Becoming a Better Person: Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Quest

8652779Over the Christmas holiday I received a slender volume about one of my favorite historical figures: TIME: Benjamin Franklin: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times (Time-Life Books), by Richard Lacayo (ed.) I totally enjoyed reading it -– interesting information about this extraordinary American. His accomplishments and passion for self-education, contribution, hard work, etc. are most inspiring.

I read his autobiography many decades ago and even listened to highlights of it on cassette tape during my commuting period. This book is consistent with that earlier input.

I would strongly urge everyone to read Franklin’s “. . . bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection” on page 39. He lists 13 virtues that he intended to cultivate during his lifetime. In his autobiography he even explains a systematic approach that he used to cultivate these virtues.

Here’s a sample:

Ben Franklin’s Virtues:

Franklin placed each of the 13 virtues on a separate page in a little book which he carried with him for more than 50 years. Each day he evaluated his performance with regard to each of them. Every week he selected one of the virtues as a point of special focus, concentrating his attention on the selected trait for seven days.

Did Ben Franklin feel that this focus on his governing values was helpful? As he wrote in his autobiography, “I always carried my little book with me . . . and it may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owes the constant felicity of his life down to his seventy-ninth year, in which this is written.”

The names of these virtues, with their precepts, were:

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, clothes, or habitation.

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

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery [sexual activity] 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.

Image: Cover of TIME: Benjamin Franklin: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times (Time-Life Books), by Richard Lacayo; featuring Portrait of Benjamin Franklin; circa 1785; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; public domain

About the author: William Pauwels

William A. Pauwels, Sr. was born in Jackson Michigan to a Belgian, immigrant, entrepreneurial family. Bill is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and served in executive and/or leadership positions at Thomson Industries, Inc., Dow Corning, Loctite and Sherwin-Williams. He is currently CIO of Pauwels Private Investment Practice. He's been commenting on matters political/economic/philosophical since 1980.

View all articles by William Pauwels

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