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Monday, July 9, 2012

Ben Franklin's Lesson


I am reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  In it, there is this paragraph that I find to be very important for Americans today:
Tocqueville came to the conclusion that there was an inherent struggle in America between two opposing impulses: the spirit of rugged individualism versus the conflicting spirit of community and association building.  Franklin would have disagreed.  A fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life, and of the American society he helped to create, was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory, were interwoven.  The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community.  Franklin was the epitome of this admixture of self-reliance and civic involvement, and what he exemplified became part of the American character (p. 103).

            It strikes me that what Tocqueville called “inherent struggle” is the yin and yang of American society.   The opposites are, in fact, just as Franklin saw them:  two aspects that, taken singly, are in opposition but that, taken together, define the American character.  Throughout our history, it has been this kind of civic individualism that has allowed Americans to solve problems and to innovate to create a better society.  It is what allowed us to be not just a nation of immigrants, but a nation of immigrants who created a unique culture.
            Today, in our politics and in our culture more generally, we are ignoring the unity that these apparent opposites allow us.  We are focused on the yin and the yang—the sun and the shadow—rather than on the mountain they define.  We need a Franklin to remind us that, as he wrote, “The good men may do separately is small compared with what they may do collectively.”

Reference:  Isaacson, Walter.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.