List of Virtues to Achieve Moral Perfection by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most influential ‘Founding Fathers of the United States’. He was a noted polymath, political theorist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, soldier, diplomat, a leading author and printer. Franklin defined the roots of American values and character which include hard work, education and community spirit.

He published a popular yearly almanack called Poor Richard’s Almanack and took a fictitious name, “Poor Richard” or “Richard Saunders”. It was very popular for its extensive use of wordplay, with many examples derived from the work surviving in the contemporary American language.

Benjamin Franklin formulated a set of virtues he sought to attain in his own life, without the aid of any church or minister. Through this list of virtues, he sought to achieve “moral perfection”. Here it is, as he presents it in the autobiography.

    Eat not to Dullness
    Drink not to Elevation
    Speak not but what way benefit others or your self. Avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER
    Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
    Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
    Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
    Lose no Time – Be always employed in something useful. – cut off all unnecessary Actions.
    Use no hurtful Deceit.
    Think innocently and justly;and, if you speak; speak accordingly.

    Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
    Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
    Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
    Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable
    Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’ s Peace or Reputation.
    Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The list is an interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes. His virtues would all pass the test of usefulness that he had assigned as the reason for their being commanded, presumably by God. And it will be seen that his own conception of usefulness included being useful to others. All his surviving papers testify to his lifelong wish to be useful to his friends, to his countrymen, and to mankind in general. Franklin devoted most of his life to public service. But his list of virtues is focused on habits of behavior that would be useful to him personally and would not usually be considered essential ingredients of moral rectitude like temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, moderation, cleanliness, and tranquility would make for a happy life but neglect of them would not usually be regarded as morally evil except as it might indirectly affect other people. The remaining four – sincerity, justice, chastity and humility – would affect his relations with others. These four are framed not as a positive duty to others but rather as ways of not doing them any harm.

What is totally missing from the list is charity, love of one’s fellow man. And charity, it will become evident, was actually the guiding principle of Franklin’s life. It is tempting to conclude that he left it out because it was a virtue that Christians so often failed to exhibit while professing to hold it above all others. By exhibiting it conspicuously in his own life while making no pretension to it, he was perhaps affirming to himself the superiority of a “moral perfection” that had nothing to do with Christianity.

Franklin placed temperance at the top of his list, and Poor Richard enjoins it again and again in different guises: Eat to live, and not live to eat; To lengthen thy Life, lessen thy Meals; Take counsel in wine, but resolve afterwards in water; He that drinks fast, pays slow; Nothing more like a Foll, than a drunken Man. All these were in the first almanac in 1733, and in subsequent years he found a hundred different ways to say the same thing. The most frequent admonitions, for which Poor Richard became famous, were those to industry and frugality. There were so many of them that in his last almanac, for 1758, he collected them in a speech he attributed to one Father Abraham. It was immediately reprinted separately and continued to be, usually under the title “The Way to Wealth”. There were over a hundred editions in more than a dozen languages over the next fifty years.

Because of the popularity of this tract and the title given to it by publishers (not by Franklin), his name has been associated ever since its publication with industry and frugality, as though these were the guiding principles of his life, with wealth as his objective. Franklin certainly did value industry and frugality, along with the other virtues on his list, and they did bring him wealth, enough so that he could retire as the age of forty-two, when he placed the running of his business in the hands of his partner David Hall. He was still a young man, and if wealth had been his objective he could probably have had it in as large a measure as anyone in America. But Franklin had never thought of industry and frugality as the way to wealth but as a way to contentment, and Poor Richard warned that “Contentment and Riches seldom meet together.” Franklin was struck by “the general Foible of Mankind, in the Pursuit of Wealth to no end.” Poor Richard phrased the thought for him: “If your riches are yours, why don’t you take them with you to the other World,” for “the use of Money is all the Advantage there is in having Money.” And in a letter to a friend, Franklin gave his view that “what we have above what we can use, is not properly ours, we possess it.”

Source: Benjamin Franklin by Edmond.S.Morgan

1. The list is the most lasting list of virtues compiled by him. He has modified his previous lists based on experience and new thoughts.

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