Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues

This week I began listening to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin during my morning commute and it is a remarkably entertaining and insightful little book. Already I am desirous to own it even though only partially through. It seems like having a copy one can mark up and re-visit would be useful. Then again, it may just be a certain kind of covetousness on my part since the whole of it can be found online and re-visited any time one wished.

His descriptions of early life in the American colonies, and his various tactics and motivations for bettering himself would be useful for any of us. For example, he early decided (in his teens I believe) to avoid saying words like "obviously" and "most assuredly" because it immediately created a barrier between you and others who perceive you as an arrogant "know it all" and puts them in an adversarial position to you. The better approach is to ease into your views and hold them tentatively so they can be considered and received rather than resisted because we attempted to slam them home.

Kind reader, do forgive me for having not learned this wise counsel while in my younger years because it is, sadly, a lesson I would have done well to apply. Obviously, I have most assuredly been an idiot on many occasions where I surmised myself otherwise. Hopefully, it is not too late for me. old dog that I am. And may you learn from Mr. Franklin's counsel here rather than my example.

There were many other points at which I wished to pull my car over and scribble notes. Happily I have found Franklin's autobiography on a website which can be bookmarked and returned to now and then.

Franklin made deliberate attempts at living a virtuous life, and is honest about the challenges this presented him. Yet he applied himself diligently to the task. I thought this section to be especially interesting when I listened to it on the way home tonight.

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; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. 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 bad imagined. While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.

In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I had met with in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I propos'd to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning.

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were

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 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, cloaths, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the 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 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; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd 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. This being acquir'd and establish'd, Silence would be more easy; and my desire being to gain knowledge at the same time that I improv'd in virtue, and considering that in conversation it was obtain'd rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue, and therefore wishing to break a habit I was getting into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company, 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....

Well, if your interest has been peaked, that's my aim here. Much good can probably come from ruminating on these precepts.


M Denise C said...

E, I love reading anything on Ben Franklin! The last thing I read was the biography by Walter Isaacson a few years ago. Wonderful book. Denise

ENNYMAN said...

More tomorrow, I think. It's a really good read... We'd do well to remember our roots.