You are about to embark on a journey of self-improvement created 300 years ago.
I have been where you’ve been. I have done what you are about to do. And my overwhelming emotion at the thought of your quest is envy. Oh, to be at the beginning again. The chance, as Walter Isaacson writes, to “engage anew” with Ben, is beyond my grasp, but not yours. And you won’t be alone, as I was. You have the chance to improve collaboratively. So, I envy you, though I know envy is very un-Ben like. I think it violates the virtue of Tranquility. Or perhaps Justice. Whatever virtue it imperils, it is most unbecoming a journey of self-improvement, so let me cast off my envy and instead channel my inner Franklin. As you begin your pursuit, let me offer (humbly, as Humility is one of the virtues) some advice for success.
First, get personal.
The virtues adopted by Ben are from a different time. Our world is, in so many ways, unlike Franklin’s. The core of Ben’s virtues, however, can and does have meaning in a 21st century of Twitter and Selfies and ISIS. Find that 21st century meaning. The significance of the virtues must be personal to you to make this course a success. Before each virtue give some real thought to what Resolution means in your individual context or what Moderation holds for your personal circumstances. One practical way to do this is to re-write Franklin’s precepts. Those are the short explanations Franklin offered for each of the virtues. For example, for Chastity, Franklin’s precept reads: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. Consider that, but then write out what you think it means to be chaste in your modern reality. Whatever you come up with, that’s the virtue to seek. Go and seek your virtues.
Next, don’t give up.
Any program of self-improvement requires enough dedication to produce habit. Cicero said, “Great is the power of habit. It teaches us to bear fatigue and to despise wounds and pain.” Franklin understood the power of habit and designed his course specifically to find the balance between developing a habit and yet not making the effort all-consuming. Try to find that same balance for yourself. Feel free to alter the order of the course if that helps. Find some way to ensure that you get through the thirteen virtues; the effort will produce its own reward. Ben wrote that he repeated the course numerous times during his life and owed much of what he had become to his attainment, imperfect as it was, of the virtues. Indeed, he wrote that he hoped that “…some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.” Go and reap the benefits.
Humble advice number three: be altruistic.
Franklin’s course of virtues has been described as not being selfless at all, but rather self-indulgent. I disagree. Benjamin Franklin sought to enrich the common good. His works alone evidence his community mindedness, but if you need more proof the 1737 Poor Richard’s Almanack says: “The noblest question in the world is What Good may I do in it?”. In his autobiography Franklin reproduced a sort of day planner he used to aid his efforts at adhering to the virtues. The diary begins each morning with the question: “What good Shall I do this Day?” As you seek to become more virtuous, ask yourself that question. When I was engaged in the course, I asked a very wise friend why people want to do good for others.
His reply was a quote from Nelson Henderson who said,
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Go plant a tree.
Finally, and perhaps above all else, have fun. Being better, being virtuous, being altruistic are all laudable goals. You will only succeed, however, if you enjoy the effort. Stretch your mind, release your inhibitions and, I repeat, go HAVE FUN!