On Ben Franklin’s Virtues by D.H. Lawrence

Intention: Lawrence’s intention in this essay is to criticize Ben Franklin’s self-improvement essay. He responds to Franklin’s plan for achieving perfection and explains why it will not work.

-Lawrence’s tone throughout the essay is sarcastic and disrespectful toward Franklin and his ideas. His dislike for Franklin’s ideas is shown through this tone and when he refers to Franklin as, “this cunning little Benjamin” and says, “Old Daddy Franklin will show you.” The fact that he refers to Franklin in this demeaning tone helps Lawrence achieve his intention.

-Two effective quotes that get Lawrence’s intention across and appeals to pathos are, ”I am a moral animal. But I am not a moral machine. I don’t work with a little set of handles or levers.” and “Man is a moral animal. All right. I am a moral animal. And I’m going to remain such. I’m not going to turn into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me.” These quotes clearly show Lawrence’s point of view and explain why Franklin’s plan for perfection will not work. He claims that man is a moral animal, which means they can’t be controlled and made perfect by simply following Franklin’s plan. Lawrence also appeals to pathos with these quotes; he admits that he is not perfect and that he won’t let anyone change him into something he’s not. These are feelings that the audience can relate to and may cause them to side with Lawrence on the issue at hand.

-Lawrence asks a few rhetorical questions that cause the audience to think about their own lives and are effective in achieving his intention. He asks, “Which of the various me’s do you propose to educate, and which do you propose to suppress?” Here, Lawrence points out that he has different sides of himself and he doesn’t always get to choose which one is valued over the other. Instead, society chooses the side that is most acceptable to everyone else or the most perfect version. Later in the essay, he asks, “Who are you? How many selves have you? And which of these selves do you want to be? Is Yale College going to educate the self that is in the dark of you, or Harvard College?” These questions cause the audience to examine their own lives and relate it to the topic at hand, which is also an appeal to pathos. Lawrence is attempting to make the audience question how realistic it would be to try to perfect every version and every side of themselves, which would then make them side with him and disagree with Franklin’s plan for perfection.

— Kayla Gay

Metaphor and simile: Lawrence opens with a philosophical demeanor, describing, “The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it.” Readers are stimulated by this metaphor to think deeper about the soul of man and what it can actually be defined as. He continues to speak about Franklin in a demeaning way, saying, “He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock.” By calling him a barnyard animal, the reader perceives Lawrence’s attitude towards Franklin, which is clearly negative.

Style: By addressing Benjamin Franklin on a first name basis as “Ben”, “Benjamin”, and somewhat ironically as “Doctor Franklin”, readers note that Lawrence is familiar and possibly even has met Franklin. This establishes a connection between the subject, Franklin, and speaker, Lawrence. He is short, “I do not like him,” and upfront with his judgement and opinions.

Ethos: This sense of honesty provides ethos to Lawrence because although he is criticizing Franklin’s virtues, he is upfront and calm, saying, “Here is my creed. This is what I believe.” The straightforward language and personal opinions are true and believable of Lawrence since they are his own.
–Sophie Needham

Lawrence uses the pronoun “you” often when referring to his audience. However, the “you” he is referring to changes throughout the piece. At first when Lawrence claims, “Which of them are you going to perfect?” he is posing the question to Benjamin Franklin. Later in the piece, Lawrence says, “I defy you, oh society,” which means that at that point, Lawrence was referring to society as the “you.” And later, when Lawrence asks, “Who am I talking to? Who are you, at the other end of this patience?” the “you” becomes his general audience. This universality of the pronoun “you” shows the shifting audience of the piece and therefore the shifting intention of the piece. At first, when addressing Benjamin Franklin, Lawrence’s intention is to disagree with Franklin’s previous piece. When addressing society as a whole, Lawrence’s intention is to defy society’s strict standards. And when addressing his general audience, Lawrence’s intention is to create and explain a new set of rules to live by which he hopes his general audience will adopt.

A strong use of arrangement in this piece is the parallelism between Lawrence’s set of rules and Franklin’s original set of rules. Lawrence uses the same structure when introducing his rules, listing all 13 rules in the exact order and manner that Franklin did. However, the difference lies in the rules themselves. In the explanation of each virtue, Lawrence often directly contradicts Franklin’s explanations. For example, when expounding upon the virtue of cleanliness, Franklin wrote, “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation,” while Lawrence wrote, “Don’t be too clean. It impoverishes the blood.” This direct contradiction while using similar arrangement is a bold illustration of Lawrence’s intention. It shows how strongly Lawrence opposes Franklin’s ideas and his entire “Arriving at Perfection” work as a whole. And by using the reasonable and almost scientific structure that Franklin chose to use in his own piece, Lawrence creates a mocking tone. He is indirectly mocking Franklin’s orderly and simple approach to achieving something as lofty and unattainable as moral perfection.

In his closing line, Lawrence writes, “There’s my list. I have been trying dimly to realize it for a long time, and only America and old Benjamin have at last goaded me into trying to formulate it.” By ending with this and phrasing it as such, Lawrence creates the impression that Franklin’s stupidity and America’s acceptance of Franklin’s stupidity are burdens upon Lawrence which forced him to write this piece in order to correct Franklin and lift those burdens. It paints Lawrence as an unwilling savior who wrote this piece out of the good of his heart in order to correct Franklin’s erroneous ways and ensure America was not misguided by Franklin’s erroneous ways. In this way, Lawrence gains ethos as he makes himself appear more competent and knowledgeable than his opponent, Benjamin Franklin. This then helps further Lawrence’s intention to disprove/disagree with Franklin’s “Arriving at Perfection” piece.

–  Olivia Hatch


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