Defining himself as “The youngest Son of the youngest Son for five Generations back,” Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, Franklin would be known as a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.
Perhaps, most of all, he would be known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. In this article, I am exploring Franklin’s virtues, a set of personal values Ben Franklin defined for himself in an effort to become, or at least try to be, the best version of himself.
Benjamin Franklin’s Short Bio
Although he only had a few years of formal education, which ended when he was ten years old, Franklin continued to learn on his own, primarily focusing on his writing craft. He knew instinctively that writing skills were relevant, as it was an aptitude few had a good grasp on in those days. In his Autobiography, he admitted that writing was “of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement.”
When Franklin’s brother James founded a newspaper in 1721, Franklin, then fifteen, began writing for it. From then on, Franklin’s life continued to unfold in a series of ventures and life experiences that led to him being known today as one of the most famous American figures of the 18th century. His work and achievements transcended that period, and to this day, he remains one of the most successful people that history has ever produced.
In his biography on Britannica.com, it says that “Probably Franklin’s most important invention was himself. He created so many personas in his newspaper writings and Almanac, and in his posthumously published Autobiography, it isn’t easy to know who he really was.
Following his death in 1790, he became so identified during the 19th century with the persona of his Autobiography and the Poor Richard maxims of his Almanac — such as, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” — that he acquired the image of the self-made moralist obsessed with the getting and saving of money.
With such a remarkable life and vast accomplishments, it’s not surprising that more than 200 years after his death, Franklin remains one of the most revered and celebrated figures in US History.
“Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.” — Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues
Although there are many things in Benjamin Franklin’s life that we can dissect and try to understand, in this article, I will focus on a set of self-developed rules for living that Franklin created for himself in an attempt to become a better person. Today, these are known as Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues, and, as you will see shortly, there’s a good reason why they have stood the test of time, and we are still examining them today with fresh eyes.
First, what is a virtue? Virtue means moral excellence; it’s a trait that is considered morally right and desirable in a person. Unlike values, which are not always desirable, virtues are qualities universally accepted to have a high moral value.
Every religion worldwide has a set of virtues that are not vastly different, as the generally accepted behaviors that lead to moral excellence are common. For example, Christianity defines four cardinal virtues as temperance, prudence, courage, and justice. In addition, there are three more theological virtues: Faith, hope, and love.
Plato also defined similar values before Christianity even existed:
- Prudence — the ability to discern the appropriate course of action in a given situation at the right time
- Courage — also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation
- Temperance — also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation
- Justice — also considered as fairness or righteousness.
Aristotle, the most famous of Plato’s students, expanded this list, further defining twelve virtues:
- Courage — bravery and valor
- Temperance — self-control and restraint
- Liberality — charity and generosity
- Magnificence — radiance, joie de vivre
- Pride — self-satisfaction
- Honor — respect, reverence, admiration
- Good Temper — equanimity, level-headedness
- Friendliness — conviviality and sociability
- Truthfulness — straightforwardness, frankness, and honesty
- Wit — a sense of humor
- Friendship — camaraderie and companionship
- Justice — impartiality, evenhandedness, and fairness
Throughout history, governments, religions, and philosophers continued to refine the idea of cardinal values and rewrite them to fit their purpose. So, it’s no surprise that a forward-thinking man such as Benjamin Franklin realized that having your own set of virtues and using them as a guideline for your own life is critical as a prerequisite to becoming a better human being.
So, in 1726, when he was only twenty years old, Franklin created a system that he believed would help him develop his character. Here are Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues as he described them in his Autobiography:
- 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 employed 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 uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility: 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.
“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.”
Let’s glimpse at the meaning of each virtue to understand why Ben Franklin kept them on his list.
