Burke, Price, Franklin and Farting


To the layman (and by “layman” I of course mean the “laymen of political theory”) Richard Price is known only for the fact that his cries for revolution in England during the late-18th century were the subject of criticism in Edmund Burke’s infamous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Where Price was making the argument that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was evidence enough that the authority lay in the people’s hands to choose their leader, Burke countered that this was not the case. To Burke, a contract was established that was a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Basically, the rulers of the past have jurisdiction over the future (but this did not apply in 1688 for some reason) – so don’t rock the boat, dammit.

That digression aside, Price was also the recipient of a far lesser known treatise by a more well-known political philosopher: Benjamin Franklin. The title? “To the Royal Academy of Farting,” 1781.

Written as a satire against the academic societies he believed to be elitist and concerned with “the impractical,” Franklin proposed that one ought to concern themselves with something more pertinent to the everyman’s life: the poor odor associated with flatulence.

It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind. That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

Therefore, he argues, the academics of the era should concern themselves with finding a way to make the odor less disconcerting. If this wasn’t enough, he’s a man after my own heart by ending his essay with a pun.

And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers above-mentioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your “Figure quelconque” and the Figures inscrib’d in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a FART-HING.

To read the complete essay (it’s fairly short), you can find it here. For a survey of Franklin’s bawdy wit there is a really nice review of Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School (2003) that briefly explores it.

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