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Benjamin Franklin’s “art of virtue”: a user’s guide

Benjamin Franklin

There is more to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) than the American icon we know today. A printer by trade, he became famous as a successful businessman, a gifted inventor, a scientist, a civic leader, a statesman, a diplomat (he was the first American ambassador to France), and the author of several essays on matters ranging from politics to marriage or the game of chess. Now, besides having invented the lightning rod and counting among the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin led a personal quest into the spiritual roots of morality—an aspect of his life which is perhaps less commonly celebrated. Wary of all religious dogma, and yet deeply attached to the basic tenets of natural religion (the existence of a “Deity,” the immortality of the soul, the retribution of the good, etc.), he devoted several essays and collections of aphorisms to the issue of morality and the importance of civic and personal virtue. More than that, his passion for virtue was an integral part of his daily life, as made clear by several passages of his Autobiography.

The following excerpt is a good illustration of the kind of hands-on approach to personal ethics favoured by Franklin. It emphasises the need to devise concrete protocols for a sustained, steady, long-term involvement with vices and virtues—that is, bad and good “habits”. Franklin’s message is quite simple: the self-transformative process of developing ethical skills such as temperance, order, resolution or sincerity, cannot be left to mere improvisation. If it is indeed more than a matter of good-feeling, ethics requires method. In the following, he explains how he came up with an ingenious format that helped him keep track of his daily exercises in practical ethics: a “little book” or a grid, as it is. Those familiar with the “self-help” genre will  feel at home. Franklin’s organisational skills are indeed impressive. But even more striking is his talent for self-analysis, his ability to scrutinise the complex mechanics of interlocking motives, ideas and emotions behind the most ordinary conduct.

Note: Franklin’s method can easily be adapted to more sophisticated technologies, including mobile phones: losing weight is not the only usage one can think of for personal organisation or self motivation apps such as Daily Tracker® or The Habit Factor®…

[Here is an excerpt of the Autobiography – pdf format]


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17 comments

  1. Noel Oct 31, 2010 2:33 pm 1

    Thank you for this excellent article! It was very motivating and underscored the importance of persevering and having realistic expectations when following a program for self-transformation.

  2. Elsa Oct 31, 2010 3:26 pm 2

    How Fascinating! How interesting and what a useful discovery! What wise humans are capable of achieving and how positively we can channel our thoughts and efforts for the benefit of others and our own! How motivational! How important it is to work on oneself in an organized and systematic manner! I can’t wait to pursue in a more organized manner… With much thanks and appreciation for your research and providing us with this wonderful article!

  3. tig Oct 31, 2010 7:24 pm 3

    Interesting! I already tried Benjamin Franklin’s program (more or less). About 3 months ago, I came across his Autobiography and thought it was worth a try. Obviously some changes were necessary as he didn’t seem to care about sport, household chores or even shopping!!
    I had to prepare an important exam and so during one month I tried to follow the same planning but:
    – I woke up around 7-8am.
    – I added sport in the evening, minimum of 2 times/week
    – I managed day per day for other tasks such as shopping, household chores, friends, especially the days I was working (had to study in the evening then).

    I must say it’s been a very rewarding period. My life was well-organized, everything was going well.
    One of the most difficult things for me was to go to bed early… days are always too short…
    But anyway I saw day after day that I wanted it to be more and more challenging and my goal was, like B. Franklin, to start my day at 5am. It never happened unfortunately.

    This work has been possible also because most of my friends were away. In this context, it was easy to organize my life without any special “constraint”. But as long as they came back, I felt the change!!
    Suddenly I had to include in my program more time for “entertainment”, I had to re-organize everything.
    Honestly I felt a bit depressed and confused when that happened… couldn’t manage everything.

    But finally I learnt it was good to be flexible and to change my routine sometimes, otherwise I may become like a robot – not good.

    Anyway, I really appreciate the approach of B. Franklin to morality and ethics. Thank you for this excellent article, very helpful 🙂

  4. nahjaf Nov 01, 2010 11:34 am 4

    How wonderful it is to have such a motivating article to remind us of the importance of organising and maintaining a programme if we are to rid ourselves of bad habits and acquire virtues. It is particularly helpful as it brings in a historical insight together with suggestions of modern tools where one’s motivation can be translated into a readily accessible programme of action with minimal effort. Thank you for reducing my justifications in lacking proactivity when attempting to make changes in my behaviour.

  5. MA Nov 01, 2010 5:20 pm 5

    I admire those scientists who have furnished both sides of material science together with high morals and virtues. I believe that Benjamin Franklin is a gift of God, and can be a great motivation and example for today’s people of this sort.

