Between the Lines By David Lias It's rather ironic, but President Bill Clinton likely wouldn't be facing nearly as many legal problems if he had followed the advice of one of our founding fathers — a founding father who, according to some historical reports, suffered from the same moral afflictions as our president.
While still in his twenties, Benjamin Franklin embarked, in his words, on a "bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection."
William J. Bennett, in his book, Our Sacred Honor, notes that Franklin wrote his famous Autobiography largely to share with the world this project and to show how it might work for anybody willing to go through with it.
At no time does Franklin suggest that an individual blame his problems on "a vast right-wing conspiracy." At first glance, notes Bennett, Franklin's plan may appear to be a stern attempt to take all of the fun out of life.
But this is not so. Franklin was not, as it turns out, a moral rigorist. If anything, Franklin's plan was to show how morality and virtue can work in one's self-interest.
"Deny self for self's sake," Franklin suggested in Poor Richard, a concept that Clinton obviously wasn't able to grasp until it was too late.
Virtue is an end in itself, but Franklin emphasizes how it can also be a means to making one happier and more successful in life. Morality and success, unlike today, Bennett writes, were considered by Franklin to be inseparable.
"There are so many self-help books these days," Bennett notes, "but Franklin's Autobiography is one of the best."
Following is Franklin's list of the 13 virtues. These are largely "bourgeois" virtues and have helped to make America an orderly and prosperous nation.
And, Bennett adds, there is something especially American about Franklin's list. His list and his "method" in many ways represent the beginning of a long American tradition of self-improvement. The list, the virtues and their corresponding vices are still familiar. Most of us have fallen short on most of them. But that is why we put them before us.
Franklin admitted that "I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined." He concluded, though, that "One man of tolerable Abilities may work great Changes, and accomplish great Affairs among Mankind, if he first forms a good Plan, and makes the Execution of that same Plan his sole Study and Business."
The names of his 13 virtues, with their precepts, are:
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
"My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once," Franklin continues, "but to fix it on one of them at a time; and when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd them with that view, . . ."