History is cyclical. That is the simple nature of it. There are always old ideas, traditional views of the way the world works that have been in place for a long time that are supplanted by new, “radical” ideas. These new ideas stay in place and become tradition until they are replaced by newer ideas and so on and so forth. That is the way of history and it is no different in the history of America. New England was born with the Puritan view of God and human nature and it stuck with that view for over a hundred years. Into this Puritan society, into a Puritan family, Benjamin Franklin was born. Benjamin Franklin did not agree with Puritans views and challenged them, with his Deist views. Deist ideas on God and human nature were vastly different than those of the Puritans, in that they disagreed on the nature of God and the afterlife which caused them to view human nature through different scopes.
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Deists, and for that matter Franklin, did not believe in the God of the Christians (or of Jesus being the Messiah). They believed in God as a creator, or as Franklin refers to him a “First Mover” and “Maker of the Universe” (Franklin, 6). The belief was that God created the universe with its many laws and then simply let it run by itself, a belief which Franklin shared. The Deist God was “all-wise, all-good, [and] all powerful” (Franklin, 6). Franklin believed that because God was all-powerful that “there can be nothing either existing or acting in the Universe against or without his consent” (Franklin, 6). Franklin furthered this thought with the belief that if it was true, “and what he consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore Evil doth not exist” (Franklin, 6). Franklin addressed a possible counterargument against this belief, one that might say things like murder of theft are inherently evil. Franklin counters this by saying “to suppose any Thing to exist or be done, contrary to the Will of the Almighty, is to suppose him not almighty” (Franklin, 6). Furthermore, if these acts are of God and God is all-good, then these things are inherently good.
Puritans believed God to be intimately involved in their lives, punishing them and rewarding them as they sinned and did good respectively. The Puritan view of God was of a very judgmental God who used both wrath and mercy as He saw fit. Wigglesworth refers God being a “judge” several times in his poem. When Mary Rowlandson was taken captive by the Native Americans, she believed God was punishing her for not going to church and other sins and that it was “righteousâ€¦ [for] God to cut off the thread of [her] life, and cast [her] out of his presence for ever” (Rowlandson, 3). Upon reading a Bible given to her by one of her captors, Rowlandson found “There was mercy promised again, if we would return to him by repentance” (Rowlandson, 5). This is the way most Puritans viewed their lives: in terms of what they did to please and anger God. John Dane attributed each trouble he encountered, such as an allergic reaction to a wasp sting and palsy, to God’s retribution for sins he had committed. He then says that when he did reform “It pleased God in a short time to ease [him]â€¦ and [he] stood in awe of God’s judgments” (Dane, 4). Puritans did what they could to please God, and accepted His punishment when they sinned. Yet, Puritans believed that deep down they were all evil and only a few of them would be truly redeemed.
The Deist Franklin did not believe that God created an afterlife for human beings, which is to say he did not believe in Heaven or Hell. Franklin instead believed in pleasure and pain; pain being the misfortunes and sorrows in life and pleasure being the satisfaction of the desire to be free from pain. Franklin believed that pleasure and pain are in balance in life and that one could not exist without the other. He believed that pleasure was “wholly caused by Pain” and, by his definition of pleasure, therefore pleasure must be “equal, or in exact proportion” to pain (Franklin, 7). Franklin really stresses this balance of pleasure and pain. He perceives a possible counterargument against this belief as well. Such an argument might object that there is no such balance in life because it is easy to see people who live their whole lives in misery and pain and die without ever being relieved of this pain. Franklin counters this by saying that no one can be “proper Judges of the good or bad Fortune of Others” (Franklin, 8), which is to say that the balance of pleasure and pain is individualistic, and no one can say that was causes him or her pain causes anyone else pain. Franklin furthers this by saying that even if a person lives their whole life in pain, the receive release, and therefore pleasure, from this pain when they die. He says, “Pain, though exquisite, is not so to the last moments of lifeâ€¦ and ’tis quite an exquisite Pleasure to behold the immediate Approaches of Rest” (Franklin, 8). In the end, there will be a balance of pleasure and pain. Franklin sees that as there is this balance, there is no need for an afterlife. One would not need heaven to make up for earthly pains, as they would have been balanced out in life.
