Ben Franklin and the art of practical self improvement

My second day with Ben made me feel lazy.

Here was a man who founded hospitals, fire stations, libraries and schools, who build roads and commanded armies. Or rather, who was responsible for making these things happen – chiefly motivating people to give money, organising the work, and, most importantly, trying not to take too much credit for what was achieved. As someone who struggled to get regular numbers for a touch rugby team, I have more than a little appreciation of what sort of effort this takes.

The thought then came, well, aren’t some people just born to do these things, to take control? (As always) Ben had an answer to that too:

As no end likewise happens without a means, so we shall find, sir, that even you yourself framed a plan by which you became considerable; but at the same time we may see that though the event is flattering, the means are as simple as wisdom could make them; that is, depending upon nature, virtue, thought and habit

… Our sensations being very much fixed to the moment, we are apt to forget that more moments are to follow the first, and consequently that man should arrange his conduct so as to suit the whole of a life.

In other words, while people can become who they are by accident, successful people don’t usually follow this path. Instead, Ben counsels deciding what you want to achieve, then making a plan to achieve it.

(As always) Ben had some instructions on how to do this as well – his famous 13 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 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.

By following these rules, he was determined to make himself a better person, but he acknowledged that following them was not easy, and just as by reason we can convince ourselves that what we desire is what is good for us, so we can label faults in ourselves as natural, especially when they can be hard to correct:

I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn’d, while the smith press’d the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” said the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.”

His own aims, he said, were the betterment of (hu)mankind. He wasn’t devoted to any particular sect, but rather concentrated on what was good, and, as in this description of a preacher, he judged the worth of something by the effect that it had. there was no point in having rules effect of what was said.

but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

As a digression on this Herbert Dreyfus, a professor at Berkley, has a course available as a podcast called Man, God and Society in Western Literature. The distinction he makes in the above passage reminded me of a lecture in the course discussing the Gospel of John, and how Jesus was a disruptive force because he was the catalyst for transitioning society from the (Jewish) rule bound system to the Christian principles-based system.

In the former, whether you were a good person was predicated on your external actions (i.e. in following the 10 commandments, things such as “Thou shalt not steal”), in the latter, your internal thoughts and feelings make a difference and the 10 commandment “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” becomes representative of this, because “coveting” is not something you can physically stop yourself doing. What is needed is to change the whole person, rather than just their visible actions – though I’m sure Ben, as a pragmatist, would be content with something less!

For me, it’s a similar shift that Ben is making; the niceties and rules of what religion we practice or doctrine we follow is not the important thing, what is important is the principles on which those rules are based, the reasons for those rules. We must not confuse cause and effect “vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful.”

For me, that’s a good place to leave off with Ben. Ultimately, he believed in personal responsibility and that people should better themselves – kind of like what I’m attempting to do in ploughing through this five foot shelf of reading.

It’s a great choice of first book to reinforce the project and make us all little Bens. Now if only I could find those instructions about flying kites in a thunderstorm…


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