to western, Latinized, European intellectuals and scholars until imported through Byzantine trade with Europe (and Muslim conquests north of the Mediterranean Sea. As Cantor notes, "The penetration of Arabic mathematics into western Europe was for the first time opening up to European thinkers the mathematical dimension in human thought."

And Cantor, speaking of William of Occam (c. 1st half of 14th century), states "the successes of Occam" - and his insistence that "the only valid source of knowledge about the world is what is observable" -

"...helped to set the stage for the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century, but they were separated from the achievements of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton by their distinctly limited methods of experimentation and inadequate knowledge of quantification. Their [Occam, Bacon, etc.] assertions too often were [brilliant] shots in the dark..."

Add to that the 16th century introduction and growth of the printing press and printing, which allowed for broad and accurate dissemination of new ideas and data, and the stage is set for the "sudden" rise of "modern" science in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I guess that this is a long-winded way of saying that I think I agree with the Straussians' larger thesis. A fourth requirement that I should have mentioned above is need - what are the practical products of science - applied science. Well, better products and improved manufacturing for starters. To that point Cantor writes (regarding research on falling bodies - see Galileo),

"There were no chairs in science...but there were many in dialectics and theology [in the 14th century]; it was more profitable to pursue the latter disciplines than to engage in scientific research that no one, outside of a small circle, appreciated. It was a change in military technology that eventually made mechanics a socially useful subject and encouraged the revival of research in the sixteenth century..." at which time, armies had become sufficiently adept at firing cannonballs so that someone who could devise a formula for falling projectiles [falling bodies] could make a contribution whose empirical value could be understood."

Medicine was also a socially valuable tool in disease-plagued Europe. Following a long history of development of optics and optical theory, the microscope was invented and developed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries which greatly advance the possibilities of medical research (germ theory) for instance).

What a lot of people confuse about the Enlightenment is by thinking that Enlightenment = secularism they feel that they have to argue against it as being opposed to religion or Christianity. It's not. But, in the west, without the rise of a secular perspective starting with the Italian Renaissance, we would still be living in a brutish and limited world of very limited intellectual possibilities.

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