Virtue is moral excellence. Another idea is virtue is a character trait or quality valued as good or righteous.
Each one of us has core underlying values or virtues that contribute to our opinions, beliefs, and ideas.
Cicero, a famous Roman statesman and writer, wrote about four virtues every man should strive to live up to: justice, prudence, courage, and temperance.
Aristotle also encouraged men in the ancient world to live “the virtuous life.”
But one man took Aristotle’s challenge to live the virtuous life with particular fervor: Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin’s Quest for Moral Perfection
Benjamin Franklin is well known in American history. As a founding father of the United States, he’s been referred to as
The most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become. ~ Walter Isaacson
Despite being born into a poor family and having received only two years of formal education, Franklin was a leading author and printer, political theorist, politician, scientist, and inventor, among other things.
In 1726, at the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin set out to attain the goal of moral perfection. He writes about this in his autobiography:
It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time, and to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.
In order to achieve his goal, Franklin developed and committed himself to living according to 13 virtues. The 13 virtues are as follows:
- 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 pusiness 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 employed 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 extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
- Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin)
In order to track his progress and success with each of these virtues, Franklin carried around a chart with a column for each day of the week and each of the 13 virtues. He would evaluate himself at the end of each day by placing a dot next to each virtue each had violated. The goal was to minimize the number of marks, thus indicating a “clean” life free of vice.
Franklin would especially focus on one virtue each week by placing that virtue at the top that week’s chart and include a “short precept” to explain its meaning. After 13 weeks he had moved through all 13 virtues and would start the process over again.
When Franklin first started out on his program he found himself putting marks in the book more than he wanted to. But as time went by, the marks diminished.
While Franklin never accomplished his goal of moral perfection, he felt he benefited from the attempt at it.
Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.
The Virtuous Marriage
Although Benjamin Franklin may not have been a model for married life, he has taught us a couple of things about the virtuous life. In fact, his Autobiography devotes more pages to this endeavor than to any other single point.
In order to help you live the virtuous life and apply this to marriage, starting Monday and continuing each week, we’re going to highlight one of Ben’s virtues that you can focus on throughout the week. We’re also going to apply the virtue to marriage and other relationships.
If you want to follow in Ben’s footsteps more closely, you can get a copy of Franklin’s virtue chart and place it in a Moleskin or notebook and track your progress each day.
Corey is the editor of Simple Marriage as well as a licensed marriage & family therapist. While he has a Ph.D. in Family Therapy, he only occasionally likes to be called doctor.