Social Education 55(6) pps. 358-359
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Nineteen ninety marked the 200th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's death, prompting renewed attention to his life, particularly that part outlined in his Autobiography.
Written as a letter to his son, Franklin's Autobiography chronicles his early struggles as an apprentice, journeyman, and printer and tells of achieving wealth and wisdom. Rich in substance and plain in style, it is one of the most significant literary works of the early United States. It contains, I believe, many useful messages for today's secondary school students.
In his story, Franklin portrays himself as ever busy, agreeable and active, sensible and insightful, self-denying, kindhearted, practical, purposeful, wise but whimsical, far-seeing, and modest. In all, he is a common but honest and hardworking individual who personifies both the idealism and materialism of the New World. On the other hand, his critics suggest that his principle commitment was to himself and that whatever he wrote was intended to serve that commitment.
In any case, we can use Franklin's Autobiography to great advantage with students to examine some persisting human issues, most notably the struggle to direct one's own life. Franklin's plan for achieving virtue clearly exemplifies this struggle.
Franklin began writing his Autobiography in 1771, but set it aside until 1784. Returning to his writing after this hiatus of more than a dozen years, during which time the colonies gained independence and Franklin's Tory son departed for England, he directed his message for governing one's life by rational action to the younger generation. It was about this time, he notes, that he conceived a bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. According to his plan, he would seek to live without committing any faults by conquering the temptations of natural inclinations, customs, and company.
To support this effort, Franklin (1962, 82-83) established a chart of virtues (see box) and methodically recorded his transgressions with "a little black spot." Each week he concentrated on one virtue. By devoting attention to each virtue for one week he could finish the "course" in thirteen weeks and complete four courses in one year. These virtues, Franklin proudly observed, produced in him an even temper and cheerful conversation that made him popular even with younger acquaintances.
Although he did not explain how he arrived at the first twelve virtues, Franklin does tell how a Quaker friend once described him as proud, overbearing, and insolent. In response to this observation he added a thirteenth virtue to his original list: humility. As a result, he became careful in considering the feelings of others and, therefore, benefitted in his relationships with them. He said, "There is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride....[E]ven if I could conceive that I had compleatly [sic] overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility" (90).
Students (and others) can identify easily with Franklin's weaknesses and difficulties. He provides numerous vignettes that illustrate his trials and, in the process, shows that he is just an ordinary fellow with a rather delightful, and perhaps deserved, vanity.
Franklin's appeal derives from his encounters with everyday tribulations in which he did not always succeed in escaping the bonds of temptation. His faults, however, only endear him more to his less-than-perfect readers. "I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining," Franklin wrote, "but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it" (88).
Franklin hoped that men of virtue would contribute to the civic good. He thought
that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. (92-93)
Human beings need not be perfect, Franklin seems to suggest, to achieve "great changes and accomplish great affairs among mankind."
Forever the optimistic instructor, Franklin's lesson is one of achievement through individual effort. Not a bad topic to discuss with today's students.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1962.Franklin's 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; i.e., waste nothing.
6.Industry-Lose no time; be always employ'd [sic] 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, cloths [sic], or habitation.
11.Tranquility-Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12.Chastity-Rarely use venery 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.