Benjamin Franklin Virtues


Michael Benton, Contributor

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benjamin franklin virtuesBenjamin Franklin was an eccentric polymath who was renowned as a womanizer and bon vivant extraordinaire. Despite his well documented philandering, no one has ever questioned Franklin's ambition for personal growth and strong individualism as the key to a stronger society. In his famous, posthumous publication The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, the author laid out a list of principles for his descendants and future Americans to follow. The 13 virtues of Benjamin Franklin focused on personal development through control of habits and emotions; he saw moderation and restraint as integral to becoming a better man. While he quickly admitted that perfection was impossible and kept a record of his own failure to adhere to the virtues at all times, Benjamin Franklin's virtues survived as a symbol of his personal and social philosophy. An important factor in the 13 virtues was protection of one's social reputation, for Franklin recognized that success often depended on the perception of others.

The virtues Franklin listed were not like commandments but instead closer to guidelines. Nominally, they were Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. Each came along with an explanation and direction. For many of them, the explanation revolved around overconsumption and subsequent "dullness" or overreaction and insincerity. Besides cleanliness, none were meant to be total and concrete; chastity did not imply complete abstinence nor did tranquility mean ignoring serious calamities. In many ways, the Benjamin Franklin 13 virtues are quite similar to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism which focuses on maintaining "Right" emotions and consciousness. Obviously there is no connection as Franklin was a Christian Deist, but it is notable that philosophy from different millennia and distant cultures would come to similar conclusions about moderation and self-control as a path to personal improvement and success. Franklin's personal reputation grew to precede him as he journeyed through Europe and no one doubted his relevance as he was chosen for many important diplomatic positions throughout his career.

Benjamin Franklin began writing his autobiography in 1771 while he was living in London as a representative of the colonies. He originally wrote it as an extended message to his son, William, who was increasingly growing opposed to his father on the issue of American Independence. Regardless of their political differences, Benjamin expressed great love for his son and wished to pass on the wisdom of their forefathers as well as his own. While Part One was focused on explaining his antecedents and early life to William, the 13 virtues appeared in Part Three which was directed towards all of Franklin's descendants as well as future citizens of the United States. In Part Three, Franklin included a record of his own faults and missteps while attempting to live by the 13 virtues. However, Franklin was adamant that it was the attempt to live virtuously that made him feel stronger and more secure about himself as an upstanding gentleman and leading citizen. For Benjamin Franklin, virtues such as those he listed were key to building a stronger nation with a citizenry qualified to lead it forward.