History, History Column

Ben Franklin & COVID-19


By Sarah Becker

Copyright ©2020 Sarah Becker

Ben Franklin & COVID-19

“We may be done with COVID-19, but COVID-19 is not done with us,” NIH Director Francis Collins noted not long ago.  The rapidly transmitting coronavirus has taken hold and the number of cases, of deaths per capita endures.

“COVID-19 is extraordinarily widespread,” the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Deborah Birx said in early August.  “Particularly asymptomatic spread in people under 30.”  The number of American children infected as of August 13: 338,000.

  America, by all measures, has yet to successfully slow COVID-19’s spread.  California’s caseload now exceeds New York’s.  No effective vaccine exists; vaccine hesitancy has yet to be mulled and too many refuse to regularly wear protective face masks.  Or maintain 6’ of social distance.

How in this COVID-19 era is success defined?  Today’s success literature draws heavily on history.  “Benjamin Franklin [1706-1790] was a close observer of human conduct, and recognized at an early age that certain attitudes and behaviors are more conducive to success and happiness than others,” author Steven Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “Much of the success literature of the past 50 years…was filled with social image consciousness and quick fixes—with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems…but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface again.”

“Almost all of the success literature in the first 150 years…focused on what could be called the Character Ethic—things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty and the Golden Rule,” Covey explained.  “Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is representative of that literature.”

“The Character Ethic taught that there are basic principles of effective living, and that people can only experience true success…as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character,” Covey continued.  “But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to…the Personality Ethic, success being more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors.”

“When I was a Boy, I met with a Book intitled Essays to do Good, which I think was written by your Father [Boston Puritan Cotton Mather, 1663-1728],” Benjamin Franklin wrote Samuel Mather in 1784.  “[S]everal Leaves of it were torn out: But the Remainder gave me such a Turn of Thinking as to have an Influence on my Conduct thro’ Life; for I have always set a greater Value on the Character of a Doer of Good, than on any other kind of Reputation; and if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful Citizen, the Publick owes the Advantage of it to that Book…[Your father] was a Man that never miss’d any Occasion of giving Instruction, and he once said to me, You are young and have the World before you; STOOP as you go through it, and you will miss many hard Thumps.  This Advice, thus beat into my head has frequently been of use to me, and often I think of it when I see Pride mortified….”

“[Franklin] observed that happiness seemed to be more related to what went on within a person than without,” Covey concluded.  “He had also come to believe that success could be better measured by the good a person does than by any other means…There is also the intrinsic security that comes as a result of effective interdependent living.”

Benjamin Franklin—one of the most admired men of the Enlightenment, America’s Voltaire—was the youngest of ten children and had little formal schooling.  He was born on Boston’s Milk Street, the son of a soap- and candle-maker.  Yet Franklin, a retired printer at age 42; a scientist and inventor, became one of America’s greatest statesmen.

What are Franklin’s twelve guiding virtues?  They are: [1] There is no happiness but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct.  Virtue [defined as moral excellence and goodness] is the best preservative of health as it prescribes temperance.  [2] Acquiring the qualities of virtue requires a good plan and consistent effort.  [3] Religion is a powerful regulator of human conduct.

“I believe in one God, creator of the Universe,” Franklin penned in 1790.  “That he governs it by his Providence.  That he ought to be worshipped.  That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children…[V]ital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue.”

[4] Correct action is dependent upon correct opinion.  [5] Motives of personal gain tend to be opposite of one’s true self-interest.  [6] Where truth and honesty are wanting, everything is wanting.  [7] The proper acquisition and use of money may be a blessing, but the opposite is always a curse.  [8] It is, by far, much easier to preserve health than to regain it.

“When we are young, and sometimes when older, we fail to appreciate the importance of good health and what it takes to preserve it,” Franklin said.  “To the extent a person is careless…or foolish, in doing things injurious to himself he will detract so much from his potential for happiness.  Prudence, temperance, moderation, and self-discipline are those virtues best suited for fostering physical and mental health.”

  [9] Happiness springs immediately from the mind.  [10] Life is immeasurably more satisfying to those who get along well with others than to those who do not.  [11] Of all human relationships, the most enduring and satisfying are those of family.  [12] In the process of aging and dying the fruits of a virtuous life are most sensibly felt.  The latter reminds one of cancer survivor and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; deceased Congressman and civil rights activist John R. Lewis [D-GA], as well as the more than 5.5 million Americans unmercifully stricken with COVID-19.  The number of infected inhabitants climbed from 4 million to 5 million in only 14 days.

“Liberty is…the parent of virtue,” Virginia colonist Arthur Lee exclaimed in 1769.  Let us exercise our freedoms, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” sensibly.

    In the 1890s Alexandria’s Leadbeater family placed a bust of Benjamin Franklin in their Apothecary Shop.  Why?  The family admired not only Franklin’s interest in science, but also his character.  To the extent that Franklin opposed slavery it was on the pragmatic ground that slavery encouraged idleness.

“The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon,” Franklin told Joseph Priestley in 1780.  “It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter…all Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard.  O that moral Science were in as fair a way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity!”  Scientists only partially understand the particularities of COVID-19 as of now.

Economists typically define a public good as “a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society either by government, a private individual, or organization.”  The Encyclopedia Britannica further defines such as nonexcluable and nondepletable.  A public good is nondepletable “if one’s individual enjoyment of the good does not diminish the amount of the good available to others.”  Clean air is a public good, polluted air is a public bad.

COVID-19 is mostly transmitted by droplet spread [sneeze or cough], including oral contact.  Think of the infected droplets as air borne pollutants of a type—a public health matter for which corrective action is needed.  Individuals, their families and communities can benefit, will benefit when the Center for Disease Control’s collective public action goals are achieved.  In the case of COVID-19, when all except children under two years regularly wear protective face masks—we wash our hands often and maintain 6’ or more of social distance.

“There should be universal wearing of masks,” NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci suggests.  Illinois is the first state to make “it a felony for assault on workers enforcing mask rules.”  Pennsylvania and New Jersey have also put punitive measures in place.

Together we can defeat this disease!  Thereby reducing COVID-19’s infection rate; your and others pandemic-related stresses.  The attitudinal changes, the behavioral changes needed to protect the public’s health are yours to ensure.  The University of Washington’s COVID-19 tracking station estimates U.S. deaths will reach 300,000 by December unless “more people wear face masks.”

  America reached its highest single day COVID-19 death count in mid-August.  Be a Doer of Good.  Benjamin Franklin’s twelve virtues are a prescription for life.  The U.S. death count as of August 13: 166,000+.  “Death takes no bribes,” Franklin affirmed.

Be part of the pandemic’s solution!  However inconvenient, tyrannical, or inopportune face masks may seem.  The competing flu season draws near.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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