Subject: Virtues – Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues
Event: Ben Franklin’s birthday, 1706
Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.
Franklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term. He aided Jefferson in the drafting of The Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.
Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though he freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.
In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old. It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection. As he explains,
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.
The 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 extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, 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 dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection (1).
The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin. Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile). Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (2).
As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:
Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What was Franklin’s project, and why did he carry it out?
Challenge – Tale of a Trait: What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance? Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice. Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits.
1-Project Gutenberg’s Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin
2-Online Etymology Dictionary. “Virtue.”