I’ve been casually reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography lately and discovering why it’s still read some 200 years after his death (other than that it’s free on the Kindle). Much about Franklin’s life is admirable– his discipline and devotion and loyalty and honesty. If you haven’t read about him, you’d be surprised to see how many everyday novelties started as an idea in Franklin’s brain (glass armonica, bifocals, lightning rod, urinary catheter, franklin stove; not to mention the idea of a fire department, an early stage odometer, and a better city drainage system). He was a brilliant man.
He shows himself to be the perfect religious humanist, believing in a Providence hidden somewhere in the stars, but neglecting any particular faith in anything except himself.
His rigorous self-discipline shames me. He describes his chart where he diagrams 13 virtues to be practiced every weekday with an open space to mark when he botched a virtue. Each week he would determine to master a new virtue; rotating through so as to practice each about almost four times a year:
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
Here is his list of virtues:
- 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. Resolve 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 taht are you duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at 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.
His aggressive determination to eliminate vice make him acutely aware of his faultiness: “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults that I had imagined” and
“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with in, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
I like Ben Franklin. He made a better citizen that I– but sadly, despite having several opportunities to accept the gospel, he denied it, choosing rather to trust in his own virtue for salvation.
I am not as disciplined as Franklin. I should be and I wish I was; glory be to God that one does not have to trust his own ability to be moral for salvation.