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Monday, January 19, 2009

Franklin and Frugality

I’d like to offer a belated “Happy Birthday” to Ben Franklin, and add something to what Ms DFS wrote. As MDFS said, he was not interested in the ethics of Wall Street—the Madoff/Gekko idea that greed is good. (Remember Gordon Gekko’s speech in the movie “Wall Street”?). He not only became a vegetarian himself to save money for books—and incidentally to save time for study, and to preserve his clarity of thought—but he tried to convince others to pursue his frugal practices. Such concern for building a frugal community marked his entire career.

Franklin’s Autobiography is also extremely witty. And that brings me back to his vegetarianism. It’s true that for a while he ate no meat, but that resolution actually didn’t last too long. Here’s how he explains it:

“[On] my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.”

By way of comment, he adds: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Brilliant! You have to love the guy.

While it’s hard to fault old Ben for his episodic vegetarianism, I do have another . . . . well . . . reservation. Maybe it’s because I live in Louisiana, but I do like to eat. Greed may not be good, but food is. But Ben didn’t seem to think so: for him, food was just fuel—a frugal attitude, perhaps, but one that goes against the sort of epicurean frugality we advocate. He explains that when he was young his father would always introduce a topic of conversation at dinner. I’ll let him take over here:

“By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind, so that I was bro't up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it, that to this day if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon. This has been a convenience to me in travelling, where my companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites.”

That’s taking practicality a little too far, isn’t it? Enjoying good food can be a very inexpensive pleasure, and pleasure is important. (See Ms. DFS’s post on the food of the poor.)

In fact, that’s the objection that D. H. Lawrence made in 1919 in Studies in Classic American Literature.Lawrence, a great advocate of the passions, called Franklin that “snuff-colored little man,” to whom a person was a sort of “mechanical contrivance.” His point is that Ben is just too practical: he’s a precursor to Henry Ford, mass-producing morality, virtue, and economic sufficiency rather than Model Ts.

Lawrence takes things a bit too far. For one thing, he has absolutely no sense of humor, and so can’t understand Franklin’s. On the other hand . . . . what are the limits of practicality (which I take as a subcategory of frugality)?

So, I’m divided: the frugal, witty Franklin, or the passionate, humorless Lawrence?

Frugality [according to Ben Franklin]: "Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."

Frugality [Lawrence’s revision]: "Demand nothing; accept what you see fit. Don't waste your pride or squander your emotion."

What do you think?


The Fabric Bolt said...

Along similar lines, here is a site you might enjoy -

In the links section (I think) there are a number of good articles which have discussed thrift recently and most reference back to Franklin.

Terri said...

Frankly, I think I'm probably closer to Lawrence...

Frugal Scholar said...

@Fabric--great site/concept!

@Terri--I myself can't decide.

Thanks for the comments