Saturday, February 18, 2012

Benjamin Franklin and the American Enlightenment:

By Dr. Richard Beeman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania

I found this neat article here.

A taste:

In turning Franklin into a caricature, we obscure the substance of his contributions to what historians have termed “the Age of Enlightenment,” which was, in reality, not so much an “age” as an “impulse,” fuelled by a heightened sense of optimism about the ability of men and women to use their rational powers not only to understand the laws of the universe, but also to devise means by which to use those laws for the betterment of mankind.

Franklin’s contributions to enlightenment thought far transcended the boundaries of his own country: his reputation as a scientist and as a philosopher was, deservedly, an international one. Yet we must not, in our urge to free Franklin from the baggage associated with his image as “typical American,” divorce him entirely from his American upbringing and experience. Despite the fact that he spent nearly 27 years of his life outside the boundaries of North America, his temperament and habit of mind were shaped in countless ways by the natural landscape and social structure of America. The extraordinary novelty and variety in that landscape would give to Franklin, in common with many other American enlightenment figures a sharpened sense of empirical observation and induction: the more open-ended social structure of eighteenth century America encouraged in Franklin an optimism about humanly-created institutions - be they legislatures or fire companies or colleges – that citizens of European societies, more heavily encumbered by tradition, would have found difficult to share. Perhaps more important, Franklin’s own life experiences and accomplishments would serve as models – as he wished them to do – for countless Americans both in his age and in subsequent generations.

No comments: