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  • The Ethos Aquatic:Benjamin Franklin and the Art of Swimming
  • Scott Cleary (bio)

When the Well's dry, we know the Worth of Water.

—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac, 1746.

Benjamin Franklin knew the worth of water, for perhaps more than any other natural element it sparked his immense curiosity. He relates in the Autobiography that he had a "strong inclination" (53) and "Hankering" (58) for the sea, and water in its various forms of sea water, lake water, rivers, and rain would play a role in many of his major scientific experiments. Water was central to Franklin's discovery of electricity, his early invention of swimming paddles for maneuvering in water, and his meteorological studies of air and attraction, the movement of tides, and stilling of water by oil. Yet the means of assessing water's worth, while often thought to be these experiments, are also to be found in Franklin's musings on and appreciation for the one human activity that permits not only interaction with the water but a way of asserting control in and through the water: swimming. Found in his tracts on education, letters to friends, and the Autobiography, swimming is a mode of both physical exertion and mental focus that Franklin practiced, taught, and advocated as a skill central to a full and meaningful expression of human possibility, a scientifically and culturally regulated biomechanical event that integrated several mechanisms by which Franklin helped take a recognized eighteenth-century phenomenon that was essentially "dry"—a specialized skill lacking mass appeal—and transformed it into a popular and socially acceptable activity.

Swimming was practiced by civilizations going back to the Egyptians. In England, traditionally considered the country that popularized organized swimming, the first manual of swimming instructions was Everard Digby's De Arte Natandi, originally published in 1587, and translated into English by Christopher Middleton in 1595 as A Short Introduction for to learne to Swimme.1 In his note to the reader, Middleton explains that his translation is meant "not to derogate [Digby's] worth," but to show that [End Page 51] Digby has done for swimming what "Virgill [did] for the Tillage of the Earth, Vigetius for Military profession, Hipocrates and Gallen for Phisick, Justinian for the Law, Aristotle, Tullie, Euclides, Boetius, Ptolomeus, for the liberall sciences, Pomponius Mela for Cosmography, or Mercator for the Globes of the world" (A2v). Clearly, swimming is a keystone cultural activity, worthy of a place in a distinct intellectual matrix where it responds to a human need for both intellectual and physical development, while simultaneously increasing the store of human knowledge and our understanding of human nature. "Nature" would become a key word for Digby, who argues that "although it be by none praised, yet doth nature itself preferre it sufficiently, especially in man, which above all foules of the air, fishes of the sea, and beasts on earth, or other creatures whatever, excelleth in this facultie" (A3r). Not only does swimming "preserve a man's life" (A3r), thus equating swimming with "phisick," it is also essentially instinctual: humans are natural swimmers, and better at it than even the fishes themselves.2 As it is instinctual, it is also a perfectible skill, and Digby's manual attempts to reclaim for swimming the status it should have as an expression of humanity's better nature, with instructions and diagrams explaining how to "swim like a dog," "find a lost object in the water," "sitte in the water," and wondrously, "swim like a dolphin" (A3r). Able to be structured and systematized, swimming represents a suite of skills whose acquisition represents the perfectibility of human nature, and the best of human achievement.

With a practice venue as close by as any river, stream, or pond, swimming was an "art" available to all willing to try, and Middleton's translation demonstrates that swimming was too important a skill to leave only for those who could read Latin. This necessity is in part borne out by the popularity of Middleton's translation: it was published throughout the seventeenth century, and alongside Digby's original, would be the model for the eighteenth century's definitive swimming text, Melchisedec Thevenot's L'Art de...


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