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Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were his fellow Founders and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called "the middling people." Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and through his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens who learned to be tolerant of the varied beliefs and dogmas of their neighbors.
Franklin has a particular resonance in 21st century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution. We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use a Palm Pilot, sharing the business plan for a new venture or discussing Bill Clinton's foibles and George Bush's foreign policy. He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi or about a farmer's daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, a pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues and spiritual values.
Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and congenial life but not an exalted existence based on great spiritual passions. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, religious fanatics and other bashers of modernity and the bourgeoisie. His admirers look upon Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in today's world.
Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.
His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine."
It is useful for us to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.