Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, statesman, inventor, scholar, businessman, and scientist, was born on January 17, 1706. Franklin strikes me as being about as close as we get to America's Da Vinci. He was a man that seemed to be good at virtually everything. He left his mark on our language (Poor Richard's Almanac), our daily life (lightning rods, fire departments, bifocals), and most especially our country (Founding Father and diplomat extraordinaire).

Franklin always had an inquiring mind. Self-educated, in 1727 he organized a club for philosophical inquiry that he named the Junto (Latin for club). He wrote of it in his Autobiography:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

One spin-off of the Junto was Franklin's later founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. This is America's oldest society for inquiry in science and technology.

The Junto, however, seems to me to be an idea worth reviving. Where in our society today can we find a place where people can talk with friends and colleagues about such a broad range of topics? Most of us find what discussions we can through our work environment. But this is a limited substitute for a group like the Junto.

Recently, I have begun attending meetings of a group called the Socrates Cafe. They are held in many places across the country - coffee shops, book stores, churches - and they are always open to new participants. Socrates Cafe shares some things in common with Franklin's Junto. The meetings consist of groups of people who come together freely to discuss a philosophical questions suggested by the attendees themselves. I find these meetings to generate some great discussions but they do not usually allow inquiries into science and technology. With the rapid advancements in science, perhaps discussions groups are more critical now than ever. We need to be better informed about issues like climate change, energy utilization, nanotechnology and a host of other areas. Something like the Junto may be needed now more than ever. Franklin would have understood completely.

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