Thursday 5 June 2014

Benjamin Franklin: my hero and his autobiography

Now I have a confession to make straight out of the blocks: I am a huge fan of Benjamin Franklin. He was, in my opinion, a true giant among men, not simply in terms of his physique (which I understand to have been large) but in terms of his intellect, his wisdom, his moral character, his good humour and his compassion for his fellow men. For me he epitomises all that was good about the Enlightenment. Let's just take a quick roll call of his many occupations: Founding Father of the USA, inventor, politician, philosopher, civil rights activist, scientist, newspaperman, linguist, traveller, diplomat, writer and no doubt a few more that I've overlooked along the way. In my view he was a true polymath, who, when he passed away, left the world significantly better off for his having lived in it.

His autobiography, which is written in an accessible, discursive voice is now well out of copyright - and some! If you'd like to read the great man's personal account of his own life you can download it free from Amazon kindle:Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

I've just finished reading it, and I have to say that I've enjoyed it enormously. It evidences how he remained down-to-earth and proud of his humble beginnings for all of his long life. There's nothing flowery or melodramatic in there. It's the account of a matter-of-fact character who was very comfortable in his own skin.

He had a very twenty first century enthusiasm for self-improvement, which I found rather endearing. If you download his autobiography on page 71 (Loc 1187 of 2513) you'll find his list of the 13 virtues that he tried to cultivate throughout his life. He tells us that he started on this little list at the age of 20 and kept going, never having totally perfected them to his own satisfaction. They were as follows:

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 your 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 extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths or habitation.
11. TRANQUILITY. 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.

He explained that he tried to work on these individually in the sequence outlined, hoping that when he had mastered one it might help him master its successors. He openly acknowledged that he fell short of the standards set on numerous occasions, but concluded that the attempt to live by them made him a better and a happier man. He devotes numerous pages to these 13 virtues in the hope that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.

His tone is that of the fellow sinner. There's nothing hectoring, pompous or arrogant about the way in which he imparts his wisdom. He not only quotes Pope: Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot; but he also puts that principle into practice in writing his autobiography.

And, if you consider his 13 virtues, I think you'll have to agree that they're not a bad set of rules by which to try and live your life. We have so many self improvement books on the market today. And most of them, when you actually get down to it, are ninety five percent flimflam and five percent useful information. As a genre I loathe them. I hate the way they beat about the bush quoting anecdote after pointless, self-serving anecdote, before they get anywhere close to getting down to business.What those authors could learn from the great Dr F ... .

Anyway, that's what I've been reading this week, and a jolly good read it's been.

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. Love Ben Franklin also. I want to come back and read this post more thoroughly. Will do later tonight. Thanks for sharing it with Share Your Cup.