The first book in the Harvard Classics series is a treat, one that I had been hoping to get around to reading someday: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. I knew Ben was a smart person before reading the book, but now I’m pretty sure in the hypothetical ‘if you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?’ Benjamin Franklin would be in the shortlist.
He started out a simple printing apprentice, but managed to read and think his way into an amazing life. He was a habits nerd, working out a hierarchical system of virtues and made a paper tracker to ensure that he lived his life accordingly.
His set of virtues don’t seem particularly hard at first. The first basic virtue of ‘temperance’ boils down to ‘don’t drink until your drunk.’ This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but apparently it was a novel idea in the printing industry at the time to not get plastered on the job. I’ve put the list of virtues below.
What is interesting to see in the autobiography is what things Ben decides are worth getting a few lines, and what might take up a few pages. Invention of the Franklin Stove? A short paragraph. Creating a street-cleaning service by giving an old lady some money? Several pages. Because the writings were originally a letter to a relative, the whole thing reads very conversational.
The list of virtues
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 employ’d 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 extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, 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 dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.