Virtues and Benjamin Franklin’s Practice with the Virtuous Life


“Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance.”


    Long before our time, Plato outlined a list of four qualities, which became known as Cardinal Virtues. They were prudence, or wisdom, justice, or fairness, the most important virtue, temperance, also known as restraint and the practice of self control and discretion, and courage, or strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

    Roman orator Cicero expanded on the original scheme, and they were later adapted by Thomas Aquinas. Emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses the Cardinal Virtues in his Meditations saying they are “goods” a person should identify in one's own mind rather than “wealth or things which conduce to luxury or prestige.”

    The virtues are often depicted as female allegorical figures. Cardinal comes from Lat. cardo, which translates in modern times as pillar. So in philosophical terms, there were the main pillars of leading a virtuous life.

    Aristotle said that we can achieve virtue by maintaining the Mean, a balance between two excesses. Buddha referred to the Middle Path as a peaceful way of leading life by negotiating between asceticism and pleasure seeking.

    In his Autobiography, American polymath, author, and inventor Benjamin Franklin describes his drive to constantly improve himself. Franklin was self-taught, excelled as an athlete. He was a man of letters, a printer, a scientist, a wit, an editor, and a writer, and he was probably the most successful diplomat in American history.

    He wrote the book to help guide his son by offering philosophical commentary and offer pragmatic advice. Franklin wanted to see a general improvement in humanity—whether through more universal access to learning by setting up the first subscription library and being instrumental in forming the first university in Pennsylvania, or in finding ways to ensure the streets were kept clean and well lit. A model citizen and statesman.

    When we set out to help improve others, it's a good idea to take our own advice. Franklin did so. In 1726, at the age of 20, he set out to attain moral perfection. To do so, he came up with a a thirteen-step plan.

    The following are his named virtues, along with their precepts:

  • 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 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.
  • 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.

Ben Franklin on Industry    These steps were a method he used to refocus his behavior on reinforcing positive habits.

    To track how he did in practicing the virtues, Franklin devised a simple method—using a grid to represent days of the week, and rows to represent the virtues, he indicated with a dot when he was in violation. His goal was to have the fewest marks possible tackling virtues in the order in which he listed them.

    Each day, he would also record the progress made in all the other virtues, regardless of the week's focus. Industry was his target virtue on week number six. Once he was done with humility, number thirteen, he would start over.

    By going through the process, Franklin as surprised of his faults being more numerous than he had imagined. He was 20, after all, and did enjoy the company of women and liked his beer.

    Of humility, he says:

“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

    Franklin invented the lightning rod, the odometer, bifocals, and we could argue the self-help book.

    He was the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States 1./ the Declaration of Independence; 2./ the Treaty of Paris; 3./ the Treaty of Alliance with France; 4./ and the United States Constitution.


Who are the modern day polymaths? By definition they are the people who know a lot, and do something with that knowledge.


[image via By Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Public Domain]