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The Life of Benjamin Franklin

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In examining the works of an individual writer, it can be helpful to isolate certain anecdotes or pieces of the narrative and deconstruct them to discover their function in the work as a whole. By utilizing a close interpretation of a limited portion of the text and subjecting said portions to a critical examination, new light can be shed on the techniques the author uses to create meaning. Plutarch distinguished himself as a unique biographer by recounting the lives of his subjects through a lens of personal intimacy where the condition of their lives, their virtues and vices, and their emotional states take precedence over their deeds and accomplishments. By relating the lives of his subjects in such a manner, we have a true understanding of the life of an individual rather than a mere historical account of their triumphs and failures.

Plutarch puts a great deal of emphasis on his subject’s ancestries and, more specifically, how their social status at birth affects their development. In Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, after which I will model my Life of Benjamin Franklin, Plutarch states that “some say [Cicero’s father] was born and brought up in a fuller’s workshop,” a slur which implies low birth (Plutarch, Cicero 1). The author also makes reference to the fact that the surname “Cicero” is derived from the Latin word cicer, which means “chick pea.”

The reason Plutarch puts such emphasis on his subject’s parentage and lineage is probably because one’s social status often dictates the course of one’s development. If one is born a slave, for example, he will obviously have a much more difficult time receiving a literary education than would a well-born child. If, however, the slave-born child educates himself and rises to distinction despite the obstacles he faced growing up, one can certainly laud his character. Similarly, if a child born into wealth eschews his privileged upbringing and dedicates his life to assisting the poor and downtrodden, his deeds too are admirable.

For example, in Plutarch’s Life of Demosthenes, Plutarch describes how Demosthenes, left as an orphan by his father, “grew up untrained in the subjects that are suitable and right for a free-born boy” (Plutarch, Demosthenes 4). Also, his status as an orphan prohibited him from studying under Isocrates, the foremost rhetorician of the time. Demosthenes instead studied under Isaeus, whose style was much more vigorous and effective in everyday use. This example clearly illustrates how one’s status at birth can dictate the course of his life.

Plutarch also emphasizes the natural propensities of his subjects. For example, in his Life of Cicero, Plutarch states that Cicero “showed a natural capacity for enjoying all types of learning and for appreciating every kind of literature and discipline, as Plato says a natural lover of knowledge and wisdom does” (Plutarch, Cicero 2). Acknowledging the “natural capacities” of a subject is informative because it lends us insight into how one nurtures his gifts and ultimately rises to prominence. For example, a rhetorician might show no interest in the technical aspects of public speaking, yet might nevertheless find himself talented in that field, perhaps due to his preference for conversing with others in a public setting over careful study of rhetorical techniques and devices. Cicero, upon discovering that his delivery was weak, studied the methods of Roscius the comedian. This unconventional method of self-study greatly strengthened Cicero’s delivery and, consequently, his “power of persuasion.” Plutarch writes “His humor and quickness to joke were considered clever and well adapted to the courts of law” (Plutarch, Cicero 5).

While Plutarch devotes a majority of the text of his Lives to praising the deeds of great Greeks and Romans, he also makes mention of their vices and shortcomings. For example, in the life of Cicero, Plutarch takes the majority of a chapter to mention Cicero’s vanity and love of his own fame. Plutarch writes:

[Cicero] made himself generally disliked not by doing anything wrong but by perpetually praising and glorifying himself, to many people’s annoyance… He even filled his books and writings with praises of himself and made his oratory, which had been delightful and full of charm, distasteful and tiresome to his hearers, for this unpleasant habit clung to him like a disease (Plutarch, Cicero 24).

While Cicero’s deeds were certainly great, modesty was a virtue greatly admired by the ancients and a quality in which Cicero was certainly deficient. No one could question the importance of Cicero in driving out the Catilinian conspirators, among other great deeds, but Cicero’s own vanity often posed a problem. It even became an obstacle when “court could not meet without having to hear his interminable talk of Cataline” (Plutarch, Cicero 24). By boasting of his great deeds, Cicero undoubtedly alienated many of his allies. In addition to his boastfulness, Cicero could also be overly vicious when attacking his opponents, often for the mere sake of showcasing his wit and getting a laugh from the assemblage. When Marcus Gellius, the son of slaves, read letters to the senate in a loud voice, Cicero quipped “Do not be surprised, he too is one of the criers,” alluding to the Roman procedure of a slave in the process of procuring his freedom through a fictitious “cry” for liberty (Plutarch, Cicero 27).

