“Because if I have offended them by acting right , I can, whenever I please, remove their Displeasure, by acting wrong . Tho’ at present I have not the least Inclination to be in their good Graces on those Terms.”
Thomas Penn, son of William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony and one of two brothers who considered themselves the Proprietors of the colony, in 1757 reacted with disdain when Benjamin Franklin was retained as an agent to embark on a diplomatic journey to England. Franklin’s voyage represented a real threat to the brothers Penn. More especially, it represented a threat to their finances, since their father had negotiated with the Crown to tax their holdings at a lower rate than the commoners in the colony. The brothers Penn, in their own view, were entitled to the tax breaks based on Pennsylvania’s original 1681 charter, which granted their father the status of True and Absolute Proprietor. The trouble arose when the Pennsylvania Assembly disagreed with the notion and sought remedy directly from the Crown by sending Franklin as their agent. The power of Benjamin Franklin’s personality and his keen insight into the collective mindset of the Colonies threatened to persuade the Court in London to effect a change. In an especially candid letter to the London-based Thomas Penn, the Penn’s provincial secretary wrote about his fear that Franklin’s visit could be the family’s financial undoing. He wrote: “Certain it is that Benjamin Franklin’s view is to effect a change of Government, and considering the popularity of his character and the reputation gained by his Electrical Discoveries which will introduce him into all sorts of Company he may prove a Dangerous Enemy. Dr. Fothergill and Mr. Collinson can introduce him to the Men of most influence at Court and he may underhand give impressions to your prejudice. In short Heaven and Earth will be moved against the Proprietors.” Penn should have listened. Benjamin Franklin was a powerful and popular figure in America for damned good reasons. Not only did he have the sort of mind that could unravel even the most complex of natural riddles, his genius extended to the political sphere as well. He had an uncanny grasp of the American sentiment at the time, and he had the wit, intellect, and wisdom to communicate it. Franklin also had the sort of values and character that made it nearly impossible for others to ignore him. He achieved a degree of popularity through his involvement in civic projects such as the improvement of infrastructure, the creation of volunteer fire departments, the development of a public library, and his discoveries about lightning and how to keep it from burning down colonial towns that rivaled the superstardom of today. Between Franklin’s influence and his intellect, the provincial secretary’s assessment couldn’t have been more spot-on. Thomas Penn, however, saw it differently. He replied, “I think I wrote you before that Mr. Franklin’s popularity is nothing here, and that he will be looked very coldly upon by great People, there are very few of any consequence that have heard of his Electrical Experiments, those matters being attended to by a particular Sett of People, many of whom of the greatest consequence I know well, but it is quite another sort of People, who are to determine the Dispute between us.” One has to believe that Penn was at least part bluster and that he very clearly understood just how dangerous Benjamin Franklin would be to his interests, but he put on a show all the same. Franklin’s thoughts on the matter were expressed with his usual flair in the quote I chose to open this essay: “If I have offended them by acting right, I can, whenever I please, remove their Displeasure, by acting wrong . Tho’ at present I have not the least Inclination to be in their good Graces on those Terms.”
The rest of that particular story is worth knowing and worth studying, and I may well come back to it in future essays, but the beginning of the journey matters most in today’s installment of this Journal. What matters most for now is what it means to “act right.” To act right is to first think right. Right thinking is what aligns us with objective truth and gives our own inner compass needle a True North at which to point. After thinking right, we must learn to speak right. Speaking right not only allows our thoughts to form into words and tangible ideas upon which we can act, but also to test those thoughts against opposing ideas. Right speech allows the identification of ego, of bias, and of mistakes in our reasoning. With these two things in alignment with reality, right action can follow.
The subject matter I’d like to discuss today requires knowing the difference between being an individual and being what Howard Roark, another Ayn Rand character, referred to as a “Second-Hander.” Fundamentally, the difference lies in why you choose to live. An individual is someone who has chosen to live, to work, to play, to want, to seek, and to fulfill their own desires and to do so to their own full potential. A Second-Hander is someone who has chosen to live for the impressions of others, for their praise and their admiration, for greatness in the eyes of others. For the individual, greatness comes through achievement. The doing of the thing, the accomplishment of the goal, the victory after the struggle – these things hold meaning and purpose for the individual. For the Second-Hander, what matters is the credit. Second-Handers will take credit for the accomplishments of others, knowing they themselves are mediocre. They do not care what is true but concern themselves with what others think is true. They do not care about ability, but about relationships. They are not concerned with merit, but with influence. To the Second-Hander, achievement is not the goal, nor even really a passing concern. What matters to him is prestige, admiration, reputation. Franklin knew this inherently. He understood that he was dealing with a bunch of Second-Handers, more concerned with maintaining prestige than with morality or justice or the rights of Man. He knew it, and he shunned it wholly. Continuing with the description of the Second-Handers as expressed by Howard Roark, one has to notice how they will accept nearly anything except a man that stands alone. They harbor a special, insidious kind of hatred for him. The independent man kills them, because they do not exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know. Notice the malignant kind of resentment against any idea that propounds independence. Notice the malice toward the independent man. Benjamin Franklin certainly knew the nature of the men he was dealing with, and he chose to do right rather than to cater to or appease the Second-Handers.
