I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, and you can blame Benjamin Franklin. I think I was in high school when I first read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and I was immediately smitten. I’m not sure how many times I have read it, but it has had a deep impact on me. Franklin talks about the historical things around him, and his inventions, yes; but most of the book is devoted to explaining his life-long quest to master himself. The book was written for the benefit of his son, to show him how his father had lived. (That sounds like what we should do with our journal writing, doesn’t it?)
Early in his life, Franklin set up 13 virtues—standards for himself to achieve (and I quote):
- 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; that is, waste nothing.
- Industry: Lose no time; be always employed 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, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common and unavoidable.
- Chastity: (No explanation given. Apparently, he didn’t think it needed one.)
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin worked on one or more virtue at a time, trying to achieve a new level of mastery. When he felt he had made enough progress on those, he would go on to others. He learned from experience that when he wasn’t actively paying attention to some aspect of his life, that standard would slip a little. He constantly evaluated himself to keep his behavior moving in a positive direction—and this was a life-long process. He did it until he died, at age 84.
Through books, I have been many places, in many time periods. I have lived the lives of many characters. I have enjoyed every one of them; but Dr. Franklin was one of my first teachers in how to live a real life. So as the new year begins and I hear people resolving to make some big splashy changes in their behavior (immediately followed by the jokes about how soon they will give up), I thank Mr. Franklin for teaching me early that improvement is a daily, lifelong endeavor.
Here’s to another year of growing, Mr. Franklin.