Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues
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.
Who was Benjamin Franklin?
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.
Directions: Read this passage from Franklin’s Autobiography: asking how Franklin “conceiv’d [his] bold and arduous Project”?
"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.
- What is a “Project”?
- What is “Moral Perfection”? Is this a reasonable goal for a human being? How does Franklin’s aspiration relate to Jesus’ teaching, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)?
- What is bold about this project? What assumptions about human nature, human (original) sinfulness, and human perfectibility are implied?
- What is arduous about this project? Why is it so hard?
- Do you think you could ever attain a state of moral perfection? Why or why not? Is it still worth seeking, even if you can never grasp it fully
How did Franklin decide on thirteen virtues and what kind of behavior did each one require?
"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
- What is a virtue? How does a morality that emphasizes virtue differ from one that emphasizes rules (or commandments) about right and wrong acts?
- Consider each virtue in turn, with its explanatory precepts. Does each make sense? Do you find the precepts adequate? (For example, Franklin’s precept for Sincerity includes, “Use no hurtful deceit.” Is this a good—or good enough—teaching for sincere speech?) Are there any virtues missing?
- According to Franklin, what good are these virtues? Is virtue its own reward? Or does it lead to other, more important goods and benefits?
- What do you think of Franklin’s method for acquiring the virtues, including cataloguing them in his little book? If you were to try to improve your own character, would you adopt Franklin’s strategy? Why or why not?
Since Franklin understands the virtues as habits, how does he go about acquiring these habits?
"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
How was Franklin able to progress in virtue over time?
"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
What was his plan for self-examination?
"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 what respect was Franklin “incorrigible”?
"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
Why did he need one additional virtue?
"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
Thinking with the Text
Questions: Motives, Purposes, Results
- Why did young Franklin undertake this project?
- What did he achieve from it?
- Does Franklin become a fully self-made man? A fully free man? A person with full self-command?
- How might his own self-command relate to his success in the world? To his service to his country?
Questions: Franklin’s Humor and Irony
- Franklin’s account of his project, though serious in intent, is sprinkled throughout (as is the entire Autobiography) with humor and irony. (Look carefully, for example, at some of the precepts, at the anecdote about the speckled axe, and at his final comments on pride and humility.) What is irony? What are other examples of humor or irony in the story? Why do you think he uses both humor and irony?
- What is the relation between the serious and the ironic or humorous elements in Franklin’s account?
Thinking with the Story
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
- What do you think a person who attained all of the thirteen virtues would be like?
- Would such a person make a good neighbor?
- Would such a person make a good citizen?
- Is it possible to be a good citizen in our self-governing nation without first governing oneself? Can one be a “free human being” without self-command?
- Is Franklin right in implying that it is possible to harmonize self-fulfillment (or concern with one’s own personal happiness) and good citizenship? Or does being a good citizen (civic virtue) require self-denial?
WATCH: How do the Franklinian virtues compare to more traditional conceptions of virtue and morality?
Questions: The Virtues of Civic Life
- Has Franklin provided a necessary and sufficient moral framework for educating free, self-governing citizens in a modern commercial society? What virtues would you add, delete, or replace, for citizens of 21st century America? What about courage and self-sacrifice or generosity or reverence? What about compassion and public spiritedness? Is self-command sufficient to induce the willingness to serve one’s neighbors or one’s community and country?
- How do the Franklinian virtues compare to more traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) conceptions of virtue and morality? Are his virtues compatible with or supportive of the religious virtues? Or do they undermine them?
- Is Franklin’s list of virtues suitable—and possible—for every American, regardless of race, class, or gender?
Questions: Teaching Good Character
- What is the best way to acquire good habits and to develop virtuous character? Should Franklin’s methods be imitated today?