In this edition, we take a look at chiasmus in the life and work of one of the most
interesting characters in world history, Benjamin Franklin. If you enjoy
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Born in puritanical Boston in 1706, Benjamin Franklin moved to the more tolerant
atmosphere of Philadelphia in his early 20s. There he achieved unparalleled popularity
as the author and publisher of Poor Richard's Almanack, international fame as a
scientist and inventor, and historical immortality as one of America's Founding Fathers.
Nowadays, Franklin is associated in the popular consciousness with Poor Richard's Almanack.
Published annually from 1733 to 1758, the Almanack was sold in all thirteen colonies,
eventually selling more than 500,000 copies a year, an astonishing figure at that time.
Franklin's almanac was similar to many of the then-popular English and American almanacs, mixing
an assortment of practical information on weather, health, food, and cooking with numerous
aphoristic or epigrammatic sayings. In Franklin's case, the sayings came from a fictional
creation by the name of "Poor Richard" Saunders, a hard-working Quaker weatherman with a shrewish
wife named Brigitte. Many of Poor Richard's sayings were taken, without attribution, from
ancient and contemporary European writers. Nowadays, such blatant pilfering would ruin a
writer's reputation, but different rules were in effect back then.
As a result of his publishing activities, Franklin was extremely well-known throughout colonial
America, and eventually emerged as the most popular spokesman for independence. His immense
popularity was not restricted to this side of the Atlantic. When Franklin was sent to Paris
as ambassador to France in 1776, he created quite a stir when he arrived without the fancy silk
and velvet attire normally associated with diplomats. Instead, he showed up wearing a
beaver-skin cap, which quickly became known in fashion-conscious Paris as "le chapeau à la Franklin."
Soon, beaver-skin caps became all the rage in Europe, almost to the point of threatening extinction
of the animals in the New World.
In the late 1700s, the English potter Josiah Wedgwood produced a ceramic pin containing Franklin's
likeness. It quickly became one of the hottest-selling items in Europe. He was the best-known
and most popular American—here and abroad—in the latter part of the 18th century. With good reason,
he is sometimes called "The First American." When he died in 1790, 20,000 people passed by his casket,
at a time when the population of Philadelphia was only 40,000. Benjamin Franklin was a man of the world.
But even more, he was a world of a man.
"When I was young and had time to read,
I had no books.
Now that I am old and have the books,
I have no time to read."
Franklin's almanac became popular because the sayings struck a familiar chord with so many people.
This saying had special relevance for Franklin. The tenth child of a poor Boston candle-maker, he
completed only two grades of schooling before being sent to work to help support his family. After
moving to Philadelphia and establishing himself as a printer, Franklin's fortunes changed dramatically,
and he became a wealthy man. A voracious reader, his personal library grew to over 4,000 books,
the largest private collection in the colonies. He was referred to as "Doctor Franklin" because
of honorary degrees he received from a number of universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Oxford.
"Where there is
a marriage without love,
there will be a love
This observation comes from a line penned more than a century earlier by the English writer Thomas Fuller
in The Holy State and the Profane State (1642): "They that marry where they do not love, will love
where they do not marry." The line has been plagiarized by many others since then.
"Grief often treads
Upon the heels of pleasure,
Marry'd in haste,
We oft repent at leisure;
Some by experience
Find these words misplaced,
Marry'd at leisure,
They repent in haste."
Franklin portrayed Poor Richard as a henpecked husband with serious reservations about the institution of marriage.
His supposed views on the subject are reflected in this poem, which asserts that it doesn't make much difference if
you marry in haste or at leisure, you'll end up repenting either way. The verse was completely stolen from
English writer William Congreve (1670-1729), who wrote in his 1693 play, The Old Bachelor:
Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure:
Marry'd in haste, we may repent at leisure.
Some by experience find those words mis-plac'd:
At leisure marry'd, they repent in haste.
Even though many sayings in the Almanack poked fun at marriage, Franklin himself believed in the institution.
He once wrote: "The married state, after all our jokes, is the happiest. Man and woman have each of them qualities
and tempers, in which the other is deficient. Single and separate, they are not a complete human being; they
are like odd halves of scissors."
"Mankind are very odd creatures:
one half censure what they practice,
the other half practice what they censure;
the rest always say and do as they ought."
Franklin was fond of pointing out the foibles of mankind. If you conclude from this observation that all people
are guilty of the two forms of hypocrisy he describes, you're getting the message he intended.