  6. neuro Nov 02, 2010 2:52 pm 6

    What a wonderful glimpse into the thought of a man I only thought I knew from history class! I related most to this phrase:
    “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
    Isn’t this the sign of a good daily practice?

  7. Hengameh-K Nov 02, 2010 9:35 pm 7

    I immediately added self motivation apps such as Ben’s virtues, Daily Tracker® and The Habit Factor to my ipad. Very useful!
    It’s fascinating when the latest technologies can remind us the most important matters which we easily forget them in our everyday life .

  8. msmrangidan Nov 03, 2010 7:33 am 8

    How easy to become learned How difficult to become human

    Human life is a cycle of learning and development. It is up to every human being to cultivate real humanity within themselves and work to “make themselves as immortal as far as that is possible – Benjamin Franklin one of exceptional human beings able to acquired this virtues. This is an excellent reminder…

  9. tig Nov 03, 2010 6:51 pm 9

    @Hengameh-K
    Thanks for the apps! Will try them out straightaway!

  10. Happi Nov 08, 2010 10:01 am 10

    The highlight of this article for me: I was reminded the importance of organizational skills. We all can benefit to have good organizational skills. Putting in place where things belongs to, being neat and tidy. Getting rid of old and spoilt things to make space for new. People who have good organizational skills tend to be efficient, punctual and reliable. Because they use a systematic approach to managing their time, clearing their desk, arranging their space, they can find what they need quickly and rarely have to cope with the stress of missing deadline.

  11. NT Nov 09, 2010 6:15 pm 11

    To reiterate the importance of having a means to track our daily efforts, as suggested in the article I have been using Daily Tracker® to monitor my progress in a number of goals I have set for myself, and have found it immensely helpful. First, I feel accountable to something, because at the end of the day I am confronted by my own efforts and actions. Second, I find it very motivating when I can see that I have succeeded at times. And finally, it provides me with time to stop and reflect on my daily activity, and reevaluate and learn from my experiences. I highly recommend using some sort of tool to track your efforts.

  12. Peter Windsor Nov 09, 2010 11:43 pm 12

    A wonderful excerpt to read. For me, it is best summed-up by that small phrase “…a friend was kind enough to point out that I was proud…” How many times have I resented being told a truth like that? And yet Benjamin Franklin was grateful.

  13. pam Nov 12, 2010 6:05 am 13

    What an eye-opening article! I always considered Benjamin Franklin as a historical figure and brilliant mind, but I never knew that he worked on his character so systematically. It was refreshing to see evidence of a man using his own rationality and intelligence for the good, instead of simply to reach materialistic and selfish goals.

    A point that resonated with me in particular was Franklin’s realization that pride was perhaps the most difficult character fault to attack and overcome. Even when I think that I have overcome pride, I start to notice my new-found humility… and then start to become proud of the “strides” that I have made. Before I know it, I am back to square one.

  14. k Mar 18, 2011 10:45 pm 14

    I would like to focus on the table shown on page 4 in the pdf file. A couple of weeks ago I thought a lot about how one should (quantitatively) split the time one has available for spiritual actions (excluding natural meditation). For example how much time one should spend praying and studying spiritual books.
    I will first make two citations:
    “… it is necessary to devise and regularly practice a structured program of prayer …”. (The Path of Perfection, page 164).
    “Choose three different times during the day to think of God…”. (Spirituality is a Science, page 50).

    Now for me as a student it is difficult to decide on some times during the day to set aside for praying, since my schedule varies across the weekdays. For most of my days, I should be happy if I have had prayed one single time. That is praying three times per day is not a usual thing.
    It is here that the interesting thing about the table on page 4 in this document comes in; I am mostly referring to the morning section. That is one can each and every morning plan the day. And this should be feasible for everybody.

  15. k Apr 18, 2012 9:19 pm 15

    I have recently realized that it is Benjamin Franklin’s picture that are on the hundred dollar bills.

  16. adissam Jul 18, 2012 2:07 am 16

    I would add Joe’s goals to the list of tools to keep track of a daily practice.

    I’ve been using it for the last couple of months and I’m rather satisfied with it: able to leave comments (logs) in addition to scores, and it’s free.

    If anyone has found alternative tools or methods, I’d be interested to hear about it.

  17. kbld Jan 21, 2014 4:23 am 17

    Smartphone applications can be very useful tools. I made a lot of tests, selected the ones which can be used for the purpose of practicing ethics and posted the results as a comment on the French version of this article.
    To sum up, SmartGoals is very good for specific goals; a step more encompassing are the apps in the second section like Study Checker or Litelog; and the apps in the third section allow online synchronisation, specifically Rescue Time is a very good tool (even if a lot more expensive, the free version is worthless) – Paymo is a lot simpler but free.

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