Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Franklin, Autobiography Part 2 & Equiano

--Since no one took up this question last time, we can continue it this time: many scholars and critics have highlighted Franklin's use of the term "errata" to discuss his personal failings and errors. Such a notion, invoking a printer's error, seems to present problematic behavior as a relatively minor thing that could easily be corrected by reprinting. What do you make of this way of thinking about one's life?

--In my introduction to the Eighteenth Century, I talked about the Enlightenment's investment in education and method. Part II is very much about Franklin's plan for himself and what he calls "The Art of Virtue." How does this fit with those Enlightenment values? To what extent do you agree with Franklin that virtue can be taught?

--Equiano's text represents an alternative version of the Enlightenment autobiography. Written by (supposed) African former slave, The Interesting Narrative comes from a very different set of experiences than Franklin's. What do you notice as points of similarity or difference between the two texts?

--Equiano's text is an avowedly anti-slavery document. How does it use the tools or attitudes of the Enlightenment to critique slavery?


  1. In a way, it seems that by writing his autobiography, Franklin symbolically does rewrite his life to amend the errors. Obviously he doesn’t believe that the mistakes simply go away, but by writing them down and acknowledging them, I feel like he goes quite a way in rectifying them. Recognizing something as an error is the first step in correcting that error. Furthermore, when he felt he had done wrong, he often did take actually action (i.e. not just writing it down and marking its incorrectness) in an effort to compensate. E.g. When he feels that he has damaged Mrs. Read’s happiness, he does go out of his way (there being complications about her marrying again) to restore her…and maybe to relieve his own guilt, but that’s a whole other matter that requires lots of skepticism and frowning on Franklin. (And I think he was probably a pretty nice fellow who genuinely tried to do and be better, so I wont go into that.)
    -Rebecca Zurbrick

  2. I think that Franklin’s “The Art of Virtue” fits very well into the values of the Enlightenment. Each of the seven pieces of Enlightenment stated by Ferguson in the Powerpoint are present within Franklin’s virtues.

    The value of individual freedom is probably one of the strongest of the values of the Enlightenment and is the value most represented in Franklin’s writing. I believe that Franklin writing out how he hopes to improve himself is a perfect example of individual freedom in itself. It takes an individual who knows themselves very well and who has a lot of confidence in who they are, in order to say that they know what is wrong with them and they want to better their virtues. This also could refer to the Enlightenment Credo which said, “Have courage to use your own understanding,” which is exactly what Franklin did in writing this list of virtues.

    Also, I think that Franklin’s virtues hold a good balance of upholding faith in what humans can accomplish but also disregarding more traditional virtues. You can see that Franklin has trust in method, faith in education, belief in progress, and reliability in human understanding in his virtues of order, resolution, industry, justice, and humility. These all represent faith in the general system that people use to run society. Also, these virtues all aim to bring out the best in Franklin and I think that is parallel with the Enlightenment values. They each aim to help make a person be the best person that they can be. However, Franklin doesn’t mention any specific societal or religious traditions or authorities that he thinks need to be part of this system of values.

    I do agree with Franklin that virtue can be taught to a pretty far extent. I think that if someone really wants to better themselves or change their ways, they have the capability to train themselves to be however they want to be. However, whether or not these trained virtues really represent who a person is and the type of person they are is something I’m not sure of. I think there is a certain part of every person that represents the core of who they are and cannot be fully changed no matter how many attempts are made to change it.

    --Jessica Schuster

  3. I think that Franklin's "Art of Virtue" and the enlightenment values really go hand in hand. Reliability in human understanding, faith in education, and belief in progress were all things that Franklin stood for. He would have agreed with Immanuel Kant with the quote from the power point last class that said "Have courage to use your own understanding." After this reading I would expect Franklin himself to be known for using a line like that. And also to an extent he would agree with Voltaire's "distrust of organized religions". Franklin seems to see religion in general as a healthy thing and even admits that he "never doubted" the existence of a deity, but he says on p. 525 that it can often be a means of dividing people and pitting people against one another.

    I agree with Franklin that virtue can be taught. If you are to say that virtue can not be taught then you are saying that the way someone will behave is predetermined before they even have a chance to make a choice. Anyone can be taught to act in a certain manner but of course they may not choose to act on those teachings.

