Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Ben Franklin’s “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” the venture for
which he derived his 13 virtues, was not primarily aimed at ensuring professional success.
And yet, given that the episode is an essential part of a memoir that aimed to tell the story of
one man’s rise from humble beginnings to great wealth and worldly repute, Franklin’s
“project” was widely regarded throughout the 19th-century as a surefire recipe for personal
I tell my business school students this before we read the Autobiography, for when they reach
the 13 virtues, I want them to ask themselves whether such virtues are applicable, or even
relevant, to how they lead their lives today. It probably comes as no surprise that, beyond
any of the other virtues, Chastity is the one that bemuses them.
To be sure, the sexual mores of Franklin’s time are far different from our own. In colonial
America, a paramount concern of any self-respecting father, and the leering ambition of
many a young man, was to “steal a marriage” with a comely maiden. Hardly a prude,
Franklin regarded chastity in the way we do many virtues, a worthy summit we strive for as
we stumble along the way, but he valued it not in deference to some divine injunction
(Franklin’s relationship to organized religion was casual at best) but from prudential
Consider “venery.” Franklin is explicitly using it in the sense of a “pursuit of or indulgence
in sexual pleasure,” but a second, older definition hovers in the background: “the art, act, or
practice of hunting.” To disregard chastity, and to pursue venery, was to engage in behavior
that, while invigorating, was inherently risky to yourself and to the people around you. If you
ran amok in your personal life, others would find out, and as the precept for this particular
virtue warns, you would invariably risk “the injury of your own or another’s peace or
The call to chaste behavior, as such, is not a call to abstemious living, monkish remove, and
general humorlessness. Instead, it is to reminder that we need to pay attention to how our
personal conduct affects other people and shapes their opinions of us. As Franklin saw it,
the social worlds we operate in are quite fragile, and reckless behavior has a tendency crack
and even shatter them. At the same time, to the degree that we want to be appreciated and
admired, we have to recognize that people invariably mix personal and professional conduct
when making their determinations.
As Franklin well appreciated, good reputations are as delicate as bad reputations are durable.
We might long for a world where our private lives were removed from public scrutiny, but
to the degree that even our most personal pursuits still involve other people, the virtue of
chastity reminds one that the goal is not to escape gossip, altogether, but to live our lives so
as to get the better of it.