Category Archives: Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s Virtues

“It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time…. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined (213-214).”

Right before Franklin lists his thirteen virtues, he gives a brief explanation for why exactly he came up with the list in the first place. Franklin mentions that he created a prayer for himself of moral virtues as he did not often go to church on Sundays. These virtues were what he was to strive for to become a good, moral person, as his problem with the church was that they weren’t trying to make them good people but good religious people. I like how Franklin admits that while he was set on the idea of trying to reach perfection, he backtracks to admit that it was hard. Franklin then goes on to mention how he planned to implement these virtues by taking them on one at a time to make it easier.

I think that it was ambitious of Franklin to take on this task of “perfection” – an ideal that people strive to obtain in many ways in their life. It made me think that although all of the virtues Franklin mentions (Temperance, Order, Sincerity, etc.) are great ones for a person to hold, does the combination of just those traits make a person perfect? Is perfection an ideal that is even obtainable? Personally, I don’t think it is. However, Franklin then goes on to mention that he became “by endeavor, a better and a happier man (225)” in his pursuit of perfection. I really liked that way of thinking and wondered if that could be applied today. Although perfection is unobtainable in my perfection, we as a society all strive for perfection and it’s in the road to that goal that we become good people. I think that realization that Franklin had is an incredibly important one and something that all people should consider when they think about perfection.

Virtues – Perfect, but not perfect

“…every now and then suggesting to me that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.” – Franklin (225)

Franklin stumbles into trouble along the way to his path of perfection in his virtues. He said himself that “…to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen”, but realizes that in practice, mastering all thirteen virtues are much more difficult. However, he does come to the conclusion; while he may not be able to completely master the virtue Order, he can come as close as he can with the best of his ability and that people may appreciate more an individual who gives it his best at something than someone who comes off as perfect and “knows it all”.

I personally believe that he is better off this way as well. Franklin also mentions “tho’ I never arrived at the perfection…I was, by the endeavour, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” Franklin (225). His words may have influenced a popular saying in our time, “It is better to try and fail then to never try at all.” This holds to be true because even if one is not to be successful, or perfect, at something, they are better off as a result because they gain knowledge in the process that they wouldn’t have obtained had then not attempted the task.

Regimenting Virtue

“1. Temperance.

Eat not to Dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. Silence.

speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order.

Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. Resolution.

Resolve to perform what you ought ; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality.

Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.

6. Industry.

lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. Sincerity.

Use no Hurtful deceit; think it innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice.

Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. Moderation.

avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness.

Tolerate no Uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. Tranquility.

Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity.

rarely use Venery but for health and Offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. Humility.

Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

my intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and when I should be the master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen; and, as some of the acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above. Temperance first as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations…I gave silence the second place. This and the next, order, I expected would allow me more time for attending to my project and my studies. Resolution, once become habitual, would keep me firm in my endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues; Frugality and Industry freeing me from my remaining debt and producing affluence and independence would make more easy the practice of sincerity and Justice etc. etc. Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his golden verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination” (Franklin 215-18)

Franklin’s thirteen commandments are not to be taken, in any way, seriously. His need to quantify intangible virtues and feelings through a regimented system of practicing those virtues is in line with the philosophy of his time period, the age of reason; for Franklin, and many others, believed that they could conquer nature, emotion, and society though a system of scientific processes as opposed to religious dogma. However, the scientific system breaks down when it meets humanity: Often, Franklin’s commandments are extremely idealistic and leave no room for human error. For example,

“2. Silence. speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

As a habit to try and attain, avoiding trifling conversation is  a beautiful concept: one’s words are seldom wasted and embarrassment is hard to come by. Sadly, humanity is prone to error. We all slip up and will fall into the rumor mill without so much as a whisper in protest. Franklin was no exception in that he was constantly vying for public attention as a sort of tabloid star. Though his acts as a father of the United States are indisputable, he was just as famous for his affairs as he was for his public service.