  4. For me, it seemed quite natural for Franklin to discuss his life in printer's terms. He made it clear that books and the written word had a large impact on him from a very young age, and that interest and knowledge of language and literature was further implemented by his work in printing houses. Since Franklin did not seem to buy in to anyone particular sect of religion, questioning Revelation at a young age, becoming a Diest, and then later rejecting that religion as well, it seems as though literature (in all its aspects) became a type of religion for him and formed his discourse and the way he spoke about his own experiences.
    Although this type of discourse may seem to suggest that errors in life could be easily fixed by simply reprinting or editing his life's text, I think Franklin could have been looking at this process of editing and reprinting in a much more serious and in depth way. Creating a new edition of a book is fairly easy in today's world, but for Franklin, printing a new work meant hours of time and effort. Not only did he have to decide what to edit and make the corrections, he had to, by hand, place every single letter that would cause that correction to exist in the new edition. This seems to me to represent a system of thought and effort that is far beyond easy, and captures Franklin's virtue of industry very well.
    -Laura White

  5. Franklin's virtues that he outline for himself fit in quite well with the Enlightenment ideals. First of all, the fact that he wrote these virtues himself and established his own goals for achieving them was a great example of Enlightened thinking. It followed along with Immanuel Kant's quote, "Have courage to use your own understanding." Franklin showed courage by writing his own personal virtues to try and better himself.

    Aside from that, Franklin's virtues also were exemplary of Enlightenment ideas. Robert Ferguson's quote gave a nice list of major ideas of Enlightenment, many of which Franklin's virtues embody. For example, Ferguson explains that "belief in progress" was an important part of the Enlightenment. For Franklin, his virtue of "industry" fit closely with progress: Through industry, Franklin hoped to constantly be productive without wasting time.

    Another part of Ferguson's quote stated that "trust in method" was a big Enlightenment ideal. This reminded me of Franklin's virtue of "order" because his goal was to allow all parts of his life and work to be organized and in their place. That seems methodical to me, so it would fit with the ideal of method.

    Virtues can be taught, it's just a matter if the person is willing to potentially change himself/herself, and to learn and accept the virtues. Like Franklin tried to teach himself his virtues, anyone could practice virtues in a similar way and make habit of them. After a while, habits would become natural (ideally) and virtues would be learned. That's not to say that it would be a simple process, because it may involve replacing or altering old ideals/virtues which can be very challenging, but I would agree that it is possible to teach virtues if a person practices seriously.

    ~Natalie Rooney

  6. I feel that Franklin's way of thinking about his failures, as errata, show that he takes on a more religious persona when writing for the public. It was said in class that he probably wouldn't admit to being an atheist unless a knife was held to his throat and this simply supports that claim. We also discussed how though these are private letters to his son, there is a certain expectation that these letters will be shared in the community so he had to save some face when writing the letters. The "printer" making the error can be a higher power's path for him. I realize this is a different interpretation than simply an error that can be fixed with a reprinting, but I think it might have been closer to what Franklin's meaning was. Franklin does say he would like a chance to re-do his life, but I think Franklin was cynical enough to not expect that. I also think that Becca raises a good point - that Franklin seems to rectify his errors as he writes about his life.

    I found it interesting how much the two texts seemed to jump around. When writing an autobiography or recollecting a past event, it is most common to write everything in chronological order, as Mary Rowlandson did. Franklin especially jumps around in time and adds more detail or background than necessary about the event he describes. I think Equiano’s text was a lot easier to read than Franklin’s biography, but I can’t quite pin down why. I think it was just the difference in the language, but when I look back it’s not that Franklin uses vocabulary that is over my head, but it’s more how the text is presented. Something about all the capital letters throws me off and weighs the text down.

    -Ashley Elson

  7. If the Enlightenment proposed a rational means by which man could better himself and his environment, then for Equiano's objectives, social critique through public discourse presented no better means of doing so. Equiano attacks the institution that deprived him of his personal liberty for the first half of his life through a narrative of exposition that methodically illustrates the perversions of behavior that a slave-based economic system creates. Being fully assimilated to the European worldview of the era, Equiano's style appeals to the practical, a-religious literati who will be fascinated by its author’s initial descriptions of European behavior, culture, and technology from the outsider's perspective, as well as his meticulous recounting of the horrific scenes he experiences under the vile auspices of slave life, and the eloquent, often poetic, language he uses to evoke his personal emotions when describing moments of personal significance in his life's story.

    Although Equiano stipples the narrative with Biblical references and theological allusions (e.g., it is revealed that he his a firm believer in predestination, indicating that he ascribes to Calivinist doctrine), they perform more usefully as literary devices than references of particular spiritual gravity. When his final master, the Quaker slave trader Robert King, grants Equiano his manumission, his simile alluding to a Biblical scene involving the apostle Peter ends up as mere description of his own mental euphoria: "My imagination was all rapture as I flew to the Register Office; and, in this respect, like the apostle Peter (whose deliverance from prison was so sudden and extraordinary he thought he was in a vision), I could scarcely believe I was awake."

    Whereas in autobiographical works of previous centuries, the author would have invoked Biblical figures for purposes of spiritual metaphor, Equiano refers to them as the modern writer alludes to a household-name celebrity, both instances serving more than any other motivation as efforts to gain cultural credibility with each author's respective audiences, deliberately or otherwise.

