On the Origins and Intention of Benjamin Franklin's "On the Providence of God in the Government of the World"


Philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used the phrase “government of the world” to discuss matters of physics, ethics, theology, and politics. In physics, the phrase referred to the order of the universe: the essence of matter, and whether it moved chaotically or by discernible laws. The order of physical nature had ethical implications—whether or not human beings possessed free will, and if they did, whether or not they could know the effects of, and be accountable for, their actions. Natural philosophers and theologians provided conflicting answers to these questions. Christian theologians such as Samuel Clarke argued that God was “a Supra-Mundane Intelligence”— existing outside of, and therefore not bound by, the mechanistic realm of matter—that providently suspended and intervened in the laws of nature to issue revelatory dictates and to justly govern the world. These divines debated deists such as Lord Shaftesbury, who argued that God was nature itself, subsisting by its own self-governing laws that were accessible to human reason. The deists, in turn, debated the skeptics, such as Bernard Mandeville, who questioned not just the existence of a creator but whether there was any order to nature at all. The divines called deists undercover atheists, and the deists called the skeptics atheists. Philosophers’ ideas about God’s government of the world also shaped their political views regarding what kind of laws humans should make to govern themselves. As a citizen of the Republic of Letters, the young Benjamin Franklin enthusiastically read all of these thinkers, and he participated in and contributed to the great philosophic and political debates of his age.