Whistles: A Letter from Benjamin Franklin
This letter from Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) to a friend, Madame Brillon, offers a glimpse of his clear, direct writing style, and demonstrates an apt use of metaphor.
Passy, November 10, 1779
I received my dear friend’s two letters, one for Wednesday and one for Saturday. This is again Wednesday. I do not deserve one for to-day, because I have not answered the former. But, indolent as I am, and averse to writing, the fear of having no more of your pleasing epistles, if I do not contribute to the correspondence, obliges me to take up my pen; and as M. B. has kindly sent me word that he sets out to-morrow to see you, instead of spending this Wednesday evening, as I have long done its namesakes, in your delightful company, I sit down to spend it in thinking of you, in writing to you, and in reading over and over again your letters.
I am charmed with your description of Paradise, and with your plan of living there; and I approve much of your conclusion, that, in the meantime, we should draw all the good we can from this world. In my opinion we might all draw more good from it than we do, and suffer less evil, if we would but take care not to give too much for our whistles. For to me it seems that most of the unhappy people we meet with are become so by neglect of that caution.
You ask what I mean? You love stories, and will excuse my telling you one of myself.
When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my little pocket with halfpence. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for it. When I came home, whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family, my brothers, sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.
This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Do not give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.
As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, who gave too much for the whistle.
When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance at levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friend, to obtain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.
When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, says I, too much for his whistle.
If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, says I, you pay too much for your whistle.
When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of his mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal satisfactions, and ruining his health in their pursuit, Mistaken man, says I, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you pay too much for your whistle.
If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, Alas! says I, he has paid too much for his whistle.
When I saw a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, What a pity, says I, that she should pay so much for a whistle!
In short, I conceived that great part of the miseries of mankind were brought upon them by the false estimates they had made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for the whistle.
Yet I ought to have charity for these unhappy people, when I consider that, with all this wisdom of which I am boasting, there are certain things in the world so tempting, for example, the apples of King John, which happily are not to be bought; for if they were put to sale by auction, I might very easily be led to ruin myself in the purchase, and find that I had once more given too much for the whistle.
Adieu, my dearest friend, and believe me ever yours very sincerely and with unalterable affection.
This letter was actually turned into a picture book in the 1970s. I’ve never seen it, but am hoping to run across a copy some day. If you find a copy, you may want to pick it up—the woodcut-style illustrations by George Overlie look delightful.
If you’re not familiar with Benjamin Franklin, this brief video biography will provide a quick overview of his life. For more information you may read the vintage biography on this site, or Franklin’s own Autobiography. If you will be studying EIL’s American Literature, the Autobiography is the first book assigned. I think you’ll enjoy it.