Pragmatic Lessons from Franklin’s Drunk Friends

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography reveals much about his moral standings and beliefs on subjects ranging from the deeply spiritual to the trivial and pragmatic. On page 46, Franklin offers observations of his “companion” who drinks a pint with every meal, between every meal, and so on. Although ultimately disapproving, Franklin uses sarcasm while stating his opinion on the matter. Franklin seems to believe that drinking too much is not an irrevocable sin – instead, it’s a minor character flaw that can easily be improved upon.

Franklin’s companion justifies his drinking habits by saying he needed to “drink strong beer that he might be strong to labor” (47). Franklin rebuts by practically noting proportions of barley and water and how he could actually get more strength from a penny-worth of bread. Franklin’s ironic sense of humor and sarcasm comes through in this passage, making him easy to relate to even for modern readers.

Regardless of its minor significance in the autobiography of a whole, this passage revealed much about Franklin’s relation to Puritan spiritual autobiographies and his relation to a current audience.  The idea of affliction and divine cause, and affliction and pragmatic lessons comes through in Franklin’s reaction to his gluttonous friend. While the Puritans would have undoubtedly viewed this character as an inevitably flawed person, destined for eternal damnation, Franklin simply addresses it in a practical manner, using religious language sarcastically such as his phrase “those poor devils.” In this way, Franklin’s ideals seem closer to modern ideals than to those of the Puritans.

On the other hand, Franklin’s judgements can be perceived as a bit arrogant when he says, “He drank on however, & had 4 or 5 Shilings to pay out of his wages every Saturday Night for that muddling Liquor, an Expence I was free from. — And these poor Devils keep themselves always under.” Here, he seems to be writing his friend off and deeming himself superior.

Franklin’s judgements and reactions to others reveal the heavy influence of the Puritan morals before him, but his sense of humor and more progressive attitude toward religion characterize Franklin as a figure we can relate to in the twenty-first century.

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