The Dichotomy of Perception and Behavior in Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth”: A Review of Critical Commentary

Lee Foreman

Benjamin Franklin was concerned with making the sometimes bitter pill of truth about the human condition easier to swallow by wrapping it in the fictive guise of maxims and homilies. His most famous work, Poor Richard’s Almanack, was composed of sayings from various sources that his readers could both find familiar and take to heart. The core of these maxims was the topic of ethical behavior, and in “The Way to Wealth,” Franklin refines and revises the maxims from the Almanack, making them more subtle and sophisticated. To present these truths in the pleasant form to which his readers had become accustomed and to underscore their underlying theme that the sayings are futile without action, Franklin employs an elaborate framework of narrator within narrator. This device allows him to present the maxims at multiple levels in order to lead the reader to Franklin’s own understanding of ethical behavior. Most critical comment on the work focuses on the multiple levels of narrative structure, very often pointing out the subtle dichotomy between words and actions, while analyzing the strategies which Franklin employed to produce his intended effect on the readers.

J.A. Leo LeMay’s essay, “Benjamin Franklin,” rather than discussing the aphorisms in the text that point to the disjunction between words and actions, examines the multiple narrators and the structure of the preface to support his thesis that in this work Franklin not only defends his almanac but also mocks its critics. LeMay contends that Poor Richard is burlesqued as “the naive philomath” who is referred to in italics as eminent Author, which LeMay suggests is intended to convey the “oxymoronic quality” of that appelation (216). He analyzes the portrayal of Richard as an object of ridicule in quoting himself, as well as the parallelism inherent in the “chrestomathy of Poor Richard’s proverbs” quoted by Father Abraham, whose own name has a “solid Biblical resonance” (216) and whose speech is a parody of the Puritan sermon (217). LeMay states that Franklin undercuts his critics by presenting their attitudes toward the naive philomath in the philomath’s own style. He also shows that the aphorisms, which usually tend to “diminish their context by their rhetorical brilliance,” here are controlled by the framework which places them within a speech, which in turn is within still another framework comprising the opening and closing dramatic context (217).

Cameron C. Nickels in his essay “Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanacs: ’The Humblest of his Labors,’” focusing on the structure which supports the aphorisms that run throughout the text, emphasizes their failed didacticism. Nickels acknowledges that “[s]tructurally, the preface must be considered as one of Franklin’s finest literary achievements,” and he further maintains that the frame provides the means by which Franklin “first parodies his [Poor Richard’s] didactic stance and then exposes the failure of his utilitarian wisdom”(86). Nickels contends that Father Abraham’s speech “typifies the didactic stance” that Poor Richard has assumed throughout (87). In contrast to most critics, he finds the piling up of maxims and the repetition of the phrase “as Poor Richard says” both tedious and “excessive to the point of absurdity” (87). He concludes that the point of Franklin’s work is to expose the supposedly useful philosophy of Poor Richard as “unfulfilled,” “impractical,” and “ironic” (88), implying that the proverbs cannot usefully be acted upon, in distinct opposition to other critics’ contentions that impelling the reader to action is, in fact, Franklin’s purpose.

Thomas J. Steele in his essay “Orality and Literacy in Matter and Form: Ben Franklin’s ’Way to Wealth’” also focuses on the sayings themselves but suggests that the aphorisms offered in the narrative framework embody the distinction between words and actions. Steele examines the origins, choice, and uses of the proverbs to demonstrate Franklin’s intent to present a “systematic ethical code” (277), which Steele sees as “roughly the equivalent, for the industrial capitalism about to emerge in America, of the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, Solon’s Laws, and Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics in their eras” (276-7). Steele thus points out that this set of ethics concerned with industriousness and frugality replaces the community’s oral “moral control” with a “written prototype … able to be interiorized as each individual’s superego” (277). Steele posits the importance of individual action in relation to the community and finds that “where the oral and communal has failed, the literate and individual still has hope of succeeding” (282). Steele concludes that Franklin “has made the breakthrough from the ineffective old morality to a new world of system and ethics …” (282), that is, from an ethical system based on religious values to one formulated in the context of America’s emerging economic system, where individual responsibility was to be the cornerstone. He believes that in so doing, Franklin rejected the oral values of the past in order to create a new structure based on individual ethical action.

