Burns showcases the value of Franklin’s virtues

Humility is more than an afterthought


By Steve Andrist

By Steve Andrist

Benjamin Franklin had a list of 12 virtues that he saw as worthy and important for himself and other colonial Americans.

My favorite is the 13th.

Bear with me for a long and convoluted explanation.

It starts with “Benjamin Franklin: A Film by Ken Burns,” which aired last week on PBS. It is well worth your time for many reasons, two of them being 1) anything by Ken Burns is well worth your time, and 2) one of the scholars that Burns uses to give context to the Ben Franklin story is North Dakota’s own Clay Jenkinson.

In the course of telling the fascinating story about perhaps our most fascinating founding father, Burns paints a detailed picture of a teenager who ran away from home. He learned a trade, turned it into an entrepreneurial and highly successful business venture, then became a scientist, writer, politician, revolutionary, inventor and diplomat.

As remarkable as he was, Franklin wasn’t perfect. Certainly he wasn’t always able to live up to the 12 virtues that he contended were important for the good of the individual, the community and the nation – the good of the whole.

But he aspired to master virtues that he identified long before the colonies declared their independence, and by all measures his clear-headed insight would be as useful in guiding today’s social and political mortal enemies as it might have been in guiding social and political enemies more than 250 years ago.

If only everyone then and now would have thought about doing their best to match Franklin’s virtuous resolve. Here they are, with explanatory precepts as Franklin wrote them:

1. Temperence: 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 dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Franklin himself suggested not picking favorite virtues, but, taking them in order, trying to master them one at a time, accomplishing one before moving on to the next.

He made temperance number one because he felt it produces a cool, clearness of head.

Silence was number two because Franklin felt gaining knowledge and improving in virtue could be best obtained “rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue.”

Still, my favorite is number 13. According to Burns, Franklin added it to the list at the suggestion of an unnamed friend.

13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

It’s not so much the virtue itself that makes it rise to the top for me. Rather, it’s Franklin’s description of why humility is the most difficult of the virtues to master.

If he were able to master humility, Franklin said, he probably would have felt proud for doing so.

The politics in Franklin’s day were nasty. He knew it, and he became arguably the most successful leader of his time by trying to be virtuous. His leadership was admired both in the colonies and Europe, except by those who had trouble mastering one or more of his virtues.

The politics today are nasty, too, some would say even more so than in Franklin’s time.

Per chance might a rededication to Ben Franklin’s virtues help?

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