The book has been sitting on B's bookshelf for years, and when I was looking for something to read the other day, I finally picked it up: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. The author is a former managing editor of Time magazine and current ceo of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank located not in Colorado but in Washington, DC. (He also wrote a book on Steve Jobs, as well as his latest, The Innovators, about the geeks who developed social media).
Honestly, I didn't know much about Ben Franklin. I knew he was a printer and a Founding Father and that he "discovered" electricity.
I did not know that he was a self-made man among all the powdered-wig aristocrats who created the new country. He was born and raised in Boston, but ran away to Philadelphia in 1723, when he was 17, and started in the printing business. He worked his way up -- occasionally employing some pretty "savvy" business acumen -- to become the head of what was then "a successful, vertically integrated media conglomerate," according to Isaacson, with a publishing house, the Philadelphia newspaper, an almanac series, an interest in the postal system, and eventually some valuable real-estate holdings.
Franklin was in the vanguard of many American trends -- including early retirement. He retired from his printing business at age 42 in order to pursue his interest first in science (he made his famous kite experiment in 1752, which led to the development of the lightning rod) and then in politics and international relations.
Today he is known as much for his maxims as his contributions to society. Some came out of his real life experiences. For example, there was once a rich and well-bred member of Philadelphia society that he wanted win over. So he approached the man and asked a favor. He wanted to borrow one of his rare books. The man lent him the book; Franklin returned it on time; and then later when they met "he spoke to me (which he had never done before) and with great civility, and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions."
And from that experience Franklin developed his advice: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."
But most of his aphorisms came from Poor Richard's Almanac -- which as best as I can tell was a series of pamphlets kind of like the special editions of magazines you see today at the checkout stand of the supermarket. Some of his maxims developed out of his own personal experience, some he made up, and others he "borrowed" from other sources and then polished up to make them more memorable. Here I've selected his Top Ten:
He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.
Where there's marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.
Necessity never made a good bargain.
He who multiplies riches multiplies cares.
He's a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.
Vice knows she is ugly, so puts on her mask.
Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.
The sting of a reproach is the truth of it.
Half the truth is often a great lie.
God helps them that help themselves.
Maybe you know a few others from Franklin, or elsewhere. I wonder how relevant they are to our lives today.