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Franklin's American Philosophical Society - RIP

By Dr. Gerry Lower, Eugene, Oregon  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink       (Page 1 of 2 pages)
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Ben Franklin established the American Philosophical Society in 1743 (www.amphilsoc.org). It provided for over three decades of philosophical discourse prior to the American Revolution. It is still here in America, but not particularly alive and certainly not well.

One of the most important obligations of the American Philosophical Society, one would hope, is to keep a little bit of Franklin and Jefferson (the authors of the Declaration) alive and well in America. After all, the Declaration contains the values that define America (whether we honor them or not). The American Philosophical Society has utterly failed to do so, certainly in the realms where Franklin and Jefferson matter the most, i.e., the realm of theology and human rights.

Largely as a result of capitalism's dominion, Franklin's Society now occupies a position where it lives with the religious capitalism and conservative coercion of the Bush administration as being somehow consistent with what Franklin and Jefferson had in mind. In other words, Franklin's Society, not for America's sake but for the Society's sake, has de-evolved right along with the rest of American democracy. This would have been impossible in a land where the people were truly free and brave.

In considering Jefferson's Declaration, it was Franklin who scribbled out Jefferson's wording that "We hold these truths to be sacred" and he replaced the line with "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Franklin did not want any truths to be held "sacred," certainly not in the absolutist manner of religion. He did not want the Declaration to be beyond human abilities to update and revise.

Franklin believed that sighted people with a little experience in life ought be able to recognize the truths inherent in the Declaration, and the theological nature of human rights, on their own, without religious coercion. Otherwise, how would we know that we were free? (Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition, Harper and Roe, NY, 1960).

In addressing the American Philosophical Society about the need to update the natural philosophical basis of American democracy so as to be consistent with postmodern (post-Einstein) knowledge, the response from the Society is of more than passing interest. "Although the word 'philosophy' is part of our title, we use an eighteenth-century definition of the word, which is more scientific in nature." (personal communication).

In other words, Franklin's Society maintains an ideological stance that has everything to do with turn-of-the-20th century "American" pragmatism with its abandonment of Why questions and theology, leaving that realm to religion. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the nascent Christian theology of human rights which Jefferson and Franklin embedded into the Declaration as the dialectic (middle human ground) basis for democracy.

It was of course, Franklin, who signed the Constitution saying, "In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government, but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other." (Franklin, Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, PA, September 17, 1787).
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Franklin was willing to feign support for a Constitution that veered sharply away from the values of the Declaration because America had fought a war and it had lost 25,000 good people in order to win freedom from monarchical and papal oppression. The new nation clearly needed a Constitution, even "with all its faults."

The values of the Declaration had, in the formulation of the Constitution, been so compromised by the values of Old Testament religion and British capitalism as to be difficult to recognize as being derived from the Declaration at all. It failed to even give women the vote (not to mention blacks and non-landowners). In other words, the problem seen by Franklin and Jefferson was the failure to translate the human rights-based values of the Declaration into a viable Constitutional action policy.

Today, the American Philosophical Society, like everything else in America, has been so compromised by the values of religious capitalism that it can no longer see any of the larger truths that flow from Franklin's and Jefferson's natural philosophy. By adopting a definition of philosophy "that is more scientific in nature," it implies that Franklin and Jefferson had no theology, that these two men had no ability to ask intelligent Why questions.

Jefferson, perhaps one of the most enlightened theologians to have walked on this earth, dealt with religious theology head on. In 1793, in a Cabinet Opinion, he dismissed the supernatural Roman god and placed America's God in the "head and heart" of every person. He replaced the highest authority, the "will of god," with the "will of the people, substantially declared." (Edward Dumbauld, The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, The Liberal Arts Press, NY, 1955).

In complete agreement with Jefferson's nascent Christian theology, Franklin even went so far as to say, "He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive [before Rome] Christianity will change the face of the world." Like it or not, this was a direct assault on everything Roman and religious, made in the name of the Christ and human rights.
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The propensity of the American Philosophical Society to avoid these core theological issues reflects mostly the oppressive nature of religious capitalism, under which Americans are very often unable to do their jobs for fear of losing their jobs, if not the institution wherein they have their jobs. Like the god it relies on to acquire power over the people, the Bush administration is not above being self-righteous and vindictive in having its way with the people.

In order to preserve itself in the name of everything that is good about America, the American Philosophical Society had gone right along with everything that is bad in America. This is tragic, because it was Franklin's view that "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." So much for the American Philosophical Society under religious capitalism.

God, as the will of the people, ought bless Benjamin Franklin on this 4th of July. Two hundred years ago, that one man had more to say than the entire American Philosophical Society has to say at present under the oppression of religious capitalism. Two hundred years ago, that one man was not afraid of Why questions and theology and not afraid to speak out in the interest of human rights and the people.

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