Attaining Virtue

American Literature

Julia Joyce

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin claims to seek “moral perfection.”  He wants to be faultless and not miss the mark whether because of humans’ natural predisposition to sin, or cultural tendencies.  He believed that having the intelligence to know right from wrong would enable him to make the correct choices.  He quickly acknowledges that this task is not as easy as he would have thought.  When he thought he had mastered one area, another took him by surprise.  He concludes that having conviction to be perfectly moral was not enough to prevent him from actually committing the acts he did not want to commit.  In Christian terms, his sinful nature was not going to be beaten by his will power and reason.  I respect Ben Franklin’s determination to make himself a better person, but without divine help (which he had written off earlier in life) it proved to be unattainable.  Virtue proved fleeting to him because it cannot be reduced to human reason and attempts to work it out for oneself.

Even though Ben Franklin could not achieve sanctification by his own merit, his plan of action was admirable.  He knew that current habits needed to be broken and replaced by more virtuous habits.  It was more than just adding new habits to his life, but reworking the way he thought and the patterns of living he currently had.  This is applicable to life; one cannot just add new practices to a bad foundation and expect everything to work out.  To rewrite the way he lived and spent his time, Ben Franklin devised a list of thirteen virtues to attempt to achieve his righteous lifestyle.

The first virtue he focused on was Temperance.  Everything should be done in moderation.  He focused on this virtue first because it would enable him to pursue the other twelve virtues.  The next virtue on the list is silence.  This is a virtue that should be obtained by more people.  Order, industry, and resolve revolve around doing what one ought and making use of time and not wasting it.  Frugality and moderation make the list.  Sincerity is about not being deceitful and justice relates to wronging no one.  Cleanliness is of importance to Franklin.  Towards the end of the list is tranquility – the aim of not being perturbed by uncontrollable events.  Chastity is listed.  Humility is the final virtue; Franklin wishes to imitate Jesus and Socrates which is a lofty goal to say the least.

Ben Franklin’s approach is logical and seems like it should make it possible for a person to become virtuous.  Up to a point this would work, but humans do not possess the capability of becoming perfect on their own.  There is a nature that every person is susceptible to; a sinful nature.  Everyone has a bend toward sin.  That cannot be changed by sheer will power or even an expertly crafted plan of attack.

In his autobiography, Franklin also speaks to his disdain for religion.  It was forced upon him.  He has no place for it in his life now.  His list of virtues was fueled not by a yearning to appease the gods or God, but a belief that virtue will lead to success and wealth.  It is interesting that even though he wants nothing to do with God, his virtues are similar to those expressed in various religions.

Virtue cannot be boiled down to “do’s and don’ts”.  It cannot be attained because someone wants it enough or works hard enough.  Sanctification, the process of becoming holy and virtuous, should be worked out in conjunction with God.

One thought on “Attaining Virtue

  • I loved your connections between Christianity and Franklin’s ideas. It is important to find the distinction between being a “good person” and actually being a Christian. Being a “good person” is not enough to get someone into heaven. I also agree with you about the virtue of Silence: I literally laughed out loud when I read that. Great post.

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