Thursday, May 14, 2009

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

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the point of creating a virtue system for the future and why the need to check corruption?

Addressing the first part of the Autobiography primarily to his son, but subsequently to a general future as suggested by the intended patrilineal extension of its virtuous education to ‘Posterity,’ Franklin frames his self-education as model “fit to be imitated” by a readership in futurity.

Reinhart Koselleck remarks that a revolution can be legitimated as “a coefficient of movement, mobilizing history in terms of the prevailing prospect of the future.” A revolution can conceptualize the propriety of its present actions by the vision of an intended future necessitating the actions of that revolution to bring that future into being. The inverted reflexivity of the argument keeps the present working for the future in so far as the actions of the present have a purpose to a proposed goal perpetually on the horizon.

Franklin, though not articulating his goal in revolutionary terms, immediately organizes the structure of his educative self-story according to the possibility of readers to come and the prospected need the lives of those readers will have for a fundamental morality. Such stress on the cultivation of virtue as a public good is a concern that came about alongside theories of balanced power and greater emphasis on moral personality within political processes.

If the model of monarchy was to be rejected, as it was by mid-eighteenth century American revolutionaries, on the premise that it was corrupt, it followed that the new political system must check corruption. And, if a new system would invest the populace with greater political agency, it would have to rely on the virtue of its citizens. It is worth saying the obvious: Preventing corruption consisted of promoting virtue. And the popularly instructive is what early readers of the Autobiography ask for more of:

Some Time since there fell into my Hands… an Account of the Parentage and Life of thyself, directed to thy Son ending in the Year 1730 with which there were Notes likewise in thy writing, a Copy of which I enclose in Hopes it may be a means if thou continuedst it up to a later period… a Work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions.

That the ‘rising People’ might need a virtuous education premises an otherwise corruptible state for which the proper remedy is a civic education. Pocock traces the moral requisites inhered in republican self-theorization as active historical progress by identifying the crises, which greater historical agency imparts.

To have a government perfected in personal participation and citizenship resulted in a perpetually corruptible political system as occasioned by the perpetual corruptibility of personalities in society. Pocock indicates that, “Corruption, which threatened the civic bases of personality, was irremediable except by personal virtue itself, and therefore must very soon become irreversible if action was not taken in time.” The emphasis on the immanence of agency in time is a feature of republicanism, which determines its political successes and failures according to the active, participatory agency of its citizenry. And, in its American manifestation, it did so by contrasting its theory of continuity based on creative responses to contingency to the traditionalism and customary continuity of its monarchic, English forebear.

Paine’s Common Sense inveighs the British Crown and the entire concept of kingship as brutish and completely antithetical to rational political organization. But it does so with an attendant remediation of good to immediate agency:

The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected the whole continent will partake of the misfortune; and there is no punishment which that man doth not deserve, be he who, or what, or where he will, that may be the means of sacrificing a season so precious and useful.

The imperative to political action would alone not qualify the passage as republican. Rather, the republican tendency to conceive of the immediate moment as the contraction of a historical age—incurred by the greater responsibility to history essential to republican theorizing of time and agency—by industrious activity impregnates Paine’s revolutionary moment with the import of an age: “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed.”

If a republic is contingent upon the activity of men and women to—as Franklin put it—“keep it,” all political activity must receive and do its work in the operative timescale of tighter, more meaningful, historical time. And that time must be dedicated to certain virtues which would keep it moving along and which Franklin increasingly condensed to two: Industry and Frugality.

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