Explain why the eighteenth century was called the Age of Experiment and consider the relevance of this term as a description of Benjamin Franklin’s writing.
Sprouting directly from the Enlightenment was an emboldened enthusiasm for scientific knowledge to explain worldly phenomena formerly attributed to a spiritual or religious engine. Likewise, the powers of the human intellect and will were given greater authority in daily life, political discourse, and, of course, science. That Benjamin Franklin should have called the 18th century the Age of Experiment is no surprise given this growing propensity for discovery. Humankind was entering into modernity as we know it, and Franklin was at the forefront.
Empiricism—the practice of gaining knowledge through study of the surrounding world and sense experience—was taking hold of the world with increased fervor. Chemistry, physics, philosophy, biology, and many other scientific fields enjoyed more attention and practice than any age previous. This extended into society in the forms of political and social philosophy, and gave fuel also to the newly forming American nation.
As one of the founders of this nation, Benjamin Franklin bolstered political, scientific, moral, and philosophical discourse. He was endlessly fascinated with the “mechanics of the world’s seemingly ordinary phenomena,” exploring eagerly the science of sound, electricity, and earthquakes (Baym and Levine 235). He had a natural inclination toward the mechanical, crediting his heritage with much talent “in the use of…Tradesmen’s Tools” (Franklin 253). Franklin’s deep curiosity and innate ability led him to success in many fields: he dominated the printing industry, developing new techniques for making typesets; he founded a club, the Junto, to explore with others “Points of Morals, Politics or Natural Philosophy,” to move always toward the “Spirit of Enquiry after Truth” (Franklin 286); and he even shared ideas and inventions with colleagues of the famed scientist Sir Isaac Newton. But the scope of Franklin’s exploration is yet broader than science alone.
With texts like The Speech of Miss Polly Baker Franklin questioned the rights and the treatment of women in his day. His writing suggests that women are served inequitably by society, that perhaps a new frame of mind should be taken in regard to their social standing. Through the story of Miss Baker, in court for delivering yet another illegitimate child, he addresses the unfair plight of women—both socially and judicially—who have actually been mistreated by men. He experiments, in his text, with new social views—he challenges the prevailing mindset.
The same can be said of Franklin’s Concerning the Savages of North America. In the opening of this essay he distills his primary end, suggesting that “if we could examine the manners of the different nations with impartiality, we should find no people so rude” (Franklin 244). Once again, Franklin steps away from the accepted attitude to compel people towards a more even-handed interaction with others. He juxtaposes the calm, deliberate discourse of the Native people with the “impatient loquacity” of the English (Franklin 245). Through these essays, Franklin drives us toward experimentation in different modes of thought—more charitable modes, perhaps.
Franklin’s Autobiography gives us a glimpse of his intellectual exploration as well. He speaks of his early encounter with Socratic Method, and the adaptations he later made to better its usefulness to him. He writes also of his spiritual experimentation. Franklin “early absented [himself] from Public Assemblies of the [church],” finding disappointing levels of moral improvement in their teaching (Franklin 299). He studied—both empirically and introspectively—to formulate his own moral doctrine that contained “no Mark of any of the distinguishing Tenets of any particular Sect” (Franklin 307); thereby making it useful to those of any religious denomination.
Franklin’s entire life, and life’s work, is an experiment in the civic and social development of the person. He infused his public life with his self-interest. He sought to ignite his own curiosity, his drive to self-improvement and degree of moral character, likewise in the society in which he lived. He aligned himself with likeminded individuals, and compelled them to improve their minds and spirits as he did; and in doing so, Franklin experimented with political and social influence.
Franklin’s Library, founded in 1731, was an experiment in socialist institutions. While subscription was initially required, the library would later become that which we enjoy today—an undeniably socialist organization, encouraging the free trade of knowledge and ideas.
The Age of Experiment was exactly as the title suggests: a time of discovery on every front imaginable. From politics and morality, literature and philosophy, to science and industry, the 18th century was an immensely flourishing era of ideas. Franklin’s texts, and his life in general, exude this same curious exploration. The Enlightenment gave new power to the human mind, new interest in the surrounding world, and new ways to think about our relationships with each other, and with religion. Acting and writing in the spirit of the Enlightenment, Benjamin Franklin produced for our nation a foundation of ambition, self-sufficiency, and infinite possibility.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 248-308. Print.
Franklin, Benjamin. “Concerning the Savages of North America.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 244-248. Print.