“We Shall Eat Apples Of Paradise…"
When Benjamin Franklin came home from France in diplomatic triumph, he left behind a lovely, highborn lady mourning the miles between them.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Let us now eavesdrop, first as they exchange thoughts on the gout. Since Franklin and later her husband suffered violent attacks, this was no theoretical subject, like some they chose to discuss. During a severe attack in October, 1780, Franklin received her poem, “Le Sage et la Goutte,” which he eventually had printed on his private press. The poem seems dearly to have helped inspire his famous Dialogue: in both pieces, and hers was probably written earlier, the Gout charges that the Sage eats too much, covets the ladies, no longer walks abroad, and spends his time playing chess. Franklin praises her poem but adds:
One of the personages of your fable, Gout, seems to me to reason pretty well, with the exception of the supposition that mistresses have had a share in producing this painful malady. I believe the contrary, and this is my argument. When I was a young man and enjoyed more of the favors of the sex than I do at present. I had no gout. So if the ladies of Passy had had more of that kind of Christian charity that I have so often in vain recommended to you. I should not have had the gout at all. This seems to me good logic.
She is quick to retaliate that there is no logical connection between a man’s moral condition and natural events: “THEN you could have had the gout without having deserved it, and you could have well deserved it. as I believe, and not have had it.” Several years later she asks him, heretic though he is, to pray for her gout-ridden husband. “I am vexed with Madame Gout for afflicting our friend,” he replies. Then, alluding to his Dialogue: “You know that she formerly gave me some good advice. But, unhappily lacking the energy to profit by it, I can do no more, it seems to me, than send it to our friend, to whom it might perhaps be useful.” Roguishly he concludes, “It God loves you as much as I love you, my prayers will be useless and superfluous. And heretic as I am, I do not doubt that He loves such Catholics as you.”
If she could banter about the gout, it was otherwise when her sensitive nature was hurt. What caused her perhaps the greatest pain was the knowledge that her husband was having an affair with their daughters’ governess, Mademoiselle Jupin. In agitation she writes Franklin: “ My life, my friend, is made of fine and thin stuff, that grief tears cruelly; .… cure me, or pity me, if you can do one and the other.” “To be sensible of our own faults is good,” comes his wise reply, “for it leads us to avoid them in the future: but to be too sensitive to, and afflicted by, the faults of other people is not good.” When in a more prudential mood still he suggests that “we might all draw more good from [this world] than we do and suffer less Evil, if we would but take care not to give too much for our Whistles,” she replies—and the letter exposes her overgenerous nature—that she has paid dearly for bad whistles, with her heart if not with her purse, that (for example) in loving others she has rarely received the value she gave.
In this crisis and in others, Franklin’s wisdom strengthened her in her agonized existence, and his sympathy made life endurable. Nowhere is this wisdom, which she never felt she could achieve, expressed more efficiently than in the following letter.
I think with you, that there are many hardships in life. But it seems to me that there are many more pleasures. That is why I love to live. We must not blame Providence inconsiderately. Reflect how many even of our duties it has ordained to be naturally pleasures: and that it has had the goodness, besides, to give the name of sin to several of them so that we might enjoy them the more. It is a sanguine answer to one who was melancholy by nature.
What highlights the correspondence, though, is the thrust and parry of verbal courtship. When he asks her to undertake his conversion, she finds him guilty of only one capital sin—covetousness; but, knowing his frailties, she will show mercy. “Provided he loves God, America and myself above all else, I absolve him from all his sins, present, past and future, and promise him a heaven whither I will lead him along a pathway strewn with roses.” In rapture at the prospect of being absolved of the future, he pleads guilty to coveting his neighbor’s wife but asks whether his keeping religiously the two additional Commandments he has been taught is not sufficient compensation: “The first was: Increase and multiply and replenish the earth. The twelfth is, … that you love one another.” She dare not decide the question “without consulting the neighbor whose wife you covet, because he is a far better casuist than I am; and then, too, as Bonhomme Richard would say: In weighty matters, two heads are better than one .”
During her absence at Nice his thoughts once again turn to the Commandments, only this time he is for total repeal. “I often pass before your house. It appears desolate to me. Formerly I broke the Commandment by coveting it along with my neighbor’s wife. Now I do not covet it any more, so I am less a sinner. But as to his wife I always find these Commandments inconvenient and I am sorry that they were ever made. If in your travels you happen to see the Holy Father, ask him to repeal them, as things given only to the Jews and too uncomfortable for good Christians.”