“13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” 
from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin  

Those who compare themselves to Jesus or Socrates tend not to be hailed for their humility.  

Yet, it is true that the humble path is never obvious or literal, else any fool could stumble upon it with dumb luck. Only after plumbing the lowest depths is man free to rise to the highest places. Only in seeking the highest summit has man ever come to know how little he knows – and how truly low he is. Humility is found in private surprise, often amid rejection by all too certain crowds and authorities alike.  

Jesus conquered death by willingly suffering the worst death imaginable. Socrates found wisdom by coming to know he knew nothing. Perhaps Ben Franklin is onto something with his suggestion to imitate the two. For like Franklin, the Son of God and the father of philosophy were never quite what they seemed to the naked, literal eye.

“There are two kinds of people,” Christopher Hitchens wrote, “those who read Franklin's celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along.” 

Benjamin Franklin still leaves his modern readers guessing with solemnity and mirth. Undoubtedly a man of his time — few epitomized revolutionary Enlightenment thought, innovation and politics like Franklin — he also managed to stand above and apart from it. Franklin’s approach to life seemed like the stuff of ancient wisdom — an 18th-century Solon to Voltaire’s Sophocles — yet his life and legacy continue to furnish the future with fresh interpretations and perspectives.  

Try as we may, we never quite figured Franklin out. Nothing is obvious in him, especially his faith and morals. The famed deist always seems to be winking at us. Indeed, Franklin’s unwritten 14th virtue might as well have read: “Irony: by emulating Mr. Franklin himself one can act contrary to expectations.”  

That brings me to one of Franklin's most famous proposals, one that speaks to our own confused and arrogant age – and one that still inspires debate about America’s status as a Christian nation.  

The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was at an impasse. It was a hot June day and passions inside the convention were beginning to boil over. The central question of representation in the proposed House and Senate remained a festering open sore. Would the votes in the houses of Congress be apportioned according to population or would each state have an equal say? The debate was growing so inflamed between large states and small states that it threatened to break up the convention.  

Enter old Ben Franklin, who decided to surprise the convention with an unexpectedly humble proposal. 

On June 28, 1787, Franklin gave this speech to the Constitutional Convention (emphasis added): 

Mr. President, 

The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other -- our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances. 

In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. -- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? 

I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [H]is notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without [H]is aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without [H]is concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest. 

I therefore beg leave to move -- that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service. 

After sparse debate, Franklin’s proposal for daily prayer was eventually shelved and never passed. Though ultimately rejected, its mere suggestion seemed, like a gadfly, to spur on his colleagues to later compromise. In reaction, Franklin would write at the bottom of his copy of the speech “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”  

What humility I find in that simple, private surprise. One must wonder if Jesus or Socrates were ever surprised so.

Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email joeyclarklive@gmail.com. Follow him on X @TheJoeyClark or watch the radio show livestream.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

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