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Capitalism and Religion in the Works and Lives of Franklin and Equiano Essay

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Capitalism and religion are two subjects which appear frequently in both “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” and “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” because these were important parts of the lives of these two men. Both men were able to be players in the capitalist market while still following a spiritual doctrine because each man chose which was more important to him-capitalist goals or Christian morals. For each man, the one which was less important submitted to the one which was more valuable to him. Both men take part in capitalism and religion, but Franklin places capitalism first and Equiano places religion first.

Each man made life choices according to this hierarchy of importance, sacrificing parts of the less important in order to pursue and excel in the one they held dearer. Franklin, a hard-working and frugal businessman who many have said embodies the capitalist spirit, made his religious choices around his identity as a capitalist, while the extent of Equiano’s participation and success in the capitalist market was determined by his faith. Both spiritual, both capitalist businessmen, Franklin and Equiano brought together these two seemingly opposed components of their lives by blending the two and taking aspects from each to use in their participation in the other, but always letting the one they considered more important to trump the other in situations where a choice between capitalism and religion had to be made.

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As Benjamin Franklin explained in his autobiography, he “never doubted…the existence of the Deity” (62), and he described several occasions when he asked God for assistance in times of need, so it is clear he was spiritual. Franklin wished to be morally upright, but he disliked organized religion and found that in each religious sect, the religious beliefs he held were “mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or conform morality, serv’d principally to divide us” (62). For this reason, Franklin did not attend church regularly or abide by any one religion, although he agreed with bits and pieces of many different faiths. But he considered himself a moral man, and wished to achieve the same thing encouraged in Christian teachings: “moral perfection” (63).

For this reason, Franklin decided to create his own list of virtues to abide by. Rather than abandoning faith altogether because he could not find a church which was in line with his way of thinking, Franklin created his own personal religion-“The Art of Virtue.” Present in Franklin’s list of 13 virtues are several which are in accordance with Christianity-temperance, sincerity, justice, chastity, humility-but some key elements of the Christian religion have been removed from the doctrine by which he lives his life.

Unlike Christianity, Franklin’s commandments make no mention of monetary accumulation. In many religions, it is stipulated that one who is wealthy cannot reach heaven. In the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 10:24). Because this does not serve Franklin’s interest in capitalist success, Franklin omitted from his virtues any mention of greed or accruement of wealth, instead including virtues which he thought were more important, and which served his capitalist aspirations more suitably.

Several of his virtues are also non-Christian but clearly in the spirit of capitalism-resolution, frugality, and industry are not tenets of the Christian religion, but were essential in Franklin’s mind for success in the free market and therefore essential in the dogma he followed. By creating and following his own list of virtues, Franklin was able to pick and choose the best from both Christianity and capitalism. However, Franklin’s religious inclinations were formed by, and altered to fit, his capitalist aspirations, and his virtues were created in order to best serve his goals in the capitalist market. Franklin reconciled capitalism and religion by extracting from Christianity the beliefs which were most conducive towards capitalism, then adding morals of his own which were driven directly towards capitalist success. Therefore, he was able to participate in both, following a self-made religion that served the goals of capitalism.

Olaudah Equiano, on the other hand, considered himself a Christian above all other labels. To him, religion was the most important aspect of his life, and he was willing to sacrifice everything else before he would compromise his religious beliefs. Equiano’s first introduction to the capitalist system came when he arrived at the port in Bridge Town, Barbados, and was placed in a yard with other slaves to be sold as a commodity. But Equiano did not participate actively in the capitalist system as a person (rather than an article of trade) until much later, when he bought and sold tumblers and other small objects during his trips at sea to earn enough money to purchase his freedom from his master.

If it had not been necessary for Equiano to acquire his freedom, it is possible Equiano would never have entered the business arena. Equiano was not interested in having more money than what was required to survive because being greedy was contrary to his religious beliefs, and from the moment of his conversion to Christianity, Equiano’s faith guided his every decision. Unlike Franklin, Equiano did not cherish the spirit of capitalism. To him, money meant freedom, and later, the choice to go where he wanted and not be tethered to one ship or master, but Equiano did not equate money with happiness and instead looked to religion for solace in an unfamiliar world.

