Could You Follow In The Steps Of Benjamin Franklin?

A Professor's Perspective on Current Events

Professor Robert Allison, Ph.D.
By Professor Robert Allison, Ph.D.

As America continues to reflect on the Founding Fathers and even try to emulate them, we asked Professor Robert J. Allison “What would Ben Franklin Say?”

This article originally premiered on the WSJ.

Benjamin Franklin would be proud—if he were not trying to become humble.  Ben Franklin Circles are spreading through the country, from the New York to San Francisco, Seattle to Miami, with stops in between.  Groups of men and women working through Franklin’s 13 virtues.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

Franklin his list of virtues when, at the age of 24, he tried to achieve moral perfection.  He was disaffected both with organized religion and with religiously skeptical free-thinkers.  The religious dogmatists, he thought, were more intent on bringing believers to their own sect, than in encouraging good behavior, and the religiously skeptical, with no moral constraints, acted even worse.  Neither behaved morally.

Franklin noted that different moral philosophers had cataloged moral virtues differently.  From the various lists, Franklin crafted 13, giving each an explanatory tag-line. He started with 12, but when a friend mentioned that Franklin seemed vain, he added “Humility.”


Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.


Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.  Avoid trifling Conversation.


Let all your Things have their Places.  Let each Part of your Business have its Time.


Resolve to perform what you ought.  Perform without fail what you resolve.


Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself:  i.e., Waste nothing.


Lose no Time.  Be always employ’d in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary Actions.


Use no hurtful Deceit.  Think innocently and justly;  and, if you speak; speak accordingly.


Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.


Avoid Extremes.  Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.


Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.


Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.


Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring;  Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.


Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

These are not absolute prohibitions.  But that would not make them easy to attain.  Franklin made weekly charts, set off into days, and each week would focus on one virtue:  Temperance in Week 1, Silence in Week 2, marking each day if he had transgressed.  By the end of 13 weeks, he would start again, and hoped after a few rounds to have a clean slate.

He never did.  Order gave him the most trouble.  As for humility—he thought that if he did achieve it, he might be proud of it.

Achieving perfection he thought might be a “kind of Foppery in Morals,” making him ridiculous, or envied, or hated;  and that benevolent man should allow himself a few faults to keep his friends.   Thought the attempt to achieve moral perfection failed, it did make him Franklin a  better and happier man that if he had not tried.

For more with Professor Allison, check out The Age of Benjamin Franklin on The Great Courses!