Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin, Part III

By Dr. Joseph Waligore. See Below:

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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 fa├žade. 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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin, Part II

By Joseph Waligore. See below:

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Three deists who believed angels still communicated with people 

Franklin’s first taste of the English deists came through reading Thomas Tryon, who was well-known in both England and America for advocating vegetarianism. While often depicted as a mere health-food advocate, he was also a deist. His book Knowledge of a Man’s Self the Surest Guide to the True Worship of God included a long chapter entitled “Of True and Universal Religion.” Here Tryon expressed the typical deist position that there was one universal religion which taught that God was completely good, and God only wanted people to love him and be virtuous. Tryon believed that every human being who had ever lived was aware of this religion, but, over time, priests and ministers had convinced and coerced people into performing meaningless ceremonies and believing mysterious doctrines.2

Tryon was a follower of Pythagoras, the early Greek philosopher. Pythagoras was passionate about mathematics, and was reputed to have discovered the Pythagorean theorem about the length of the sides of a triangle which had a right angle in it. He also believed that everything was ultimately composed of numbers, although what this meant to him we do not currently understand. While he was very intellectually oriented, he established an ascetic, religious community where people ate vegetarian food. The people in this community were noted in antiquity for never sharing their spiritual secrets with the common people. Later Pythagoreans emphasized that angelic-like beings communicated with people during their dreams. Tryon was like the Pythagoreans, not only in his emphasis on vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, but also in his belief that angelic beings still directly communicated with people. Tryon believed that the real reason Christians thought divine communications had ceased after biblical times was because people were no longer practicing true Christianity. He identified true Christianity with a mystical kind of Christianity which he believed was compatible with his Pythagoreanism. He thought it was reasonable to believe divine communications and visions have actually increased in later, post-biblical times since the good spirits were inflamed with the same zeal for spreading the glory of God now as formerly, and people still needed it. For this reason, he asked, “why then should we think all intercourse cut off between us and these blessed spirits have ceased?”

In his book Pythagoras His Mystick [sic] Philosophy Reviv’d; or, the Mystery of Dreams Unfolded, Tryon gave very explicit instructions on how people could prepare themselves to receive angelic communications in their dreams. To attract the attention of good angels, people first needed to purify their bodies by avoiding tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and meat. Then they need to divest themself of all worldly cares and focus their attention on godly matters. Such preparation opened the way for divinely inspired dreams. In these dreams, good spirits warned people of impending dangers and reveal spiritual secrets. Tryon stressed the importance of discretion if such angelic communications occurred. “Above all things,” he insisted, one should not tell the common multitude about their angelic visitations “for nothing drives away, and offend [sic] the divine Powers & good Angel Guardians more then [sic] to publish mysteries to the profane multitude.”3 In his emphasis on vegetarianism, asceticism, angelic communications, and not sharing their secrets with the common people, Tryon was following the ancient Pythagorean tradition.

In 1724, when he was eighteen, Franklin traveled to London and got a job at a printing shop. There he helped set the type for the William Wollaston’s deist book The Religion of Nature Delineated. In this book, Wollaston, like Tryon, emphasized that divine beings directly communicated with people by placing ideas and suggestions into people’s minds. Wollaston contended that God or the angels influenced us “by means of secret and sometimes sudden influences on our minds,” or by “suggestion, and impulse, or other silent communications of some spiritual being.” He said these direct influences caused a person to want to avoid a street where a building was about to fall or where a dangerous enemy was lying in wait for him. Through such divine communications, God or the angels care for us without altering any laws of nature. Wollaston thought these influences happened “so frequently” that anyone who closely observed his thoughts and actions could observe them. He also thought that these divine influences had important consequences in world history: he cryptically suggested that God planted the idea into Hannibal’s mind to never directly attack Rome, and thus Hannibal lost his chance to destroy Rome.4

After setting print Wollaston’s book, the young Franklin encountered Dr. Lyons, who in 1721 wrote the book The Infallibility of Human Judgment. While current scholars of English deism never list him among the English deists, eighteenth-century Germans considered him a noteworthy English deist.5 Moreover, eighteenth-century French thinkers considered his book such an articulate exposition of deist ideas that it was clandestinely circulated in manuscript form in France.6 Scholars of American deism are aware that Lyons was a deist because he befriended Franklin while Franklin was in London. These American scholars, though, have not noticed that Lyons had many religious beliefs and was particularly influenced by Pythagorean philosophy. Indeed, Lyons venerated Pythagoras, calling him “this Great Man” and “our Divine Philosopher,” and Lyons shared many Pythagorean beliefs.7

