By Susan Schrier Clouse
By the time he was 24 years old in 1730, Ben Franklin, had lived a quite a life. He had also established himself as a printer, married and started a family. While not a fan of the organized church, he supported his local Presbyterian congregation and attended occasionally. As Franklin described in his Autobiography, one Sunday the sermon focused on this verse from the fourth chapter of Philippians:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Franklin assumed the message would be about morality, doing good and avoiding evil, but the pastor talked about what we Methodists call “attending upon the ordinances of God”: keeping the Sabbath holy, reading Scripture, attending public worship, partaking the Sacrament, respecting God’s ministers. Disappointed, Franklin never returned to that church, but he never gave up on God and God’s ways.
Franklin writes: “It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He wanted to live a faultless life and conquer any vice that “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.”
After much study, he made a list of thirteen virtues he thought were “necessary and desirable” and defined each:
- 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 [sex] but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin focused on one virtue each week for thirteen weeks. He kept track of how he did each day, first in a little notebook and later on a piece of ivory that he could more easily erase and reuse. Some years he repeated the thirteen week course 4 times (the whole year), others he just did it once. He did this, in some fashion, for many years. Later, the demands of his very famous public life as one of our Founding Fathers and champion of liberty kept him from such rigorous such record-keeping, but by then the habits were ingrained.
In the little book where he recorded his successes and failures (he admitted that Order was the most difficult for him), he included quotes from Cato, Cicero and Proverbs for encouragement, and: “And conceiving God to be the fountain of wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it; to this end I formed the following little prayer, which was prefix’d to my tables of examination, for daily use.
“O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.”
He also used a little prayer he took from Thomson’s poems:
“Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme!
O teach me what is good; teach me Thyself!
Save me from folly, vanity, and vice,
From every low pursuit; and fill my soul
With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure;
Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!”
When he was 79 years old, Franklin wrote, he owed “the constant felicity of his life” to his little plan and the blessing of God:
“To temperance he ascribes his long-continued health, and what is still left to him of a good constitution;
“to industry and frugality, the early easiness of his circumstances and acquisition of his fortune, with all that knowledge that enabled him to be a useful citizen, and obtained for him some degree of reputation among the learned;
“to sincerity and justice, the confidence of his country, and the honorable employs it conferred upon him;
“and to the joint influence of the whole mass of the virtues, even in the imperfect state he was able to acquire them, all that evenness of temper and that cheerfulness in conversation which makes his company still sought for, and agreeable even to his younger acquaintance.
“I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”
Wouldn’t we all benefit by considering ourselves descendants of Benjamin Franklin? What would happen if we each embarked upon a path to encourage ourselves to become a more moral people? List those virtues that are important to you, prioritize them, and then take a moment each day to reflect on how you can improve on one or two of them. And don’t neglect to ask God to help you!
All quotes are from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, a copy of which can be found here: http://www.archive.org/stream/theautobiography00148gut/bfaut11.txt