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.