Friday, May 15, 2009

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

Mr. Poor Richard, but how does wealth tie into virtue?

Taken as a whole, the functioning of Franklin’s virtue system is bipartite. In its direct implementation it would create the necessary stress upon individuals to self-regulate in a socio-economic system where their industry and frugality would bear directly upon the smooth functioning of that system. Indirectly, the transformation possible virtue into a thing accountable daily but never fully attainable, would render an account system of virtue in which a perfected futurity would perpetually be a motivating force because a total impossibility. The system would continuously keep moving forward because its futurity would be as unattainable as it would be desirable. And, to keep it desirable, Franklin yokes it with commercial success:

“[inculcating] Industry and Frugality, as the Means of procuring Wealth and thereby securing Virtue, it being more difficult for a Man in Want to act always honestly, as (to use one of those Proverbs) it is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright.”

But is the sack full of wealth or virtue? The answer again is exclusively neither but compositely both. The means for conveying moral instruction and checking personal corruptibility must be conveyed in civic terms and, for Franklin, there was no force more civically binding than the market economy. Virtue is not exactly commercialized, but rather the system by which virtues are reified is constructed in commercial terms to receive wider attraction.

Additionally this seems to be why the virtue system must remain undefined by the residues of religiosity and transcendental import. The mortgage in the future had to resist temptations to be conceptualized in terms that would render it an imagined future beyond the scope of secular, socio-economic relations. Franklin’s collecting the “Essentials of every known Religion” to create a substructure of religiosity whose fundamental credo is that “the most acceptable Service to God is doing Good to Man” proposes a religious frame that is multi-confessional in its essentialism and civic in its conjoining of essentials for the mutual social benefit of all persons.

When Franklin praises Michael Welfare, the leader of a particular sect for his “Modesty… perhaps a singular instance in the History of Mankind,” he is referring to Welfare’s expressed aversion to conceptualizing religion in a closed system, where it might be “unwilling to receive farther Improvement.” Franklin’s acceptable religion must retain a futurity open to secular, social change—to contingency.

Furthermore, the future must be formulated in sharable terms and the best conveyance for a sharable future in the civic weal was mutual investiture in a commercial structure of credit and character. Father Abraham was a prophet, but a prophet of a moral system that was functional because profitable. The Autobiography is a moral education and a story of success.

And the ideological frame, which contains and motivates the Autobiography as a process of self-representation—of credit and character—created its portability by historicizing futurity in most basic terms. Posterity would carry on the ethical education of everyday time because its metaphor had been constructed so as to project agency forward.

Through his writings, the Almanacs, and the Autobiography, which becomes a theoretical seed from which the purpose and potential of his virtue system is embodied, Franklin renders himself a communicable human metaphor for ethical thinking in a world of contingencies. Martha Nussbaum argues that poesis can function as a kind of training in ethical thinking, inculcating “the gentle art of particular perception” to motive and agency behind and beyond the written pronouncement, the text of the law. Franklin seems to have accomplished the reverse in rendering his written ethical pronouncements on industry and frugality into a semiological nugget encasing the possibility of futurity. Time itself was made a res publica.

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