When I was young, my heroes were professional athletes. As a small boy I had a poster of John David Crow in my room, and later, Mickey Mantle and John Havlicek successively became role models for me. I still have heroes, but athletes no longer count among them. My real paragons are the great thinkers who designed the marvelous society we now enjoy, and among them is Benjamin Franklin.
Many scholars consider The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to be the most important autobiography ever written. Franklin’s maturity, intelligence, experience, writing ability, and colleagueship with the leading minds of his day combine to make his autobiography well worth reading. Today I want to focus on a few pages of Franklin’s book that can help us improve the quality of our lives.
As a young man, Franklin has his last encounters with formal religion, and he abandons his church in favor of a liturgy that he writes for his own use titled “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.” Not long thereafter, as a result of extensive reading and comparing various authors’ thoughts on morals, he composes a list of thirteen virtues that he intends to use to improve his moral character. With tongue in cheek, he includes the following lines in the introduction to his list:
It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection…. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.
Franklin understands that the goal of reaching moral perfection is an impossible one, but the important thing is that he identifies the virtues and sets them as standards for his life. Let’s take a look at Franklin’s list of virtues and examine how we might apply them to ourselves. The italicized names and short descriptions are quoted from Franklin’s autobiography, and the comments are my own.
1. Temperance — Eat Not To Dullness; Drink Not To Elevation
We all know this to be good advice. I am guilty of eating to dullness. In fact, I’ve been known to eat so much that I needed to lie down afterward. Fortunately, whenever this has happened, I have been among friends. Unfortunately, this scene tends to repeat itself, because several of my friends are extraordinarily good cooks. As I grow older, I increasingly see the wisdom of temperance, and I’ve come to admire friends and family members who engage in it well.
2. Silence — Speak Not But What May Benefit Others Or Yourself; Avoid Trifling Conversation
Being quiet is difficult, especially as one grows older and knows more about how things ought to be. Great virtue resides in being silent and not needing to be the center of attention. We all know people who insist on being the focal point of the conversation, and frankly, associating with them is a drag.
3. Order — Let All Your Things Have Their Places; Let Each Part Of Your Business Have Its Time
We begin learning to order our lives in kindergarten, and most of us continue that quest until we die. I’ve made rules for myself for putting things away, but they are hard to keep. Allowing one’s affairs to mature is a skill worth developing, as well. Time does wonders for one’s life and business, and patiently moving forward, like the tortoise in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, renders excellent results.
4. Resolution — Resolve To Perform What You Ought; Perform Without Fail What You Resolve
Those who set goals achieve more in their businesses and personal lives than those who don’t. A close friend and I make New-Year’s resolutions each December, and we track our monthly progress throughout the following year. In addition, we add items that we refer to as “extreme dreams” to our lists, and this year one of those came true for me. It may have come to pass without my identifying it, but I feel that the goal-setting exercise helped move me toward the accomplishment.
5. Frugality — Make No Expenses But To Do Good To Others Or Yourself; i.e., Waste Nothing
Most of us who reside in the United States are aware that we live in a country of plenty. A true awareness of the need to waste nothing is difficult to attain when so much bounty surrounds us. We have, though, a high responsibility to be good stewards of our abundance, and frugality has a good place in all of our lives, no matter how materially successful we are.
6. Industry — Lose No Time; Be Always Employ’d In Something Useful; Cut Off All Unnecessary Actions
Life is short, and using our time to the fullest is important. I don’t want to look back at my life and see that I could have worked harder, studied better, or helped someone more. Myriad distractions get in the way of using time wisely, but dillydallying is dangerous. If we fail to be industrious, we shall lose our leadership position to societies like India and China that live and breathe the virtue of industry and teach it passionately to their children.
7. Sincerity — Use No Hurtful Deceit; Think Innocently And Justly, And, If You Speak, Speak Accordingly
Gossiping and insincerity are bedfellows. When someone knocks a friend of yours, the easiest thing to do is say nothing. The best thing to do is defend your friend.
8. Justice — Wrong None By Doing Injuries, Or Omitting The Benefits That Are Your Duty
Being fair is a high duty, but being perceived as fair is equally important. Fairness behind the scenes is not enough. We must step up and be counted for what we believe in. When others see us do so, seeds of justice are planted that grow marvelously.
9. Moderation — Avoid Extreams [sic]; Forbear Resenting Injuries So Much As You Think They Deserve
Extreme political views get us into trouble, and religious extremism is ignorance in disguise. One marvelous thing about writing is that the process forces the writer to contemplate both sides of a question, and once the extremes are trimmed off, the resulting piece becomes surprisingly balanced.
10. Cleanliness — Tolerate No Uncleanliness In Body, Cloaths [sic], Or Habitation
This point hearkens back to the virtue of order. Those who are unable to maintain clean abodes and bodies do little more than survive. It’s almost a maxim that people who create bounty to share with others first put their own houses and bodies in order.
11. Tranquility — Be Not Disturbed At Trifles, Or At Accidents Common Or Unavoidable
We should expect to run into problems in life, and when bad things happen, we must remain calm, cool, and collected as we seek solutions. Thinking clearly about what to do and taking decisive action nearly always make problems less severe than they appear initially.
12. Chastity — Rarely Use Venery But For Health Or Offspring, Never To Dullness, Weakness, Or The Injury Of Your Own Or Another’s Peace Or Reputation
I’ll allow you to formulate your own judgment about this virtue. Franklin lived at a time when Quakers and Puritans were political and moral forces in the community. By today’s standards, his views may seem stilted, depending on how you interpret his words.
13. Humility — Imitate Jesus And Socrates
Appropriately, Franklin gives Socrates the highest of positions on the scale of virtuousness. Interestingly, when referring to Jesus, he does not focus on religious precepts, but rather on the plain-and-simple virtue of humility. We can observe the virtue of humility in the teachings of Jesus and Socrates, but the struggle to achieve it may take time.
So that’s it! Everything we need to know to reach moral perfection! Argh! The good news is that Franklin recommends tackling these virtues one at a time, but even that seems an ominous task. My suggestion is to select a virtue that seems achievable, work on it until you see progress, and then add another. I’m going to start with cleanliness, because this Christmas season has put several rooms of my house into disarray. That should keep me busy for the time being.