Benjamin Franklin: A Note to Myself
However, the fact that I could manage to read this book even when I was not the happiest or most focused, and more, that just reading a book lifted my mood in the middle of depressing times, are testaments of Walter Isaacson's fine writing but also the fascinating life and apparent greatness of his subject.
In many ways, a tale of such a life is a feast, particularly for those who are in search of 'middling' (i.e., middle class) virtues. In fact, Franklin's tale is a reminder that one does not need to be a socialist to see that increasing concentration of wealth and the inheritance of social and financial privileges - a huge issue today - is not just anti-poor, but also against the entrepreneurialism of the middle classes, and in fact, against progress. While Franklin's observation that he finds the Chinese practice of honouring the parents when sons become distinguished so much more logical than hereditary peerage, he was making a point worth taking note today. Despite being a successful businessman and a lifelong advocate of thrift and hard work (he opposed 'benefits' because this would make the poor lazy), he argued that once someone acquired what he needed to live comfortably, all wealth beyond the point should be state property. He was ignored and such suggestion indeed may sound ludicrous in the context of modern economic dogma, but accumulation of wealth (and increasing concentration of it in the form of assets) is one of the biggest challenges to maintain a dynamic and innovation-centric society.
The pinnacle of Franklin's life is indeed at its end - no gentle degenerative old age retirement was there for him - when he played such a central role in the making of America. In fact, it is hard for me to avoid the comparison of this tale with that of the making of India. There are so many similarities to note, in terms of ideas, sentiments, values, compromises and formulas they came up with, but I also find Franklin's (and others) humility, realism and compromise, and the insistence of making a clear break with the British, quite divergent from the patrician approach of the Indian process. In fact, while America has grown out of these humble roots and assumed the imperial pretensions and practices over time, the making of the American constitution should still be studied closely by the students around the world, if simply for the deep realism and acceptance of fallibility that was inherent among its makers.
Such tales of idealism mixed with realism, of a 'pragmatic' life free of dogma, one of cosmopolitan engagements but yet deeply patriotic, are always appealing to me. One may surely say that this belongs to a lost world and these values are therefore outdated (I was brought up by my grandfather who subscribed to many of these values, including the 'early to rise' one, which, unlike Mark Twain, I did appreciate and still practice) - but one familiar with history of ideas will surely know the cyclical nature of them. We seem to believe in something, then overdo it, and then return to a previous maxim, perhaps with equal fervour. We have swung too far away from Franklin's world that it seems appropriate to plot a return to it.