No matter the contemporary crisis trending on Twitter, from climate change to the US Senate filibuster, people who follow the news have little trouble finding a congenial source of reporting. The writers who worry about polarization, folks like Ezra Klein and Michael Lind, commonly observe the high levels of tribalism that attends journalism and consumption of it. The feat of being skeptical of the other side’s position while turning the same doubts on your own team is apparently in short supply. The consequences of skepticism about disagreeable points of view for the virtues of intellectual curiosity are not good. Increased polarization reduces genuine inquiry to a search for reassurance. Awe or wonder about people opposed to wearing masks or advocates of the Green New Deal is increasingly a missing category, which is too bad because the variety of human experience can be truly breath-taking. H. L. Mencken called Americans the “greatest show on earth.”
One person who excelled in the curiosity recommended above, while also remaining skeptical about many parts of received orthodoxy (religious or otherwise) was Benjamin Franklin. Well known for his scientific experiments, diplomatic assistance during the American Founding, and his departure from the Puritan faith of his parents, Franklin qualifies as a moderate skeptic. Throw in that he was a Deist while a young man on the make in London and his skeptic-credit-score goes up a few points. At the same time, Franklin was relentlessly curious about the world around him.
With his reputation as a man of science (though still an amateur endeavor), Franklin’s curiosity about the natural world should come as no surprise. For instance, on his return to Philadelphia from London in 1726, Franklin passed the time by collecting seaweed. His observations of the leaves led to noting the pelagic crabs that were inside the plant and that possessed “a set of unformed claws” within “a kind of soft jelly.” In his journal Franklin speculated that the crabs’ shell was akin to the outer protection of silkworms and butterflies. Not a major discovery, but this was arguably a surprising level of detail for a young man with nothing but uncertainty about his future.
Another example of curiosity comes from a few years later, after he had set up his print shop. As the inventor of the so-called Franklin Stove, he was curious about heat—in the fireplace, in materials like wood and tile around the fire, but also in fabrics. To calculate which colored cloth absorbed the most heat, he laid patches of different color on snow outside his shop. Franklin discovered that the black patch sunk lower than the red, blue, green, and brown, so low in the snow, in fact, that it sunk “below the Stroke of the Sun’s Rays.”
Franklin was equally curious about human experience and how people interacted in society. This quality extended to religion, an area where Franklin veered from the norms of his day. (He was a god-fearer and approved of Christian morality even while he could never accept theological assertions such as the deity of Christ.) Curiosity about faith and people were vividly evident when Franklin went to hear the famous evangelist, George Whitefield. The preacher had a reputation for preaching to large crowds outdoors (obviously without electronic amplification). Franklin was skeptical. So he conducted another experiment. He could already tell that Whitefield had “a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance.” But how many people could hear him? Franklin did the math:
He preach’d one Evening from the Top of the Court House Steps, which are in the middle of Market Street, and on the West Side of Second Street which crosses it at right angles. Both Streets were fill’d with his Hearers to a considerable Distance. Being among the hindmost in Market Street, I had the Curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the Street towards the River; and I found his Voice distinct till I came near Front Street, when some Noise in that Street, obscur’d it. Imagining then a Semicircle, of which my Distance should be the Radius, and that it were fill’d with Auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty Thousand. This reconcil’d me to the Newspaper Accounts of his having preach’d to 25,000 People in the Fields.
Franklin was not an advocate of organized religion. He did not mock it, though he sometimes ridiculed the ideas and practices of the faithful. Whitefield represented a chief specimen of zealous piety that Franklin, the skeptic, could well have satirized. Instead, his curiosity was as much a part of his initial observation as skepticism. His sense of inquiry about the workings of human affairs overtook his fairly firm ideas about Christianity. For Franklin, Whitefield was more than a specimen of Protestant piety. The evangelist was also a human phenomenon, as much a part of the natural world as seaweed, and Franklin wanted to know more.
Of course, the use of the past to correct the present is tedious and prone to moralistic clichés. Ben Franklin’s combination of curiosity and skepticism does deserve comment, however, since it is increasingly rare among the loudest voices in contemporary society. If more people in the business of news, ideas, science, and politics could lose themselves more in the variety of human existence and rush to judgment less, I bet that conversations on social media, around the dinner table, and even in the legislature might be as unpredictable and intriguing as the world that Franklin observed.