    This is notable because of the absence of theological doctrine in Equiano's arguments against slavery; instead he relies upon on the natural inevitably of human deportment in particular circumstances to buttress his arguments. Equiano characterizes a stomach-churning scene, in which a slave who has attempted to poison his overseer is tortured and executed, as such: "Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on tyrants!" In such passages, Providence is clearly absent; human utility is an entity unto itself, even in its nefariousness. It would seem ineluctable that from Equiano's perspective, such would be the case. If human rights are to be more greatly respected, it is an inextricable premise of his arguments that humanity possesses the fullest agency, with which it can begin the process of eradicating the worst traits of its conduct, both collectively and individually.

  8. Expanding on what's been said, I believe that Franklin's use of the term "errata" signifies both his literary way of thinking but also a certain analytical perspective as well. He seems to view an individual's life as a "story" from which many other people can study and learn, in both looking at a person's achievements as well as their downfalls. Perhaps by referring to his mistakes and regrets as "errata" he is attempting to present them in a fashion from which readers can learn a lesson and apply it to their own life "story".

    While I do not believe this way of thinking is something that can be applicable to everyone, I do believe that for many people it can help them look at their life in a more organized and constructive manner, especially if one is trying to learn something about their past experiences, thus making it possible to discover something about themselves that they might have not known before. In this way, a person might be able to grow and more effectively apply their knowledge.

    In regards to his "Art of Virtue", I believe it is a perfect example of Enlightenment values. First of all, he uses a very analytical and reason-based approach when determining what qualify as good values, going so far as to make a list of the major virtues complete with descriptions of each. Secondly, he comments on how he purposely went out of his way to avoid any tenets or laws related to any specific religion. His reasoning for this is so that they may be applicable to all peoples of all faiths; this goes along with the Enlightenment "cosmopolitan" ideal. Finally, it goes along with the Enlightenment idea of focus on human understanding. Franklin believes that all people will accept these virtues as true and good, provided they use rational thought in applying them to their lives.

    I think it's worth pointing out that this is a good example of his Deistic beliefs in that spirituality and morality can be guided by reasoning and reflection rather as opposed to faith and revelations from God.

  9. In response to the notion that the protagonist in "The Interesting Narrative" may be reflecting aspects of the Enlightenment, it may be accepted on the grounds that it goes unanswered, and in a weakest condition. Though, similar to Franklin's autobiography, the strength in voice, and unravelling, history-proving prose that comes alive in passages as, "my life hung daily in suspense, particularly in the surfs I have formerly mentioned, I could not swim." (700) We aren't sure whether she speaks metaphorically of herself losing buoyancy in the unpredictable surf as an indirect measure to prove her freedom, or more literally as a woman bliss in knowing none, having the "bars" to sleep behind nightly, steadfast in obedience. We know she's definitely proved "Truth in method", as she's sacrificed personal liberties, to gain right over an even larger personal freedom.

    From London, to the Thames, to the West Indies, it seems as though this black, female, slave (moving along the hands of various wealthy men) is realized only after, in full identity, when we as the audience finally realize she's actually a woman. She proves strength in spirit, and similarly to Franklin, keeps a distance between her present and future, as perhaps a means of maintaining a seeming faith in Providence, but also dealing with overriding uncertainty. The way she holds herself against it, like he, shows her prowess as a slave, let alone a woman.

    An interesting thread that may run throughout the story's thematic structure, is one of magnitude in the respect a slave holds for his owner. As seen through various acknowledgements to the one always referenced as "Master", this woman bears constant conscience of the inevitable seizure of liberty, despite the masquerade that at first glance proves acceptable. As she gains intelligence of the free trade, she realizes her own power in process.

    Needless to say, there is a sense of admiration held for the slave-owner by the slave. The interference of this ownership with the reposing of a slave's image of freedom, from the mere fact of labor in return for lodging, food, and dignity, shows a lack of candor in the original state of one being free. In other words, because the owners have disrupted the slaves life, they bear significant power in influence, but also in responsibility for their well-being. Therefore, they are both tied financially and emotionally. We see glimpses of this aloof affection from owner to slave, in lines like, "My master was several times offered, by different gentlemen, one hundred guineas for me, but he always told them he would not sell me." (695). Though, the point remains that there isn't a separation of a relationship dynamic, despite difference in race. In the infliction of tragedy on one's life, the creates history in another.

    In contrast, are these wealthy owners a source of light, as pertaining to Enlightenment methodology? As the slave admits herself straight on, "I had the stronger desire to resemble them," and so she does down throughout, bartering favors and maintaining a sense of pseudo liberty, while openly accepting her lack of so. To me, it seems as though this slave got caught up in what can be seen in metaphor as some post-climatic mid life crisis, and by her presence proves her the stronger of the two. And in that moment, we realize the true strength in her survival and faith. Only she has the power to accept that she owns herself.