Now, in part two of the Autobiography, the largest part of it, is the project for moral perfection.  Certainly, a lot of writers have thought that part two was the most arresting part of the whole thing and they have been endlessly infuriated and aroused and riled by it. Mark Twain and William Carlos Williams and D. H. Lawrence and a whole slew of people have taken off after Franklin, essentially based on their reaction to the project for moral perfection.  Max Faber took it as the single most central document in the entire history of the Protestant ethic.  Faber was a German scholar in the heartland of European scholarship at a time when American scholarship and American culture was a distant little pimple on the left pinkie of the European mind, and yet Franklin’s project for moral perfection was important enough to Faber that he didn’t merely say it mattered, he said that it mattered more than anything Calvin ever wrote—it mattered more than anything any European ever wrote.  I think all of these people have taken it straight, and I think that’s just loopy.  Franklin tells us in a thousand ways that it’s not to be taken at face value.  Just look at the thirteenth virtue that he sets out to cultivate.  He shows his twelve virtues to a Quaker friend and the friend tells him, “You know, Ben, there are people who think that you could do with a little more humility, and maybe you ought to work on that too. You’re widely thought to be a very vain and proud person.”  So Franklin adds humility to his original twelve virtues. You may remember that for each of the virtues he’s got a little sentence or two, a tagline that defines that virtue and what he means by it.  Does anybody remember the tagline for humility?  “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” These are merely the two most famous people in Western culture, and he’s going to be humble by trying to be like them?  We’re clearly talking about a joke, a gag, a spoof. 

It isn’t just that one, so it’s not a slip—it’s systematic and it runs through many of these.  Silence: “Speak not, but what may benefit others or yourself.”  I defy you to think of what you could say that wouldn’t benefit either others or yourself.  This is an unlimited license to say whatever you feel like saying.  Frugality: “Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.”   What can’t you spend on, if the test is whether it will benefit others or yourself?  “Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit.”  Is that what any of you mean by sincerity?  Deceit is all right so long as it’s a little white lie, and not a big heavy one that’s going to harm someone or make them feel rotten?  This one I love: “Chastity: Rarely use venery, but for health or offspring.”  That’s not, “Just say no.”  It seems to me that it is going to be pretty rare that you’re going to use it for something other than pleasure or purpose!  And so it goes on. 

When he writes this thing, Philadelphia is a small place—there are fewer people in the entire city of Philadelphia than there are at the University of Pennsylvania today and they’re cooped up in a space no bigger than the University of Pennsylvania occupies today.  People know Franklin.  Temperance is his first virtue—this is a man who’s got one of the most splendid champagne collections and one of the best wine cellars in all American, and suffers from gout.  You don’t get gout from temperance.  Silence—this is a man who’s been writing and stirring up trouble all his life.  Order is the third virtue, and three pages later he tells us that order is all right for an apprentice but once you become a man of business, order is impossible—the scale of your operations, the magnitude of your affairs guarantees that things will get out of control.  Industry—this is a man who quit work when he was forty-two years old  and never worked again a day the rest of his life. The whole thing is such a bizarre accounting of himself, but even beyond that, think about the virtues themselves: Temperance Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity … Are these the measure of moral perfection?  Would any of you define moral perfection in those terms?  Maybe instead of frugality you might honor generosity?  Maybe you’d think about faith, or hope, or charity?  Maybe you’d think about a whole array of things that the world has always thought constituted moral perfection or saintliness, but surely not these penny-pinching chintzy things like frugality, and temperance and chastity and all the rest.  In the rest of the Autobiography it becomes very clear that generosity and sympathy and charity and all the rest are essential virtues to him and they don’t remotely appear in this description of the project for moral perfection.

