Ben Franklin – Resolved to Develop Wisdom
Posted by Orrin Woodward on December 11, 2011
Here is a segment from my new book RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions For LIFE on Ben Franklin and his application of resolves into his life. The process described is simple, but certainly not easy, since it requires discipline. However, anyone can do it, and everyone should do it. What resolves are you applying into your life? If you aren’t applying any resolutions currently, perhaps as the new year approaches, you should sit down and write out your resolutions for life. Sincerely, Orrin Woodward
Ben Franklin, as a young man, didn’t always behave in a sensible manner. In fact, he offended many of the leading citizens of Philadelphia with his self-assumed air of importance. In Launching a Leadership Revolution, Chris Brady and I share a story on young Franklin, “A confidant took him aside one day and was both bold and kind enough to share the truth with Franklin that people didn’t like him. Although amazingly brilliant, nobody cared. They couldn’t stand to be around him. He was too argumentative and opinionated. His informer even told him that people would see Franklin approaching on the street and cross the road so as to avoid any contact with him. Franklin was devastated. But his reaction to the cold, hard truth was perhaps one of the most important components of his meteoric success.” At twenty years of age, Franklin chose to move in a new direction, launching a self-improvement project he called “moral perfection.” Initially, he started with four resolutions: “1. He resolved to become more frugal so that he could save enough money to repay what he owed to others. 2. He decided that he would be very honest and sincere ‘in every word and action.’ 3. He promised himself to be industrious ‘to whatever business I take in hand.’ 4. He vowed ‘to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a manner of truth’ and to ‘speak all the good I know of everybody.’” From these four, Franklin created his world renown list of 13 virtues (see appendix for complete list), developing a plan to study one per week for the 52 weeks in a year. Here are two of his virtues:
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Franklin’s methodical approach to character and wisdom development allowed each virtue to be studied four weeks per year, evaluating his performance weekly against the standard of moral perfection. In Franklin’s autobiography, he discusses his plan to check his performance compared to the aspired virtues, writing, “I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. . . I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” With time, Franklin’s personal improvement plan helped him become one of the most respected citizens in Philadelphia, routinely requested to serve various volunteer organizations. Walter Isaacson, in Time magazine, describes Franklin’s belief that increased personal virtue leads to increased public responsibilities, noting:
That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God’s will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded: “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” It is useful for us to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful?
By studying a different virtue weekly, over Franklin’s long life, he made great gains. Although he didn’t achieve perfection, Franklin’s growth in wisdom led to him becoming one of the most influential diplomats in history. Indeed, many historians believe Franklin (even more than Washington) was the indispensable man of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, tempering the rhetoric of both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist men. Historian William MacDonald writes, “Franklin’s voice was always in favor of the more generous provision, the ampler liberty; was always earnestly opposed to whatever might tend to make governmental oppression at some future time possible. . . Some of his finest utterances were in maintenance of that plea; and it is a symptom of the noble feeling with which Franklin was regarded by the noblest men, that Hamilton would give his support to Franklin’s recommendations, though they were essentially moral criticisms of the policy which he himself thought best for the country.” Franklin’s principle centered diplomacy led to influence, not just of like-minded people, but even with his political opponents, a true testament to his character and honor.