Episode 77: The Art of Living

How shall we live? Where do we find the resources for living well? In this episode, historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn examines the reappearance of ancient philosophical thought in contemporary American culture. She argues that we need to take back philosophy as part of our everyday lives as a means for piecing together a coherent moral framework for democratic life. Her recent book is Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living.

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What Should Christians Think of Benjamin Franklin?

When I teach Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography to Christian students at Messiah College I am always amazed at how much they have bought into Franklin’s ideal of the self-made man.  While there is much about Franklin’s commitment to hard work, civic virtue, and personal morality that is compatible with the Christian faith, it seems that his overall philosophy of life does not always stand up to the teachings of Jesus.

If Franklin and Jesus ever met, I wonder what they would talk about?  I have wondered this so much that I have contemplated writing a book on the subject.

I was reminded of the way Christians think about Benjamin Franklin, the idea of the self-made man, and the so-called “American Dream” after reading Jay Case’s “Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman?”  Writing from a Christian perspective, Case argues that there is no such thing as a “self made man or woman.”  Speaking theologically, I would have to agree.  Here is a taste:

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

What do you think?  Is there such a thing as a self-made man or woman? Could you answer “no” to this question without appealing to theology?

Henry Clay: "Great American Loser?"

A few weeks I ago I referred to Henry Clay in my United States Survey course as the “Buffalo Bills of 19th Century American Presidential Candidates.”  A few football fanatics got the joke, but most of the students were either infants or not yet alive when the the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.

The analogy, of course, is not perfect.  Henry Clay lost three, not four, presidential elections, and he did not lost them consecutively.  (He lost his bids for the presidency in 1824, 1832, and 1844).  Clay should also be remembered for his work at bringing compromise to American politics in a way that may have preserved the Union.

In his ongoing series on the “self-made man” in American history, Jim Cullen argues that Clay came the closest to supplying the “democratic flavor” that was lacking in the old Hamiltonian vision of American society.  He became, as Cullen writes, “the public spokesman for the self-made entrepreneur.”  Here is a taste:

What matters most for our purposes is a speech that Clay, now back in the Senate, delivered in February of 1832 while running for president. An epic three-day disquisition, “In Defense of the American System” ranged widely over a series of topics, most of them too arcane to be remembered. But at one point in his address, Clay uttered a sentence invoking a phrase that became durably famous. “In Kentucky,” he said, “almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.” 

What we have here is a turning point in American history. It’s not simply Clay’s use of a term – whether or not he coined it, “self-made man” would be forever associated with him – but also that he was calling attention to, and promoting, a fundamental realignment of what success meant in the United States. This becomes plain in the diplomatically phrased ensuing sentences, which pointed to an emerging divide in the nation (typified by the drift of his erstwhile ally Calhoun into an opposing camp). “Comparisons are odious, and, but in defence, would not be made by me,” Clay said, responding to perceptions of industrialists as representing a new breed of economic tyrants. “But is there more tendency to an aristocracy in a manufactory, supporting hundreds of freedmen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less numerous slaves, sustaining, perhaps, only two white families – that of the master and the overseer?”[senate.gov]

Was William Penn a Self-Made Man?

Jim Cullen continues blogging his series on the rise and fall of the “self-made man” in American culture.  Yesterday’s entry was on William Penn.

Cullen argues that Penn was a bit of paradox.  He was a champion of Quaker equality, but never rid himself of his upbringing in the English aristocracy.  Nevertheless, the success of Pennsylvania, a society based on equality and freedom, was the product of his dogged determination to model the colony on Quaker principles.  The result was a colony that was unique among the provinces of British-America.

Here is a taste:

Part of Penn’s problems stemmed from a seeming contradiction that probably appears a lot more glaring to us than it did him and many of his contemporaries: he was a Quaker aristocrat. Though he embraced many of the egalitarian tenets of his faith, Penn always acted with the serene confidence of a member of a small national elite, and expected others to recognize him as such. Regarding other people as spiritual equals did not necessarily mean you regard them as a social equals, and even if you do regard them as social equals, that doesn’t necessarily mean you regard them as a political or economicones. Quakers were not communists, especially as they grew more prosperous, and while many opposed slavery, for example, it’s also clear that many did not. (Slavery didn’t even begin to become illegal in Pennsylvania until 1780, on a basis of gradual abolition.) Notions of equality are always relative. 

That said, Penn never seemed to realize that a substantial and growing number of his fellow Quakers had a wider and deeper notion of equality than he did. He was surprised and hurt when they did not simply passively accept his leadership – or in many cases actively rejected it, as when they refused to pay taxes to defray the costs of his colonial experiment. Penn’s heirs (he had eight children with two wives over the course of his long life) proved less interested than he was in Quakerism. In the decades before the American Revolution the omnipresent Benjamin Franklin took the lead in resisting what many residents regarded as the family’s high-handedness. 

