Ben Franklin on Religion and Virtue

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho’ some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc’d me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas’d in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contributions, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.

[…] It was about this time 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. 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 […] […] 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:

  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 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 extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

– From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

This seems to me as good an enumeration of virtues as any, and better than quite a few. It notably eschews the extremism and absolutism found in so many such lists of precepts.

What do you think?

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6 Comments

  1. Except for…

    Chastity… I’m all there…

    These are good virtues… they are values that I share… but I have always thought that Ben Franklin was cool…

    1. Re: Except for…

      You know, I think he’s on to something even where chastity is concerned… with the proviso that modern science seems to indicate that to have sex “for the purpose of health”, as Franklin puts it, we should have it quite often. But all through history people have noted the salutary effect at least occasional abstinence can have upon energy and mental acuity. I think he has a point when he talks about “not to the point of dullness”.

  2. It’s cool that you’re reading the autobiography. . .I read it years ago and chuckled my way through. I lvoe Franklin’s definition of chastity. . .so far from the traditional definition. I am likewise convinced that his definition of humility must be a joke.

    1. I am likewise convinced that his definition of humility must be a joke.

      Very likely, knowing him. Particularly in light of his comments on vanity, which I quoted earlier.

  3. you might find this interesting – d.h. lawrence takes on franklin’s virtues: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/LAWRENCE/dhlch02.htm

    1. Wow, what a snotty, childish little tantrum that was. And this man is supposed to be one of the great writers?

      Perhaps that was low; there is a certain primal truth in his counter-creed, if looked at from an oblique angle. And certainly he has the advantage of a hundred years or so of widening perspectives and better psychology.

      It all comes down to Bacchus and Apollo, still having the same old argument they’ve been having for millenia.

      Thanks for the link. It made an interesting contrast.

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