Ben Franklin & Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps the key to both Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau’s works is in their rhetoric and manner of describing their lives. Broadly speaking, the shift from the Age of Reason to the Transcendentalism period is seen as a shift from logic, reason and materialism to the abstract, and the language of both authors reflects that. Ben Franklin’s language is more marked by straightforwardness and conciseness, and Thoreau is driven more by imagination and literary devices. It reflects, perhaps, the two men as focused on different “aims” and purposes but still at self-betterment for both. Whereas Franklin’s language and narrative testifies to his self-made success by primarily economic and social standards, he doesn’t lose sight of his own betterment also as a moral individual. And while Thoreau’s work testifies to his self-discovery, he also remembers the value and importance of needing to be actively involved in society.
So the sort of person Franklin hopes to help “foster” is one who can be an educated, successful, work-driven person who is free to decide his own beliefs and who also is trying to improve as a moral individual. And Thoreau would hope his readers to be aware of the spiritual, instinctive, feeling part of them—beyond just the empirical and material—and in so doing, to develop or realize one’s individual conscience and convictions.
As a Deist, Franklin believed in a more “impersonal” God, and this meant that it was up to the individual to use human reason to discover and interpret the complex system of laws that govern the world. In an age of religion being questioned, Franklin suggests, indirectly, that the way to serve God is to serve man (114, 116). It seems that Franklin’s disinterest in formal or organized religion is because it is too stifling and gets hung up on dogma. Those same moral values (that religion teaches) are also evident without the church telling them to him. So the ideas of “sin,” “blessing,” “being Christian,” “revelation” and “repentance” are (to him) based on moral grounds and are more like “error,” “advantages,” “being a good citizen,” “reason” and “correcting errors,” respectively. The Enlightenment suggests a period of both moral self-betterment and the perfection of things through science (its innovations) and political thought. The equality of men and the right to one’s own beliefs are also important counters to religion, which divides people (Franklin 146).
Maybe Franklin’s writing can seem, at times, to be characterized by false humility, self-pride and even contradictions. But he constantly admits his own shortcomings. He is reflective of his own past and his mistakes, and he often expresses a desire to correct errors whenever possible (e.g., 129). Franklin sees himself as a possible good example for others, and his writings of his successes (and in so many areas) allows him to be seen as one who would encourage hard work, morality and self-betterment. Because he is retrospective, and admits his personal failures and limitations, he shows that human limitations are always part of life. But he also shows that learning from mistakes, and not repeating them, is the important next step to improvement.
Comparatively, Thoreau also emphasizes similar (certain) values but discovers and utilizes them differently. He too would say that self-fulfillment is up to the individual—but not through the Enlightenment’s frameworks. If Franklin is self-made, Thoreau is self-discovered and self-defined. The “counterpart” to Franklin’s “errors” might be the natural, animalistic impulses that Thoreau knows are within and that he sometimes faces (e.g., 257), like the urge to kill and eat a small animal he saw.
Thoreau also, somewhat, concurs with Franklin’s aversion to organized religion, but both men did believe in God/the divine. Franklin makes clear that he can find moral truths without their being expressed in religious terms. Thoreau too has that intuition, though he feels that one ought to discover God for himself, and that God is manifested in all of nature. Resisting the more animalistic, natural self also goes along with his criticism of materialism, industrialization, greed and the like, because those too are, in a sense, “excesses” and in conflict with discovering divinity and spirituality. (Franklin might not have agreed with a sacrifice of material success, but his 13 guidelines for “moral perfection” do suggest things in moderation.)
When Thoreau writes of civil disobedience and his opposition to slavery, he writes also of men as “machines” (388), as if to suggest that individual choice and morality needs to be found but generally (that is, for most men) hasn’t been. He writes of serving man (which is similar to Franklin’s thoughts) (389). But the one difference is that Thoreau is more clearly discussing (throughout) the individuality of men and duty to themselves and their own morals. Franklin’s thoughts on individuality are more focused on people as being free to believe what they wish. In other words, a last contrast shows the same idea of individuality but expressed and employed in different ways. Franklin seems to feel that he is an example of a man who has been successful and who has found morals for himself. To be better/self-improving involves that freedom and individual thought, humility, and hard work. Thoreau seems to find himself more limited by his nature and must know/see the divine to reach a higher, spiritual plane. (His idea of independence also comes through more abstract means and expressions.) Like Franklin, he too believes in purity and being temperate. But the “higher laws” (403) inspire self-sacrifice of immediate, personal well-being for higher principles.
While Franklin writes as a self-made man whose successes are more “tangible” and whose morals are of ‘self-improvement,’ Thoreau writes as a man whose self-discovery comes not in material gain but spiritual awareness. Both men admit faults and shortcomings but learn from them or deal with them differently. Franklin works to self-improve, etc.; Thoreau writes that man must discover his higher/spiritual self via disallowing the instinctive and material gains by which most people measure a man and his success. And to Franklin, being a good, moral, useful and educated citizen is how to serve God. To Thoreau, to live simply, in nature, and discover the divine is to realize one’s self, including the individual morality that is able to oppose government when its machinations and practices become ‘evil.’ Man thinks as an individual (or he can); the government and the majority do not.