Ben Franklin and the Books

Ben Franklin invented the lending library, when a group of friends pooled their books, at what is also the origin of the American Philosophical Society. The library was the first public project. He gained pledges of contributions, the “subscription” library, and began the education of the people that would be self governing. In a short while, the average American was said to be as well educated than most “gentlemen” of the artificial aristocracy. “Franklin” means a middle-class craftsman or tradesman, and Ben is an early cultivator of the Masonic attitude toward virtue. The habit of Lincoln, walking long distances to borrow and return books, and reading Jefferson, may be a result of this, another of the innumerable benefits of Franklin bestowed on mankind and his nation.

In his Autobiography, It is clear that Franklin has access to Xenophon’s Memorabilia, though it is not clear how many are the Platonic dialogues to which Franklin has access. His Latin may not have been sufficient, and the Republic was not yet translated. Similarly, Shakespeare is not quite yet accessible, until the Germans led to a British rediscovery. He writes his list of virtues as though he had not read Aristotle’s Ethics, nor known of the 4 cardinal virtues, though he has seen other lists. While he leaves out charity or liberality, he is, in addition to libraries, the cause of the fire departments, insurance, hospitals, orphanages, the Post office, Franklin stoves, lightening rods. While he leaves “wisdom” out of the list, he is a natural philosopher emerging into political philosophy, in the last third of his career, and is the teacher of Madison and Jefferson in the next generation.

Franklin writes:

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.”

Imagine trying to study in the library at Alexandria, where one could not smoke or drink coffee! But seriously, to carry and own ones own books, as became possible with the printing press, is a modern marvel, giving those ion our age superior access to scholarship- though a population of 8 billion may not produce the thinkers that emerged in a single century in Athens. My own, built out of used books and books from classes, with additions from the library book sales where the best are discarded as unread, is likely far superior to that of Franklin, and he is one of the few philosophers who were not impoverished, like Anaxagoras, begging oil for his lamp of Pericles. With one’s own books, it is possible to underline in blue and red, saving a reading from 30 years ago, compounding efforts. The traditional bound paper book must make a comeback, as the E-book just is not portable!