And yet for all this, Pennsylvania was a fabulous success. Penn’s decision to make his colony a uniquely open place made it the magnet he hoped it would be, and though it was the penultimate of the 13 colonies to be founded (Georgia came along in 1732) it was among the largest in population by the time of the Revolution. He had been dealt a very good card in its access to the Delaware Bay, which he exploited in personally laying out the broad avenues for the city of Philadelphia, which became the biggest city in America by the time of the Revolution, second only in the Anglo world to London. After the Revolution, the state became the linchpin of the nation, a major source of its agricultural productivity and industrial prowess.

 It would be inaccurate to say that William Penn single-handedly brought this about – for one thing, he was the product of a religious culture that profoundly shaped his choices. But few individuals have acted in ways that have had more profound and durable consequences. In an evocative 1983 essay Edmund Morgan summed up his life: “He made his mark because what he wanted and argued for, pleaded for, almost fought for was not quite outside the possible. He left his mark because he knew how he world worked and was prepared, in spite of its denunciations, to work within its terms.” [147] Penn chose an identity, and with it he fashioned a world.

Roger Williams: Self-Made Man

At some point I hope the Christian Century will publish my review of Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.  But if you cannot wait that long for a Williams fix, I would encourage you to check out Jim Cullen’s post: “Tolerating Roger Williams.”  Cullen writes about Williams as part of his ongoing American History Now blog series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.  Here is a taste:

He founded – and in a half-century as a tireless administrator, solidified and protected – Rhode Island as a haven of tolerance. It’s important to make clear, however, that this was simply a means to an end: Williams wanted the right to worship as he (and he alone, as he refused to pray even with his wife) saw fit. He did help establish the first Baptist church in America, but his solitary spirit – what he himself described as “the restless unsatisfiedness of my soul” (Gausted 182) – a quickly asserted itself and he left it. Williams has long been recognized for his unusually good relationships with Native Americans, in part because he learned their language and bargained with them in good faith. But at some level he was comfortable with Indians because in their paganism they posed no risk of Christian hypocrisy. Figuratively speaking, he belonged to a congregation of one.

Jim Cullen on the "Self-Made Man" in American History

Over at American History Now, the ever-prolific Jim Cullen has just written his second “exploratory piece” on the myth of the self-made man in American cultural history.  This project seems to be right up Cullen’s alley (much like his studies of Bruce Springsteen, Civil War memory, and the American Dream) and I hope his work moves from “exploratory” to a full-blown book project.

In his first post, “The Self-Made Man in Hiding,” he traces the perception of the “self-made man” in the Silicon Valley, among the followers of Ayn Rand, and in the Academy.  Here is a taste:

The lack of focus on the subject is remarkable when one considers how intensely, and how long, the self-made man has been a central trope of the American experience.  It is generally agreed that the first use of the term to gain cultural currently came from Henry Clay–a politicianin an oft-cited 1832 speech. Theater critic and essayist Charles Seymour published Self-Made Men, a collection of sixty profiles, in 1858. The following year, Frederick Douglass gave a speech with the same title that he delivered, in varied permutations, for the next third of a century. In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe published The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men, consisting chiefly of antislavery activists and Civil War heroes. In 1897, the newly ex-president Grover Cleveland published The Self-Made Man in American Life. In the coming century, the concept suffused into the marrow of American culture: Jay Gatsby, Charles Foster Kane, Willy Loman: their creators may not have used the term to describe these unforgettable characters, but the generations of audiences who were riveted by them never had any doubt what they, and their successes and failures, represented. It’s all the more ironic that the self-made man largely fell off the national radar after the 1960s when one considers how crucial self-making, and the rejection of institutional authority, have been to all social movements that followed the counterculture. In this regard, the Woodstock hippie and maverick banker agreed.

In Cullen’s second post, “More Than Just the Benjamins,” he argues that the conception of the “self-made man” was a “good deal broader than business or politics.”  He connects this idea to the lives and work of people like Joel Osteen, Bruce Springsteen, and Vito Corleone. 

Cullen writes:

 I’ve made some effort to delineate phases in the economic model of the self-made man as part of a larger point that even this perceived dominant variation of the myth was itself subject to shifting currents and emphases and often marked by cultural lag.  But again, my larger point is that just as multiple versions of the self-made man jostled within the realm of commerce, multiple versions jostled outside it as well. At any given moment, an economic version, a political version, and a cultural version, among many others, were available and competing for allegiance in a U.S. population whose diversity whose attention united by little else. At the very moment Mark Zuckerberg was embodying the self-made myth of entrepreneurial pluck, Bruce Springsteen was tapping its cultural power and the evangelical minister Joel Osteen was preaching an ethos of self-help that burgeoned into a religious media empire.