These descriptions of Cicero’s shortcomings are perfect examples of Plutarch’s juxtaposition of virtue and vice in the lives of his subjects. While Cicero’s greatest gifts were his aptitude or oratory and quick wit, his flaws were his ascetic tongue and sense of self-satisfaction. Clearly, his oratorical success brought about an immodest attitude that was evident in his mean spirited remarks and vanity.

Plutarch frequently mitigates his condemnations of the vices of his subjects, and Cicero is no different. Immediately following his description of Cicero’s immodesty in chapter twenty-four, Plutarch writes, “Nevertheless, greedy as he was for fame for himself, he was free of envy of other men and most liberal in his praises of his predecessors and contemporaries, as we may observe in his writings” (Plutarch, Cicero 24). By immediately following a critical remark with a complementary statement, Plutarch makes clear his belief that, while his subjects, as all men, have natural weaknesses, they are by and large men of virtue.

Another feature that makes Plutarch a valuable resource for culling insight into the lives of great men is the examination of his subject’s psyches, often through subtle and easily overlooked mentions of the man’s feelings or state of mind. Plutarch most prominently references his reason for employing this technique in chapter one of the Life of Alexander. Plutarch writes:

[M]y intent is not to write histories, only lives. For the noblest deeds do not always show a man’s virtues and vices, but oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men’s natural dispositions and manners appear more plain, than the famous battles won, wherin are slain ten thousand men, or the great armies of cities won by siege or assault (Plutarch, Alexander 1).

By lending credence to his subject’s personalities over their deeds, Plutarch differentiates himself from historians like Herodotus who are concerned more with the actions and accomplishments of great men and the ways in which those actions affect the outcome and the consequent tides of history. Plutarch is able to take a mere flash in a subject’s life and cultivate it into something humanizing that allows us to see the great man as a real person rather than a mere historical subject.

In his Life of Cicero, Plutarch humanizes Cicero in numerous instances, most notably after his exile from Rome. Upon his exile, Cicero appealed to two of his friends, both of whom “he had done many pleasures” refused to accept Cicero into their homes, which “grieved him to the heart.” Cicero went instead to Dyrrachium. Still a popular and famous man, Cicero had many admirers who came to show their support and wish him well. This did little to elevate his mood and he sunk into a state of depression. Plutarch recounts this period in Cicero’s life:

Cicero, notwithstanding that many men came to see him for the goodwill they bore him, and that the cities of Greece contended who should most honor him, he was always sad, and could not be merry, but cast his eyes still towards Italy, as passioned lovers do to the women they love: showing himself faint hearted, and took this adversity more basely, than was looked for of one so well studied and learned as he (Plutarch, Cicero 32).

This quotation shows how deeply Cicero cared for Rome and the public life that he enjoyed there. While he no doubt valued his subjects and admirers, he always saw himself as a public servant and felt useless without that part of his life intact. Cicero, now older, is now less vain than he was in his youth. Having received recognition as a great orator and statesman, Cicero has little need for praise and commendation from the public. By including this glimpse into Cicero’s emotional state during his exile, Plutarch makes it clear that, though Cicero does enjoy adulation, he is a true servant of the public and holds the condition of Rome above himself and his admirers.



