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13 Virtues of “The First American”

benjamin-franklin Source

Among the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, one name stands out distinctly above the rest – that of Benjamin Franklin. Also referred to as “The First American”, he was undoubtedly the foremost American of his day with a vision of unity and diplomacy unlike any other individual.  A scientist, diplomat, inventor, philosopher and businessman, his talents were multifarious, yet he remains to be a rather mythical figure in the popular imagination of contemporary world history. Franklin was a man of many virtues, and his emphasis on a living a virtuous life is reflected well in his autobiography – he lists out 13 virtues through which he’d sought to better his character. Throughout his lifetime, he practiced these virtues in one form or the other and while he did fall short of his plans at times he always believed in the strength of the attempt made. Franklin also believed in working on one virtue at a time, while “leaving all others to their ordinary chance”. The 13 virtues as developed by Benjamin Franklin were:

#1: “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

Practice moderation and self-restraint, keep away from over indulgence.

Simply put, temperance implies moderation or restraint especially when it comes to eating and drinking. According to Franklin’s first virtue, an individual must pursue the life of peaceful moderation where gluttony as well as alcoholism is avoided, even looked down upon. Franklin himself, despite his status and power, lived an extremely balanced life. As an extension of the concept of self-restraint and balance, Franklin chose temperance as the first virtue to illustrate the need for that discipline with which one needs to follow the remaining virtues. Since food and drink are in fact primal needs, to be able to control the urge to satisfy these primal needs, signifies a higher state of being which humans are capable of as opposed to animals. Being in control of your primal needs allows you to focus on other important things in life.

#2: “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

Silence is golden; if you must speak then make your speech meaningful to yourself and others.

This virtue acquires an altogether new meaning in the present day world, where constant chaos and noise has taken us further away from the simple beauty of silence. According to Franklin, one must learn to appreciate the importance of silence, and indulge in meaningful speech only. As an individual with the right to free speech and expression, one must use it wisely. Franklin was deeply against all forms of trifling conversation which yield neither knowledge nor progress. In essence, Franklin wants “noise” to be eliminated from our lives. One can extend the concept of unnecessary noise to other aspects of our lives which serve no healthy purpose – be it relationships, a job, plans and commitments – we need to keep ourselves from senseless engagements and indulgence in useless conversation.

#3: “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

Lead a life of discipline and organization; know that everything has its time and place.

To lead a life of order involves control and efficiency in whatever we do. One must fight to keep the order in place in a world that has a natural tendency of falling into chaos. To prevent a constant state of disorganization, we must learn to correct our mistakes and get things back in order the very moment they start falling apart – in other words, we must prompt in our actions when it comes to maintaining a certain level of control in our lives. This control can be of any kind – in what we eat, what we think, how we act and how we view the future. Order isn’t about control that is rigid and concrete; it does not imply being obsessive about keeping things in their rightful place and resisting change. No, order is about organizing the simplest of things – it comes with small changes and does not a lifestyle overhaul. It’s all about knowing that everything has its rightful place, and each of our engagements needs to have a dedicated time period as well.

#4: “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

Resolve to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself and keep the determination alive.

Resolution is all about determination, the will to accomplish the goals one set out for oneself. According to Franklin, one must resolve to perform those actions which one ought to do, and must do this without fail. This virtue also has a lot to do with an attitude of never giving up, of persistence and of undying confidence in our abilities. Some of the greatest victories, discoveries and inventions in the world have been accomplished through pure grit and determination of ordinary men and women with simple means. All they hand in mind was a resolution, a goal which was strong enough to keep them motivated throughout their journey. In life, our hunger for success and progress must never stop. A constant commitment to self-improvement should be the guiding factor –the resolve to achieve something should be backed by tenacity, and while one may falter a number of times, one should neither give in nor give up.

#5: “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

One should never let anything go waste, and one’s efforts and resources should always be used for good.

Our lives our short and resources are limited. There three things in life one should never waste – time, money and worth. Franklin’s message is simple: your expenses should be only for the good of yourself and others, wastefulness is thus the very opposite of frugality. If you spend something, it should yield something useful and concrete. Time is our biggest resource, but it is also limited and one should learn to use it well. In an economy that is precarious and unpredictable, money should be valued and spent wisely. Similarly, worth should nether be underestimated, nor overestimated. In this regard, our self-worth is also a resource which need not be wasted on people who do not deserve our respect. One should remain true to himself/herself and not lead a life based on others’ expectations. A more practical outlook towards life is actually quite simple – spend less than you earn. Save up your resources and spend them on those who matter.

#6: “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

Always engage in useful work, and eliminate activities which are unnecessary and a waste of time.

Industry in this sense means engagement in some form of productive work at all times. According to Franklin, being engaged in work and allowing no time to be lost is a virtue. The thinking man never lets a moment go by staying idle – he chooses to remain occupied with one activity or the other. Industry also involves effective use of time. One should spend their time doing things that can yield some positive results, and attempt to eliminate all unnecessary occupations. Work should be two things – honest and complete. If you engage in honest work, you are bound to be a happy, successful person. But it is also important that your output is complete, it is not only done honestly but also with a lot of hard work. A universal truth we all must acknowledge is that there are no shortcuts to knowledge, and one can find shortcuts to money, industriousness in the real sense of the term is the search for knowledge.

#7: “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”

Be sincere in your work and relationships, be just in your actions and wise in your speech.

