The Pythagorean influence on Franklin
Franklin never wrote about his relationship to Dr. Lyons, but there is no doubt that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans just like Dr. Lyons was. The only question is how deep the Pythagorean influence was.
About a year after he befriended Lyons, Franklin went back to Philadelphia. There he soon embarked on a project to systematically develop more virtuous habits in his life. In this endeavor, he daily examined himself concerning personal virtues he wished to develop. The thirteen virtues he focused on included temperance, frugality, moderation, and humility. He spent a day on each virtue, keeping a careful ledger of whether he had succeeded that day in practicing that particular virtue. There is no doubt that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans in starting this project because he explicitly declared in his autobiography that he was encouraged to start this project by reading a celebrated Pythagorean text, The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans, along with other ancient philosophers they influenced, had long emphasized the importance of self-examination if a person wanted to become more focused on divine matters, and this tradition was emphasized in The Golden Verses. In his autobiography, right before discussing his daily efforts to examine himself about the virtues, Franklin asserted, “Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.”11 In a manuscript note to his autobiography, Franklin even stated that the appropriate part of Golden Verses should be added to his autobiography, although this did not happen. In 1758, though, Franklin published a an essay “A Letter from Father Abraham to His Beloved Son.” In this essay he again stated that the idea of a “daily strict Self-Examination” was very ancient as it was “recommended by Pythagoras, in his truly Golden Verses, and practiced since in every Age, with Success, by Men of all Religions.” He then included the parts of the Golden Verses that inspired him to start his program of daily examination. 12
After Franklin started his project of developing the virtues, the next major statement of his religious beliefs was entitled “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.” In this piece, Franklin asserted that a supreme God existed, but he was so infinitely above people that he desired neither their worship nor their praise, nor was he concerned with their fate. This supreme and distant deity then created many lesser deities, and each of these lesser deities created their own solar system. Franklin declared that these intermediary deities created us and cared for us and so they were worthy of our prayers and praise.13
Scholars have had a difficult time understanding this statement of Franklin’s religious beliefs. The most popular explanation is given by Kerry Walters, who sees it as an attempt of Franklin to reconcile the distant God of deism with the caring God of his youth.14 The trouble with this explanation is that none of the English deists believed in a distant, uncaring deity. Indeed, as the earlier parts of this chapter have shown, six of the deists Franklin read believed God or angels still directly communicated with people or gave them guidance. Matthew Stewart, in his book on the secular ideas of the Founding Fathers, categorizes Franklin as an Epicurean.15 Epicurus was one of the most secular of the ancient philosophers: he believed there were gods, but these gods never involved themselves in human affairs at all. This description fits Franklin’s supreme God, but his intermediary deities are very different from Epicurean deities as they care about humans and help them. So Franklin was not a follower of Epicurus.
Scholars like Walters and Stewart, because they are unaware of the spirituality the English deists, miss a much better explanation for the religious ideas found in Franklin’s “Articles of Beliefs”: the considerable similarity of Franklin’s theology to the Neoplatonists, a philosophical school in late antiquity that merged the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato. As the classical scholar John Burnet noted, “The Neoplatonists were quite justified in regarding themselves as the spiritual heirs of Pythagoras; and, in their hands, philosophy ceased to exist as such, and became theology.”16 The Neoplatonic philosophers stressed the supreme God’s transcendence and remoteness from the material world and human concerns, just like Franklin’s supreme God. At the same time, they (especially Iamblichus, one of the most prominent Neoplatonists) also stressed that there were many intermediary deities between the supreme God and humans. The Neoplatonists thought these deities cared for humans and we should worship them.17 Franklin never shared why in 1728 he believed in intermediary deities, so we can never really know his reasons, but the theology of his “Articles of Belief” was a Pythagorean-Neoplatonic theology, and not an Epicurean one.
Another belief Franklin had that was associated with the Pythagoreans was his belief that some dreams revealed the future to him. When he was serving as America’s ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin often had long discussions with many intellectuals. One intellectual he often talked with was the French philosopher Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis. In his memoirs, Cabanis recounted a conversation in which Franklin asserted that he had dreams which accurately revealed to him the future. As the scholar Alfred Owen Aldridge reported, Cabanis wrote that “Franklin believed he had more than once received a revelation in his dreams of the outcome of his affairs and despite his otherwise strong mind devoid of his prejudice, he could not give up faith in these inner voices.”18 We have no idea when Franklin adopted his belief in prescient dreams or who, if anyone, influenced him to believe in them. But Dr. Lyons and other Pythagoreans emphasized the importance of these types of dreams.
One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans was reincarnation. There is no clear evidence Franklin believed in it, but there is some evidence he might have. As a young man in 1728, Franklin had composed his own mock epitaph which read:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
It is not clear what Franklin means in this epitath. The first part obviously means the worms will eat his body. But it is not clear what he means when he writes that “the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.” He could mean that God will give him a more pure body in heaven. Or it could mean that after learning lessons in this life, he will reincarnate somewhere else in a better edition of himself. We cannot know what he meant, but there were at least nine other deists who believed in reincarnation. Besides Thomas Tryon, the English deists John Holwell and Soame Jenyns believed in it, with Jenyns emphasizing that reincarnation was the only way to reconcile God’s goodness with people’s earthly suffering. Other deists who believed in reincarnation were the Scottish deist Lord Monboddo, the French deist Pierre Dupont, the Dutch deist Isaac Titsingh, and the German deists Theodor Ludwig Lau and George Schade.19 While those deists are relatively obscure, there is one famous deist who believed in reincarnation: the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Lessing stated a belief in reincarnation in several of his works and often discussed his previous lifetimes with his brother. We cannot know if Franklin was referring to reincarnation with this epitath, but there were at least nine other deists who believed in it.
A final matter showing the possible influence of the Pythagoreans on Franklin was his vegetarianism. It was standard practice in the eighteenth century to refer to a vegetarian as a Pythagorean as the Pythagoreans were the most prominent advocates of that kind of diet. It is well-known that Benjamin Franklin occasionally practiced vegetarianism. In his autobiography, he portrayed his vegetarianism as purely a practical way to save money and time. It might be that simple, but a number of scholars have contended that Franklin was a master of masking his true beliefs behind a façade. So in his writings, Franklin often created pseudonymous personas such as Silence Dogood and presented his beliefs through these characters. This style of writing allowed Franklin to present his beliefs in a form his readers were more comfortable with. It is also likely that in his autobiography and letters he was not presenting a straight-forward statement of his true past or of his real beliefs. Some scholars, most especially Jerry Weinberger, who titled his book Benjamin Franklin Unmasked, argue that Franklin was hiding behind the mask or persona of a gentle tolerant deist, while he actually held much more skeptical or radical beliefs including not believing in God at all.20 But skeptics or atheists afraid of persecution or social ostracism were not the only people to hide their true beliefs: the Pythagoreans also believed that the spiritual elite should hide their spiritual truths from the common herd. So in making light of his vegetarianism, Franklin could have been masking his Pythagoreans beliefs.
We know that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans because he stated that he started one of his most celebrated projects, the endeavor to develop the virtues, because he read a Pythagorean text. His first statement of his religious beliefs, the “Articles of Belief,” also advocated a Pythagorean cosmology. Furthermore, like the Pythagoreans he believed in prescient dreams and occasionally practiced vegetarianism, and he might have believed in reincarnation. In his concern for the ancient Greek spiritual tradition, Franklin is like many other English deists that he read when he was a teenager.