As a Founding Father, inventor, philosopher, and man of many different trades, Benjamin Franklin is widely recognized as one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived. Though—as he would surely be the first to tell you—he was not a man without faults, the impact he has had across American society continues to persist well into the 21st Century.
Benjamin Franklin was undeniably an influential individual, but he didn’t become the man that was overnight. In fact, he worked diligently to maintain a consistent set of virtues and also strived to regularly engage in creating productive habits. He realized that a person’s value was not determined by who they were, rather, this value came from what that person was able to actually do. Even though it has been more than 200 years since he passed away, his unique approach to promoting habits and virtues is something that is still remarkably useful.
Benjamin Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues
In his many writings, Benjamin Franklin frequently discusses the concept of virtue and how virtue is essential to maintaining a free society of human beings. In general, virtue can be defined as “behavior showing high moral standards.” Though morality is something that we may not be able to understand its complex entirety, it seems that being moral is still something that all human beings have a natural need to be generally striving to achieve.
Specifically, in Benjamin Franklin’s relatively brief autobiography—which is arguably one of the most important books in the American literary canon—he discusses an ongoing commitment to establishing thirteen specific virtues that would result in a better life. Though his autobiography reveals an almost constant failure to achieve all of these virtues at once, he believes that it is the striving to achieve them that is necessary to become a superior version of himself.
- 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—resolved 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, cloaths, or habitation
- Tranquility—be not disturbed at trifles, or 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
Though many of these concepts may certainly be quite broad, Benjamin Franklin believed that if we were able to ever fully establish these virtues, he would then be much closer to the man he hoped to be. Guided by consistent self-reflection (mostly critical), Franklin focused on these virtues throughout significant portions of his life.
Habits as the Foundation, Virtue as the Structure
While striving to establish these virtuous traits is one thing, the question that remains is, how?
Virtue is not something that can be established overnight. Establishing justice, for example, requires much more than simply going a single day without harming others. It requires a willingness to continually be just throughout your entire life. As Benjamin Franklin would certainly agree, it seems that if virtue is to ever be effectively established, you must first begin by establishing productive habits.
Each of Franklin’s thirteen virtues can be achieved through a variety of different means. For example, cleanliness can be established by getting into the habit of making your bed, doing the dishes immediately after eating, making sure to consistently do your laundry or numerous other actions. There is no individual habit that will necessarily guarantee you are a “clean” person, but by trying to consistently engage in these behaviors, it seems you can at least be moving towards a state of objective cleanliness.
All of Franklin’s other virtues can be achieved through similar means. If you hope to be sincere, then you may want to focus on the habit of telling the truth, even when it is inconvenient. If you hope to be more industrious, then you may want to focus on the habits of getting up earlier, working later, and making a deliberate effort to not waste time.
Applying Benjamin Franklin’s Philosophy to Everyday Life
Franklin realized that through his thirteen selected virtues were certainly noble, establishing them in practice would require a seemingly overwhelming amount of work. Instead of going for everything all at once, Franklin decided to begin by focusing on these virtues one at a time and—ideally—in thirteen “weeks” he would become a better man.
The first virtue, temperance, demanded Franklin to resist from eating or drinking too much. Though this was difficult for Franklin, he began his journey forward by focusing on his diet and his drinking habits. Once he felt those were adequately accounted for, he moved onto silence, then order, resolution, and so on.
The virtues mentioned in Franklin’s autobiography were written in accordance with his personal goals, the conditions of the world around him, and a recognition of his own personality. These virtues are by no means binding nor should they be indiscriminately applied to all lifestyles. If there are virtues you believe are more important, you could certainly create a system of your own in which there are different virtues being strived or are being strived for in a different order.
The main takeaway from Franklin’s so-called “virtue experiment” is that if you hope to become a better version of yourself, you should begin by recognizing what is most important to you. Then, in pursuit of this idealized version of yourself, you can easily recognize the kind of habits that will be necessary to establish along the road to getting there. Though human perfection is a great distance away—in fact, it seems it is likely impossible—what is important is that you make a habit to try to be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. The definition of this remains up to you.