The Enlightenment in America,” by Franklin and Paine


Weekly Position Papers: As part of the course requirement you will be asked to submit ten position papers on the course readings, including a 1 minute oral synopsis of your paper (where students will be given an opportunity to put forth their positions orally with clarity and reason, with documentation appropriate to the audience). These papers should be approximately 4-500 words in length, and show the ability to critically analyze the main argument, synthesize with other readings, and posit one’s own position on the topic at hand, formulating connections between authors, disciplines, and time-periods. They will be able to identify and evaluate each position, as well as show the implications and consequences for each of these weekly topics in the current modern world. The weekly position papers will afford the student the opportunity to show clearly, not only the core of the philosophical argument put forward in the reading, but also how they have come to either critique or embrace each of these positions. These papers, along with your oral synopsis, will comprise 45% of your grade.

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As we turn to Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography,” we come to the influence of the Enlightenment in America. The word “Enlightenment” refers both to a period of history and a type of knowledge. The Age of Enlightenment was the period roughly from the early scientific discoveries of Newton, Bacon, and Descartes during the mid-1600s until the French Revolution in 1789. It is a period of growing confidence in the power of human beings to master their natural environment and to achieve progress for all humanity through science and rationality. Through the “light” of Reason, men would illuminate the darkness and ignorance that characterized Europe during the Middle Ages.

However, the Enlightenment took on a different emphasis in different places. What the Enlightenment meant for the American colonists diverged from its early flourishing in France, for example. While in some places the Enlightenment was a revolutionary doctrine, using reason and science to expose the “errors” of religion, in America the Enlightenment was more moderate. The emphasis was on balance, order, and compromise with religion, rather than opposition. These themes can be seen in both Franklin and Paine. Historians of ideas have even argued that in America the idea of the Enlightenment itself became a kind of religion for American thinkers.

Franklin is a familiar figure to most Americans. He is best known for his scientific experiments, especially his “discovery” of electricity in the famous kite in a lightning storm experiment. Indeed, Franklin was the scientific giant of Colonial America, and a member of the great Royal Society of London. He is also revered for his commitment to education and public service, along with his early newspapers, and general penchant for success. However, we are concerned with the question of Franklin as a philosopher.

An important theme that emerges in the Enlightenment readings concerns the role of religion. Both Franklin, and later Thomas Paine, make criticisms of religion and write about the role of “reason.” However, they are not yet ready to get rid of religion altogether. One way of understanding the complicated relation of religion and reason or God and the Enlightenment in America is that in America Enlightenment views themselves, including a belief in the power of reason and science, became a religion in for many American thinkers.

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Notes on Reading

Franklin’s “Autobiography” is something of a curious work. It is clear that he does have some wisdom about life that he wants to pass along. But is this just an advice manual, or can it be considered philosophy?

Although it is not philosophy in the traditional sense, Franklin’s “Autobiography” does introduce several themes that are important to America’s own distinctive brand of philosophy. For example, concerning his views of religion, Franklin states that after reflection he decided that his belief in Deism “tho’ it might be true, was not very useful” (32). (For a description of Deism see Key Points). Making the usefulness of an idea more important than the issue of its philosophical “truth” is a common theme in the American tradition of pragmatist or practical

Another way in which Franklin’s writing can be considered philosophy is as a philosophy of living rather than a philosophy of truth. He states that his goal is “moral perfection” (33) and describes the things he did in order to improve himself toward that end, including his list of “moral virtues” (34). The point of this reading can be understood as presenting a philosophy of living, involving self-reflection and self-examination, that we can live by.

Key Points

· In the beginning of the essay, Franklin discusses his religious beliefs, and mentions “Deism” (32-33). Deism, the religion of many of the founding fathers, basically held that God exists and is responsible for creating the universe and putting us here, but after that God pretty much stays out of human affairs and lets humans govern themselves. Why does Franklin seem to reject Deism? Is it because he doesn’t believe in it anymore?

· In his discussion of “moral perfection” (33) Franklin notes the importance of habits. Does Franklin seem like a person who tends to have many habits? Why are habits important in his view?

· Franklin presents his famous list of “moral virtues” (34). Does he put these forward as commandments that we must follow? How is one supposed to become more virtuous under his system?

· In the final section (37-38), Franklin discusses his basic belief system. Does he believe in God? What kind of God is he? Would Franklin be considered a Christian?

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