I think he’s also telling us something in some of his apparently aimless stories.  Does anybody remember the two stories that immediately precede the launching into the project for moral perfection?  One of them is a story about him giving up on the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church is the closest thing that he’s got to a church that is his own.  He contributes money to lots of churches, he sits in lots of churches once in a blue moon, but to the extent that he’s a member of a church with voting rights and the like, it’s the Presbyterian Church.  He’s fed up because they’ve had a succession of ministers who’ve all been concerned with doctrinal purity rather than with civic promotion and helping people. But this particular Sunday, the Presbyterian minister that he doesn’t like has announced the text for that day and the text appears to Franklin to be so inescapably public that he’s finally going to get to hear the guy talk on something other than Presbyterian doctrine.  And so he attends and somehow the preacher manages to convert even that text into something about pure theology and wrong theology and right theology, and Franklin walks out in such disgust that he vows never to go back as long as this guy is priest.  He’d had an earlier fight that he’s described, where the church is deciding between two preachers, one of whom is doctrinally adequate but has no stomach for doing any public good and using the church to public ends, and the other guy’s who’s patently wrong on a series of important Presbyterian theological points but he’s got a charismatic personality and a capability for galvanizing civic action.  Franklin agitates mightily to get the doctrinally inadequate guy, loses and it’s part of his disenchantment with the church.

The second story that he tells is of the morning that he comes down to breakfast and discovers that after decades of eating off cheap crockery with pewter utensils, his wife has put in front of him a piece of fine porcelain and utensils of silver.  He says, “What’s this about?” and you know what’s coming: this is the standard diatribe of the eighteenth-century male against the eighteenth-century female for her wastefulness, frivolity, spendthriftness, and running the male into ruin.  Do you remember what she answers?  “You’re worth it!  All these other people on the block have stuff like this and why should you, who are as good as they are, be eating off the cheap stuff.  You should have the good stuff too!”  And instead of launching into a tirade against her wasteful ways, he says, “You’re right.  I’m worth it!” And he says, “And then I went out and bought three hundred pounds-worth of porcelain and silver.”  Not Deborah—Ben.  Following on immediately from that, he starts in on the project for moral perfection, with its injunctions to frugality and the rest.  He deliberately gives the lie to some of the explicit principles of moral perfection—but mostly he’s talking about resignation to imperfection. 

The story that comes immediately after the project for moral perfection is the story of the speckled ax.  Some country bumpkin comes into to town and he wants to buy an ax from the blacksmith, and he admires the shiny edge of the ax head. He says, “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the entire head of the ax could be as shiny as the blade?”  The blacksmith immediately knows he’s got a live one and so he starts in, “Of course we can get the whole head shined up, we just do this for starters with the blade. It’ll be nothing to get the whole ax head as shiny as the blade—I will hold the ax head to the grindstone and you’ll just turn the grindstone for a while, and we’ll shine it up in nothing flat.  Half an hour later, sweat is pouring from the country bumpkin’s brow, he’s drenched in it and he stops and he says, “I think I can’t go on any longer.”  And the blacksmith, who isn’t about to give this game up lightly, says, “No, you’re coming along great.  Look at this!” And he shows him the ax head and it’s got lots of places where it’s shined up some.  Then he says, “You keep going a little while longer, and we’ll have the whole thing. Right now it’s just speckled.”  And the rube finally realizes he’s been had, and he says, “You know, I think I prefer a speckled ax.” Again, it’s a story of resignation to imperfection.  So you’ve got this project for moral perfection totally framed by stories that say that any kind of perfection is not only impossible but foolish and wrong-headed.  But in case you didn’t get any of the irony, any of the misinformation, or any of the flat-out out lying, Franklin lays it out explicitly when he’s all done and he says point blank, “That such extreme nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery of morals which if it were known would make me ridiculous, that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance.”  So he never intended the thing to work, he never wanted to be morally perfect.  This thing is itself a joke, a satire against exactly that kind of cold, ungenerous perfecting of the self.  Franklin precisely wants to go out, to have friends, to keep them in countenance—and that means imperfection, that means immorality, and that means the whole array of faults and errata that the Autobiography sporadically dwells in. 

The final question I’d like to address is about reflection and revision in the writing process.

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