Franklin believed in the idea of sincerity as a virtue with its foundations in innocence and justice. Deceit is a crime – it denies another person the right to know the truth. In life, we must learn to be sincere – in our work, in our relationships, in our commitments, in our goals. Our aim should be to live in harmony with others, to have innocence in thought and justice in our conduct. Consequently, our speech should be in accordance with the ideas of sincerity, innocence and justice. In the internet age, the incidence of lying, gossip and sarcasm has increased by leaps and bounds – people aim to create an entirely different image of themselves in the virtual world. This is a harmful trend and needs to be curbed. We must not let the misdemeanor we take for granted in the virtual world trickle down into the real world. Our aim should be to work hard, produce good results and follow only the path of truth.

#8: “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

Stand up for what is right and do your duty to yourself and others.

Modern society could do with a lot of things, one of them being the idea of fairness and justice. For Franklin, justice is a virtue because of the end it hopes to achieve – that of an equal society, free of apathy and prejudice. In Franklin’s words, one should never wrong others by causing them any sort of harm, instead one should stand up for the one who is being wronged. Similarly, one should perform those duties, the benefits of which will help someone in need. Simply put, one should always stand up for what is right and live up to one’s duty. For example, as citizens of organized society, respecting others’ freedoms is our duty and that if a man curbs another man’s freedom, then the latter has a right to ask for justice. One should incorporate the idea of justice not just in the public sphere, but also in the private – inculcating values such as respect and tolerance which are in many ways the basis of justice is our duty.

#9: “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

Try to achieve balance through control, not sacrifice, and make moderation the basis of your life’s goals.

Moderation is a recurring concept in Franklin’s writings. He touches upon the importance of moderation in the very first virtue of temperance as well, however that is more directed towards control over primal needs. Over here he defines moderation in a more larger sense of the term. The virtue lies in being able to avoid extremes through conscious control over self, rather than sacrifice. One need not sacrifice things in order to achieve moderation, instead one should strive to be in control, to know when to stop. One should always aim to strike a balance in their thoughts and actions, such that they display responsibility and thoughtfulness. If need be, one must fight back against the prevailing conceptions that the key to happiness lies in more wealth, more material possessions, more pleasure and more connections. The fact is that an excess of anything is counterproductive – only moderation is the key to success.

#10: “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

A focus on personal hygiene is indicative of a healthy physical and mental state.

Self-explanatory enough, this virtue is something one should consider as uncompromisable. Physical cleanliness in body, clothing and living space is not just a virtue, but a necessity if one wants to live a healthy life. In fact, our mental well-being is dependent on our physical state to a very large extent – for instance, the clothes one wears are indicative of the person’s personality as well as state of mind. Those who value cleanliness and tidiness will always be seen well-groomed and intelligently dressed according to occasion and audience. One can extend the idea of cleanliness to include a variety of other concepts such as nutrition. Physical and mental health is greatly enhanced when one chooses to eat food which is fresh, unprocessed and nutrient rich. A balanced diet is in many ways a “neat” diet, one which is planned with attention to detail and has neither an excess, nor a deficiency of one nutrient or the other. Similarly, one can focus on cleanliness of thought – keep away from hate, mistrust and deceit, instead strive for optimism.

#11: “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

Keep a calm frame of mind at all times and don’t let small trials and tribulations bother or trouble your peace.

This virtue focuses on the importance of here and now. Too many people live in the constant worry of the future or the sordid reality of the past which they cannot change – these people lack tranquility. They are never at peace with themselves and their surroundings, there is always something intruding, disturbing their thoughts. What Franklin implies when he says “accidents common or unavoidable” is that there are certain things in life which are inevitable and out of our control. What we cannot change, we need to think about because that is a waste of precious time. Tranquility in human nature is also about being able to control anger which is truly a virtue. Our anger is more often than not unwarranted and influenced by a variety of factors apart from the object of distress itself – to keep calm even under the most stressful of situations is a talent. Tranquility signifies peace and calm, an overall sense of contentment with the state of affairs around oneself which more a state of mind than an actual condition.

#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.”

Remain pure both in terms of physical pleasure and satisfaction, as well as mental behaviors and beliefs.

In the highly sexualized society that we live in today, chastity is a concept that invites more controversy than acceptance as people tout the whole idea of purity being extremely backward, even medieval . However, according to Franklin the satisfaction of physical wants and needs through sexual acts is something which should only be used to maintain good health and to have an offspring. Never should the satisfaction of physical needs be detrimental to another person’s dignity, peace and reputation. If it harms another person or is used in order to portray an individual as weak, then that displays a clear lack of virtue. The sexual union of two people is and should be regarded as sacred, and the mindless consumerism that has grown around should be pushed back. In essence, people should strive to remain pure when it comes satisfaction of physical needs, as well as attempt to free themselves from a toxic mental environment in order to pursue truth.

#13: “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Be humble at all times and let your actions speak for themselves.

Franklin uses the images of Jesus and Socrates to give us a certain understanding of humility. Both lead lives that was free from any kind of arrogance or false sense of supremacy, instead they sacrificed themselves for the greater good of others. Similarly, Franklin considers a virtuous person to be one who is confident, but not proud; who is intelligent, but not arrogant; who is calm, yet not submissive. Humble people do not let their success change their basic good nature – they do their work and let their actions speak for themselves. In popular imagination, the image of a man has consistently been associated with strength, pride and honor, all of which work quite contrary to the idea of humility. The humble man is considered to be weak, easily manipulated and gullible. This however, is a flawed conception. To be humble is to be powerful because you are in complete control of your actions and you let them do the talking. At the end of the day, actions always do speak louder than words.

  • Tom

    Very interesting. Thanks guys!