Throughout history, man’s attempt to rationalize the unknown and the unexplainable has resulted in many different explanations to the universe’s mysteries, particularly the mysteries of God’s nature and of human nature. In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy was influenced heavily by Puritanism, yet his explanations of God and of human nature were extremely different from the Puritan explanation shared by John Winthrop, John Dane, Michael Wigglesworth and Mary Rowlandson. Both Franklin and the aforementioned Puritans believed strongly in living a virtuous life, yet Franklin and the Puritans were motivated by vastly different forces to live with a moral conscience. Because of the Puritans’ pessimistic outlook on human nature-all people are innately evil because of original sin and actually deserve to be damned-they feared the repercussions of their wrathful god if they didn’t live morally. Meanwhile, because of Franklin’s optimistic view of god-as a good, forgiving, wise and all powerful creator-he saw people, too as good by nature and developed a pragmatic approach to morality. Undeniably, some parallels exist between the Deist philosophy Franklin developed and the Puritan philosophy he was taught growing up. Despite these similarities, the two philosophies are on nearly opposite sides of the spectrum in the way they explain the universe’s unknown, most notably in the different ways they view God, which directly influences their outlook on the world and on human nature.
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Because Ben Franklin’s and the Puritans’ contrasting views of God are the key factors that determine how they are motivated to live their lives, how they explain the world, and how they view people; it is important to understand the differences between the Puritans’ pessimistic outlook on God, and Franklin’s optimistic view of God. To the Puritans, the bible was the divine word of God and the foremost authority on morality. In the bible is also where the Puritans could see the ways in which God operates. The Old Testament section of the bible is filled with stories of God smiting the sinners of the world. He destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, kills the children of sinners to teach a lesson, and even sends bears to maul a group of young people who mocked another man. Because of the bible’s depiction of a harshly ruling God, Puritans view God as “most dread” (Wigglesworth, 3). In Michael Wigglesworth’s emphatically popular and Puritan poem, “The Day of Doom,” people are horrified of their God’s fury on judgment day. In fear of eternal damnation, people “hide themselves in Caves and Delves” because they know they are sinners (Wigglesworth, 3). Ben Franklin on the other hand believed in God, but a key difference was that didn’t use the bible to rationalize God’s nature: “after doubtingâ€¦ of several points, I began to doubt the Revelation itself” (Franklin, 25). Instead, he used logic to determine his outlook on God and rationalizes that if “God isâ€¦ all-good [and] all powerfulâ€¦ then Evilâ€¦ doth not exist” (Franklin, 6). Both the Puritans’ and Franklin’s opposing views of God influence how they view the world, and those opposing views were developed through very different approaches: the Puritans’ pessimistic view of God through interpretation of religious text; and Franklin’s optimistic view through philosophy, logic, and reasoning.
The dogmatic Puritans with their harsh and almost unappeasable God “most dread” and the scientific Ben Franklin with his “all-good, all-wise” God naturally explained the universe differently. In order to explain mysterious phenomena and understand how the world works, the Puritans adopted the idea that everything happens as a part of God’s plan. They believed in predestination, meaning that everyone’s lives and afterlives have already been determined before birth. Whereas Franklin believed that God simply created the universe and allowed the laws of mathematics and science to govern it, the Puritans believed God had a hands-on impact on every detail in the world. When Puritan John Dane was stung by a bee, he explained the occurrence not as an unlucky coincidence, but as a punishment from God for sinning: “God, God had found me out” (Dane, 9). When Mary Rowlandson was taken hostage by Native Americans, she too saw it not as an unlucky event, but as a sign that God cares about her. She actually appreciated her affliction and “was ready sometimes to wish for it” (Rowlandson, 20). Franklin was far more interested in understanding those laws of nature and science that he believed explained life than to instead explain everything as God’s work. Franklin and the Puritans both needed to explain the how the world works in order to instill a degree of comfort in their lives. Their vastly different views of God, though, led them to explain their universe in equally different ways.
