Thursday, May 14, 2009

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

Mr. Poor Richard, why are industry and frugality so goddamn important to this bloke?

The last Almanac prepared by Franklin and published for the year 1758 is the source for his most widely reprinted writings (more than even the Autobiography), variously printed as “preliminary Address prefixed to the “Pennsylvania Almanack for 1758,” “Father Abraham’s Speech,” “Way to Wealth,” “La Science du Bonhomme Richard,” et al. It introduces a new persona, Father Abraham, whose messianic invective against improper taxation, laziness, and profligacy quotes extensively, if not entirely, from Poor Richard’s maxims.

Franklin leaves the business of almanacs with an almanac saturated, page after page (the sermon was printed alongside the twelve months), with a rhetorical constellation of Franklin’s collected aphorisms of virtuous commercialism. And the core message, as the Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One—again addressed to futurity (a young tradesman)—boils it down, “depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY.”

One might conceptualize the argumentation behind centralizing these two words as core virtues by following their semantic content along a plausible meaning. We can take industry to denote production increased in time and frugality to denote preservation of resources over time. The former contracts time, in that more gets done in less time, while the latter expands time, in that less lasts for longer periods. Both, in their own way (one as a management of output, the other as a management of input), are controls of time. Time, we might conclude, becomes an ethical construct in the frame of a virtue system, which determines merit and demerit according to one’s use of time. We have concluded a general theme from a few contents in the text and could presume that the passage is operating according to principles of republican virtue, but the semantic layout of the passage is only half its argumentation.

Franklin breaks the code so effortlessly that we might overlook the fact that he does not identify ‘INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY’ as virtues, but as ‘Words.’ The semiological aspect of the virtues—their presence as signs—reorients the virtue system of time control into the realm of language. Franklin’s ideology of the republic is reorganized from the what, or content, to what Hayden White might call the how that what is conveyed: The ideology of Franklin’s virtue system, of industry in frugality, is inhered in even the rhetorical structures used to convey that system—the very words and the simple style of their arrangement.

In a letter to his brother, Franklin correlates the style of his brother’s ballad, which he judges to be good, with the virtues that the ballad is supposed to foster, and again we see our two words:

"I like your ballad, and think it well adapted for your purpose of discountenancing expensive foppery, and encouraging industry and frugality. If you can get it generally sung in your country, it may probably have a good deal of the effect you hope and expect from it."

The letter then suggests that a more common tune, one that a “country girl in the heart of Massachusets” might compose, will allow the song to disseminate with greater reach and its instructive purposes to work themselves more effectively throughout the population. The ethical value of the ballad is measured by the aesthetic decisions which might render it simple and therefore effective, itself industrious or frugal.

The language of the republic, its management of a system of signs, its semiology, enacts and by its communicability legitimates the larger theoretical system of the polity.

No comments: