Benjamin Franklin, Skepticism, and The Enlightenment

As I have written previously at the Anxious Bench, I am skeptical about “The Enlightenment.” This ideologically-freighted term implies the inexorable progress of scientific humanist thought. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the theory goes, such enlightened thinking triumphed over “dark” religious views. Among the Enlightenment’s many problems today is that classic secularization theory lies in shambles in a contemporary world where religion is growing in importance.

Nevertheless, it is true that many young men in the eighteenth century did begin to question church authority, and especially the reliability of biblical revelation. Ben Franklin, the son of Puritan parents, certainly did so, after getting his hands on deist writings as a teenager. Typical of eighteenth-century skeptics, Franklin never questioned the existence of God, but posited that God could only be known through reason and nature, not (claims of) revelation.

I am continuing to investigate how Franklin’s journey played out in the religious biography I am writing about him. At one stage in the 1720s, Franklin proposed that we could not know or approach the one Supreme God. Thus that God had created multiple smaller gods, who were still enormously powerful, good, and wise. One of these was the god who ruled over our solar system, and toward whom Franklin directed his worship.

Most traditional believers as well as skeptics today would find this position deficient, if not laughable. Examples like this call into question reason’s power to lead us to Truth. That problem was obvious in the eighteenth century as well.

I have been reading Robert Zaretsky’s compelling Boswell’s Enlightenmentabout the celebrated Scottish writer James Boswell. Boswell and Franklin took a similar path to skepticism: both came out of Calvinist backgrounds, and both became convinced, through exposure to deistic writings, that biblical revelation was not trustworthy.

Boswell was temperamentally more of a worrier than Franklin, and he struggled mightily with doubts and fear of death. At times he wondered, as did radical skeptics like David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whether we could really trust our reason as an adequate guide to Truth. Boswell found comfort in the “common sense” arguments of his fellow Scot, Thomas Reid, who insisted that our perception of the external world is reliable because God wired us with reliable senses which are common to mankind.

In our contemporary world, virtually everyone acts as if reason is reliable, but postmodern philosophy has undermined the notion that people everywhere possess the same rational faculties.

Cover of Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment, from Harvard University Press.

Internal, individual guides to Truth – such as reason or our perception of Nature – have not panned out as Franklin and other skeptics had hoped. They understandably wished to move beyond the violence that had marked religious conflicts since the Reformation. But turning within one’s self for the Truth turned out to be as problematic as depending revelation. The rationalists and philosophes those who supposedly could operate with an uncorrupted reason – could not agree among themselves on answers to basic questions. Boswell and Voltaire argued interminably, for instance, about whether the soul existed, and whether it was immortal.

One can certainly understand why skeptics today would pooh-pooh the idea that there is one authoritative revelation in the Bible. But what are the other options? Rousseau and others advanced devastating critiques of reason, even as Franklin and others tried to lift it up as the new standard. Conceding, as the postmodernists do, that we simply have no access to Truth, is a grim alternative. Even if they deny the existence of Truth, people have an extremely difficult time living as if they really know nothing for certain.

Although revelation hardly solves all disagreements between sincere believers, either, the philosophical appeal of revelation remains. If looking inward for Truth only brings more doubt and confusion, it sure would be helpful if God stepped into the chaos and gave us authoritative revelation in the forms of a Book and a Person. It would be even better if God helped us to understand revelation by a divine Counselor, and in the church. Among the many happy aspects of the Christian faith is the confidence that God, in fact, has made the Truth known in these ways.

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  • Thingumbob

    Franklin was a lifelong admirer and practitioner of Cotton Mather’s principle of the necessity to do good for humanity. Mather was not a Bible thumping anti science fundamentalist. In fact his Biblia Americana contains an intriguing passage that is remarkable for its similarity to today’s field of astrobiology: http://thingumbobesquire.blogspot.com/2012/12/cotton-mather-father-of-astrobiology.html

  • Shirley2456
  • JedRothwell

    You wrote: “Conceding, as the postmodernists do, that we simply have no access to Truth, is a grim alternative. Even if they deny the existence of Truth, people have an extremely difficult time living as if they really know nothing for certain.”

    Not all people have a difficult time with this. One of the first things you learn in science is that all knowledge is subject to change, and we can never be certain of anything. I was taught that in third grade by Mrs. Allen, and I remember thinking it was wonderful. I still do.

    I grew up reading existential philosophy and I went to college in Japan where I learned some Buddhist philosophy. Both teach that we can never know the truth; that life is chaotic and without purpose, or that if we want a purpose we must make it for ourselves. This is liberating, not frightening.

    I am delighted to think that we know nothing for certain, there are no absolute truths, and what we think we know may well be wrong. That means we are as capable of discovery and renewal as people were hundreds of thousands years ago; and people generations from now will be as capable of thinking anew as we are. What’s not to like? Why would you want absolute truth when you can have emotions as new to the world as this year’s forsythia blossoms? Why do you even want to tie yourself down to an ancient religion? You know there are thousands of religions now, and thousands more have gone extinct. They last a season and then they are gone. Christianity will vanish and be forgotten like all the others. You and I and our civilization and our ideals, hopes and our very species will vanish, and some other creature will inherit the earth . . . and that is a good thing. Every generation must give way to the next. Evolution never stops. It is the essence of life.

    Since I did not grow up with your traditions, I do not share your yearning to know irrefutable truths, and frankly I am not sympathetic. Such yearnings seem childish, like wanting to live forever, or wanting perfect peace in the world. I like seeing the world as it is, without romantic illusions or yearning for the impossible. One of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature, the Tale of Heike, begins:

    “The bell of the Gion Temple tolls into the heart of every man the warning that all is vain and transient. The faded flowers of the trees beside the deathbed of the Buddha bear witness to the truth that all who flourish are destined to decay.”

    This is a profound message. It is beautiful. It transcends hope and faith. It puts our struggles and doubts and lives in perspective. It is a good thing — far better than the childish promises of eternal life in the Bible.

    (That is not “postmodernism,” by the way. That was written circa 1219, and the philosophy goes back thousands of years.)