Last year I was gifted a badass leather copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. I thought it was a cool book for the shelf, but Frankly (ha), I wasn’t that excited to read it. I assumed whatever ‘ole Ben had to say back in 1750 was probably not-so-relevant to my life in 2019.
Fast forward six months, and Franklin’s autobiography is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. In it, he describes the Thirteen Virtues that he developed at the age of 20 in order to guide and cultivate his moral character throughout the rest of his life.
As someone with a strong Type 1 Personality, I feel joy when I’m “doing the right thing”. According to the Enneagram Institute, type ones, “Strive to overcome adversity— particularly moral adversity— so that the human spirit can shine through and make a difference in the world”. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Benjamin Franklin’s search for moral perfection through the use of his 13V is so appealing to me.
Franklin admitted that he was never able to live the virtues perfectly, but he felt he had become a better and happier man for having made the attempt.
Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues:
- Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
- Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Aside from the obvious profound moral wisdom in Franklin’s 13V, he also (ever so wisely in the year 1730) included a behavioral aspect that allowed him to implement change more effectively. Instead of trying to tackle all thirteen virtues at the same time, he’d go for just one per week. In his own words:
“I judg’d 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. 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 determined to give a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues. Thus, in the first week, my great task was to avoid every offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day.”
– Benjamin Franklin
My favorite example of Benjamin Franklin seeking moral perfection is the evolution of his position on slavery. Franklin became a slave owner in 1748, acquiring the first of several slaves to work in his home and his print shop. By the 1760’s, he freed his slaves and publicly decried the institution of slavery as “inherently evil”. For the next three decades he became more vociferous in his position, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and in 1790 he petitioned the U.S. Congress to end slavery and the slave trade.
Before I read his autobiography, I knew very little about Benjamin Franklin. I knew that he was a Founding Father of the United States (whatever exactly that meant) and that his face is on the U.S. $100 bill.
Sure – Benjamin Franklin invented bifocal glasses, the rocking chair, the lightning rod, the flexible urinary catheter, and improved swimming fins. Sure – Franklin identified the gulf stream phenomenon (reducing cross-Atlantic transit time by hours), helped draft the Declaration of Independence, owned a successful business, and represented the U.S. at the signing of the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Revolutionary War. Yet, those accomplishments all seem so, I don’t know – far away from my personal life.
All of those cool gadgets, institutions, etc., yet his writings on moral philosophy are arguably the most relevant or insightful to our lives today.
Now that we’ve gone over ‘ole Ben’s values, what values do you strive to follow in your life?
If you can come up with any that are better than his, please do tell.