“It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection,” Franklin writes. “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.” He soon found the task “of more Difficulty than I had imagined,” but decided that one’s bad deeds resulted from bad habits, and that with concentration one could substitute good habits for the bad ones. He decided that 13 virtues were either necessary or desirable, arranged them so that the first acquired could help in assimilating the second, and so on:
1. TEMPERANCE: Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. SILENCE: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. ORDER: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. RESOLUTION: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. SINCERITY: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. MODERATION: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS: Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes, or Habitation.
11. TRANQUILITY: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
13. HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin allotted himself one week to acquire each new virtue. And in order to see his progress, he made a record book and gave himself a black mark each time he failed to exhibit a virtue on which he was working. He also made a schedule for his day, allotting seven hours for sleep, eight for work, and nine for planning, reviewing, reflecting, eating, relaxing, and reading. Though he found that he was “fuller of Faults than [he] had imagined,” Franklin also found that he “had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” He was never good at order or humility; the latter, in fact, had been added somewhat later than the others because a friend convinced him that he was justly suspected of being proud. He later learned that “there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue” as pride; he even wondered, had he conquered pride, whether he wouldn’t have been proud of his humility. But he carefully simulated the appearance of humility, if not the reality of it. And though he never attained perfection, he still felt better and happier from having attempted it. He felt, in fact, that all his past blessings of health, prosperity, reputation and popularity were due to these efforts.
Franklin’s plan to attain perfection astonishes the modern reader for many reasons, among them the assumptions on which such a plan was based. For our author assumed not only that man is perfectible but also that the perfecting can be completed fairly quickly. Franklin assumed that man is reasonable, that through his reason he can control himself, and that he can resolve, at a given moment, to unlearn “bad habits” of thought and action and substitute good ones. He also assumed that what one should do in any given situation, the kind of action “good habits” would dictate, would be easy to identify.
Franklin’s view of man lacks the complexity one acknowledges in a post-Freudian world. But if he appears at points in-tolerably optimistic about human nature, he also acknowledges his failure to attain perfection with a modern, ironic sense of humor that still makes him likable. Having seen that perfection would never be his, he decided that such a condition “might be a Kind of Foppery in Morals, which if it were known would make me ridiculous; that a perfect Character might be attended with the Inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent Man should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance.”
Franklin always assumed that virtue was worth pursuing because of its practical benefits, not because of some abstract worth. Order, resolution, and industry, for example, he felt would lead to affluence and independence. And once these last two qualities were achieved, sincerity and justice would be easier to afford. His approach to specific virtues was therefore a practical one. In learning silence, he allowed himself to speak what would benefit him, and in learning frugality, to incur expense that would do him good. It is not surprising, when the spirit behind this list is understood, that the original group of twelve virtues includes both temperance and moderation. For Franklin obviously believed that even one’s virtues should be cultivated within moderate bounds, in order to foster happiness, and never as ends in themselves.
His questionable worldview put aside, Franklin’s list impresses on a purely literary level. His explanatory maxims are models of well-turned phrases: pointed, concise, clear, and memorable as balanced aphorisms. If the list suggests why Franklin is no longer consulted as a philosopher, it also illustrates why he is still admired as a prose stylist.