February 6, 2006


B. Franklin, Moralist: Printer, patriot, scientist, inventor--and philosopher: a review of Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought by Jerry Weinberger (Timothy Lehmann, 01/16/2006, Weekly Standard)

[W]einberger's Benjamin Franklin Unmasked offers a revolutionary reevaluation of Franklin's thought, one that unveils Franklin as a far more subtle, complex, and subversive thinker than most have cared to notice.

There has been a spate of biographies reviving interest in the Founders recently, but this is not a biography. Rather, it is an attempt, through a close reading primarily of Franklin's Autobiography, to plumb the depths of Franklin's mind and figure out just what he thought about the big questions. And contrary to Franklin's reputation as a humorless stiff, Weinberger reveals him to be a surprising and impressive thinker--a kind of American Socrates who mercilessly refuted his philosophical interlocutors, and whose profound philosophical probity was laced with ironic skepticism. Reading the man's Autobiography as the key to his thought, and as his guide to philosophical reflection and self-knowledge, Franklin emerges in these pages as a serious thinker who approached the most important questions with the utmost gravity--and wit.

Weinberger is a scholar schooled by the philosopher Leo Strauss, which means, inter alia, that he aims to understand Franklin as Franklin understood himself, and there is no better place to begin to understand a thinker than in his own writings. Weinberger reads Franklin closely, and thereby cuts to the core of the real Ben Franklin, taking seriously the alternately serious and jesting fa├žades that Franklin presented to the world. Like Socrates, Franklin used various methods--what Weinberger calls Franklin's "ironic layers"--and spoke to different people in different ways as he presented his political and moral ideas. On the surface, he reassured readers about decency and morality by exhorting them to conventional respectability. Yet he also purposefully left a host of clues that are intended to lead careful readers to consider his genuine views.

Weinberger carefully follows Franklin's evasive rhetoric, attending to his seeming contradictions, since a man as obviously intelligent and thoughtful as Franklin would not have been ignorant of the contradictions he left in his writings. Franklin recounts his youthful irreligion, which led him to the brink of moral nihilism, while claiming elsewhere that he "never" doubted the existence of God; he generously offers certain precepts that will surely lead to lives lived ethically and virtuously. But on the other hand . . .

It is the fatal weakness of the neocons that they recognize there can be no decent society not premised on Judeo-Christian morality and human dignity but think themselves too smart to fall for God.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2006 12:00 AM
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