The Science of Virtue:

According to Franklin, what is the worldly reward of virtue?

"My original habits of frugality continuing, and my father having, among his instructions to me when a boy, frequently repeated a proverb of Solomon, "Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before mean men," I from thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encourag'd me, tho' I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner. " (63)

Franklin's religion rejects the Puritan belief that human nature is irremediably flawed and therefore condemned to corruption. He rejects the fire and brimstone prophecies he heard from the Presbyterian pulpit. Those Calvinist theologians preached that only an exclusive few within the congregation had been saved, and even their grace had been preordained by God since the beginning of time. People outside the church could have no hope and should be shunned. Non-Christians be damned!

Instead, as an Enlightened deist, Franklin embraces the basic principles that he finds in all religions:

  • God created the universe.
  • God is good.
  • The universe is constructed rationally.
  • Therefore, good actions serve the ultimate ends of God's plan.
  • The soul is immortal.

To Franklin, religion's primary virtue lies in its utility. The reward of virtue is success! He does not believe in the doctrine of original sin. Our flaws are not irremediable, merely bad habits that can be corrected. How? Through being born again? Through an ecstatic moment of revelation? Hardly!

Like a good scientist, Franklin believed that happiness can be achieved by modifying behavior to achieve balance with the rational operation of the universe. You must acquire good habits and extinguish bad ones. That's not easy.  Systematic application of the will alone can achieve the specific, incremental improvements in behavior necessary to be successful. Virtue can be programmed through positive conditioning.

It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. (64)

His method: treat himself like the subject of a laboratory experiment. He lists the behaviors that he wants to program into his daily routine:

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 business 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 employ'd 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 extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleaniness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
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.
Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (64-65)

Then he sets out to acquire each virtue one at a time, week by week.

I contrived the following method for conducting that examination. I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day: (66)
Eat not to dullness;
Drink not to elevation
  S M T W T F S
S x x  x     x     x   
O x x  x     x  x  x 
R     x     x  
F   x      x    
I     x        



Franklin is not completely successful in his attempt to achieve perfection. He talks about how he never achieved complete order in his life. He also admits that he never achieved humility either, only the appearance of humility (a very useful skill!) We won't even discuss why he put 'chastity' second to the last on his list of virtues to achieve!)

But Franklin did not beat himself to much about any flaws in his plan. he says,

But, on the whole, 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 endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible.  (69)

After all the goal of virtue, for him, is not salvation, but earthly happiness, not perfection, but improvement.


What do you think of Franklin's utilitarian morality?
What do you think of his mechanistic (robotic) conception of human nature?
How might it lead us into dangerous moral territory?

  • How would Franklin judge those people who fail to heed his advice?
  • What type of social hierarchy would evolve in Franklin's utopia?
  • Note how easily he rationalizes his own flaws. How might a nation based on his principles rationalize its own flaws?
  • Can you imagine someone who would reject Franklin's path to happiness? Why? To this person what might be the ultimate good?