At a first glance, Benjamin Franklin’s moral code appears to be nearly identical to that of a typical Puritan. Raised in a Puritan family, Franklin was taught a code of morality towards living a virtuous life. Like a Puritan, he followed this code devoutly, even to the point where it pained him to ever fail in moral perfection: “I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time” (Franklin, 32). Even after converting to Deism, Franklin published thirteen strikingly Puritanical guidelines to living a virtuous life. These guidelines included the virtues of temperance, chastity, sincerity, and order, amongst others. In his goal to live humbly, Franklin even aimed to “imitate Jesus,” the Puritan messiah whose divinity he refused to recognize (Franklin, 33). Where the difference exists between Franklin’s and the Puritans’ morality is not in their moral code itself, but in their different motivations to follow this code. As stated before, the Puritan God sees nearly all people as undeserving of salvation, with only a select few lucky enough to avoid damnation. With eternal salvation or damnation at stake, the Puritans approached morality in a dogmatic manner. They used the bible as God’s guideline to living life, believing that straying from Calvinist morals made them “worse than brute beasts” in the eyes of God (Winthrop, 1). Franklin strongly believed that virtuous living benefitted oneself not just in the afterlife, but also had real benefits in the current life: “certain actions might not be bad because they were forbiddenâ€¦, or good because it commanded them,â€¦ these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us” (Franklin 29). Franklin seems to view god as a somewhat of a father-figure: he makes a rule not simply for the sake making a rule, but because he cares about his child and believes the rule is good for him or her. The Puritans and Ben Franklin have opposing ideas of the cause/affect relationship between morality and human nature. While the Puritans try to live virtuously to avoid regressing to their “nature [of being] corrupt,” Franklin believes that humans attempt to be good people because they are good by nature.
Both the Puritans’ pessimistic view of their God and Franklin’s optimistic view of his God directly affected the way they saw human nature. The Puritans believe that God initially made mankind good, but the Bible states that man sinned, and as a result, their unforgiving God damned mankind for eternity with the selection of a select few. In a speech made while campaigning to be governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, a Puritan, explained his views on human nature: “The exercise of maintaining of [natural] liberty makes men grow more evil and in time to be worse than brute beasts” (Winthrop, 1). Winthrop believes that without a stable government in rule, man’s natural depravity will show, as humans will degenerate to animalistic behavior. Conversely, Ben Franklin believed that mankind is naturally good. Based on his logic and reasoning, he concluded that an “all good, all powerful” God can only create Good, and if God created people, then people must be good (Franklin, 26). While Franklin did believe man is flawed and not perfect, he thought that people can improve themselves. Franklin himself strove for moral perfection, but found “[he]never arrived at the perfection [he] had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet [he] wasâ€¦ a better and a happier man than [he] otherwise should have been” (Franklin, 34). In a way, Franklin is saying that God didn’t make man perfect, but created a world with those previously mentioned practical benefits to living virtuously, which generally leads people to live virtuously. Franklin and the Puritans had two different views of God that were in stark contrast with each other. Both Franklin’s optimistic view God and the Puritans’ pessimistic view of God led the two to come up with equally optimistic and pessimistic views of human nature, respectively.
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Puritanism and Ben Franklin’s Deism are both massively different philosophies, but both of these philosophies are still massively and quite possibly equally influential in modern-day America. While Ben Franklin’s was certainly influenced by Puritanism growing up-particularly his view of morality-his philosophy greatly differed from that of the Puritans in his view of God’s nature, which directly affected the way he viewed the world, human nature, and his motivation to live virtuously. While the Puritans believed in an overbearing and harsh God, Franklin believed in a forgiving God. As a result, the Puritans viewed people as naturally evil, explained everything as a part of God’s plan, and followed a moral code to avoid damnation, while conversely Franklin saw people as good, explained the world with logic and reason, and lived virtuously for practical benefits, rather than eternal salvation.
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