Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Franklin and “The Art of Virtue”

You will be more happy than princes, if you will be more virtuous.
—Poor Richard 
Franklin said to have success we need to have the right attitude. Today’s definition of right attitude was for him a measure of virtue. In the Autobiography he devotes much effort to the topic because, as Poor Richard said, “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.”

The several modern definitions of virtue at dictionary.com are mostly related to goodness or righteousness. For Franklin’s time—and its reverence for the Classical world—the more revealing meaning of virtue comes from the etymology of the word virtus /weer-toos/ meaning “moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth”. Vir is Latin for man. In the Classical sense, to be virtuous is to be manly.

Wikipedia says the original seven virtues were defined at different times: the four “cardinal virtues” by Aristotle and Plato, and the remaining “theological virtues” by the early Christian church. Another, later list of virtues separately created and widely popular in the first millennium made a counterpoint to the “seven deadly sins”:


Ancient: 
Greek 
   1.  Temperance
   2.  Wisdom
   3.  Justice
   4.  Courage
Early Christian
   5.  Faith
   6.  Hope
   7.  Charity

Early Medieval:
Virtues vs Vices
1.  Chasitity          vs   Lust
2.  Temperance    vs   Gluttony
3.  Charity             vs   Greed
4.  Diligence           vs   Sloth
5.  Patience            vs   Wrath
6.  Kindness           vs   Envy
7.  Humility            vs   Pride


For Franklin these were ill-defined, with much overlap and some disagreement among moral traditions as to their meaning: 
In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I had met with in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I proposed to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning. (HC1.82)
Franklin planned a book called “The Art of Virtue,” possibly as a companion volume to “The Way to Wealth.” In this work he would provide the method to achieve each virtue, this being different “from the mere exhortation to be good, which does not instruct or indicate the means … like the apostle's man of verbal charity – James ii 15, 16” (HC1.90). Biblical reference aside, his thirteen points were purposefully not aligned with any religious practice or sect, he believing they would gain greater currency if readers perceived no bias in them.

The Autobiography suggests what such instructions might have been. In Franklin’s own search for “moral perfection,” he organized his thirteen points into tables drawn on the pages of a small book. Each week he devoted himself to a different point. With his book always handy, at day’s end he logged each slip with a tiny black dot. He would complete a program in thirteen weeks, and would repeat the exercise many times in his life before he became too busy with travel, diplomacy, and the affairs of the new republic to continue. “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish,” he said. He never achieved the perfection he sought, but he felt “a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” (HC1.89). 

Franklin’s thirteen virtues are:
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; that is, waste nothing. 
6. Industry. — Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. [*This Puritan favorite remains in full force, according to one Briton.]
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 and offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. — Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
(HC1.83-84)
… Let no pleasure tempt thee, no profit allure thee, no ambition corrupt thee, no example sway thee, no persuasion move thee, to do anything which thou knowest to be evil; so shalt thou always live jollily, for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.
(--Poor Richard)
Oddly lacking was a virtue centrally important to his life: Education. As the Autobiography makes clear, this was essential to all he did, and will be the subject of the next post.


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