Just as Tryon thought angels communicated with people, Lyons asserted that divine beings cared for people by putting helpful guidance, commands, thoughts, and strong emotions into their minds. Lyons declared, “A judicious and curious Observation of these Things will lead a Man to the Sight of several Matters of Fact, which discover a certain secret interposing Power, which is commonly call’d Providence.” He emphasized this providence worked in two ways. One way was divine beings putting commands or thoughts into people’s minds, with Socrates being the best-known example of this phenomenon. He asserted that chance, natural consequences, and Providence are “distinguishable to the Wise; to whom the Story of Socrates’s Daemon will not seem impossible, there being suchlike real Matters to be frequently observ’d.” Providence also worked by inciting strong emotions in a person’s mind and thus helping him or her avoid danger. He declared that sometimes “there are also some sudden and strong Emotions exciting Men to Actions they can see no reason for, which appear afterwards to have been necessary for the avoiding an unknown (tho’ imminent) Danger.”8

Most significantly for discussing Franklin, Lyons believed that dreams often tell people about the future. Lyons claimed that knowledge of the future via dreams is “an evident Matter of Fact . . . against which very few are able to shut their Eyes, and which needs no Argument or Persuasion to defend or prove it.” He claimed the knowledge of what was going to happen in the future was “presented to us, sometimes by a real View of the Thing it self, or by symbolical Representations.” So he asserted that “if a Man dreamt he was cutting or killing another, this may perhaps be only an Endeavour of the Mind to explain to him, that some Person will do him an injurious Action the next Day.” Lyons did not know how prescient dreams worked, but, among other ways, he hypothesized it might work because people are “assisted by some other Daemon or Spirit.”9

The Pythagoreans strongly stressed the division between the foolish, common people who were centered on worldly things and the spiritual elite, who cared about God and divine matters. The Pythagoreans were forbidden to share their religious beliefs with the masses and instead only shared their spiritual teachings with the elite few. Lyons concurred with these views, talking of the “Fools” who were stuck in common opinions versus “the Wise” who understood the reality of divine messages. While he did not disclose significant spiritual secrets in his book, he hinted he knew of deeper spiritual knowledge. Immediately after discussing prescient dreams and divine suggestions, he asserted, “let the Curious follow these delightful Processes for themselves, which will sufficiently reward their Industry.” He claimed that if people followed the hints he was giving them, “The Temple of Knowledge is open’d, the Bars removed, and a Clue of Thread in their hand, with which they may enter the Labyrinth, and search all its secret Recesses, without confounding or losing themselves.”10

Monday, February 26, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin

Joseph Waligore has sent over a chapter of a book he is working on about English and American Deism. The chapter is about the kind of Deism that influenced Ben Franklin. I am going to publish it in three parts. Below is part one.

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The earlier chapters demonstrated the English deists, the ones who influenced the Founding Fathers before they declared their independence, believed in an active God who performed miracles. In fact, the English deists young Franklin read were so far from believing in a non-intervening deity that their deity was more active than the Protestant deity. Protestants generally believed God and the angels had directly communicated with people in biblical times from the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ time. But almost all the English Protestants in the early eighteenth century believed this communication had ceased once the Christian church had been established near the end of the first century C. E. On the other hand, classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius believed God, gods, angels, or angelic-like beings never stopped directly communicating with people and actively guiding them. This means any English deist who asserted that God or angels still communicated with people was clearing showing that he was not a stereotypical Enlightenment thinker who emphasized a cold, distant, and withdrawn deity. Instead, he was showing that he shared the Greek philosophers’ spiritual worldview or at least was deeply influenced by it. 
When Franklin was formulating his ideas about deism as a teenager, scholars know that he studied seven English deists because he mentioned reading them in his autobiography, quoted them, or encountered them in London. These seven were Anthony Collins, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Tryon, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, William Wollaston, and Doctor Lyons. All seven of these deists were deeply knowledgeable about the Greek philosophical tradition. For example, in his most influential book, A Discourse of Free-thinking, Anthony Collins called Socrates the first free-thinker. (Free-thinker was often synonymous with deist during the eighteenth century.) Collins then listed other Greek and Roman sages as free-thinkers, and later on he worked on a project to translate Cicero, one of the most important Roman philosophers.1 The same goes for the other six deists. Of these seven English deists, six believed divine beings directly communicated with people by giving them messages to help them or guide them. Most importantly, these deists explicitly claimed divine communications were still happening nowadays, and so these deists were not influenced by their mainstream Protestant contemporaries. Three of these deists, Shaftesbury, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard, believed God communicated with people and this did not stop when the Protestants claimed it did. More interestingly three deists, Thomas Tryon, William Wollaston, and Dr. Lyons, believed angels or angelic-like beings still communicated with people.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pinker: "The Enlightenment Is Working"

Steven  Pinker, writing about his new book in The Wall Street Journal, here. A taste:
The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. It’s a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.
Comment: Reflect on the word "progress" and "progressive." "Progressive" has come to be associated with a left political movement. But let's reflect on its literal sense. Human Progress. It's not the Left-Progressives who are behind this excellent site that validates Pinker's thesis and data.

