Ben Franklin maximized the potential of maxims. He added lots of adages. He was proverbially good at proverbs. He coined the aforementioned aphorisms. And Poor Richard’s Almanack was full of them. Now the thing one needs to know about proverbs or adages or maxims or aphorisms is that under the right circumstances they are often true, true enough to be reasonable generalizations. But they are certainly not always true. It is not always true that ‘if you train up a child in the way that he should go, he shall not depart from it in his old age’. Often true, yes. Not always. Ben Franklin, having established himself as chief printer for the colonies began publishing Poor Richard Almanac at the end of 1732. The Poor Richard in question was Richard Saunders, a fictional character that came out of Franklin’s fertile imagination. In essence Franklin pristinized homespun wisdom, or what was later called— common sense. Franklin was the forefather of the spectacle of an apparently simple person coming up with wickedly funny and often insightful quips (think Mark Twain, Garrison Kellor, even Forest Gump). Like the latter day Farmer’s Almanac, Poor Richard included information about the coming weather, phases of the moon, tides, seasons as well as the famous maxims.
Some of his aphorisms are still common coin— ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man…..’ well you know the rest. In fact, as Isaacson points out, many of these maxims Franklin nicked from older collections, and repurposed and revised them. For example ‘fresh fish and visitors stink in three days’ is an adaptation of an old English saying “Fresh fish and new-come guests smell, but that they are 3 days old’. He took the famous ‘many strokes fell great oaks’ and made it a moralism— ‘little strokes fell great oaks’. Here’s some of Franklin’s greatest hits along these lines—-(p. 99)— “He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir…Eat to live, and not live to eat…He that lies down with dogs will rise up with fleas…Where there is marriage without love, there will be love without marriage…Necessity never made a good bargain….A good example is the best sermon…None preaches better than the ant and she says nothing…A penny saved is twopence clear…When the well is dry we know the worth of water…The sleeping fox catches no poultry…The used key is always bright…He that lives on hope dies fasting…Diligence is the mother of good luck…Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices…Haste makes waste, make haste slowly…He who multiplies riches, multiples cares…He’s a fool who cannot conceal his wisdom…No gains without pains…Vice knows she is ugly, so puts on her mask…The most exquisite folly is made of wisdom spun too fine…Love your enemies for they will tell you your faults…The sting of a reproach is the truth of it…Genius without education is like silver in the mine…There was never a good knife made of bad steel…Half the truth is often a great lie…God helps them who help themselves…Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly”. Franklin offered these up with some irony, a good sense of humor, but also a seriousness. He did indeed believe in hard work and frugality, but the later accusation that he was obsessed with becoming wealthy, is false. In fact, he was a very generous person, who started many charitable endeavors, and mostly lived simply. Yet, he should not be confused with the Quakers, whom he often had hard dealings with in Philadelphia. For one thing, Franklin was no pacifist. More pragmatist than pacifist, he went with what worked.