Writing the Autobiography in his 79th year, Franklin looks back to when, at age 22, he undertook “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He wanted to live without committing any fault. He wanted to conquer all that natural inclination, custom and tradition, or the company of others might lead him to wrongly do. He wanted in short to reform himself, by himself, in order to possess full self-command. Alas, he discovered that this was no easy task. Bad habits and wayward inclinations continued to lead him astray. He therefore decided to undertake a more methodical approach
This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Benjamin Franklin’s “The Project of Moral Perfection” a passage from his Autobiography. After learning about the author, read the excerpt below along with the questions. You can click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee-Chattanooga) about the essay. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
As the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was by custom and tradition destined to be a nobody. Yet thanks to his own resourcefulness, he more than escaped his destiny. His life spanned the 18th century, and he managed to see and to participate firsthand in much that it had to offer. Read more about Franklin.
"It was about this time [circa 1728] that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either 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."
Read more on page 1 of the Worksheet PDF.
In the various Enumerations of the moral Virtues I had met with in my Reading, I found the Catalogue more or less numerous, as different Writers included more or fewer Ideas under the same Name … I included under Thirteen Names of Virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annex’d to each a short Precept, which fully express’d the Extent I gave to its Meaning.
—Read more on pages 2 and 3 of the worksheet
"My Intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues, I judg’d it would be well not to distract my Attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and when I should be Master of that, then to proceed to another …"
Read more on page 4 of the worksheet
"I determined to give a Week’s strict Attention to each of the Virtues successively. Thus in the first Week my great Guard was to avoid every the least Offence against Temperance … if in the first Week I could keep my first Line marked T clear of Spots, I suppos’d the Habit of that Virtue so much strengthen’d and its opposite weaken’d, that I might venture extending my Attention to include the next … Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro’ a Course compleat in Thirteen Weeks, and four Courses in a Year."
Read more on page 6 of the worksheet PDF
"I enter’d upon the Execution of this Plan for Self Examination, and continu’d it with occasional Intermissions for some time. I was surpriz’d to find myself so much fuller of Faults than I had imagined, but I had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish."
Read more on page 9 of the worksheet PDF
"In Truth I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my Memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it; As those who aim at perfect Writing by imitating the engraved Copies, tho’ they never reach the wish’d for Excellence of those Copies, their Hand is mended by the Endeavour, and is tolerable while it continues fair & legible."
Read more on page 10 of the worksheet PDF
"My List of Virtues contain’d at first but twelve: But a Quaker Friend having kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing & rather insolent; of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several Instances;—I determined endeavouring to cure myself …, and I added Humility to my List, giving an extensive Meaning to the Word."
Read more on page 11 of the worksheet PDF
Questions: Motives, Purposes, Results
Questions: Franklin’s Humor and Irony
We have already noted that the Franklin who is the protagonist of the Autobiography differs from the Franklin who writes it: Protagonist Franklin lacks much of the superiority of author Franklin. This device is, we suggest, part of the author’s rhetorical strategy for enabling the reader to identify with—and to wish to emulate—the “hero” of the book.
If this is correct, then Franklin is doing something more than merely telling us his life story. He is trying to educate future generations of Americans toward becoming better, happier, and more useful citizens of the United States. He is trying to prepare them to become, like him, a man capable of both personal and political self-government—in a word, to become free. (In Middle English, the word “frank” means “to be free”; hence to become a “Franklin” is, literally, to become a free man.) Accordingly, when we think with the text—and not just about the text—we should think about the implication of Franklin’s teachings (both in content and in manner) for America and for the American character and it education.
Questions: Human Being and Citizen
Questions: The Virtues of Civic Life
Questions: Teaching Good Character