Capitalism and Christianity were not at odds for Equiano because he never did anything non-Christian in order to achieve success in the capitalist world. When people owed Equiano money for goods delivered but not paid for, Equiano did not act out in revenge towards his debtors. He did what he could within the bounds of the law, and when that did not amount to anything, Equiano forgave the debts and simply continued on, because of his moral outlook on life.

Equiano recounted countless times the cruelties black men, both slaves and free men, endured at the hands of white men, such as “giving [Equiano] however but very indifferent payment” (95) after taking goods from him. He can do nothing about these injustices, and instead trusts that God will give them their punishment in the afterlife.

Too often also, to my knowledge, our clerks, and many others, at the same time have committed acts of violence on the poor, wretched, and helpless females… Is not this one common and crying sin enough to bring down God’s judgment on the islands? He tells us the oppressor and the oppressed are both in his hands; and if these are not the poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captive, the bruised, which our Saviour speaks of, who are they? (80)

Equiano relies on faith to dole out appropriate rewards and consequences after death and so is able to endure and observe many injustices without acting in anger or violence towards his oppressors.

Rather than being a cutthroat businessman, Equiano worked honestly, earning money to live but never valuing material possessions over his religious morality. Equiano was a Christian who happened to be living within a capitalist world, but the most important part of his life, his faith, was never on the line because of capitalism-Christianity always came first.

There are only two examples in Equiano’s autobiography of him doing something that goes against his religious beliefs. The first comes in Chapter 5, when Equiano swore that he would spend a day in London “in rambling and sport” (70). Shortly afterwards, Equiano felt terrible about saying something rashly and without thinking, and he asked God for forgiveness: he “acknowledged [his] transgression to God, and poured out [his] soul before Him with unfeigned repentance, and with earnest supplications [Equiano] besaught him not to abandon [him] in [his] distress” (70). Equiano immediately attempted to apologize to God for his wrong actions, and felt extremely guilty for having committed what appeared to be a small sin. The second occasion, in chapter 8, is very similar.

Equiano cursed, “Damn the vessel’s bottom out,” (112) but immediately afterwards his conscience “smote” him for swearing, and he experienced guilt for his seemingly petty misdeed. These two examples show how strictly Equiano followed his religious teachings-he considered the act of swearing to be a large affront to God, and feared for his salvation because of his small sins. To him, straying from Christian morals at any time in any part of his life was unacceptable, and this governed his actions as a player in the capitalist market as well as in every other arena of his life.

Equiano’s success as a businessman was not as great as it could have been if Equiano had been a more competitive salesperson and truly valued success in the capitalist market, but he chose to sacrifice this monetary success in order to follow his religious morals more strictly. His priorities determined his actions-as a capitalist Christian, rather than a Christian capitalist, Equiano made choices that put his faith first, and instead of striving for wealth and success, endeavored towards the redemption of his soul and eternal happiness. The actions Equiano took during his life were trivial to him as a devout Christian, because he believed that he would spend the rest of eternity in Heaven as reward for his morality while on earth. For Equiano, capitalism was just a system in the world of man, and money was not worth risking his eternal well-being over.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Olaudah Equiano were successful businessmen who lived their lives according to religious principles-Franklin by his made-to-fit capitalist-influenced list of virtues, and Equiano by the teachings of Christianity and the Bible. But Franklin was a bigger financial and public success, because his achievement as a capitalist was most important to him. Franklin laid out a list of virtues for himself in order to pave the way for the most possible financial success and public acclaim-his “religion” served the spirit of capitalism. Equiano was only a mediocre financial success because he was not oriented towards the accumulation of wealth.

Instead, he chose to achieve on the religious front. Equiano’s actions within the capitalist framework were mere details in the larger picture of his life as a good Christian. Both men were passionate-Franklin about capitalism and Equiano about his Christian faith-and both sacrificed other parts of their lives in order to keep intact their number one priority. Franklin was religious in the way that most promoted capitalist success, and Equiano was a capitalist businessperson only in the ways that were aligned with his religious beliefs. They reconciled capitalism and religion by choosing one over the other and allowing the lesser to function on a smaller scale and only within the framework of the more important.

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