In chapter 9 of Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Franklin outlined his meticulous plan for reaching a state of ‘moral perfection.’ Franklin applied his usual logical and forthright intelligence to the task by looking at the way others had defined morality and then devising his own set of thirteen traits he felt he could cultivate in himself to ensure that he would develop an instinctual ability to make the ‘right choice‘ every time.
He explains his plan here:
Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection
It was about this time I conceived 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. 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. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.
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 propos’d 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 occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.
These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
- Temperance — Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence — Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order — Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution — Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality — Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
- Industry — Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity — Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice — Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation — Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness — Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
- Tranquility — Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Humility — Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang’d them with that view, as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.
This being acquir’d and establish’d, Silence would be more easy; and my desire being to gain knowledge at the same time that I improv’d in virtue, and considering that in conversation it was obtain’d rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue, and therefore wishing to break a habit I was getting into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company, I gave Silence the second place. This and the next, Order, I expected would allow me more time for attending to my project and my studies.
Resolution, once become habitual, would keep me firm in my endeavours to obtain all the subsequent virtues; Frugality and Industry freeing me from my remaining debt, and producing affluence and independence, would make more easy the practice of Sincerity and Justice, etc., etc.
I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. 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.
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- Inside the Archives – Winter 2016 – Volume V Number 1
- John Quincy Adams and the Winnebagoes