Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as an Eighteenth-Century Omnivore's Dilemma

By Medoro, Dana | English Studies in Canada, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as an Eighteenth-Century Omnivore's Dilemma


Medoro, Dana, English Studies in Canada


Custom makes killing, handling, and feeding upon flesh and blood, without distinction, so easy and familiar unto mankind. And the same is to be understood of men killing and oppressing those of their own kind. [...] If men have but Power and Custom on their side, they think all is well.

Thomas Tryon (1634-1703)

My refusing to eat Flesh occasioned an Inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my Singularity.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Although Benjamin Franklin tried his hand at virtually every intellectual pursuit the eighteenth century had to offer--from scientific invention and music to politics and philosophy--he always referred to himself as the "printer of Philadelphia." And although he died a rich and internationally renowned man, he paints a vivid picture of himself in the early pages of The Autobiography as a half-starved runaway stuffing bread into his mouth as he wanders through Philadelphia looking for somewhere to sleep. Having just escaped his violent brother, to whom he had been indentured as a printer's apprentice, Franklin sets into motion what he came to stand for in and beyond the revolutionary era: the promise of a self-made man, free from tyranny and caste. Keeping a sense of this promise or potential at the surface of his recollections, he skilfully crafts his autobiography according to a philosophy of character as something made, broken down, and reassembled, like a composed form of moveable type in a printing press. Unfinished and open to revision--he repeatedly describes his mistakes and infidelities, for instance, as errata, a printer's idiom--Franklin also comes to us in a famously incomplete manuscript, broken off at key points in the narrative and posthumously published. All of these ruptures notwithstanding, a progression of overdetermined analogies connecting meat and violence moves across Franklin's self-presentation. In addition, the powerfully articulated, influential vegetarian philosophies of the eighteenth century align these analogies with the main currents of Enlightenment thought: not only its theories of rational self-creation and governance (versus aristocratic inheritance) but also its repudiation of tyranny over other beings, human and animal.

From Locke, Rousseau, and Buffon to Adam Smith and Voltaire, the foremost thinkers of Franklin's time grappled with or at least addressed the use of animals for food in one way or another, raising questions about human cruelty, economic efficiency, and social hierarchy. (1) In Tristram Stuart's words:

   Vegetarianism circled the full gamut of eighteenth-century
   society.[...] People connected their food with morality and
   they had mechanisms for dealing with the theological context
   of sympathy and the health impacts of meat. In the era
   before the French Revolution, the landscape was already dotted
   with wild men seeking for a union with nature, which the
   Romantics would take to new extremes. From the anatomical
   observations of the scientists to the social anthropology of the
   Rousseauists, man's nature herbivore or carnivore had become
   a central preoccupation of European culture. (255)

These intellectual movements also contributed to the period's revival of interest in Pythagoras, the mythical Greek founder of ascetic vegetarianism and exponent of the doctrine of animal souls. (2) It is Pythagoreanism, as I will ultimately argue, that underlies the rituals of self-improvement and abstinence from meat that are mapped out in The Autobiography, and it is Enlightenment philosophy, with its anti-aristocratic foundations, that in turn links those rituals to Franklin's representation of the American War of Independence. Franklin conceptually pairs the British domination of colonial America with the hierarchical authority of humans over other animals, powerfully leveling both at one point when he reckons with the idea that meat is the murder of a fellow being.

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