Big news in the land of the Ben Franklin Circles! Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article detailing our efforts to get Circles launched around the country. The Circles are modeled after Franklin’s “junto,” a “mutual improvement” club that Franklin founded and which met once a week in Philadelphia to discuss his 13 virtues.
As the Journal pointed out, there are now over 70 groups nationwide. At most Circle meetings, which typically run once a month, members typically pick one of Franklin’s 13 virtues from humility to chastity to silence, and discuss its role in modern life and in our own personal lives lives. Should we make more time for silence? Is humility always a virtue? Is chastity outdated as a virtue? These are just some of the questions that come up during the meetings.
And the meetings are taking on different forms. Some meetings are taking place at community centers, libraries, and synagogues, while others are informal gatherings of friends at someone’s house or during an after school program. Some strictly stick to the format of discussing one of the thirteen virtues, while others involve broader discussions of politics, civic engagement, and meaning.
Here’s a sneak peak inside of a few of the Circles, via the Journal:
When Lee Kuczewski joined a Ben Franklin Circle in New York City this summer, “I was expecting to discuss virtues and values,” says the 35-year-old entrepreneur.
But the dozen attendees meeting in a small Manhattan church weren’t totally on board with Franklin’s virtues, starting with ‘temperance’.
While Franklin admonished, “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation,” members were far more interested in tempering their internet addictions.
“Drinking and eating disappeared out of the conversation almost completely,” Mr. Kuczewksi says.
The group’s second gathering included wine and dessert. “Strangely, we all lacked self-restraint,” he says. But Mr. Kuczewksi says that the conversation did help him curb his screen time.
The 20-odd member circle hosted by the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco serves as less of a self-improvement program and more of a forum for discussing the merits of the virtues themselves, says organizer George Hammond, a retired mergers and acquisitions lawyer who has written books on Plato and early Christianity.
“We ask, is this virtue actually good for us?” he says.
In many cases, the virtues are found lacking.
Sincerity? A white lie might spare someone’s feelings. Silence? Society needs diverse opinions. Chastity? “Mr. Franklin certainly didn’t practice it,” says Mr. Hammond.
Of course, the Circles aren’t meant to dictate to members how they should behave, but to provoke a discussion of what it means to live a good life today. Are some of the virtues outdated? Can some be updated and applied to modern times? We’re glad that members are starting to ask these questions and to think more deeply about how they’re living.
Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.