Everybody know Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States founding fathers, and one of the great polymaths of history.
His life has been extraordinarily prolific. He founded one of the most prestigious American newspapers (The Pennsylvania Gazette), wrote the famous Poor Richard’s almanacks, made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, discovered breakthrough technological inventions, contributed in a large extent to the United States independence, served as Postmaster and Ambassador of the United States in France.
And it’s just a part of his achievements.
How could a single man accomplish that many things, and give so much to humanity? I’m convinced his personal ethics was a key determinant of his success.
Benjamin Franklin’s ethical system
« I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished 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. » 1
Franklin wanted to reach moral perfection and live an impeccably virtuous life. He thought the use of rationality would allow him to always make good decisions and actions. Of course, he understood quickly that this task would be very difficult. So he designed his own method.
He started by finding the virtues he thought necessary or desirable. We can define a virtue by a fundamental positive characteristic.
Then he made every virtue clear and concrete by creating a corresponding application principle in terms of attitude, decision or action.
Here are the thirteen virtues of Benjamin Franklin:
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 employed 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 uncleanness in body, clothes, 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.
That is a long list! Indeed, Franklin chose to define his standard of moral excellence with many specific virtues, while Platon did that with only 4 cardinal virtues, adopted later by stoics and other schools of thought: wisdom (rationality), justice, courage, temperance (self-control).
So for example, Franklinian virtues of temperance (do not drink or eat too much) and moderation (avoid extremes and mitigate anger) can be regrouped into one Platonic cardinal virtue: temperance.
Benjamin Franklin table of virtues
After he defined his 13 virtues, Franklin understood that it would be counter-productive to try to tackle them all in the same time, and that he should concentrate on one at a time.
To proceed, he used the following page format:
- A title which was the key virtue of the week and the associated application principle (in the example below: Temperance. Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation)
- A table with 7 columns for the 7 days of the week and 13 rows for the 13 virtues.
Every week, he focused his attention on one virtue only.
Thus the first week, he did his best to respect the virtue of temperance, without thinking too much about the other virtues.
Every evening, he did a self-exam for every virtue and marked his mistakes committed respecting that virtue with little black spots.
At the end of each week, he looked at his table. If the line of the key virtue of the week had few black spots, the week after he would go on to the next key virtue. He would continue doing that until he got to the end of the 13-week cycle. Then he could start another cycle, and focus again his attention on temperance, before concentrating on silence, and so on and so forth.
We’re not all virtue paragons like Benjamin Franklin, and don’t necessarily have the save vision of moral excellence.
However we can use his approach to align our actions, behaviors, and attitudes with what we really want.
Here’s just how to do it!
1. Define a list of key virtues that you want to acquire or preserve. You can have a few of them or many. You can even have only one key virtue.
2. For each virtue, define its associated application principle. Let’s suppose you have chosen the virtue of integrity. From your own vision of integrity, you must define what it will mean for you in your daily life. So your application principle of integrity may be something like: « always be honest and tell the truth unless forced to lie under extreme circumstances ».
3. Build your virtues table. I prepped a template for you: download Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Table.
to use it with Google Drive (free), click on the link, then click on File > Make a copy
to use it with Microsoft Excel, click on the link, then click on File > Download as > Microsoft Excel
4. Now, you can deploy Benjamin’s method. You just have to do your self-exam every evening (3 minutes) and look at your table every end of the week (5 minutes).
Personally, when I evaluate every virtue at the end of the day, I like to assign it a mark out of ten, instead of pointing out my mistakes: I find it more encouraging and positive to say that I had 8/10 for the virtue of courage, rather than saying that I lacked courage twice.
If at the end of the week I’m happy with my score for the key virtue, then I choose to proceed to the next virtue for the next week.
Please, don’t make the same mistake than I when I first started implementing Benjamin’s method! Don’t beat yourself up and feel bad at the end of the day if you had a bad score. Just calmly diagnose the cause, plan a few corrective actions… and do your best the day after.
Day after day, Benjamin measured and improved the quality of his decisions and actions which enabled him to reach and maintain excellence. Combined to his extraordinary intelligence and his transcendental drive to serve his countrymen and the whole humanity, the ethical development undertaking of Benjamin Franklin made of him one of the greatest men of history.
The father of management Peter Drucker wrote: what gets measured, gets managed. The simple fact of measuring produces improvements. Just knowing that in the evening you’ll examine your day will nudge you all the time to decide and act in coherence with your virtues.
- The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Charles W Eliot LLD, P.F Collier & Son Company, New York (1909), p. 71 ↩