written for AML 4213 on February 29, 1996
Although their publications are separated by a mere decade, Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions and the wit and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack seem be written in particularly different eras in American thought. The shift from absolute dependence on God for guidance and insight to personal responsibility for one’s actions and thoughts can be seen in these works. They have endured not only because they are representations of literary expertise, but also because they espouse universally accepted means of improving lifestyle, health, and general happiness. The sense of personal responsibility inherent in Franklin’s published work had its roots in the personal writings of Edwards. Both are examples of common ideas concerning how to better live one’s life. Jonathan Edwards’ reliance on the fear of God rather than a belief in an internal desire and ability to be “good” is the main reason his writings are not as widely read as Franklin’s, although both advocated related ideas.
Jonathan Edwards began his Resolutions with an entreaty to God to assist him in following them. He also reminded himself to read them once a week. Both of these statements are sensible because his Resolutions must have been just as difficult to adhere to then as they would be today. These two statements are interesting, too, because they exhibit the duality which permeates the work. At first Edwards admitted he would not be able to follow his tenets without the help of God; then he called attention to his own responsibility for reading the resolutions repeatedly in order to keep them fresh in his mind. This duality is indicative of the major shift which was occurring from Edwards’ work to Franklin’s. As the intellectual center of the American colonies moved with the center of population density from the Armenianism of the east to the antinomianism of the west, the focus of accountability began to shift from God to one’s self.
Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions are marked by a sincere belief that the glorification of God were of utmost importance in a man’s life (Resolutions 1, 2, and 4). They also show Edwards’ notion that the constant effort to perfect one’s self and community was a means of displaying faith in God and proving to Him that one was worthy of eternal reward (Resolutions 30, 37, and 41). The typical “Puritan” desire for humility and shame, as in Resolution 8, is incorporated throughout the piece and it is much more apparent in Edwards’ work than Franklin’s.
The repetition of certain resolutions implies either that they were more difficult for Edwards to obey or much more important to him. It is difficult to see the difference between Resolution 20, “To maintain the strictest temperance, in eating and drinking,” and Resolution 40, “To enquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking.” Likewise, Resolutions 16, 31, and 36 are so similar that from their duplication it can be inferred that Edwards was, at the least, very wary of speaking ill of his neighbors. More noticeable is the sentiment behind Resolutions 7, 17, 19, and 51. All four of these are concerned with preparedness for death, which may come at any time by God’s will. This Armenian sentiment is later echoed in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Edwards’ Resolutions are of a very personal nature. Their reference to his parents, his private thoughts, and his desire to emulate noble qualities perceived in others are all clues that they weren’t written for public consumption, but as a reminder to himself. They were not written to be read aloud or sermonized, which accounts for their often complicated construction. The sheer impossibility of some, like Resolutions 15 and 44, would have possibly made Edwards appear arrogant and condescending if they were published while he was alive. Their personal nature, though, lends them a credibility that they might not otherwise have. It is simpler to have resolutions to preach to others than it is to have them for one’s own. It is their complexity and the solidity of their faith which prevents them from being as widely read and accepted in popular twentieth-century American culture as Benjamin Franklin’s work is.
The persona of Richard Saunders, which Franklin adopted when writing Poor Richard’s Almanack, is much more of a contemporary, and therefore acceptable, voice. Poor Richard’s memorable comments are still and often quoted some two hundred years after they were written. Like Edwards, Franklin had many ideas on how to improve one’s life. But where Edwards felt the need to invoke God’s hand in all he did, Franklin believed it was possible for man to have greater control over his destiny. The only truly forceful mention of God’s power in Franklin’s work is the saying, “God helps them that help themselves,” which definitely conveys a different concept of God than any seen in the writings of Edwards. Here can be seen a much more powerful sense of personal responsibility than in Edwards’ Resolutions. It is the concept that the way to health, wealth, and wisdom is a path as easy to follow as it is to control one’s hour of waking. Franklin was extolling self-reliance and self-control as a means of attaining happiness rather than having to fear God’s apparent whims.
Poor Richard’s sayings are still popular today because of their clarity as well as their simplicity. Compare Edwards’ Resolution 6, “To live with all my might, while I do live,” with Franklin’s,
Would you live with ease,
Do what you ought, and not what you please.
The latter is undeniably more pleasing to both the ear and tongue, and its meaning is simpler to apprehend. Just as it is easier to remember, “Lefty loosey, righty tighty,” than it is to remember that a screw must be rotated counter-clockwise to be removed, so is it easier to memorize, and therefore adhere to, the sayings of Poor Richard. The sayings also place responsibility on the reader or listener instead of on a less-than-present God. They are more compelling because they are so obvious. The implications of a statement like, “The rotten Apple spoils his Companions,” are much more immediate than something like Edwards’ Resolution 33, which is rather vague in its direction.
All of Poor Richard’s Almanacks were written for publication. These short and often rhyming witticisms were designed to be carried in the head and utilized frequently, in contrast to the Resolutions, which required constant revision and re-reading to remember. Franklin’s adages contain many of the same doctrines as Edwards’ contemplations, but in their directness lies the key to their endurance. The persona of Richard Saunders also afforded Franklin the freedom of anonymity to write as directly as he desired.
Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping
is not exactly a humble plea for a stronger work ethic. Franklin’s use of easily comprehensible comparisons was another way to bring his messages to the common man. “Men & Melons are hard to know,” is a perfection of simplicity. One can imagine a New Englander slowly nodding his head and saying, “Oh, ayuh,” upon hearing such a comment.
Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanacks both convey similar thoughts. They captured the early American desire to attain a better lifestyle. While Edwards thought that it was only possible to do so if the threat of God’s vengeance were forever imminent, Franklin was able to do so by relying on obvious courses of action and beliefs. This subtle difference is the reason why Franklin’s sayings are perhaps more useful in the late twentieth century. There is no longer a constant fear of God’s hand, but the essence of men has not changed much in the last two hundred years.
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