Well known as one of the Founding Fathers, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in the country who doesn’t know who Benjamin Franklin is. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. “The First American” was also a polymath: he was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. But one other thing that he was famous for?
On top of everything else, Franklin was also a journaler.
Franklin began journaling at the age of 20, in the year 1726, and was particularly focused on his own character development. He wanted to pursue “moral perfection” in order to become a better person, which led to him creating what is popularly known as the thirteen virtues. Every week, though he tried to observe as many of these so-called virtues as possible, he would pick out one particular virtue to focus on. This gave him thirteen weeks to go through each virtue, after which he would then start over, allowing him to cycle through each one four times a year.
As a constant reminder of the virtues he wanted to uphold, Franklin would carry virtue cards with him that he checked on periodically throughout the day and, by the end of each week, he would review which virtues he’d been successful with and which ones he needed to work on. He then documented his progress in his journal. These are the virtues that Franklin attempted to live by.
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 you 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 extremes; 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.
Whenever he could, Franklin incorporated these virtues as part of his daily routine, which was simply structured but helpful all the same. His entire day looked like this:
5 AM—7 AM: Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.
8 AM—11 AM: Work.
12 PM—1 PM: Read, or overlook my accounts and dine.
2 PM—5 PM: Work.
6 PM—9 PM: Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day.
10 PM—4 AM: Sleep.
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Now with Franklin’s own schedule clear cut and with these thirteen virtues to guide him daily, the ultimate question is this: did he succeed in becoming morally perfect through this practice? The Founding Father himself said that he didn’t, but even though his attempts fell short, he did say that trying made him a better, happier person.
While we don’t necessarily need virtue cards—unless you want your own version of course—or all of these thirteen virtues to ensure we become better persons ourselves, here are just a few things that we can learn from Franklin’s approach to moral perfection that we can apply to our daily lives.
1. Self Reflection
Franklin started the day with a very thoughtful question, “What good shall I do today?” But more than that, he made sure to end it on the same note by asking, “What good have I done today?” This is something that a lot of us no longer bother to think about, the fact that our presence has a great impact on the world and everyone living in it. We have so much power to affect change, and the only way to realize this is through the art of self reflection.
According to Positive Psychology, one of the benefits of self reflection is perspective taking. This allows us to become more effective when we interact with others and helps us realize that we are a separate person from other people who have different thoughts and needs than we do. Being aware of such a simple but important distinction allows us to become more empathetic, which can help improve our relationships with others.
In a world where culture and language has put a barrier among all of us, being able to self-reflect can be one way for us to be more considerate and understanding of others, even people who we deem are “different” from us.
2. Self Improvement
Franklin’s thirteen virtues is a testimony that he was the type of man who looked at ways to improve himself. This was evident most of his life—when he wanted to improve his writing, he found ways to do so: not only would he rewrite essays of famous writers, he also studied the writings of his favorite authors and would practice writing in the exact same style. He also read a lot of books and loved discussing them.
But his attempts to learn continuously didn’t stop with mental learning. Franklin was also conscious of his own physical fitness and even taught himself how to swim. He also decided to become a vegetarian, and although his initial reason was because meat was expensive and he could spend money allotted for meat on books instead, he also believed that eating a vegetarian diet was healthier.
A lot of us today know what things we can improve on but often either get discouraged easily when we see no change, or don’t even try at all. In contrast, Franklin was dedicated to living a life or self-learning, and because of this, he achieved great things. And though we may not have similar achievements, at least not in the scale Franklin’s was, being better versions of ourselves is more than enough of a reward.
It would’ve been easy for Franklin to say that he did achieve moral perfection. In fact, with his many accomplishments, it wouldn’t have been impossible to dictate the narrative and convince people that he had. But one of the things that Franklin observed through his journaling practice was honesty. It was also honesty that allowed him to take a critical look at his own behavior and devise the thirteen virtues in the first place. That he didn’t achieve moral perfection was of no consequence; in the end, he did become a better person by trying and being truthful about his faults and imperfections.
To rise to amazing heights like Franklin, we don’t necessarily need to follow his thirteen virtues. But if you’re looking at giving it a try, what you can do is take some of it and then assign more relevant and personal virtues that are applicable to who you are and what you’re trying to change and improve.
The time Franklin lived in is very different from ours, but it’s the little lessons we can take from his life as a journaler that will make it relevant to the times.
What are your thoughts? Do you feel like we have anything to learn from this founding father? Let us know in the comments below.