“Nothing is so likely to make a man’s fortune as virtue.” – from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
By Laura A. Roser
The other day, I was reading Ben Franklin’s small book entitled The Way to Wealth (edited by Charles Conrad). It’s hard not to like Franklin’s writings – with his methodical processes and simple, straightforward advice. I found myself highlighting little pieces of wisdom and then I came to the last chapter, The Path of Virtue, in which Franklin decides he is going to take on the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
I’ve attempted projects like this myself, usually inspired by overly-zealous Sunday School teachers of my childhood. Unfortunately, my attempts never ended in moral perfection, but they did produce ample amounts of guilt. So, I was pretty curious to see how Mr. Franklin went about tackling the task of becoming morally perfect.
First, he defines what morality means to him – specifically a list of 13 virtues (listed to the right) and then he goes on to create a little book, a virtues journal, in which he tracks his progress. The book had seven columns, one for each day of the week, and 13 rows, one for each virtue. He would evaluate himself each night and place a mark in the column of the virtue he had violated.
Although he tracked each virtue every day, his first idea was to give strict attention to one particular virtue each week. That way, he could become “perfect” in that one virtue while he had varying success with the others. He was able to complete one full course of virtues in 13 weeks (1 week per virtue) and he continued to complete the courses again and again until he became more proficient in living the virtues.
As he moved forward, he writes, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
Because the paper version soon had holes where he had made the marks and erased them to use for the next week, his journal soon changed to more of a whiteboard concept (but he used ivory leaves) where he could write with a black lead pencil and wipe the marks away with a wet sponge.
Written at the beginning of the journal was a prayer which Franklin recited each day to solicit God’s help with living a more virtuous life:
“O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest! strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to they other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.”
As time went by, he would go through one full course of the virtues over a year (instead of doing a course every 13 weeks), then one every several years and finally he omitted it completely because of travel and business endeavors. But, he always carried his little book with him.
He writes, “It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owed the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
Benjamin Franklin’s List of Virtues*:
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; 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; waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed 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. Use the sex urge but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates
* Source: The Way to Wealth: Ben Franklin on Money and Success
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by Laura A. Roser
CEO and Founder of Paragon Road
#1 Expert in Meaning Legacy Planning