Puritans believed fiercely in Heaven and Hell, and that God had created both places of afterlife. God predestined everyone’s fate, and chose only a select few to be saved and spend eternity in Heaven. Most people were damned to spend eternity in Hell because of Original Sin. Thomas Shepard said, “Your best duties are tainted, poisoned, and mingled with sin” (Wigglesworth, 4). Thus, because of Original Sin no human action could be inherently good; and he went on to say “your good duties can not save you, yet your bad works will damn you” (Wigglesworth, 4). It was only by God’s grace that a person could be saved. The pain one experienced on earth was punishment for sin, and only received relief if they were chosen by God to go to Heaven. According to Wigglesworth, the greatest relief of Heaven “is that saints are made sinless and finally do not have to fear forfeiting God’s love” (Wigglesworth, 4). Puritans believed that the people who went to Hell deserved it, even so much as Wigglesworth describes a father learning of his son being sent to Hell and says he “doth rejoyce to hear Christ’s voice/ adjudging him to pain” (Wigglesworth, 4). Puritans accepted the fact that most of them would be condemned to Hell.
Because Franklin’s God was all-good, everything created was all-good, and there was no afterlife, he viewed life (specifically human nature) differently than most people. It allowed Franklin to believe that human beings were naturally good-natured and to place importance on the mortal life. Thus, Franklin believed in the importance of self-improvement and virtue without God demanding a need for it. Franklin believed that anyone could improve their station, both economically and morally. Franklin even said he’d “form’d most of [his] ingenious acquaintance into a club of mututal improvement which [they] called the JUNTO” (Franklin, 10). In Franklin’s words, this club was designed to discuss “Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy (science)â€¦ [with the] sincere spirit of inquiry after truth” (Franklin, 10). Franklin truly believed that people could grasp their purpose in life by pondering these things and thereby better themselves. Yet, perhaps the most important concept Franklin came up with in regards to human nature were his thirteen virtues. Franklin’s thirteen virtues were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility (Franklin, 12-13). In this, one can see how Franklin placed value on virtue outside of a religious need for it. Franklin said that in these virtues there is “no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect. [He] had purposely avoided themâ€¦ [so] that it might be serviceable to people in all religions” (Franklin, 15). Franklin said his virtues were in “every one’s interestâ€¦ who wished to be happy even in this world” (Franklin, 15).For Franklin, the mortal life was all one had and it was one’s duty as a human being to become morally perfect and achieve one’s fullest potential.
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Puritans had a completely different take on human nature, formed from their belief about God and the afterlife. To Puritans, human beings were naturally evil and they placed heavy importance on the afterlife. Dane was so convinced of his evil nature, he thought “that it was a greater evil to live and sin against God than to kill [himself]” (Dane, 6). The mortal life was about living in ways to please God or else risk his wrath and punishment. The Puritan life was centered solely on God because of his intimate involvement in their life. Dane puts it as “Beating my thoughts on God’s infinite love took such an impression of my heart as that I thought I could do anything for God or suffer anything for God” (Dane, 7). Dane warns that if one does not live their life like this they will “bring sorrow and affliction on [their] heads and heartsâ€¦ to their great grief and sorrow” (Dane, 7). It was not by their own hands that they could make themselves better, only by God’s providence. Because Puritans accepted that most of them would go to Hell, it was their responsibility in the mortal life to do all they could to please God. At the same time, those predestined to be saved had the same responsibility or else risk eternal damnation. Yet most Puritans did not know what fate awaited them, so all had to live as if they were among the saved.
The Deist Franklin’s God was all-good and did not create an afterlife, therefore it was human nature to be good and live their mortal life to its fullest potential. The Puritan God was intimately involved in their lives, judged them harshly for misdeeds, and eternally damned most of them. Therefore, it was human nature to be evil and sin and they had to live their lives by what God wanted in the hope that they were the ones God had chosen to save. It was because of their differing views on God that cause Franklin and Puritans to have such a different view on human nature.
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