So you are ready. You’ve joined (or started) your circle. The toolkit has been consulted, the ground rules have been laid, you’ve prepared your own book of progress and the quest to follow Franklin to moral perfection is afoot. Now what?


Ben has laid the course before you; thirteen weeks, one new virtue per week (or month), moral perfection at the end. What could be easier? Well, frankly, lots of things. Moral perfection and global betterment are not easy. So where to start?


This is your course to undertake and you may choose to start anywhere you wish. Franklin chose Temperance as the first virtue and had a reason for doing so which he described in his autobiography:

“Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.”


I, notwithstanding Ben’s reasoning, would not have picked temperance as virtue number one. I, like Ben, have my reasons. “Hi, my name is Cameron and I am an overeater.” I was a husky child who developed into a doughy adolescent. The first nickname I remember having bestowed on me (by a particularly nasty basketball teammate) was “Fat Chance”. It was a reference to my girth and my low shooting percentage.

So temperance was always going to be the toughest of the virtues for me and to start off with it seemed like pre-ordaining a pathway to failure. Despite that, out of respect for Franklin’s own success, I decided to follow his order. I’ll start by telling you what did not work.


As I started my course I was warned against too literal an interpretation of temperance but the need for some personal corporeal reduction beckoned. Thus, I chose to “eat not to dullness”. After all, it was Franklin who said, “I guess I don’t so much mind being old, as I mind being fat and old.”


So how does one combine the desire for change, a nagging need to adhere to Franklin’s course and the hopeful possibility of initial success? I decided that the secret was in setting the bar (relatively) low. I reasoned that I needed an early success but was fighting against a lifetime of eating failures. Like a staggering percentage of the population I had tried and failed at various weight loss programs so I knew that the virtue of temperance stood a reasonable chance of being badly abused if I aimed too high. Accordingly, I took the path of moral mediocrity and pledged not to snack between meals or eat after supper.


Having decided on a plan, I weighed myself (a sobering activity), fortified my resolve by reading some of Ben’s poems of inspiration and set forth on my quest. One week later I was…about the same.


There were no epic successes or failures on my week of temperance. For the most part I had adhered to my plan, though there were slips. I certainly sensed no great moral improvement, but rather I feared that, in week one, that I had already failed. Not a gnashing of the teeth, wringing of the hands, pulling of the beard kind of angst that the whole thing was for naught, but rather a gentle disappointment in my efforts. I thought I would feel better about myself and I really felt about the same.


How can you avoid this fate? Here are my three suggestions:

1) Aim Higher and Longer:

I looked temperance in the eye and I blinked. My no snacking edict was less than inspirational. Part of my low goal setting problem was that I was concerned only with that first week. If it is your inclination to take the same literal view of temperance that I did, then I suggest you also think more long term. Think of a program of healthy eating and exercise that you can maintain over the whole course of virtues. Franklin, after all, intended that the virtues be maintained and cumulative. A longer, more life affirming program of temperance will, I think, make you feel more accomplished and committed;

2) Find a Friend:

This should be easy as you are likely in or contemplating joining a circle. I went at temperance alone. A temperate buddy would have been a motivator. Find a friend to help with your course and success can be shared;

3) Give Yourself a Break:

I was too hard on myself. Changing habits is hard and even incremental success is success. Don’t view a slip as a failure or inertia as permanent. Forgive yourself your transgressions, celebrate the little successes and move forward with Franklin.


Cameron Gunn is an author and prosecutor living in Canada. His attempt to live Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, was chronicled in BEN & ME: From Temperance to Humility – Stumbling Through Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, One Unvirtuous Day at a Time, released by Perigee Press in September 2010. He is a frequent public speaker having been a longtime faculty member of Canada’s largest continuing legal education seminar on criminal law topics, The National Criminal Law Program and a frequent lecturer for the National Judicial Institute of Canada.