Ben Franklin and the Pursuit of Moral Excellence
15Dec 2014
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Ah, the virtuous life.

When you think of living virtuously, what comes to mind?

The Latin meaning of virtue literally translates to moral excellence.  Virtues are characteristics valued for promoting and nurturing greatness (both collectively and individually).

When it comes to creating a life of virtue, where do we begin?

As Lifebook VIP Members, we have a pretty good head start.  We understand on a fundamental level that who we are as people (and how we feel about ourselves, and our lives) is a direct result of our actions and behaviors.

So creating a life of virtue would simply mean doing more of the things that promote our personal growth, and avoiding those that weaken it.

Let’s conjure up some inspiration by taking a deep look into the habits and behaviors of one of the most ambitious men the world has ever seen…

Benjamin Franklin, and his pursuit of moral excellence.

Ben Franklin is a legend, and rightfully so.  Of the many talents and accomplishments of his life, his quest for moral perfection and continuous personal development was one of the most admirable, and what ultimately accounted for his success.  He had an unrelenting determination to improve himself, and accomplish his goals.

And in 1726, at the young age of 20, Franklin set his greatest goal: the achievement of moral perfection.

“I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”

-Ben Franklin

In order to accomplish this goal, Franklin set out to define and practice his very own personal development program, consisting of 13 virtues.

He wouldn’t practice them all at once.  Instead, he would focus on one virtue per week, “leaving all others to their ordinary chance.”

Franklin also tracked and measured his progress toward his virtues by using a daily/weekly chart.  The chart would highlight one virtue each week, with a brief description beneath.  Then, across the top he listed the days of the week, and along the left side he listed 13 letters, one for each of his virtues.

At the end of each day he would evaluate his progress toward each virtue, placing a dot next to each virtue he had violated.  The goal then became to minimize his number of marks, and maintain a chart clear of vices.

So what were the 13 virtues?

Here’s a deeper look into Franklin’s 13 virtues, and their descriptions:



“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
Generally defined by control over excess, Franklin began his list with ‘Temperance,’ the virtue that would nurture his self-discipline and support his quest to perfect the other 12 virtues.



“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling conversation.
Franklin understood the power of words, and did not use them lightly.  He strove to only speak and converse when it offered value.



“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Understanding the laws of physics that tell us that everything in the universe tends toward chaos when left alone, Franklin established systems in his life to maintain order, organization, and balance, both for his personal items and the use of his time.



“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Resolution represents an ironclad determination to achieve what you set out to.  Franklin would determine how he would act before facing a challenge, and then follow through on his commitment, based on what result he wanted to create.



“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Franklin believed firmly in the concept of spending less than you earn, and steadily growing your wealth through saving.  He feared that too much luxury would make a man (and a nation) weak and, although very wealthy himself, he lived a fairly simple life.



“Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
Franklin was a firm believer in focus and productivity. With his virtue of ‘Industry,’ he enabled himself to limit distractions and keep the main thing the main thing, while working hard toward lofty and value-driven goals.



“Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
In striving for sincerity, Franklin would ask himself before sharing with others whether the information was true, kind and useful.  He aimed to strengthen his honesty, integrity and credibility.



“Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
With freedom comes responsibility, and Franklin believed it to be everyone’s duty to respect the boundaries and responsibilities of others, while remaining fair and objective when dealing with matters.



“Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
When it comes to increasing pleasure, balance and fulfillment, less can very well be more.  Franklin believed that extremes could be harmful to the balance of life, and held true to his value of delayed gratification.



“Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
Cleanliness is closely tied to detail, discipline and order, and creates a feedback loop between them.  Franklin believed that, through cleanliness and order, we could keep our mind clear and our life organized.



“Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Franklin didn’t sweat the small stuff.  He believed there was simply not enough room in life to allow for petty trifles.  He also remained deeply aware of what was, and was not, within his control, and directed his energy only to that what he could have an affect on.



“Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Although Franklin himself struggled with the virtue of chastity, he saw value in keeping physical exchanges as meaningful as possible, and moderating his behavior to ultimately enhance pleasure.



“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin desired to be free of pride, and to possess the ability to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses as exactly no more or no less than they actually were.  He bore a quiet confidence that allowed his actions to speak for themselves.

While Franklin did not live completely by his virtues and, by his own admission, he fell short of them many times, he believed the attempt made him a better man contributing greatly to his success and happiness.

In his autobiography, he devoted more pages to this plan than to any other single point; in it Franklin wrote, “I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”

Supporting sources: Wikipedia

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