It’s fitting that Benjamin Franklin’s name is in the subtitle of this book rather than the title. Those looking for the life story of one of the more colorful of the Founding Fathers had best go to Walter Isaacson’s popular 2003 biography. Instead, author Jonathan Lyons — longtime editor and correspondent for Reuters, with a doctorate in sociology — chooses to focus on Franklin’s ideas in “The Society for Useful Knowledge.” Yes, we do revisit episodes of Franklin’s life — his boyhood and apprenticeship as a printer, his experience as a newspaper publisher and revolutionary propagandist, his insight as a scientist and inventor. But don’t look here for much on Franklin’s personal life or a chronological portrayal of that life as it unfolded in history. No, this is more a biography of an idea than of a man.
That idea, loosely, was the Enlightenment, which originated in Europe in the 17th century and was brought to the fore by philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, and David Hume, and by the “natural philosopher” Isaac Newton. It was part of a slow shift from a tradition- and faith-based culture and body politic to one of rational skepticism, empirical investigation, and, ultimately, the idea of a democratic republic in place of an inherited aristocracy.