I think someone like Peter Thiel, who isn't as optimistic as Pinker, as almost like a visionary prophet for human progress, especially as viewed through a technological lens. His thesis is that we have been stagnating since the 1970s. Yet, much of Pinker's data has shown how much better the rest of the world has become since 70s. Yes, the least well off parts of the world. And they've become better off while taking advantage of the breakthroughs of the 1st world which Thiel sees as stagnating since 1970.

Information Technology of course, is excepted. (And what a big exception it is.)

Regarding the "Enlightenment" part of the thesis, it helps to look at periods on a timeline. The way I see it, Enlightenment ended around 1800, the very year in which all of this progress started to take off. It could be what triggered the growth is that's when aliens or spirits started diffusing knowledge down to humanity. But that, alas, is not a falsifiable hypothesis, with the current level of empirical understanding we have.

So I'm assuming and concluding it was the seeds planted by the Enlightenment figures like America's Founders and their influences. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, all of whom were either actual or armchair scientists and wanted to put man's focus on figuring out how material things work and how we can improve things.

As Franklin put it:
I have been long impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvements in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention and acquisition of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity gratified in knowing what they are to be. I see a little absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a friend, who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one reason more for such a wish, which is, that, if the art of physic shall be improved in proportion to other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis; to which, I suppose, we should have little objection.
It's interesting to see how Franklin mentions wanting to live 200-300 years in the future to see how all of this unfolds. He wrote the letter in 1788. Meaning Franklin wants to see 1988-2088. In other words, right now.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Alex Knepper on Strauss & Christianity

Alex Knepper gained notoriety as a very young, bright writer a number of years back. He has since gone on to get his Master's Degree degree from St. John's College, one of the places that specializes in studying the thought of Leo Strauss, along with Strauss' followers and critics.

This is what he posted on Facebook today:
There is a criticism that the Straussian account of the history of ideas willfully denies Christianity a place at its table. Of course Strauss believes that an artful writer knows how to communicate with silence. And the relative silence of the Straussian account of the history on Christianity, of which it is hardly ignorant, surely testifies to its antagonism toward it. Insofar as there is an elusive or storytelling element to any historical account*, the storyteller can consciously arrange his presentation to suit his preferences and goals, without deceiving himself about what he is doing. Strauss, in choosing to write out certain elements of thought in history, is always silently opining on how he thinks Christianity ought to be viewed: as a great and horrible tragedy inflicted on Europe which all true philosophy has always fought to overturn. Christianity's foreground presence in the works of many philosophers -- say, Locke -- speaks merely to their historical situation and is not indicative of their true opinions. Such philosophers invoked Christian doctrine in a way that weaponizes it against itself, in a conscious attempt to undermine it for the long-term. Strauss, and Straussians perhaps, seem to believe that the time has passed in which the threat of Christian persecution is so great that it requires that kind of appeasement any longer, and we are now freed to speak of philosophers' true intentions without genuflecting to the conventions of the common people of the time. (Whether liberals in 2018 demand genuflection from true philosophers is another question.) 
h/t Jon Rowe

This is the original comment I left that led to Knepper's thought and hat tip:
Some of my interlocutors who think the Straussian history of ideas inadequate like to play this game where they demonstrate more authentically Christian sources for "good" ideas that Locke gave the Anglo-Enlightenment. They usually trace the ideas to obscure medieval Catholic thought (i.e., "the schoolmen").   
I think we can do something similar with Rousseau's egalitarianism. A lot of Whig opposition "republicans" like Harrington. Those who used biblical language for redistribution under the auspices of agrarian laws. Even the term Utopia -- an island where both wealth and poverty were abolished -- comes from Catholic Thomas Moore.
This was Alex's original comment to which I responded:
The difference between European liberalism and American liberalism can, with only a bit of exaggeration, be explained by reference to the fact that the American Founders just barely missed the emergence of Rousseau on the scene. They built a regime fundamentally grounded and fixed in the thought of John Locke and various contemporaries (eg, Montesquieu), which has since then absorbed only a refracted view of everything which has dialectically proceeded from Rousseau. Hence, for instance, the otherwise near-inexplicable fact that the thought of Herbert Spencer resonated with Americans more than that of his contemporary Marx. Certainly much so-called 'continental' philosophy and political theory remains totally elusive to Americans. 
This is not to say that Rousseau would necessarily be more pleased with Europe in 2018 than with America: Rousseau was not above playing with the fire of populism, the popular denigration of the arts and sciences, or the glorification of militarism; there is no necessary support for a larger welfare state in Rousseau, no necessary support for liberal internationalism, no necessary support for multiculturalism -- the list goes on (though we can be sure that he considered himself part of a spiritual 'elite' exempt from ordinary laws and customs) -- but merely that, as a regime built on fixed ideas, America receives the insights of Rousseau and everything proceeding from his thought, or at any rate what it represents, through a refracted lens and hence will never see eye-to-eye with 'the continent.'