If Ben Franklin were your mentor, what advice would he give you?
To answer this question, let us revisit the writings of young Ben, who at age twenty penned a wishlist of his top Thirteen Virtues. He documented everything he wanted to be, and created a roadmap to get there. This, in his own words, was a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.”
Franklin read his list every day, and each week focused on tackling a new virtue. He even devised a special tracking system, designating breaches in good behavior with a black dot:
Looking back at the enormous and varied successes of Franklin’s life, it would appear that he succeeded in his mission to be the best person he could. Franklin, however, openly acknowledged that he would never achieve true “moral perfection;” it was the pursuit itself that made him happy.
Read Franklin’s biggest lessons for living a wise, happy life, and why it matters.
Ben’s 13 Virtues
- 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.
- Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Why It Matters
There are a few common threads to Franklin’s manifesto. First, to Franklin, achieving virtue meant making a conscious effort to rise above the primal part of our nature. His philosophy of personal restraint flies in the face of what is evolutionarily useful (evolution does not favor the humble, the sincere, or the just) and speaks to an invisible, higher moral standard. A virtuous life means looking beyond what feels good in the moment.
Second, Franklin shows us that anyone can live virtuously, but only with steady effort and determination. He observed, “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.” Achieving virtue requires painstaking work and will power. To quote the ultimate workhorse, Thomas Edison, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”
Lastly, Franklin advised his peers to seek a life of moderation, simplicity, and humility rather than pursue a life of excess and luxury. It was a common sentiment among the Founding Fathers, who crafted America with the knowledge that decadence and excess helped topple the Romans and the Greeks. George Washington maintained that a free society was predicated upon self-disciplined, virtuous people. Freedom did not mean doing whatever you wanted; rather, having a free country meant that individuals willfully imposed certain limits on their own freedom to prevent decadence and immorality.
Franklin’s virtues are particularly relevant in today’s world, where many of “vices” of the past—excessive displays of wealth, self-aggrandizement, and over-consumption—now seem strangely coveted. We often turn to the great minds of the past to provide advice for our future, from what to do with an increasingly bloated and divided government, to how to handle the “foreign entanglements” that Washington warned against. Perhaps it’s equally helpful to look at their recommendations for achieving good character, which form the basis of a productive, satisfied society in the first place.