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Franklin wrote about phi­losophy and pol­itics. Wiki­media
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Although many know Ben­jamin Franklin for his kite exper­iment or witty apho­risms, scholarly dis­cussion on the founding father extends much deeper — to Franklin’s thoughts on topics from God to truth and justice. Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Pol­itics Kevin Slack addresses Franklin’s philo­sophical per­spective on such topics in his book “Ben­jamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue,” pub­lished this summer.

Scholars often ignore Franklin’s philo­sophical side since he focuses on prac­tical phi­losophy ­— moral phi­losophy, human nature, and cul­ti­vating virtue within indi­viduals and society — rather than meta­physical spec­u­lation. Slack, on the other hand, presents Franklin as a political philosopher and explores the ten­sions between phi­losophy and the political life that arise in Franklin’s writing.

In order to examine the philo­sophical under­pin­nings in Franklin’s writing, Slack applies a textual approach. To let Franklin’s writing speak for itself, he presents selec­tions of text fol­lowed by analysis and expla­nation of the his­torical events Franklin was addressing. This way, Franklin’s thoughts and mas­terful writing are unim­peded by the inter­pre­tation of an outside source, but still remain con­nected to their his­torical context.

For example, Franklin’s letters to James Logan dis­cussing the state of nature were not written in mere abstraction, but rather as a direct response to Pennsylvania’s border war with Maryland and problems that arose under a broken gov­ernment.

Slack’s analysis, which includes six new attri­bu­tions or clar­i­fi­ca­tions to the canon of Franklin’s writing, helps emphasize Franklin as a political the­orist whose view of repub­li­canism was informed by natural law and natural rights.

“Though Franklin’s political views were the most rad­i­cally repub­lican of the American Founders, the the­o­retical basis of those views is seldom explained, and the idea that Franklin embraced natural-rights doc­trine is largely rejected by political the­o­rists,” Slack wrote.

However, a tension arises between phi­losophy and con­crete political action, since phi­losophy seeks the most fun­da­mental truth, and pol­itics often requires accep­tance of imperfect cir­cum­stances.

Franklin makes an inter­esting case study in this con­flict as a philo­soph­i­cally minded intel­lectual who was well versed in the practice of pol­itics, according to graduate student Bruno Cortes.

“Slack approaches Ben Franklin in a way few people do, which is as a political philosopher — someone who devotes serious study to justice, the best regime, and how these things can be achieved by taking view of how people behave gen­erally,” Cortes said.

Franklin saw political com­munity as a nec­essary foun­dation for the pursuit of phi­losophy. Slack argues that Franklin’s legacy is his framework of virtue within a political society, which in turn “edu­cates and orders young, ambi­tious minds.”

Throughout the book, Slack empha­sizes the value of Franklin’s thoughts on reason, virtue, and the inves­ti­gation of human nature and moral truth — an under­ap­pre­ciated, but important, per­spective.