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How to Weigh Your Options and Decide Wisely: Benjamin Franklin’s Pioneering Pros and Cons Framework

A worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making from America’s original prophet of self-improvement.

How to Weigh Your Options and Decide Wisely: Benjamin Franklin’s Pioneering Pros and Cons Framework

When the 29-year-old Charles Darwin made his endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage, he was applying a now common decision-making technique pioneered half a century earlier by another revolutionary mind on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s polymathic Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790).

Not since the Stoics had there been so prolific a prophet of self-improvement as Franklin. From the list of thirteen virtues he penned when he was only twenty to his staggering daily routine to his clever trick for disarming haters, he continually devised and applied various psychological frameworks to just about every problem of existence. By middle age, Franklin’s reputation as a formidable sage of practical wisdom rendered him on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice, many of which he generously and thoughtfully obliged.

Benjamin Franklin (Portrait by David Martin, 1767)

In the late summer of 1772, Franklin received one such plea from a friend — the English scientist, theologian, and liberal political theorist Joseph Priestley, at the time working as minister of the famed Unitarian church Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. On Franklin’s recommendation, the Earl of Shelburne had offered the 39-year-old Priestley a lucrative position as his general assistant, tasked with managing his library and educating his children. Priestley was torn — the appointment would grant him financial stability for the first time in his life and would leave ample time for his scientific investigations, but it would require that he relinquish his ministry and move his family to the Earl’s estate near Bath. Unsure how to proceed, he turned to Franklin for help in navigating the high-stakes conundrum.

Joseph Priestley (Portrait by Ellen Sharp, 1794)

Rather than telling his friend what to choose, Franklin taught him how to choose. His letter, cited in Steven Johnson’s excellent book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (public library), outlined a sort of worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making — the first known instance of a pros and cons framework.

Franklin writes:

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Priestley accepted the position, which proved to be a turning point in the history of science. Less than three years later, in the laboratory the Earl of Shelburne built for him, he went on to conduct the famous experiment in which he focused the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide through a burning glass and discovered oxygen, O2 — a new kind of air Priestley marveled was “five or six times better than common air for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and, I believe, every other use of common atmospherical air.”

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether insightful Farsighted with Descartes on the cure for indecision, Milan Kundera on knowing what we really want, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our intuitions mislead us, and Oliver Burkeman on the psychology of why overplanning and excessive goal-setting limit our happiness and success, then revisit Franklin on the truest source of happiness.

BP

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song…”

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Drawing on his reverence for nature and his reverence for music as the profoundest expression of nature, Whitman composes an invitation to listening that comes alive in this beautiful short film animated by Daniela Shere, narrated by Peter Blegvad, and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Poetry of Perception — Harvard’s eight-part series exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts, which also brought to life Emily Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience.

SONG OF MYSELF
Section 26

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Complement with artist Allen Crawford’s splendid illustrated rendition of Song of Myself, artist Margaret C. Cook’s stunning illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass, a rare recording of Orson Welles reading from the Whitman classic, and one of James Earl Jones, then revisit Whitman himself on creativity, democracy, the wisdom of trees, the building blocks of character, his most direct definition of happiness, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Wordsworth on Genius and the Creative Responsibility of Elevating Taste

“To create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Wordsworth on Genius and the Creative Responsibility of Elevating Taste

What is genius — what is its nature and its proof? For Beethoven, genius was based on a foundation of talent, but required additional “freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit.” “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Kerouac proclaimed in weighing whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. Schopenhauer furnished what remains the finest metaphor for the difference between genius and talent. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. And yet genius — that singular creative force capable of bowling us over with truth and beauty, leaving us transformed and enlarged — continues to fascinate and puzzle with its elusive essence.

This eternal question of what genius actually is and how we measure it — one of the major themes in Figuring — is what the Romantic poet laureate of human consciousness, William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770–April 23, 1850), examines in a prefatory essay from the 1815 edition of the two-volume set Poems by William Wordsworth (public library | free ebook).

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth — who fervently championed the shared bedrock of genius in science and the arts — writes:

Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius, in the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honor, and benefit of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown.

True genius, he argues, does not merely bestow a work of art or a discovery upon a passive audience but cultivates in that audience the very capacity for understanding, appreciating, and being transformed by the product of genius — something another great poet, Joseph Brodsky, would echo generations later in his meditation on how to develop one’s taste in reading. A century and a half before the pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner asserted in his analysis of the psychology of storytelling that “the great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer,” Wordsworth adds:

What is all this but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the Poet? Is it to be supposed that the Reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian Prince or General — stretched on his Palanquin, and borne by his Slaves? No, he is invigorated and inspirited by his Leader, in order that he may exert himself, for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.

Complement with James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Albert Camus on creating dangerously.

BP

Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

“A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”

Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

I have worried, and continue to worry, that we have relinquished the reflective telescopic perspective for the reactionary microscopic perspective. When we surrender the grandest, often unanswerable questions to the false certitudes of the smallest, we lose something essential of our humanity. When we aim the spears of those certitudes at one another, more interested in being right than in understanding, we lose something essential. How did we get to a place where to have an opinion is more culturally rewarded than to have a question? Hannah Arendt admonished against this dehumanizing loss decades ago in her trailblazing Gifford lecture on the life of the mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

How to guard against the decivilizing tyranny of unthinking opinion over perspectival thought is what the English poet, essayist, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, and art critic G. K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — an imperfect man, to be sure, but also a brilliant one belonging to that rare species of truth-seers — addressed in the opening chapter of his 1905 essay collection Heretics (free ebook | public library).

G.K. Chesterton

Writing decades before philosopher Simone Weil contemplated the dangers of our self-righteous for and against, Chesterton — who feasted on paradox and employed a style of rhetoric he called “uncommon sense,” subverting popular arguments to reveal their deficiencies — writes:

In former days… the man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right… The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.

[…]

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter.

Chesterton laments that in the exponential narrowing of focus toward more and more hard-held opinions about smaller and smaller dimensions of life, we have increasingly lost perspective — that telescopic perspective — of the largest, most enduring, most important questions of existence. He writes:

Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations… A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything.

Chesterton — who vehemently and publicly opposed eugenics when Britain was passing the Mental Deficiency Act and considering sterilizing the mentally ill — admonishes against the perils of surrendering the grand perspective. Noting that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” he considers the two great and opposite evils of bigotry and fanaticism — “bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration” — and asserts that the only thing worse than both, “more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic,” is “a man with a definite opinion.” What we lose by electing opinion over perspective, he argues, is cosmic truth:

When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.

[…]

But there are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.

Art by Ben Newman from A Graphic Cosmogony

In a sentiment of chilling relevance more than a century later, he adds:

This repudiation of big words and big visions has brought forth a race of small men in politics… Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral.

This tyranny of definite opinions about the smallest questions, at the expense of broad perspective on the largest, effects a kind of worship of blind practicality over philosophy — the field most directly tasked with the seeing of truth. Chesterton writes:

It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality… Nothing in this universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom. A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

Six decades later, John F. Kennedy would hold up art as the social corrective for politics. But art can only be a corrective, Chesterton argues, if it manages not to succumb to the same opinion-constricted narrowing of view that paralyzes and corrupts politics:

A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.

In a sobering allegory, he illustrates this deeply damaging loss of perspective at the altar of opinion and petty practicality:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good — ” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Complement this particular portion of Heretics, much of which has stood the test of time and opinion in the century-some since, with René Descartes on opinion vs. reason and the key to a wakeful mind, John Dewey on the art of critical reflection in the age of instant opinions, and Susan Sontag on the danger of opinions and the conscience of words.

BP

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