If you have progressed through the virtues, finished your week of justice and thumbed down your chart to virtue number nine you may have reacted much as you did when your mother fed you string beans as a child or when you got a juice box at the door on Halloween.
Don’t panic. The idea of moderation as a virtue may not seem heroic or inspirational but there is more to Ben’s jaunt down the middle of the road than at first meets the eye.
I, like you, was somewhat put off by Ben’s demand for moderation. To me it seemed like a call to mediocrity. It is not that I thought that mediocrity was beneath me but rather that I already possessed it in too ample a supply. I had been moderate my whole life: when two roads diverged in the woods I inevitably took the one more travelled. I wasn’t looking to be middling by following Ben, I wanted to be better. This was a course aimed at moral perfection not moral averageness. So when moderation popped up as virtue number nine, I was a little disappointed. It turns out, however, that moderation, like much of what Franklin did, was part of a carefully conceived plan that achieved striking results.
In his autobiography Ben describes himself as argumentative and disputatious as a young man, qualities he later recognized as “making people often extremely disagreeable”. Through his father’s intervention, his own incessant reading and some introspection, he sought to alter his manner of speaking and writing. Eventually he happened upon a style of rhetoric based on examples from Socrates. He dropped his previous style of “abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation” and replaced it with the style of the “humble inquirer and doubter”.
He practiced this method of discourse and became very “artful” at it. Despite his success in debate, however, he recognized that in his victories he was losing the favor of his opponents.
After several years, he abandoned this style of conversation, retaining only what he described as a temperament of “modest diffidence” whereby he avoided words “that give the air of positiveness to an opinion.” Rather than pronouncing an affirmative position on any topic he would say, “I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.” Of this change in rhetorical style he wrote:
“This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat everyone of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.”
Of course, Franklin’s moderation is larger than a method of speech. This style of “modest diffidence”, however, is a visible example of the public person that Franklin presented to the world and that marked his attendance to public affairs. It turns out that it drove John Adams, his colleague as commissioner to France, crazy.
In an article in HUMANITIES (January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1) political science professor and Franklin scholar Alan Houston explains how Franklin’s moderation, designed to achieve success in matters of diplomacy and business, irritated John Adams. Adams viewed it, according to Houston, at the very least as a political liability and, at worst, an insult to good manners and decency. The French, however, disagreed. They loved Franklin and disliked Adams. Houston also notes that Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor as ambassador to France, viewed Franklin as the most amiable of men in society (Jefferson would maintain a friendship with him until Franklin’s death).
Notwithstanding John Adams’ contrary view, Franklin’s moderation was a significant part of his success in business, diplomacy and affairs of state.
So how can one achieve moderation like Franklin? There are some concrete methods. Listen more than you talk, don’t speak ill of others, be open to new ideas, and generally be moderate in all your behaviors. I think, however, that the core of Franklin’s moderation boils down to a quality identified by Alan Houston: politeness. Houston notes that Franklin sought to emulate the sensible man who was “moderate, cultivated, sociable, and self-disciplined”. This “man of sense” was, in short, polite.
Unfortunately politeness seems, of late, not only in short supply but sometimes antithetical to success. We have very recent examples of how being boastful, insulting and bombastic can lead to victory. I don’t think Benjamin Franklin would approve. I believe that the moderation he sought was self-effacing, humble and unpretentious. This is the moderation I would choose to emulate. Moderation built on a foundation of politeness: who, but John Adams, could disapprove?