Let’s talk about the elephant in our metaphorical room.
When you dedicated yourself to the notion of following Ben Franklin to a better, more virtuous life and scanned the list he created – pausing only to nod with interest at tranquility or wince at the pinch of frugality– you had no idea what was coming at number 12. You, like a movie site gag, did a double take, lifted your glasses from your eyes and stared bemusedly at this virtue wondering how the heck to achieve chastity. This may not, of course, apply to you. You may have, for religious or other reasons, dedicated yourself to a life of sexual abstinence. For the vast majority on the path of Franklinian virtue, however, chastity is a bit of a show stopper. Worse yet, it comes near the end of the course. That’s some reward for 12 weeks or months of virtuous conduct!
Of course, as is obvious from the precept that accompanies the virtue, Franklin was not seeking intimate asceticism. Franklin wrote about this virtue, and indeed all his virtues, in his old age but the course was conceived of and executed in his youth. Biographies are replete with suggestions, speculations and innuendos about Franklin’s dalliances. Ben himself acknowledged in some of his writings that he may have “consorted with low women” (one wonders how the women described him). One of the few great mysteries of Franklin’s life was the identity of the mother of his son William. So perhaps to Ben Franklin the younger, born into a New England only ten years removed from the Salem Witch Trials and son of a puritan father who wanted him to join the clergy, chastity was indeed a virtue worth pursuing.
This, however, is the twentieth first century. How are the majority of those seeking to follow Franklin in the modern context to approach this virtue?
I cannot begin to offer guidance on a topic so dependent on the individual circumstances of the virtue seeker. Nor would I dare to pass judgement on what others do in their romantic lives. I think the best I can do here is to tell you that I viewed the call to chastity as a prompt to be a better spouse and that I used my maternal grandparents as examples of a solid marriage. I can’t say that I succeeded at all in my quest, but I still think there is value in the example I chose.
Hazen and Mary Dickson met when they were little more than children. He was 19 and she was 17 on their wedding day and theirs was not a marriage particularly welcomed by their families. This was the 1930’s. Hazen was a Protestant and Mary a Catholic and their community, settled almost entirely by Irish Catholics and Scots Protestants, was not a place of religious tolerance.
Besides the religious issues, being a young married couple in depression era Atlantic Canada was not easy. In 1937 their seventh month old son, Norman, contracted cholera and died in his father’s arms. Hazen and Mary survived that tragedy, the illness of other children, poverty and hardship and remained married until Hazen’s death more than a half century later. They never became famous, acquired wealth or roamed the halls of power but their children and grandchildren viewed them as the centre of the universe and a safe haven against all of life’s storms.
On the tombstone that they share in the quiet country cemetery not far from their family home, the epitaph reads “Life’s Work Well Done”.
This, then, was to be the focus for the week’s virtue. I decided to dedicate the week of Chastity to rekindling the romance in my own marriage. Real romance. The type of romance about which someone might say, “Life’s Work Well Done.”
And I failed. I don’t mean that my wife divorced me or I cheated on her. I just kinda fizzled in the romance department. That in itself was a lesson. I was seeking to emulate, in a week, the success of a marriage that had lasted half a century. You can’t shortcut this type of thing. Marriage is about commitment, trust, fidelity and a bunch of other things that require the long view.
So, on week 12 of your journey, with chastity staring you in the face, I am of very little assistance. Whatever you decide makes sense to you in terms of this virtue I offer only this as hope. The virtue of humility is up next. This week may give you some practice.