Scope of Power and Usefulness

The phrase above comes from Frank Woodworth Pine's introduction to the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. While the autobiography was written during Franklin's lifetime, it only reached the public in unadulterated form in the late 19th century. True to the values of that time, Pine promotes it as a success story. By way of example of precedent, Seymour's Self-Made Men came out in 1858 and was "about the lives of ... persons who have attained emminence in spite of adverse circumstances of birth and fortune"; in it are assmebled, among others, tales of Hans Christian Anderson, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, William Cobbett, and James Watt. Pine thinks Franklin's work successfully conveys the secret of success of life, which he considers Americans love to read, though they are often disapointed at finding familiar if unfollowed commonplaces.
Pine attributes the book's success to Franklin's having been in "the same boat" as the public yet having overcome those adversities. The success promoted today is diametrical to that represented by Franklin (particularly in his short work The Way to Wealth): magnifying instead of shunning sloth, as in the example of reality shows boradcasting "stars" with nothing better to do than argue about nail polish. What is more, the modern success story, while still narrated in simple langauge, even emoji-esque instagram photos, lacks the moral component once taught by maxims.
Aristotle wrote about the use of maxims in Rhetoric (2.21.2), defining them as having as their objects human actions, "and what should be chosen or avoided with reference to them". He writes that maxims should be clear and concise. Just like the later humanists encouraged the collecting and employment of sententiae (brief moral sayings - often indicated at that time by a little hand), Aristotle suggests: "One should even make use of common and frequently quoted maxims, if they are useful" because they can unite a speaker with the audience through the articulation of their preconceived notions, which seem to be true, or they can go against popular sayings for passionate effect. Ultimately, however, they can be used for ethical effect, to promote the moral character of the speaker. (Freese's translation uses both the words ethical and moral in this context.)


Precedents to the Puritan maxims compiled by Franklin himself in his book Poor Richard's Almanack (which incidentally brought him into the public eye) would be Pythagorus' Golden Sayings, Appius Claudius Caecus' Sententiae, maybe Plutarch's Sayings of Romans, Erasmus' Adagia. Appius' most famous line pertains to the self-made man, stating: "every man is the fashioner of his own fortune" - which of course can be countered by any number of phrases from Epictetus' Golden Sayings that acknowledge the importance of discerning what exactly is ours to fashion.
At this time in my life, I ask myself how much of my life is in my power, as others have the power to determine whether to institute cut-backs at the university where I work. I question where my own usefulness might be found. Plutarch, in On Tranquility of Mind explains it may come from reasonableness, experience, and the ability or knowledge to make use of present situations. Even if something goes awry, he counsels us to look on the bright side: "For it is possible to change the direction of Fortune when she has given us things we do not wish. Diogenes was driven into exile: 'Not so bad after all!' for after his exile he began to lead the life of a philosopher. ... What, then, prevents our imitiating such men as these?" Indeed...
It is the "simplicity and vigor" of the style of Franklin's prose (his cogent reasoning and facile pen) that Pine admires: qualities that meant he knew how to convey the scope of power and usefuless that characterised him. "If Robert Louis Stevenson is right in believing that his remarkable style was acquired by imitation then the youth who would gain the power to express his ideas clearly, forcibly, and interestingly cannot do better than to study Franklin's method."
The scope of power and usefulness in the title of this blog post is therefore the range of one's ability to imitate goodness. Where inspiration is lacking, there is precedent.

Book in background: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern; brush: misprinted type.

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