The Virtues And Their Meaning
“Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.” — Benjamin Franklin
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
To this day, we all know that overindulging in food or drink is not a good idea. This first virtue is critical because it makes the other virtues possible. Temperance allows the body and mind to function at optimal levels, and the lack of it would make it impossible to uphold the rest.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Franklin was a great orator, and he loved to speak and get his ideas out. Soon, he understood that he wasn’t learning anything from those around him by continually doing so. So, he added the virtue of silence so that he could practice listening. That is one of the habits that I, personally, struggle with.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Good organization leads to increased effectiveness and efficiency, and Franklin was all about organizing his life and optimizing his productivity. He knew early on that to accomplish the many things he was passionate about, he needed to maintain order in all aspects of his life.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
In simple terms, this means to act upon what you set your mind to. Talk is cheap; action leads to achievement. So, if you create a plan, make sure it doesn’t just stay as a plan but that you act on it.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Franklin loved to save money and manage his finances properly. He knew that spending less than what you make is critical if you are to maintain financial independence. Keeping this virtue high on his list, Franklin always managed to keep his finances in check and earn enough so that he wouldn’t have to worry about money throughout his lifetime.
Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
This is a case for using your time wisely and cutting out any activities in your life that are wasteful. Much as Eisenhower, who, years later, defined productivity in his priority matrix, Franklin knew that the secret to being productive begins with eliminating unnecessary activities and learning how to say no to distractions.
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
As he ran a newspaper for many years, Franklin understood the power of spreading rumors and manipulating the public through the news. Therefore, he set this virtue in his list to never forget that speaking the truth and being honest are vital for a healthy society.
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
This is a virtue present in almost all value systems around the world and history. It tells us to do the right thing by ourselves and by others. In other words, do not hurt other people in any way, and strive to help others when you are in a position to do so.
Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Although this virtue seems to be very similar to temperance, it expands the concept beyond food and drink. I think Franklin saw temperance as related to overeating and overdrinking as the most critical type of moderation. But, to that end, he continued to advocate moderation in all aspects of life, as leading a harmonious existence would be the only way to live a balanced life.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
This one is obvious to most of us, but nonetheless, an important one to keep in your arsenal of personal virtues. Franklin thought so, too, especially during a time in history where hygiene was not readily available. Keeping yourself clean and well put together and maintaining a clean and organized abode sets the groundwork for the rest of your life.
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
This is a case for self-control and becoming the master of your own feelings. Many little things in life hit us harshly in the face, and Franklin advocated that one should expose calmness and not get worked up when faced with them. It is possibly one of the most challenging virtues to maintain because it involves getting a grip on your emotions; this is a critical virtue to uphold.
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
In today’s world, promiscuity no longer has the same weight as it had in the seventeenth century. Nonetheless, the virtue of being faithful and not using people for sex still stands. Franklin added this virtue to his list as he struggled with sex addiction for a long time and felt the need to keep himself in check.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
As a high achiever, Franklin also struggled with humility. Although he understood it, he frequently felt that he was not living up to it. Jesus and Socrates are the epitomai of humility, so Benjamin Franklin set them up as a personal example for himself in his quest to maintain a humble demeanor.
Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue-Tracking Journal
Much as he knew that setting up a system to follow is an essential step in one’s personal development, Franklin also understood early on that practicing running his life by these virtues in a consistent and ritualistic manner was also vital. There’s no point in having a list unless you can gauge yourself against it constantly.
Now, Franklin wasn’t a stranger to journaling and keeping track of things. Here is a page of a regular day-tracker that Franklin used:
Daily tracking journals and journaling, in general, are in vogue today but look at the clarity and simplicity of Franklin’s journal. And when you think he created this in his twenties during the 17th century, it is that much more impressive.
But, it’s not that surprising for a man who once wrote,
“Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.”
To keep track of his performance across the thirteen virtues, Franklin created a different journal type, which is very similar to today’s habit-tracking journals. Because he understood the value of focus, Franklin would cycle through the virtues and select one to be the main emphasis each week.
From Monday through Sunday, he would make a mark in his journal whenever he couldn’t uphold the respective virtue.
At the end of the week, he would reflect upon it, trying to understand why it had happened and what he could do in future weeks to prevent it from happening.
It was Franklin’s way of doing his weekly review and self-reflection.
Toward the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin noted that
“on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it. Yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
What he is essentially saying is that moral perfection is, in fact, unattainable. Still, by keeping yourself steady and maintaining good moral values as a compass for your life, you will lean toward that perfection, and you will lead a life that, in the end, you can be proud of.
If you liked this…
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