Reflections on Old Age, Self-Mastery, and the Resurrection – Ben Franklin, 23 May 1785


Franklin letter to George Whatley, 23 May 1785, from Passy, France

I AM not acquainted with the saying of Alphonsus, which you allude to as a sanctification of your rigidity, in refusing to allow me the plea of old age, as an excuse for my want of exactness in correspondence. What was that saying? You do not, it seems, feel any occasion for such an excuse, though you are, as you say, rising seventy-five. But I am rising (perhaps more properly falling) eighty, and I leave the excuse with you till you arrive at that age; perhaps you may then be more sensible of its validity, and see fit to use it for yourself.

I must agree with you, that the gout is bad, and that the stone is worse. I am happy in not having them both together, and I join in your prayer, that you may live till you die without either. But I doubt the author of the epitaph you send me was a little mistaken, when he, speaking of the world, says, that

“he ne’er cared a pin
What they said or may say of the mortal within.”

It is so natural to wish to be well spoken of, whether alive or dead, that I imagine he could not be quite exempt from that desire; and that at least he wished to be thought a wit, or he would not have given himself the trouble of writing so good an epitaph to leave behind him. Was it not as worthy of his care, that the world should say he was an honest and a good man? I like better the concluding sentiment in the old song, called The Old Man’s Wish, wherein, after wishing for a warm house in a country town, an easy horse, some good authors, ingenious and cheerful companions, a pudding on Sundays, with stout ale, and a bottle of Burgundy, etc., etc., in separate stanzas, each ending with this burthen,

“May I govern my passions with absolute sway,
Grow wiser and better as my strength wears away,
Without gout or stone, by a gentle decay;”

he adds,

“With a courage undaunted may I face my last day,
And, when I am gone, may the better sort say,
In the morning when sober, in the evening when mellow;
He ’s gone, and has not left behind him his fellow;
For he governed his passions,” &c.

But what signifies our wishing? Things happen, after all, as they will happen. I have sung that wishing song a thousand times, when I was young, and now find, at fourscore, that the three contraries have befallen me, being subject to the gout and the stone, and not being yet master of all my passions. Like the proud girl in my country, who wished and resolved not to marry a parson, nor a Presbyterian, nor an Irishman; and at length found herself married to an Irish Presbyterian parson.

You see I have some reason to wish, that, in a future state, I may not only be as well as I was, but a little better. And I hope it; for I, too, with your poet, trust in God. And when I observe, that there is great frugality, as well as wisdom, in his works, since he has been evidently sparing both of labor and materials; for by the various wonderful inventions of propagation, he has provided for the continual peopling his world with plants and animals, without being at the trouble of repeated new creations; and by the natural reduction of compound substances to their original elements, capable of being employed in new compositions, he has prevented the necessity of creating new matter; so that the earth, water, air, and perhaps fire, which being compounded form wood, do, when the wood is dissolved, return, and again become air, earth, fire, and water; I say, that, when I see nothing annihilated, and not even a drop of water wasted, I cannot suspect the annihilation of souls, or believe, that he will suffer the daily waste of millions of minds ready made that now exist, and put himself to the continual trouble of making new ones. Thus finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist; and, with all the inconveniences human life is liable to, I shall not object to a new edition of mine; hoping, however, that the errata of the last may be corrected….

Source: Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes, Volume III, 1891; Literature of the Revolutionary Period, 1765–1787.

They Were Believers is researched, compiled, edited and formatted for the Internet (with occasional commentary and explanatory notes) by Steve Farrell, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Self-Educated American.

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