I hate being such a Johnny Come Lately all the time, but today was the first I’d heard (via Crooked Timber) of the now weeks-old controversy over the National Review piece “An Exceptional Debate” which claims that America was absolutely 100% founded on the principles of modern conservatism and that all of our current woes are probably somehow caused by a departure from those originary principles. You probably ought to read the article for yourself and not just take me at my word when I say that it’s the worst sort of intellectual dishonesty, full of outright equivocation (the Puritans really were proto-capitalists–their merchants used the motto “in the name God and profit” and that totally means exactly what it means today), historical cherry picking (the Founding Fathers apparently include Lincoln as an honorary member but not Jefferson, that damned agrarian socialist), and random free association (how telling that the Declaration of Independence was published in the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations).*
But since others have been chewing, swallowing, and regurgitating this cud since late February, I’m not going to join in the debate, nor the debate over the debate (nor try for a meta debate over the debate over the debate), but I am interested by one particular rhetorical flourish the piece’s authors, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru throw out there. They write:
Look at the archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin, whose name comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property. Napoleon dismissed the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”; we are a nation of Franklins.
It’s almost as if the writers were schooled in etymology at a medieval university. Medieval thinkers just love this sort of move, where the history of a word makes a theological or symbolic point.** Dogs, for example, are called canis in Latin after the Greek work kuon, which is meant to represent the sound of their barking. In effect, a barking dog says its own name, which is fitting and proper because dogs are the only animals that recognize their own names when we talk to them.
Given the open hostility towards French ways of thinking in the rest of the article, I think maybe Lowry and Ponnuru would be aghast to learn that the Middle English frankeleyn enters English through Anglo-French fraunclein, where it ultimately derived from the Latin francus, which does mean “free” as they might hope, but which also means “Frank,” as in “the progenitors of the French,” the old Roman boogeymen the Gauls who lived in the part of the map that the Romans labeled Francia. And lest they protest that the similar etymologies for both “French” and “free” are some sort of coincidence, according to the OED the reason the word francus came to mean “free” was because of the belief that in Gaul only those who were of Gaulish birth or were adopted officially by a Gaulish family were truly free. And seeing how the English were conquered and ruled by the French-speaking Normans, the word probably encodes a further level of insult, that to become a free man capable of owning property under Norman rule is to cease being an English-speaking Brit and to become, at least metaphorically, an honorary Frenchman.
That’s the problem with metaphorical etymologies. Trace a word far enough back and it’ll bite you on the metaphorical ass.
The image I chose for the top of this post is Chaucer’s Franklin as depicted in the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Technically, he has absolutely nothing to do with the piece I’m discussing, since the authors never mention him in their brief lovesong to the humble franklin. Yet since they so often argue by association and insinuation, I think I’m allowed a little digression myself.
Chaucer’s Franklin is perhaps the perfect match for the sort of person who thinks “An Exceptional Debate” provides a well-reasoned historical argument for hating the Obama presidency and not a series of boldface equivocations and misrepresentations masquerading as logic. Recall that Chaucer’s Franklin is on surface level a very pleasant man, the sort who’d definitely put on a fine spread if you were to be invited over to his place for dinner, but also the sort of class-conscious social climber who reflexively toadies before anyone he perceives as having a modicum of power. When his turn comes to tell a tale, the Franklin tells the story of the love triangle between Arveragus, Aurelius and Dorigen. Since it’s likely been a while since you all had English 200, I’ll remind you of the details.
Dorigen is the young, beautiful and loyal wife of Arveragus, a knight who leaves her alone at home (in France of all places) whilst he seeks his fortune in Britain. While he’s away, she broods over the sharp rocks that line the beach and which she thinks must keep her husband from a safe return. At the same time, she becomes the target of the affections of a lovesick squire named Aurelius. Presumably because it’s flattering to be desired, even when you don’t desire your desirer, Dorigen doesn’t just tell Aurelius to sod off and instead promises herself to him if he succeeds in the impossible task of making the rocks she hates disappear. Aurelius enlists the aid of a student magician who casts an illusion to make it look like the rocks are gone, sending Dorigen into a suicidal lament. Arveragus returns, has the situation explained to him, and promptly decides that the only option that will preserve his honor is if Dorigen goes ahead and sleeps with Aurelius as she promised. For love of her husband, Dorigen agrees. Aurelius is so moved by this show of honor and love that he forgives Dorigen of her obligation, even though he had to spend a lot of money to get the magician to cast the illusion. Luckily, the magician is so moved by Aurelius’s show of generosity that he cancels his debts.
The social-climbing Franklin hopes to flatter his fellow pilgrims the noble Knight and his son the Squire and the gladly-learnin’ Clerk (who would identify with the student magician), who by virtue of their membership in the other two estates are technically his betters. Clearly, the Franklin thinks that the moral of his story is something like “generosity is always rewarded,” and asks his audience to ponder the unanswerable question of who in the tale was the most generous of all, but that’s a pretty bone-headed reading of his tale. Everyone in the story may be generous, but only after their own blind pig-headedness has forced them into an untenable situation. Dorigen’s obsession with the rocks on the beach is unwarranted since they don’t, in fact, keep her husband from her and she shouldn’t have made such a stupid promise to begin with; Arveragus shouldn’t have went off without thinking of his wife nor should he be so obsessed with his own personal honor; Aurelius shouldn’t be making the moves on an unavailable woman nor promising money he doesn’t have to pay for it; and the magician shouldn’t be aiding and abetting fornication with forbidden astronomical arts in exchange for cash. They’re a perfect pack of scoundrels and thoughtless clods, not paragons of generosity.
So again, be careful of who you compare yourself to, because metaphors have this habit of going uncomfortably reflexive on you when you’re not looking. Chaucer’s Franklin is then, I submit, the perfect match for Lowry and Ponnuru, but only as a fellow misreader of stories–in their case, history–who draws simplistic self-congratulatory conclusions that in the end reveal only his unacknowledged delusions and desires.
*How especially telling since the Declaration was written by Jefferson, who we all know was just a socialist in disguise and died penniless.**
**Oh, yeah, and that’s not me just running on at the mouth, the authors specifically go out of their way to bash Jefferson’s intellectual legacy because of his end of life bank statement.
***As I once noted in my Peabody-Award-winning discussion of beaver testicles.