"'Tis against some Men's Principle to pay Interest,
and seems against others' Interest to pay the Principal."
This is another example of plagiarism on the part of Franklin. The words are virtually identical to a remark attributed
to English writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). Sheridan, although a well-known writer and one of the wittiest
orators in Parliament, was a horrible manager of his financial affairs. Forever in debt, he once had to get the
family silver out of hock to hold a formal dinner at his house. Another time he handed over an IOU to a creditor and
supposedly said, "Thank God that's settled!" And still another time, Sheridan's tailor, who'd grown tired of asking Sheridan
to pay off his bill, pleaded, "At least you could pay me the interest on the principal." Sheridan replied, "It is not my
interest to pay the principal; nor is it my principle to pay the interest."
"Eat to live,
and not live to eat."
Here, Franklin passes along ancient advice about the role eating should play in peoples' lives. The original chiastic
connection between "eating to live" and "living to eat" was made by Socrates, who is quoted by Diogenes Laertius in his
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers as saying, "Other men live to eat, I eat to live." Cicero turned the observation
into a piece of advice, suggesting, "One should eat to live, not live to eat."
"He does not possess wealth;
it possesses him."
The theme of money possessing people rather than vice versa is also an ancient one. The first example I've found comes
from the 3rd century B. C. Greek writer Bion, who said about a wealthy man who was noted for his miserliness, "He has not
acquired a fortune; the fortune has acquired him." As with the earlier "eat to live" quote, there have been a host
of very similar variations on this theme throughout history, including virtually identical observations from St. Cyprian,
Thomas Jefferson, and Billy Graham.
"Money and man
A mutual friendship show:
Man makes false money
Money makes man so."
While most of Poor Richard's observations came in the form of simple sayings, some came in poetic form, including the
chiastic notion contained in this verse. Franklin dabbled in poetry, but didn't consider himself a poet.
He once wrote:
"I know as well as thee that I am no poet born
It is a trade, I never learnt nor indeed could learn
If I make verses-'tis in spite
Of nature and my stars I write."
Franklin was fond of making observations about money's impact on human beings. One of his most famous was:
"He that is of the opinion that money will do everything
may well be suspected to do everything for money."
This is a slight rephrasing of a remark made by the English statesman and writer George Savile, also known as Lord Halifax, who wrote
in his Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Reflections (1750): "They who are of the opinion that Money will do everything,
may very well be suspected to do everything for Money."
One of Franklin's goals in the Almanack was to promote virtues necessary for leading a wholesome and successful life.
"Resolve to perform what you ought;
perform without fail what you resolve."
This was the saying Franklin used to describe the virtue of "Resolution."
"Where there is hunger, law is not regarded;
and where law is not regarded, there will be hunger."
The point of this saying is that when people are starving, they're likely to disobey the laws, and when laws are disobeyed, the
resulting anarchy will destroy the social fabric of a nation, leading to massive starvation.
"The poor man must walk to get meat for his stomach,
the rich man to get a stomach to his meat."
Franklin is suggesting here that the poor man is so hungry, and the provisions so few and far between, that he must walk great
distances before being able to eat. The rich man, by contrast, is so well-fed that he is does not suffer from hunger.
Therefore, he must walk—that is, get exercise—to work up an appetite.
"The honest man takes pains, and then enjoys pleasures;
the knave takes pleasures, and then suffers pain."
Franklin is referring here to what psychologists today refer to as "the capacity to delay immediate gratification." People
who postpone gratification of their needs experience a certain amount of discomfort early on, in hopes of a more satisfying
payoff later. People who seek immediate gratification feel pleasure early on, but the long-range results are almost always negative.
"You mention that you feel yourself hurt.
Permit me to offer you a maxim,
which has thro' life been of use to me
and may be so to you in preventing imaginary hurts.
It is, always to suppose one's friends may be right
till one finds them wrong;
rather than to suppose them wrong
till one finds them right."
It is the last two lines here that are chiastic. In the observation, Franklin offers a piece of advice we'd all be better off
heeding—when getting feedback from friends, consider them right until proved wrong, instead of the predictable tendency to consider
them wrong until they're proven right.
"Thou can'st not joke an enemy into a friend,
but thou may'st a friend into an enemy."
That is, humor may not win over an enemy, but it can turn a friend against you.