In “Benjamin Franklin, the Inveterate (and Crafty) Public Instructor: Instruction on Two Levels in ’The Way to Wealth,’” Patrick Sullivan takes the related view that the words/action dichotomy is presented as a tension between the proverbs and their application. He argues that, in fact, Franklin “proceeds in two contradictory directions,” first “to offer instruction to the public in the simplest, most accessible and memorable form–the proverbial saying” (248) and secondly “to encourage the public to examine–rather than accept passively–the familiar quotation” (249). He notes that “the two major narrative units of the preface (the dramatic context and the compendium of proverbs)” (251) provide the basis for understanding the gap between “repeating” and “practicing” the proverbs (252). Sullivan points out that the crowd which turns away thus undermines the words of Father Abraham, while Richard’s decision to follow their precepts draws the reader to the “distinction between choosing not to follow precepts and not being able to” (254). Sullivan maintains that the Newtonian opposition of proverbs is at the heart of Franklin’s philosophy that it is the reader who must “grapple with competing hypotheses” (254). It is this engagement of the reader through challenging his critical faculties that Sullivan sees as the basis of Franklin’s dialectic structure, “in effect, training and encouraging his readers to think independently–rather than to follow slavishly and uncritically the precepts of others” (255). By presenting the reader with conflicting arguments, Sullivan maintains, Franklin forces the reader to draw conclusions independently, thus providing the reader with both the example and the experience of critical thinking.

Edward J. Gallagher in his “The Rhetorical Strategy of Franklin’s ’Way to Wealth’” maintains that rhetorically the frame of the essay is the most important element in presenting Franklin’s emphasis on the word/action dichotomy. He points out that the maxims are not aimed immediately at the reader but instead their effect is filtered through Poor Richard and the reader himself as “interested spectators,” which distances the reader from the core of the action (475). Gallagher posits that “[i]n this manner, Franklin effectively ’moves’ the reader without immediately confronting him directly” (476). Further, through the contrast of the audience who does not follow Father Abraham’s advice and Poor Richard who embodies it, “Franklin disposes the reader to acknowledge the truth and practicality of Poor Richard’s sayings before the didactic purpose of the essay is evident” (476). Gallagher notes that the opening image of Poor Richard “disarms the reader by setting up false relationships and by generating a spurious tension” concerning Richard’s piqued vanity over the lack of acclaim by other authors (477). Gallagher sees that the real tension is between “the profit of words over the pleasure of words, action over language, substance over shadow” and that the more than fifty uses of “says” contrast with the one use of “does” with which the essay ends (478). He examines the entire structure of the work, paragraph by paragraph, in order to support his thesis concerning the tension between these opposing forces, concentrating heavily on the final paragraph of Franklin’s work, which he says is “designed to … involve the reader with the thematic issues of the speech,” although the body of the essay “rhetorically dwarfs this climax” (483). Richard’s decision to act on the advice in contrast to the rest of the audience, Gallagher points out, shifts the emphasis to the reader in the only didactic statement of the essay, a didacticism which is masked so that the reader does not recoil from the message, but rather implicitly affirms it, impelling him to action.

Thus, the critics all see a multiplicity in the levels of meaning in Franklin’s preface, but they each have a different view of what elements are the most important in presenting Franklin’s underlying message. Most critics focus on the distinction Franklin makes between passively listening to the maxims and actively applying them. In his Poor Richard persona Franklin was able to demonstrate the gulf between the aphorisms’ uselessness as mere repetitions, where they could not effect any change in those who approved yet ignored their advice, and their usefulness when acted upon as Richard does. The proverbs in “The Way to Wealth” were carefully selected to present Franklin’s ethical philosophy concerning the new age of “economic redemption,” as Steele calls it (279), centering on industry and frugality. However, Franklin well understood the distinction between disseminating this code of economic ethics and applying it. He crafts the last paragraph to bring to fruition all the words of the preceding essay in a single action. More importantly, through presenting oppositions among the proverbs themselves and between their impact on the audience as a whole and Richard in particular, Franklin forces the reader to choose between conflicting ideas, engaging the reader in active participation and reinforcing the basis on which the preface rests. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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