Thursday, May 14, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, I

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the use of simple language and why did it become an American aesthetic to write clearly and simply?

In an editorial on literary style, printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 2, 1733, Ben Franklin says the following regarding the need for simplicity in written representation:

"To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest words should be chosen… The Fondness of some Writers for such Words as carry with them an Air of Learning, renders them unintelligible to more than half their Countrymen. If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid."

The benefit of simple language is that it travels well. Its mobility is inhered by a broad comprehensibility, which can carry a written pronouncement from city to country in a vocabulary apprehensible to almost any reader. But, beyond portability across space, simplicity and concision additionally afford portability across time. An aphorism in Franklin’s almanacs correlates the transportability of written language across space to space’s attendant axis, time:

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

The transportability of written language across time becomes a historical issue. Time, as I am using the word here, is shorthand for Franklin’s self-representation as a kind of historiography and the way that such self-representation conceives and conceptualizes its position in time as bearing upon a political system as active history. Time, in this regard, becomes an ethical construction, implicating the relationship of agency to history and the individual to a perceived role in the historical process of their society.

That a society must create and maintain an understanding of its place in history seems self-evident. That an individual, on the other hand, might have activated concepts by which a society could see its history extending into the future is much more interesting. Benjamin Franklin constructed his moral program in terms of transportability to futurity in order to afford that futurity a check on the corruption, which would become the menace to a society in which the integrity of its polity would be based solely upon the activity of its citizens. His two central virtues, industry and frugality, thus became relevant as moral ethos and aesthetic ethos, because together they could build and project the moral credit necessary in a world where the dangers of a shared investment in political contingency would only be remediable by the daily upkeep of a network of active private engagements to a shared futurity.

The republic’s citizenry would have to actively maintain the integrity of that republic and Franklin surfaces as the citizen most concerned with a broad dissemination of the virtues that would maintain and project the republic forward. Through his writings, almanacs and the Autobiography, which is an evidentiary embodiment of the purpose and potential of his virtue system, Franklin conceptualizes a timescale of agential relationship to futurity, both of an individual and a republic, to which communicability would be a founding principle.

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