"And we now find that it is not only right
to strike while the iron is hot,
but that it may be very practical to heat it
by continuous striking."
Franklin is speaking as a publisher and newspaper editor here, in which he stresses not only the importance of a story's "timing,"
but also the importance of keeping the story alive by repetition and continuing coverage. The foregoing remark came as
a conclusion to the following sentiment: "Now by press we can speak to nations. And good books and well-written pamphlets
have great and general influence. The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily
in different lights in the newspapers—which are everywhere read—gives a great chance of establishing them."
Below are three similar sayings. Note that in all three, Franklin anticipates the pragmatism we've come to associate with
later American thinkers, like William James:
"Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden,
but it is forbidden because it is hurtful."
"Vicious actions are not hurtful
because they are forbidden,
but forbidden because
they are hurtful."
"Duty is not beneficial because it is commanded,
but is commanded because it is beneficial."
In both sayings, Franklin is saying that things are good or bad not for abstract philosophical or theological reasons, but
because of their consequences. His thinking was far ahead of his time, running almost exactly counter to the
prevailing religious thinking of his time, as reflected in this observation from the Puritan religious leader William Perkins:
"A thing is not first of all reasonable and just, and then afterwards willed by God; it is first of all willed by God, and
thereupon becomes reasonable and just."
Here are two similar, and oft-cited, Franklin quotes:
"Drive thy business,
or it will drive thee."
"Keep care of the shop
and the shop will keep care of you."
In both quotes, Franklin expresses a common chiastic theme: if you aren't in control of things, things will be in control
of you. Once again, Franklin purloins the sentiment from others. In the 1605 play Eastward Ho!,
George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston wrote: "Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee."
"The heart of the fool
is in his mouth,
but the mouth of the wise man
is in his heart."
Franklin's point here is that the fool is always shooting off his mouth, even about heartfelt things that would be
better left unsaid. The wise man, by contrast, keeps his opinions close to his vest—or close to his heart.
Franklin was often a voice of reason in an era when stereotypes and irrational thinking abounded:
"Perhaps if we could examine
the manners of different nations with impartiality,
we should find no people so rude
as to be without any rules of politeness;
nor any so polite
as not to have some remains of rudeness."
Franklin wrote this in a 1784 pamphlet titled Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America. It was a
helpful reminder that the "civilized" people from Europe and the "savages" from North America might have more
in common than frequently thought.
In the remainder of this piece, I'll present a handful of additional Franklin Chiastic quotes, all without
any further commentary from me:
"An old young man will be
a young old man."
"He that is rich need not live sparingly,
and he that can live sparingly need not be rich."
"As charms are nonsense,
nonsense is a charm."
"A brother may not be a friend,
but a friend will always be a brother."
"Ceremony is not civility;
nor is civility ceremony."
"Content makes poor men rich;
discontent makes rich men poor."
"They who have nothing to trouble them,
will be troubled at nothing."
"There's small revenge in words,
but words may be greatly revenged."
"Implied chiasmus" occurs when the words of a popular saying are deliberately reversed. Some popular examples are "A hangover is the wrath
of grapes," Mae West's "A hard man is good to find," and Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies." If you're not
familiar with the term, you can find further information at implied chiasmus.
Some examples of implied chiasmus don't reverse sayings as much as they reverse observations about the natural order of things, or
the way things should be. A good example is the 1915 poem "The Golf Links" from the American poet Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
Cleghorn was passionately devoted to social causes and frequently wrote poems to express her rage at social injustice, as she does
in this stinging portrayal of the evils of child labor. What makes the poem so effective is the powerful reversal of what is
with what should be true—laboring men should be looking out and seeing children at play. In his Dictionary of Quotations,
Bergen Evans called this poem "One of the world's great strokes of irony."
So far, I've found only one example of implied chasms in Franklin's writings, and it is of this latter type:
"I know not which
live more unnatural lives,
or commanding wives."
Here, Poor Richard reverses the "natural" order of things-husbands who command and wives who obey. The sayings of Poor Richard
were often chauvinistic in nature, which made them quite in keeping with the times. There is ample evidence, however, that
Franklin himself did not hold such sexist views (even if he was a bit of a womanizer). He once wrote: "Women who smart
under the tyranny of a bad husband ought to be fixed in revolutionary principles."
This completes our look at chiasmus in the life and works of Benjamin Franklin. In our next edition, we'll take a look at another
chiastic master, the legendary English lexicographer and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson.