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Benjamin Franklin and Mikhail Lomonosov: Eighteenth-century Brothers in Spirit

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, Embassy of the Russian Federation
2650 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20007
United States

October 12, 2011

Ambassador Kislyak, Justice Scalia, Congressman Symington, distinguished American and Russian friends.

The origin of the concept of a “Renaissance man” is unclear. But this particular description of a sagacious individual conversant in multiple fields of learning couldn’t have originated earlier than the Renaissance and probably didn’t come into common usage until much later. The concept behind the phrase, however, is ancient. Aristotle, for instance, spoke of an individual of “universal education” who was capable of being “critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge.”

We gather this evening to pay homage to two giants of the eighteenth century—Benjamin Franklin and Mikhail Lomonosov—for whom the appellation “Renaissance man” fits snugly. Their lives mirrored each other.

Born five years and an ocean apart, both transcended humble beginnings to move to the centers of their countries’ intellectual and political activity: Franklin, a candle-maker’s son, migrated from Boston to Philadelphia; Lomonosov, the son of a deep-sea fisherman, left a small village north of Archangel to make St. Petersburg his eventual home.

Both were devoted to scientific inquiry in wide-ranging ways. Astonishingly, each conducted experiments on the phenomenon of lightning at virtually the same time. Each found that lightning as it occurs in nature and electricity as it is created in the laboratory had the same properties.

Both loved words and their arrangement. Wit and eloquence characterized Franklin’s English; beauty and elegance, Lomonosov’s Russian.

Brothers in spirit, both were committed to the Enlightenment’s egalitarian emphasis on independent thinking, the advancement of knowledge, and individual opportunity through public education. Both founded a university, each of which continues to flourish.

There were, of course, as in all great men, profound differences. Franklin was self-educated. Lomonosov, despite an upbringing in a less mobile society, obtained one of the most comprehensive formal educations of an era, including a stint at two of Germany’s finest universities.

Franklin was a printer, newspaper editor, political theorist, revolutionary leader, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, entrepreneur and diplomat. He wrote and published an almanac. He was more an applied than theoretical scientist. He is credited with inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, a sturdy, efficient stove, a carriage odometer, and a glass “armonica.” As an entrepreneur, he applied mathematical modeling—that is, risk analysis—to insurance and established the first fire insurance company in America.

As one of five charged with writing the Declaration of Independence and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention the decade following, he helped propagate the case for independence and Constitutional unity. Public relations, a professional field yet to be established, was his forte.

Lomonosov, on the other hand, was more a theoretical than applied physicist. Unfortunately, whether by social circumstance or personal nature, he was not a scientific publicist. Much of his scientific work – dissertations, memoirs, and book manuscripts, mostly in Latin, lay dormant in the archives, generally unknown to foreign as well as Russian scholars, until it was comprehensively examined by biographers at the beginning of the 20th Century.

What Lomonosov called a “Corpuscular Theory” is now believed to have foreshadowed Dalton’s atomic theory. His explanation of combustion anticipated Lavoisier. And he was quite likely the first to describe conservation of matter as a basic law of chemistry. The scope of his work in physics, chemistry, and mathematics makes him one of the fathers of what is now referred to as physical chemistry. But his work in the sciences was not limited to the theoretical. Through research and inductive reasoning, he provided insights into geology, geography, meteorology, astronomy, and navigation. And, crossing into art, he applied new techniques to fashioning glass and mosaics.

Lomonosov was familiar with and sympathetic to Enlightenment philosophical thought but unfortunately all his papers were seized on orders of Catherine II immediately after his death. While his scientific work was eventually returned, what is believed to have been a prodigious assembly of personal journals, essays, and perhaps verse, are assumed to have been destroyed.

In a letter to an early patron, Lomonosov asserted: “ Poetry is my solace—physics, my profession.” Nevertheless, it is in literature rather than science that he made the greatest public mark during his lifetime. Lomonosov sifted through the diverse strands of Slavonic, German, French, Latin, and English linguistic influence to publish the first grammar of the modern Russian language which ran through eleven editions. And with standing as a quasi-state poet, he wrote odes for national celebrations. His seminal grammar and poetry with its emphasis on accentual meter were considered transformative with lasting influences on modern literary Russian.

Despite what some considered heretical political as well as religious views, he was given a hereditary nobleman’s rank as a state councilor, which established a tenuous level of protection in the court. In a country struggling to be modern with a government unwilling to give up czarist authority, he was considered the Pindar of his time.

In one of his Victory Odes, Pindar, the Greek Lyric poet, famously expressed what man can achieve by the grace of the gods:

Creatures of a day!
What is he Not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendor given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light
And blessed are their days.

In analogous vein, Lomonosov ended his ode “An Evening Reflection Upon God’s Grandeur Prompted by the Great Northern Lights” with this stanza:

Across the sea, Franklin deftly expressed his passion for independence, serving as our fledgling government’s envoy to Paris. In contrast with the bull-headed Adams whom Parisians considered a Yankee bore, Franklin became known for a kind of authentic New World wisdom. Just as the homespun philosophy woven into Poor Richard’s Almanack like “Better slip with foot than tongue” and “A little House well fill’d, a little Field well till’d, and a little Wife well will’d, are great Riches” had endeared him to the American public, so his observation before signing the Declaration of Independence that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately” impressed the French.

His personal stature, perhaps as much as America’s political case, led the French to become our first and most consequential ally. As Franklin wrote from Paris in 1777: “It is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”

Lomonosov was a poet of patriotism, sometimes subtly inserting populist phrases into his work with direct criticism of the Orthodox priesthood and its refusal to accept Copernican reasoning. While he was generally careful not to distance himself from the Court, he had a hot-headed, contrarian dimension in his personal life as well as in the academy. Unlike Franklin, he was not a natural mediator.

Franklin’s relationship with organized religion has been much reviewed. A Deist like Jefferson and Lomonosov, he was uncomfortable with churchly dogma. He deeply admired Christ but was uncertain of His divinity. At age 20 (1726) he developed a plan of 13 virtues designed to guide personal behavior, the last of which reads: “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” Sixty-four years later, a month before he died, he wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion. He replied:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but … I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble …

To the end, Franklin appears to have maintained an acute capacity, unusual to any and all, of making the deepest kind of personal observation with wry humor.

Of the two, Lomonosov may be considered the more sophisticated scientist and litterateur, but when it comes to inventiveness, humor, and historical role, Franklin stands tall. What is shared by both are Enlightenment values for which we may all express common appreciation and national pride.

Thank you.

1 Regarding what lies right before us / Thine answer’s full of doubts / O, tell us, how enormous is the world? / What lies beyond the smallest stars? / Are thou aware of all creation”s end? / Tell us, how great is our Creator?