Pull Question: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

What would you add to or subtract from Franklin’s understanding of virtue?

Benjamin Franklin decides that it was “time [he] conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”[1]  After this decision, he outlines for the reader his plan for attaining moral perfection. He begins by outlining what he views to be the tenets of perfection:  temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.  Immediately after listing this, Franklin outlines his method:  “My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then proceed to another.”[2]  His method, then, was to begin with temperance, and mark down every time he failed at being temperate.  This he would do for a whole week, and then he would add silence, and then the next virtue, working on each for at least a week. These are cumulative, so by the end of his list of virtues, he would in theory be morally perfect.

In analysis of this understanding of virtue, it seems that Benjamin Franklin leaves out a key factor of making sense of virtue:  vice.  While there is an implicit sense in which Franklin covers vice, he never explicitly talks about what vice is.  It seems as though Franklin does not understand what the opposite of virtue is:  “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short if it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”[3]  It seems as though Franklin is indeed satisfied with his outcome of improving, and does not care much about continuing to seek perfection with much zeal. While he fell short, his explanation is lacking.

To Franklin’s ideas of virtue I would add first and foremost a healthy understanding of vice.  While I am in agreement with the idea that emphasizing the steps to get somewhere is more helpful than always pointing out the negative, it does seem like talking about the negative effects of vice (either on the soul or on the life) is useful and right. But Franklin’s understanding of virtue proper is not where my problem lies, but rather in the method by which Franklin arrived at his virtues.  Franklin says that “It will be remark’d that, tho’ my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect.  I had purposely avoided them.”[4]  While this is a noble goal for the sake of marketing his particular set of virtues across religious lines (he goes on to say this in the next sentence), it seems to me that a proper understanding of virtue can come only from a proper understanding of the source of virtue: namely, God.

That is, if we believe the truth of Scripture, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that God is wholly good and morally perfect, then it seems impossible that we could arrive at moral perfection without referencing or patterning our lives on God. Perhaps we can make some progress–after all, we do bear the image of God–but to achieve moral perfection outside of a reliance on God seems foolish and impossible (though Franklin at least admits he failed).

Furthermore, the reliance on God is not simply a sort of fount that we refer all moral progress to, but an actual and daily reliance on the Spirit of God to guide us and correct us when we do fail. Moral perfection only comes about when we live by the Spirit, provided to use through the sacrifice of the Son.

[1]    The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin p. 63.

[2]    Ibid., 65.

[3]    Ibid., 70.

[4]    Ibid.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).