Benjamin Franklin was born to Josiah Franklin, a tallow chandler and soap maker, son of Thomas Franklin, a shepherd and blacksmith, on January 17, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts. Benjamin was the fifteenth of seventeen children, and the youngest of Josiah’s sons. Josiah Franklin deeply desired for his son to receive a religious education and join the ranks of the clergy; however, his large family and limited means prohibited him from securing a formalized education for his son. Benjamin’s father could only afford to enroll his son in Boston Latin School for two years, ending his formalized eduacation at the age of ten. Though his dreams of schooling were seemingly crushed, Benjamin did not relinquish his love for learning. The young boy developed his own educational curriculum, reading voraciously, developing a rigid routine for self betterment, and securing a number of jobs that would prove to be formative in his later career. One of the most influential jobs was that of a printer’s assistant. By learning this trade, Franklin, at the age of fifteen, secured employment at The New England Courant, the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. Here he attempted to write letters to the editor recommending improvements to the city of Boston. When his employer was unwilling to print the thoughts of a young boy in his newspaper, Franklin began writing letters to the editor under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” These letters became popular amongst the readership who were unaware that the alleged middle-aged widow “Mrs. Dogood” was actually a self-educated fifteen year old boy.[1]

Franklin, now somewhat of a man-about-town, was not immune to the lure of the female sex. As is natural for a young man, Franklin had a strong sexual drive or, as he put it, “that hard to be govern’d passion of youth.” In order to satiate his sexual desire, Franklin frequently found himself seeking the company of low, irreputable women and prostitutes. Franklin’s womanizing would come to be known as his foremost vice; in his capacity as Ambassador to France, he enjoyed the company of many young women. Some accounts number his illegitimate children as high as thirteen in France alone, while others vehemently dispute this claim. Womanizing and philandering notwithstanding, Franklin did take responsibility for the consequences of his carnal actions, even when it was not necessary for him to do so. In a time where illegitimate children were frequently left on church steps, given to overcrowded orphanages, or simply left in alleyways to die of exposure, Benjamin Franklin took in and raised his own bastard child with his common law wife Deborah. Franklin publicly acknowledged and raised his son whom he christened William with pride despite the whispers and gossip circulating around town. Benjamin gave his son every opportunity available, and William later became a great politician in his own right and the last loyalist governor of New Jersey.[2]

However, as William Franklin aged and began to develop his own political beliefs, a rift developed between him and his father. The elder Franklin denounced the British crown and their punitive taxes and general treatment of the colonies. William Franklin remained loyal to the Crown, notwithstanding his father’s strongly held anti-loyalist convictions. Benjamin Franklin and his son were very close prior to the divergence of their political views; William frequently assisted his father with his experiments and the two frequently had lively discussions and debates. Benjamin even used his influence to secure his son the governorship of New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, the divide between the two Franklins began to swell. William made his loyalist sentiments well known; he was a chief perpetrator of the Asgill Affair, where two American revolutionaries were executed without trial. This breach of justice and morality broke Benjamin’s heart and he and his son never spoke again.

Benjamin continued to love his son until the end of his life; Benjamin’s autobiography is written in the form of a letter to William. The work is seemingly an attempt by a father to relate his life’s story to an estranged son. William never had the opportunity to read his father’s words, and the manuscript was published by Benjamin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin. Thus we are reminded that Benjamin Franklin was a statesman and patriot above all, caring for his country more than anything, including his own emotional well-being.[3]


[1] In this portion of my creative exercise I hoped to capture a common aspect of many of Plutarch’s lives: his emphasis on birth status and early-life influences on the subject’s later life and career. I also hoped to parallel Franklin’s self-driven attitude towards learning with that of Cicero, whose life I used as my model (Plutarch, Cicero 2).


[2] In this section of my narrative of Franklin’s life I mentioned one of his vices, hoping to emulate Plutarch in that Plutarch juxtaposes the virtues and vices of his subjects. I also tried to mitigate the vice by showing that Franklin took responsibility for his “immoral” actions and raised his son rather than pawning him off on an orphanage or the church.


[3] In this third anecdote of Franklin’s life, I tried to lend insight into Ben Franklin’s personal belief system and some of the things that drove him personally and emotionally. While he indeed loved his son, he valued justice as well and could not reconcile his son’s actions with his own personal beliefs. My intention here was to emulate the window Plutarch lent into Cicero’s psyche after his exile from Rome, which truly illustrated that Cicero was a Roman citizen and not just a man bent on stroking his own ego.

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