McClure on Self-Interest in Franklin’s Autobiography

Abstract: Benjamin Franklin divides the mistakes he lists in the Autobiography into “errata” and “great errata.” He derived no benefit from the latter, but some benefit from the former. Examining Franklin’s regret, or lack of regret, at these errata opens a window onto Franklin’s understanding of morality. The laxity in his list of virtues and his flexibility with regard to conventional morals stem from the insight Franklin tells us he gained from these errata. For Franklin, or at least his persona in the Autobiography, there was no conflict between egoism and altruism, and he is therefore the embodiment of a type of self-interest well understood. Tracing the story of the errata, which Franklin inserted into an earlier draft of the work’s first part, and Franklin’s later actions provides the key to understanding the rhetorical strategy of the Autobiography, and the reason he never wrote his proposed Art of Virtue.

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