I’ve always found the aphorism a bit hard to manage. I prefer an expanded format that allows for argument, counterstrike, variation – aphorism always seems to present only conclusions without the journey to them. And when you collect a bunch of aphorisms and maxims together, numbered 1 to 556 in compartments labeled “Ignorance,” “Impartiality” and “Wit,” among others… Oy vey. The curve of this Harvard entry has been from strong narrative to weak narrative and finally no narrative.
What this final and shortest part of the volume consists of is Fruits of Solitude (1682) and More Fruits of Solitude (1702), the results of contemplation upon life by William Penn. Englishman and founder of Pennsylvania, though in a life stretching from 1644 to 1718 he spent only four years in America. What he did spend most of his life in was political hot water stemming from Quakerism (he was an ardent convert) and prodigious pamphleteering. He was jailed several times. Oxford gave him the boot for non-conformity. His progeny were a corrupt lot who inherited his estate and sought by every means to avoid paying taxes on it (and with whom Ben Franklin often clashed). In short, William Penn was an interesting man and a biography of him would not go amiss.
Fruits of Solitude sounds more tiresome than it is. Penn’s Maxims are meant to be pondered, of course, not rushed through and are pure brain matter but if you find reading for the brain to be invigorating you’ll enjoy it in its humble way. He based his style on the French model, popularized by the writings of La Rochefoucauld and Pascal. The sections proceed in a somewhat logical and flowing manner, beginning with the chieftest cause of woe in this world: Ignorance. He then dispenses wisdom upon the cause of education, tackling it with what seems to be the Rousseau model (haven’t read him yet, though, so can’t be sure). Penn preferred the natural and practical to the cultural and intellectual. To be sure, Languages are not to be despised or neglected. But Things are still to be preferred. The study of nature and practical know-how, to Penn, seems the key to God’s world and our own hearts, and so all men should in fact be naturalists.
Pride is next and rather than condemned out of hand, Penn extols the pride of existence and self, censuring only the pride of earthly arrogance: Here is Man in his Ignorance of himself. He knows not how to estimate his Creator, because he knows not how to value his Creation. It’s only to be expected – God is at the center of this little book and the lack of God is his greatest criticism. 26. In his Prayers he says, Thy Will be done: But means his own: At least acts so.
From the follies and fripperies of ignorance, swift pace is made to the slings and arrows of fate and what the proper reaction should be: 32. For Disappointments, that come not by our own Folly, they are the Tryals or Corrections of Heaven: And it is our own Fault, if they prove not our Advantage.
33. To repine at them does not mend the Matter: It is only to grumble at our Creator. But to see the Hand of God in them, with an humble submission to his Will, is the Way to turn our Water into Wine, and engage the greatest Love and Mercy on our side.
Another Lisbon Earthquake man. But short of that extreme, it is actually sound advice (and he undoubtedly kept it close to his heart). Quit whining and deal with it. The Protestant work ethic in action. Work? Good for body and soul; keeps men out of mischief. Friends? Choose a friend as seriously as one would a wife. Lying? You’ll go to Hell. Dress? Should be plain; silly question. Et cetera. Common sense rules the day and though common sense is boring and out of fashion these days, it serves well to be reminded of it. If it doesn’t sound exciting, don’t blame me. It’s a moral tractate. Its values are those of the plainspoken, unadorned, stern but peaceable Christian for whom the wide variety on earth is a gift from God and the wide variety in mankind only a legion of tripwires for Hell. A lot of it seems old hat but there is some advice that I hadn’t heard before – the subject of truth showing a great subtlety of thought: …Truth often suffers more by the Heat of its Defenders, than from the Arguments of its Opposers.
163. He that has more Knowledge than Judgment, is made for another Man’s use more than his own.
164. It cannot be a good constitution, where the Appetite is great and the Digestion is weak.
165. There are some Men like Dictionaries; to be lookt into upon occasions, but have no Connection, and are little entertaining.
167. A Wise Man makes what he learns his own; ‘tother shows he’s but a Copy, or a Collector at most.
306. Refuse not to be informed: For that shews Pride or Stupidity. He forgot to add cowardice, but even so.
In Penn’s era, people were meant to be exhorted, good was to be reinforced because it was understood that people are sinners. Pamphleteering was mostly for transmission of ideas moral/religious or political. Nowadays, if your momma taught you good at eight, that’s enough, and if no one did, you’re on your own. However tedious Penn can be, it does well to look at the culture behind him and realize his intention was to reinforce good principles. Incidentally helping to pave the way to Europe’s Enlightenment…
Totally invested in the class system though.
And then there is Penn on religion in the final and longest section of Fruits of Solitude. It makes for a passionate sermon on faith and love, deeds and actions. The Quakers were at that time being persecuted and driven from England, so his dismissal of the church and advocation of a spiritual level of worship has overtones of defiance as well as metaphysics. 473. Publick Worship is very commendable, if well performed. We owe it to God and good Example. But we must know, that God is not tyed to Time or Place, who is every where at the same Time…
474. Serving God, People generally confine to the Acts of Publick and Private Worship: And those, the more zealous do oftener repeat, in hopes of Acceptance.
475. But if we consider that God is an Infinite Spirit, and, as such, every where; and that our Saviour has taught us, That he will be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth; we shall see the shortness of such a Notion.
Quakers from the modern view look stodgy but in their day they were radicals. And this leads to More Fruits of Solitude, the far shorter (a mere 25 pages) addendum, in some ways a more cohesive work, with fewer subjects that seem closer to Penn’s heart. Immediately he begins with decrying the misuse of the title “Moralist” and thence the corrupt characters the world envies for their “ability” and “success.” And it’s this volume that contains the “Union of Friends,” Penn’s most famous passages. 127. They that love beyond the World, cannot be separated by it. Taken out of context it makes for a grand romantic statement, though he was referring to the Quakers and their sufferings – getting uprooted, attacked, vilified and so on. 134. This is the Comfort of Friends, that though they may be said to Die, yet their Friendship and Society are, in the best Sense, ever present, because Immortal. This part of the book has been given a new lease on life in the 21st Century thanks to J.K. Rowling’s use of it as an epigraph in the last Harry Potter book. I’d say More Fruits of Solitude better deserves a resuscitation than the original – it rings with greater passion and when spoken aloud I found it naturally lends itself to a hellfire and brimstone delivery, alternating ferocity against the sinners with calmly pointing out the right path. Try this on for size:
177. Of what Benefit is it to say our Prayers regularly, go to Church, receive the Sacraments, and may be go to Confessions too; ay, Feast the Priest, and give Alms to the Poor, and yet Lye, Swear, Curse, be Drunk, Covetous, Unclean, Proud, Revengeful, Vain and Idle at the same Time?
178. Can one excuse or ballance the other? Or will God think himself well served, where his Law is Violated? Or well used, where there is so much more Shew than Substance?
So that’s a few facets of William Penn. Myself, I want a biography. Checking Amazon, it seems he is still read by especially thoughtful Christians – if you count yourself among them, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. For agnostics like myself it’s a harder sell but it does provoke thought and if you’re the sort who already hopes to read Pascal or Leopardi, St. Augustine or Hildegard of Bingen, you’ll surely find this interesting as well (like I did).
Lastly, I am indebted to the Hogwarts Professor for information about William Penn and the nature of Quakerism (along with More Fruits of Solitude’s publication date) and I urge you to check it out to get a scholarly rather than pseudo-intellectual view on the man and his work.
Up next: The Apology, Crito and Phaedo. Yes, we’re going back to the Greeks!