Benjamin Franklin's Thirteen Virtues
by Ron Kurtus (updated 27 May 2023)
Around 1730, while in his late 20s, American publisher and future statesman Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he felt were important guides for living. Along with each virtue, Franklin included a principle to follow that—in his opinion—would define a person of good character.
These virtues can be divided into personal behavior and social character traits. Franklin tried to follow these guides in his life, although he often went astray. These thirteen virtues may be worthwhile to consider following in your own life.
Questions you may have are:
- What are the thirteen virtues?
- What did Franklin do with these virtues?
- Can you follow them?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Since Franklin's thirteen virtues and their principles are classified as adherence character traits or rules, I've divided them into personal and social traits.
The eight personal virtues relate to your attitudes toward activities and their challenges. Good personal character traits will better your chances of success in achieving your goals.
Temperance: "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
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."
Moderation: "Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
Industry: "Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
Cleanliness: "Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation."
Tranquility: "Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
Note that some of the items in Franklin's list of virtues are not strictly behavior traits, since they may depend on personality or genetic inclinations. For example, some people have genetic inclinations toward eating or drinking alcohol in excess. Try as they may, it might be extremely difficult for them to follow the temperance guidelines.
However, it does not mean such a person has poor personal character or would not succeed in his or her activities. But it does mean that the person fails to follow Franklin's guidelines.
These five social virtues that Franklin stated concern attitudes you should have toward people with whom you have dealings. Good social character traits result in other people wanting to do business with you or to have relationships with you.
Silence: "Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
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."
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."
Following to these principles shows good social character traits.
Ben Franklin tried to live his life following these virtues, but he often failed.
Franklin placed each one of the virtues on a separate page in a small book that he kept with him for most of his life. He would evaluate his performance with regard to each of them on a daily basis. He would also select one of the virtues to focus on for a full week.
Franklin also often emphasized these virtues in his Poor Richard's Almanack.
Later, in a letter to his son William, Franklin listed the virtues and recommended that William also follow them.
Although Franklin tried to follow the virtues himself, he sometimes strayed from his good intentions. For example, in his Almanack, Poor Richard (Franklin) gave this advice:
"Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, and cloth, or the Gout will seize you and plague you both."
Meanwhile, Franklin relished his food, womanized and sometimes dressed to impress people. His food and wine-drinking habits led him to be plagued with the gout for much of his life. But still, the positive intentions were there.
Following the guide
The thirteen virtues are a good guide for you to follow. In fact, keeping track of how well you do in maintaining the virtues and having positive character traits, as Franklin did, is worth trying.
You also need to realize that no one is perfect. For example, these thirteen virtues imply that you must be extremely diligent and hardworking. But remember the saying in Poor Richard's Almanack that "all work and no play make John a dull boy," so you can overdo things too.
The main idea is to follow the advice of Benjamin Franklin and try to be a person of good character.
When in his late 20s, Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he felt were an important guide for living. These virtues can be divided into those related to personal behavior (temperance, order, resolution, frugality, moderation, industry, cleanliness, and tranquility) and those related to social character traits (sincerity, justice, silence, chastity, and humility).
Although Franklin tried to follow these guides in his life, he often went astray. These virtues may be worthwhile to consider following in your own life.
Try to be virtuous
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Benjamin Franklin's Thirteen Virtues