At the ripe old age of twenty, Benjamin Franklin set out to make himself morally perfect. Having studied the ancient philosophers and their ideas of the virtues required to be an ideal man, he created his own list of thirteen virtues. Like the virtue ethicists of the ancient past and more modern times, Franklin sought to develop his entire character rather than focus on the question of how to act in a certain situation. His hope being that with the perfection of his character, he would never again have to ask how to act, as he would simply act as a virtuous person would by habit. Never again would he commit a fault at any time, he thought.
His selections were ordered by importance, and he saw the earliest ones as being needed to achieve the latter ones. They were also chosen for simplicity, as each covers a small and defined area of character.
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 extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, 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 dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
His method of enacting these virtues was simple, on a weekly basis he focused on one virtue and one alone, leaving the others to chance and the strength of his character. At the end of each day, he reflected on rather or not he had lived up to that virtue, and recorded the answer. His goal was to make each virtue a habit, and thus achieve moral perfection.
By his own admission his failures in reaching moral perfection were many and often of great magnitude. His acknowledged illegitimate son William, his often indomitable pride, and his love for wine which occasionally went to excess are both admitted and well known.
He also noted that his career choices often prevented him from reaching the ideal of “Order”, often by no real fault of his own.
As he noted: “My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho' it might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours.”
However, despite never reaching moral perfection and having the major failures that he acknowledged in his own character. He still continued the project for most of his life. It was the attempt at reaching an ideal that made him better, even if he was remarkably far from reaching it.
In his own words: “In truth, I myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho' they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and tolerable, while it continues fair and legible.”
Even when he was unable to reach the ideals of personal growth, by either his own vices or by circumstance, he was constantly able to improve by means of practice. And, in the end, isn’t that what matters?
Source: Franklin, Benjamin, and Russel B. Nye. Autobiography, and Other Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958. Print.