February 2016 officials in Paris announced that they had a plan to make the city a model of cleanliness for Europe.
Frankly, it needs a plan. Anyone who has been to Paris will attest to the accumulation of garbage, overflowing waste bins, floating refuse and, according to city officials, 350 metric tonnes of annually discarded cigarette butts. Ick. The measures to combat this deluge of debris include modernizing cleaning hardware, adding garbage workers and trucks, upping the number of waste disposal sites, and introducing 125, 000 ashtrays.
My personal favourites are the “anti-incivility brigade”-the littering police- and a mobile app that allows citizens to send photos of uncollected garbage to authorities. I have a premonition that these last two will, at some point, come into conflict.
It is understandable that this attack on uncleanliness happened in the city in which Ben Franklin spent so much of his life.
Though Ben conceived of his virtues long before he became America’s representative in France, his stay in the French capital undoubtedly reinforced his desire for personal and communal hygiene. In a letter to a friend he wrote that there was “both at Versailles and Paris, a prodigious mixture of magnificence and negligence, with every kind of elegance except that of cleanliness, and what we call tidiness.”
Paris was not alone in the 18th-century. In the world’s great cities unsanitary conditions led to disease and even social unrest. It is a bit disheartening, however, that 21st-century Paris requires an “anti-incivility brigade”. Of course, as any twelve-step program process shows, the first step to recovery is accepting that there is a problem. So, based upon the example of the civic leaders of Paris, begin with an acknowledgment of a state of untidiness, adopt a little dedication to the notion of cleanliness and establish a firm plan and you too might be a model of cleanliness for the world.
Of all of Franklin’s virtues, this one offers the most apparent opportunity for immediate improvement. Certainly, I undertook cleanliness with my gaze firmly fixed on the practical. I decided that the secret to cleanliness was…to clean. For the week of cleanliness, I decided to select an area of my house to tackle on a nightly basis. I started with my bedroom closet. Two plus garbage bags full of clothes for donation to a local charity and one nearly full garbage bag of useless items for the dump and I discovered that I had achieved some measure of cleanliness. I felt a bit euphoric at my success.
Perhaps I should have felt a tinge of guilt that I had accumulated such a collection of material.
Euphoric (and guilt free) I moved onto the garage, then my desk at work, followed by the computer desk at home. By Thursday I was immensely pleased with myself. This was turning into a virtuous success story. Then practicality met principle.
At the end of my week on cleanliness, I had the opportunity to meet one of the world’s leading humanitarians. I was chairing a conference entitled “The Politics of Compassion”. The keynote speaker was Stephen Lewis, a former politician, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, and, at the time of the conference, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In 2005, TIME magazine listed Lewis as one of the ‘100 most influential people in the world’.
I waited with him in a “green room” before his speech and it gave me a chance to talk to him about virtue, compassion and helping others. As we talked, I grew apprehensive that I was not doing enough for others.
I said, “Mr. Lewis, as I get closer to 40 I am beginning to feel an impending sense that I should be doing more.” His response was, “How do you think I feel? I’m 68.”
It reminded me of what Franklin wrote: “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”
What does this have to do with cleanliness? For me cleanliness became a very practical virtue. That was useful. Its concrete nature allowed for visible progress. I had immediately made my life a little better by following one of Franklin’s virtues. Stephen Lewis reminded me, however, that the purpose of Franklin’s course was not to make my life a little better (at least not the sole purpose), but rather to make my life more purposeful. Franklin’s course of virtues is about altruism, civic mindedness and serving others by our invention. You likely do not need any help on achieving cleanliness (if you do, the internet is full of tips). The only assistance I can offer is my cautionary tale that illustrates not to let the practical aspect of the virtues distract you from their real goal. A clean closet is nice, but it is just a whistle stop on the track to moral perfection.