In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he says that at one point he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time… As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”
He quickly found that he had underestimated the task. “While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.”
So he decided to be more methodical. He reviewed various lists of virtues in the literature he was familiar with, and then created his own list:
- Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
- Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
(Humility was a late addition, added at the recommendation of a friend who pointed out that Franklin was thought to be somewhat arrogant.)
With the intention of making each of these virtues habitual, he struck on the idea of tackling them one-at-a-time. He also put them in the order shown above with the intuition that the earlier ones on the list would help in acquiring the later ones:
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. This being acquir’d and establish’d, Silence would be more easy; and my desire being to gain knowledge at the same time that I improv’d in virtue, and considering that in conversation it was obtain’d rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue, and therefore wishing to break a habit I was getting into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company, I gave Silence the second place. This and the next, Order, I expected would allow me more time for attending to my project and my studies. Resolution, once become habitual, would keep me firm in my endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues; Frugality and Industry freeing me from my remaining debt, and producing affluence and independence, would make more easy the practice of Sincerity and Justice, etc., etc.
He took to heart a section of the Golden Verses of Pythagoras which reads:
Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, / Till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions of the day. / Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? / If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it; / And if thou hast done any good, rejoice.
And so he decided to do a daily accounting of each virtue he was practicing. He created a notebook with a table for each week. The table had one column for each day of the week, and one row for each of his 13 virtues. He also added some inspirational quotes and a prayer asking God for help.
Each time he failed to fulfill a particular virtue on a certain day, he marked the table cell for that virtue/day with “a little black spot” (or more than one if he screwed up multiple times).
The plan was that when he achieved a week in which he successfully kept the row for Temperance blank, he would move on to concentrating on Silence (attending to Temperance as well). When he managed to keep both of those rows clear for a week, he would move on to Order, and so on.
“I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” He carried his book around for several years. “[T]ho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been… [T]o this little artifice… Franklin ow’d the constant felicity of his life… I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”
He hoped at one point to write a book, The Art of Virtue, which “would have shown the means and manner of obtaining virtue, which would have distinguished it from the mere exhortation to be good, that does not instruct and indicate the means, but is like the apostle’s man of verbal charity, who only without showing to the naked and hungry how or where they might get clothes or victuals, exhorted them to be fed and clothed.”
He toyed with the idea of a political party that would not advocate for the benefit of a certain segment of the people, but for the good of the country and of mankind in general: the United Party for Virtue.
This morphed into his Society of the Free and Easy idea. His gameplan was to initiate young, single men who were willing to assent to a somewhat generic monotheistic creed, by putting them through the same practice he had undergone with his book of weeks and 13 virtues. These young men would be a secret society, at first, “till it was become considerable, to prevent solicitations for the admission of improper persons,” with existing members proposing new members. He explained the name of the society this way:
The Society of the Free and Easy: free, as being, by the general practice and habit of the virtues, free from the dominion of vice; and particularly by the practice of industry and frugality, free from debt, which exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.
He got as far as getting two young men to sign up and begin the work, but then he got distracted with other things and abandoned it. “[T]ho’ I am still of opinion that it was a practicable scheme, and might have been very useful, by forming a great number of good citizens; and I was not discourag’d by the seeming magnitude of the undertaking, as I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.”