Franklin’s affairs, especially in France, are well documented (he went so far as to send a treaty to one of his madams stipulating an open relationship with her through a political contract). This directly contradicts Article 12:

12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for health and Offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

For Franklin often used Venery in the hopes of experiencing pure bliss (and possibly some public attention). He was (in)famously adored by the women of France and got his pick of the crop (as he saw it) of like-minded revolutionaries. It is quite probable that he never actually even attempted to regiment his practice of chastity as he promised himself he would do in the above passage along with all his other moral treatises. The fact that he courted married women and widows at the same time shows that he also completely disregarded his commandment of humility as he created a public persona based on being a sex symbol and took advantage of that persona to court many, many women and, in effect, disregarded the regimented morals that he wrote into his own autobiography making him look like a first-class hypocrite.

Franklin achieving “moral perfection”

“And like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bed herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and having accomplish’d the first, proceeds to a second.”(221)

 Throughout Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he discusses his thoughts on striving for self- betterment and “ arriving at moral perfection”(213). In doing so, he composes a little book that entails a detailed schedule for all of the thirteen virtues he would like to work on, in order: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. He approaches each of these virtues with grace, one at a time, and he strives to make each virtue habitual in his everyday life.

Franklin cleverly uses figurative speech to compare the difficult process a gardener performs in weeding a garden, to his approach of perfecting his thirteen virtues. The simile begins with “And like him who, having a garden to weed” as it is describing the role of a gardener while weeding a garden, and how it is best not to “eradicate all the bad herbs at once”(221). Instead, the gardener should break up the garden into beds and accomplish one bed at a given time. Similarly, Franklin should not try and approach all of his thirteen virtues at a given time, and he should take his time perfecting each of his virtues. Franklin decides to organize his virtues by allowing himself to have a “weeks strict attention to each of the virtues successively”(220). In this manner, as Franklin becomes more comfortable with each virtue every week, he is able to move on and begin another virtue. Over time, each of these virtues would be of habit to Franklin and he would be able to move on and expand his attention to the next virtue on his list. As a gardener takes his time getting rid of all of the bad weeds, it becomes of habit to him and he complete the task. Franklin breaks each of his virtues up so that he would become the better man he strives to be.

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues

[…]I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time: and when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen[…]

After Benjamin Franklin lists the 13 virtues that he described to be “necessary or desirable,” he discusses the way in which he plans to go about learning these virtues. I find it interesting that he meticulously planned this out, and I think there is a lot to learn from Benjamin Franklin’s tactics.

As he goes through each virtue and breaks them down, it shows that has a clear plan to better himself. Benjamin uses the word “master” in terms of achieving each one of the virtues. This shows that he is willing to put effort and dedication into each virtue before he moves onto the next one. I find it admirable that as he broke down the individual virtues, he pinpointed which virtues would help him achieve certain goals of his. For example, he says that once Resolution became habitual to him, it would keep him “firm in his endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues.”

To go further, he creates a book that he carries with him everywhere, where he outlines, week by week, what virtues he will focus on. His organization and dedication to improving his flaws definitely contributed to his success and improvement as a person.

Revisions

“I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined…” (223)

While reading the excerpt from Franklin’s Autobiography, this simple sentence stood out to me. Although the entire chapter details Franklin’s plan to better himself, this is one of the most noticeable moments in which he acknowledges his own faults. Franklin intends to use himself as an experiment, in the form of a “self-examination” (223) to  see if his list of virtues would  actually better his life, and in turn, the lives of others.

For me, Franklin’s admission of his faults reveals the humility he mentions in the last portion of the chapter. Rather than dismiss the difficulty of his pursing his list of virtues, Franklin candidly tells his readers that he struggled throughout his experiment. His surprise at finding faults makes him more relatable. Rather than solely prescribing that others should fix their faults, Franklin first sets out to fix his own.

Whenever one takes the time to closely examine something in their life that they had previously glossed over, they are bound to find faults. It is reminiscent of a student writing a first draft of an essay. While writing it, the student may think that everything is coherent and well put together, but when they take the time to read it over and revise it, they find many mistakes. In taking the time to examine his life, Franklin found himself less virtuous than he previously thought. However, his acknowledgment of this fact allows him to better himself further when he creates his good habits.