Benjamin Franklin, Skepticism, and the Failure of the Enlightenment
May 09, 2017 | Thomas S. Kidd
I am skeptical about “The Enlightenment.” This ideologically freighted term implies the inexorable progress of scientific humanist thought. Beginning in the 18th century, the theory goes, such enlightened thinking triumphed over “dark” religious views. Among the Enlightenment’s many problems today is that classic secularization theory lies in shambles because of religion’s enduring significance.
Nevertheless, it is true that many young men and women in the 18th century did begin to question church authority, especially the reliability of biblical revelation. Ben Franklin, the son of Puritan parents, certainly did so, following his exposure to deist writings as a teenager. Typical of 18th-century skeptics, Franklin never questioned the existence of God, but posited that God could only be known through reason and nature, not (claims of) revelation.
In my new biography of Franklin, I investigate how Franklin’s spiritual journey played out. At one stage in the 1720s, Franklin proposed that we could not know or approach the one Supreme God. Thus, that Supreme God had created multiple smaller gods, who were still enormously powerful, good, and wise. One of these was the god who ruled over our solar system, and toward whom Franklin directed his worship.
Most traditional believers—and even many skeptics—would today find this position deficient, if not laughable. Franklin himself gave polytheism almost no attention for the rest of his career, perhaps a little embarrassed by his youthful musings. But is this polytheistic theory the best that “enlightened reason” can do to lead us to Truth? The problem of reason’s limitations was obvious in the 18th century as well.
As I was working on the Franklin biography, I also read Robert Zaretsky’s compelling book Boswell’s Enlightenment, about the celebrated Scottish writer James Boswell. Boswell and Franklin took a similar path to skepticism: both came out of Calvinist backgrounds, and both became convinced, through the influence of deist authors, that biblical revelation was not trustworthy.
Boswell was temperamentally more of a worrier than Franklin, and he struggled mightily with doubts and fear of death. At times he wondered, as did radical skeptics like David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whether we could really trust our reason as an adequate guide to Truth. Boswell found comfort in the “common sense” arguments of his fellow Scot, Thomas Reid, who insisted that our perception of the external world is reliable because God wired us with reliable senses which are common to mankind.
In our contemporary world, virtually everyone acts as if reason is reliable. But postmodern philosophy has undermined the notion that people everywhere possess the same rational faculties.
Internal, individual guides to Truth—such as reason or our perception of Nature—have not panned out as skeptics had hoped. They understandably wished to move beyond the violence that had marked religious conflicts since the Reformation. But turning within one’s self for the Truth turned out to be as problematic as depending upon revelation. The rationalists and philosophes—those who supposedly could operate with an uncorrupted reason—could not agree among themselves on answers to basic questions. Boswell and France’s Voltaire argued interminably, for instance, about whether the soul existed, and whether it was immortal.
One can certainly understand why skeptics today would pooh-pooh the idea that there is one authoritative revelation in the Bible. But where are the superior options? Rousseau and others advanced devastating critiques of reason, even as Franklin and others tried to lift it up as the new standard. Conceding, as the postmodernists do, that we simply have no access to Truth, is a grim alternative. Even when they deny the existence of Truth, people have an extremely difficult time living as if they really know nothing for certain.
Depending upon revelation hardly solves all disagreements (even between sincere believers). But the philosophical appeal of revelation in addition to reason remains strong. If looking inward for Truth only brings more doubt and confusion, it would be helpful if God stepped into the chaos and gave us authoritative revelation! It would be even better if God helped us to understand revelation by a divine Counselor, and by the faithful teaching of the church. Among the many happy aspects of the Christian faith is the confidence that God, in fact, has made the Truth known in these ways.
This post originally appeared at the Anxious Bench blog.