The very nature of the hatred directed toward independent minds should be the first benchmark of what is right. It is a waypost that signals we’ve embarked on the proper course. When you see the assembled forces of government and media aligned to tell you not to think about a thing, when you see the authorities attempting to compel and to punish a form of free thought, aim your spotlight into those places and search in earnest. When you see them banning books and censoring thoughts, when you see them stripping the news of stories that do not fit a given narrative or taking down posts from social media sites that offer different perspectives, seek those things out by all other means and examine them. Truth doesn’t fear contradiction. Reality is unconcerned with attempts at redefining it. Good ideas are able to withstand competition and criticism. When you are looking at something real, something true, you see it right there alongside its critics. When you are looking at something manipulated or false, truth must be obscured in order for it to be accepted by the masses. Bad ideas collapse under their own weight when they are forced to share space with reason and rationality and free thought. What rational person would be unable to see the flaws in radical racism when racist notions are forced to share space with an ideology of personal liberty? What person could not determine the immorality of theft and enslavement if theft and enslavement were forced to compete directly with the morality of real justice and true morality? In order for those reprehensible ideas to exist as viable alternatives, they cannot be allowed to share space with freedom of thought. They cannot be the subject of independent, individual reason. An independent mind that places no value on the opinions of the masses in determining right from wrong sees plainly what is right. That’s why you see such concerted effort to censor, such malignant animosity for questioning and debate, such dogged commitment to snuffing out any dissent. Knowing this, the first step in doing what is right is to absolutely refuse to submit to the censorship of your mind. Refuse against all consequences to give up your reason. Refuse to live under the insanity of other people’s validation and approval in defining who you are and how you choose to live. Be independent in your thoughts, words, and deeds. Never succumb to the mindset of the Second-Hander.
The very next lesson we can draw from Benjamin Franklin’s trip to London comes in the application of his reason and intellect. We live in a world of outcomes, of effects. Because of this, “right thinking” only goes so far. Rightspeech and right action are also essential. Benjamin Franklin was, before anything else he ever became, a printer. He understood entirely the value of ideas, and he understood the value of sharing them broadly. His connections and relationships with the printers and publishers of London were strong, and so he took the approach of not waiting until the iron was hot to strike, but of heating the iron through continually striking it. Franklin wasn’t content to carry out meetings with Second-Handers who talked in circles around an issue without ever resolving anything, or who put forth decoy after decoy to keep the truth of an issue from ever making it to the light of day. Instead, he turned to the publishers in London to put forth a prodigious volume of writing in all the most widely-read literary journals of the day. He was not satisfied with “right thinking.” He insisted on “right speech.” He made his thinking clear, along with the case for reason and rationality. He did it broadly and he did it often. He spoke directly to those who would otherwise have to remain content with the censored accounts and manipulated narratives of the Second-Handers. Today, “doing what is right” must involve the same. We cannot be content to observe reality and reason quietly or passively. We have to speak openly about it, and do so without concern for how others decide to view it. We have to discuss, debate, dissect and examine our ideas and the ideas of others. We have to provide our views and beliefs for that same sort of scrutiny, and we have to determine which criticisms hold value. Unlike the Second-Handers, we do not do this for the admiration of others, for a following, or for influence. We don’t do it so others will talk about how smart we are or how eloquently we speak. None of those things matter. As independent minds, we do it because it is a condition of testing our own minds. We do it because it serves to find the failures and shortcomings in our own thinking, to pressure test our ideas and make sure that the conclusions upon which we operate are sound. We do it because without doing it, we may be deluding ourselves into operating on bad premises, out of comfort and ego rather than reason.
It should follow without saying that the third piece of the formula after “right thought” and “right speech” is “right action.” Thought, Word, and Deed aligned in the actions of an independent person become the catalyst for all good change the human species have ever experienced. The willingness of the independent Man to stand alone in front of the hate and animosity of the Second-Handers has a power to excite like minds and inspire more positive change than virtually any other force. The sound of truth in the ears of those who are fed a steady diet of lies and manipulations, the force of a voice speaking because it is a virtue simply to speak and not because it might attract congratulation or admirers, the steadfastness of reason as a beacon in a sea of propaganda – this inspires without requiring a following. A person who conducts himself as a moral, independent person never has to be a leader. He does not require a following or disciples and in fact likely shuns them knowing that his own independent pursuit of happiness should not define theirs. Mahatma Gandhi stated we should “be the change we want to see in the world.” That is as succinct a definition of “right action” as I have ever heard. When the power of your thoughts and words are able to clearly define that change, when your powers of reason can articulate it, ceaselessly, unstoppably, unapologetically go forth and live it. Refuse to submit to the Second-Handers’ systems which you neither need nor subscribe to. Think. It is the thing that makes you a human being. Speak. It is what connects you to the thinking of others and the rational ideas that recognize truth in reality, and exposes the flaws and weaknesses in your own thinking so that you may proceed on solid premises. Act. Action is the choice to live, and done in accordance with what you discover to be right, to live to your fullest potential.
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