Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On Ben Franklin's 300th a column rerun

[gary daily col. 21 June 16, 2002]

Ben's Advice: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat."

When asked, What man is most deserving of pity? Benjamin Franklin answered, “A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.”

Benjamin Franklin will soon be coming at us from all directions-- biographies of his life, anthologies of his writings, and most particularly the sayings from his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” This essential American was a printer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and, we should never forget, a very successful businessman. Successful enough in the demanding world of colonial commerce to retire at forty and spend the next one-half of his life engaged in scientific and public pursuits.

He was born in 1706. Do the math. In just three years we will be on the cusp of Franklin’s tri-centennial and there is nothing like 100-year chunks of time to oil the curiosity of biographers and grease the gears of the publishing commerce machine. Added to the torrents of print washing over us, there will be memorabilia ranging from tea towels to T-shirts. Cable television docu-dramas will reveal his French dalliances and PBS is certain to mount four to ten hours of film well-laced with learned commentary. And, need I say it?--there will be web pages.

It will all be wonderful because Franklin was so wonderful. I know this because in fourth grade I read Ben and Me, the story of Benjamin Franklin from the perspective of a mouse that lived in his tricorne hat.

But, as they say on the street, Franklin’s “The Man.” That’s not on Wall Street in the east or Rodeo Street (OK, Drive) in the west, but on Main Street. And how could he not be. Anyone can pick up Franklin’s 18th century maxims and find what needs to be said about life, society, and making a living. Try applying Franklin’s sharp and memorable words to the recent history of the U. S. of A. and you’ll see what I mean.

Take the yuppies of the late ‘70's. Ben has them to rights with his: "It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright." Or, if you’re in a more charitable mood (meaning you came of age in the 1970s) the following might better fit and assuage your soul for the sins of disco: "At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgment."

And you can pin down the rationalizing of the “Gordon Gecko” “Greed is good!” crowd of the ‘80s with: "God helps them that help themselves." It is more than likely that Franklin, always the practical moralist, would have counseled the fictitious Gecko along with the very real Boskey, Millken and the boys in the back room to: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat." Nah! They wouldn’t listen. They still don’t.

With the boom and bust of the 1990's the choices from Franklin’s “Poor Richard” are without end. For example there’s, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other." And for the hoopla surrounding the hollow dot-com companies and the ill-fated investors who had the temerity to invest in shares of something actually (and how Franklin would have enjoyed this) called “story stocks,” we have: "Well done is better than well said."

We are just into the first decade of the 21st century, but with Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco and who knows who’s next, it’s not too early to peg at least part of this fresh century on his observation that: "They that will not be counseled, cannot be helped. If you do not hear reason she will rap you on the knuckles." We can at least hope for “reason” and some “knuckle rapping,” can’t we? But don’t hope for too long, because as “Poor Richard” puts it: "He that lives upon hope will die fasting." And of course Ben “The Man” couldn’t be “The Man” without taking a swipe at the scapegoat profession of the ages: "A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats."

Personally, I will always go with Franklin’s, "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." I say this not because I have taken these words to heart, filled soul and sinew with their imperative, and turned living into that lobotomizing “24/7" materialistic limbo so much in vogue today. My fondness for this bit of wisdom is tied to a favorite seventh grade teacher who found an occasion to peal forth with “do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of” at least once a week. The other thing she thought “life is made of” was diagramming sentences. Demonstrating again that Franklin’s wisdom can be put to as many uses as there are Franklin readers.
For an amazingly perceptive and knowing essay on Franklin and the American character, see Stacy Schiff's op ed piece in today's (Jan. 17, 2006) New York Times.


Anonymous randi said...

Franklin on Happiness:

"Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of god fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages taht occur every day."

Thanks Gary, for adding to the good stuff. :)

Randi Holland

2:57 PM  

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