Friday, May 15, 2009

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

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the point of making virtue a daily issue? I mean, what's new about that?

Similarly, in the Autobiography’s program of virtue regimentation—what Franklin had proposed to Lord Kames in 1760 as his “Art of Virtue”— the cultivation of virtue is completely structured as discipline on a diurnal timescale to break the “unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits and the Force of perpetual Temptations:”

"I made a little Book in which I allotted a Page for each of the Virtues. I rul’d each Page with red Ink so as to have seven Columns, one for each Day of the Week, marking each Column with a Letter for the Day. I cross’d these Columns with thirteen red Lines, marking the Beginning of each Line with the first Letter of one of the Virtues, on which Line and in its proper Column I might mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination, to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day."

And of the virtues most stressed by Franklin, Industry and Frugality, have, as I have noted, a principal emphasis as fundamental controls of time. The day-to-day structure of the almanac’s system of virtue indoctrination is itself subsumed into Franklin’s larger project of appropriating control over quotidian time to arrive “at moral Perfection.” And the daily effort itself internalizes discipline in time consciousness, as opposed to obedience to the time consciousness of an external authority.

David Landes identifies the introduction of the portable timekeeper, watch or clock, as a revolutionary instrument, and the transition from public time to private time that it instantiated in the 17c as a long, revolutionary moment. By virtue of similar relationship of a person to their consciousness of time, Nathaniel Low’s observation in 1786 remarks on the time consciousness as occasioned by the use of almanacs:

"It is easy to prove that no book we read (except the Bible) is so much valued, and so serviceable to the community. Almanacks serve as clocks and watches for nine-tenths of mankind..."

Increasingly widespread use of the diurnal moralization, which Franklin was promoting, was operating as an instantiation of internal time-discipline, which is continuous with Franklin’s project of daily virtue cultivation, which itself was an assertion of republican agency and responsibility. Unlike time obedience—as evident in an anecdote of King Charles V of France, who in 1370 issued an ordinance that all public clocks in Paris, including those of the church towers, should be regulated around the timekeeper of the royal palace, the Horloge du Palais—the appropriation of time consciousness reputed that time should emanate from an external authority and that that authority in keeping time should be the royal imperium.

The idea of an royal imperium as having been granted by an ancient, immemorial right, thus claiming anteriority and sole rights to time, received its unwritten formulation in British polity sometime around 1600. By legitimizing its presence as immemorial concretion, the monarchy positioned itself centrally in a timescale of sanctioned perpetuity. Because it had always been it must consequently always be.

Pocock observes that, “to describe a timeless existence, a sacred origin or an immemorial continuity, are all ways of conceptualizing the continuous existence of a society.” Continuous existence is indeed legitimated—and with it the chronological anteriority of the monarchy. The monarchy, which theoretically came before time, emanated time. Time was a kind of original property of the monarchy, who alone in claiming ancient ownership of time could claim, by extension, sole rights to contingency and agency in time. In this respect, the monarchy could legitimately militate against the usurpation of time and agency by any other political body.

A sententia in Franklin’s 1745 almanac directly condemns the theoretical principle underpinning the monarchic doctrine of traditionalism and immemorial custom: “All blood is alike ancient.” In 1751, he echoed this notion by mockingly computing that for “each present Nobleman, to exclude all ignoble Blood from his Veins, ought to have had One Million, Forty-eight Thousand, Five Hundred and Seventy-six noble Ancestors,” thus showing that “the Pretension of such Purity of Blood in ancient Families is a mere Joke.” Even the Autobiography’s describing deleterious habit as ‘ancient’ seems to be an underhanded critique of ancient modes as fundamentally dysfunctional.

Greater popular control of time therefore becomes a political issue. The appearance of an instrument or a virtue system that could privately claim de facto hold on time was not only associated with a principle of self-regulation, it also brought with it a liberalizing share of legal and political agency for any person that could claim chrono-literacy and chrono-control. As early as 1637, John Suckling already associates control of time with political self-regulation:

"But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own,
So in our very judgments."

Personal appropriation of accurate, private timekeeping is operatively continuous with the legitimation of common, private adjudication. In the same manner by which each man keeps his own time, each man rectifies his own agential relationship to judgment in time. Franklin’s diurnal programming of self-regimentation in the almanac and the virtue system, which is also a tabular account of daily good doable, was suggestively politicized in a bit of advice from Poor Richard:

"In studying Law or Physick, or any other Art or Science, by which you propose to get your Livelihood, though you find it at first hard, difficult and unpleasing, use Diligence, Patience and Perseverance; the Irksomeness of your Task will thus diminish daily, and your Labour shall finally be crowned with Success."

Rather than an impersonal process, grace—or the perfection of human capacities—is seen as a historical effort, which takes place within the closed circle of private labor and is ‘crowned,’ or afforded a public exhibition of one’s imperium over one’s self, according to the successful implementation of those virtues, which are foundational to the Republic, namely controls of agency in relation to a heightened sensibility to time: “Diligence, Patience and Perseverance.”

And what these three virtues share, beyond being a control of character in relation to time, is that they are all specifically controls of character in relation to a timescale that premises a rewarding futurity as the operative stimulus to action in the present. And by this trajectory—hopefully less roundabout than I have intended—I will return to futurity and Franklin’s core issue in the political events of the mid-eighteenth century.

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