Doug looks at Ben Franklin's thirteen Virtues, Part 0: Introduction

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Summary: Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography included a list of thirteen virtues that he personally tried to live by. The number was chosen to be big enough to allow for fairly specific, instead of general virtues. I plan to take each of them and look at them in our more hectic time, as well as comment upon my personal take. This post deals with the set up and the discussion of the four-five common virtues.

Tuesday, 03 November 2009

(11:32:59 CST)

Doug looks at Ben Franklin's thirteen Virtues, Part 0: Introduction

In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin lists thirteen Virtues that he tried to attain. The number, which seems a tad ironic in its choosing, was picked because he wanted, "for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each, than a few names with more ideas". It also works out to be about one virtue for every week in a season of the year, which fits his habit of picking one virtue per week, and working upon it, with the idea that he could eventually master to it to the point of it being a habit.

Since this is Benjamin Franklin we are talking about, a man whose thought processes are woven into the very country I live, I thought it would be interesting to re-examine them from my opinion and my time and see how they hold up, what I think about them, as well as compiling some other versions of that same virtue from other sources, and so forth. Now, I am not a) a Founding Father or b) Benjamin Franklin, so I have no doubt that my opinion means overall less than his, but it struck me as a curious exercise that might be enlightening. To me, at least.

As an introduction, I wanted to leave you with a link or two, as well as my initial thoughts on the concepts of virtues in general. You can read the Project Gutenberg edition of his Autobiography if you wish. If you just want to see the Virtues (spoilers, maybe, for the fun I am to have, heh): here is an extracted version of them hosted on FTrain. If you have a copy of the text from another source, it looks like it is in a section marked off as Chapter 9: Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection (note: this division does not seem to be constant in all editions, but it begins with the line: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection."

As a general introduction to virtues (note: I will use lower-case "v" for the concept in general, with a capital-"V" for Franklin's specifically), I would point out that no matter how long the list, nor how in depth, most moral virtues (as opposed to moral laws, which can be quite complex) are essentially of four types: Moderation, Respect, Dignity, and Vitality. Several virtues in several schemes combine and match two or more of those four, but if you were to make a large Venn diagram of virtuous systems, those would likely be the four big circles. In religious societies, Piety would make the fifth. You might, and probably will, have a handful of lesser circles covering specific things from specific times, that intersect and make strange combinations with the four/five above, but we can generally discard these as instances, maybe even exceptions.

Moderation ranges from decreasing wasteful behaviors to keeping food and sexual activity in check. Respect would include both understanding the importance of other people and other things, as well as having a degree of modesty and humility in your dealings. Dignity has a wide range of sub-concepts about how to carry yourself. Vitality has two basic precepts—cleaninless and industry—but others as well. Piety, of course, has a many sub-concepts that change depending on to which particular God you lay claim (piety could be argued to be a subset of respect, but I separate it out, here, for obvious reasons).

If you could live with a fair degree of these four/five concepts in your every day life, you would be, at least in a generally understood sense, if maybe not a "as proven by some outside standard" sense, a better person.

There are some neat little wrinkles in the system. Few virtue-systems have involved intellectual matters. Not only is goodness usually thought of as outside of the realm of intelligence, it is not uncommon for certain types to describe it as a moral opposite. Many virtue lists come down hard on sexual activity. Bodily fluids, in general, are often considered a violation of virtue. The concept of personal responsibility fits strangely in here. If you could make a chart from 0 to 1, with 1 being fully responsible with little-to-no environmental factors, and 0 being mostly environmental factors with little-to-no responsibility, those greater than 0.5 would seem (and I say seem, I have not studied this) to put personal abstaining above preventing waste, and those below 0.5 would value the opposite. I think it would make an interesting sociological study. Do people with strong philosophies of individual responsibility perceive environment and system features the same way?

Also, and last, I've noticed that I could posit two meta-virtues: Balance and Understanding. The former is that there is not one easy way to being a good person, and that an overall lifestyle is required. The second is more about actually knowing where to apply, or not apply, virtues. If either of these are two are out of whack, it seems like the actual living of a moral lifestyle would be in question.

Si Vales, Valeo


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