Another in my string of rereads, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin needs little introduction: it is precisely what the title describes. It is also a quick read, in part on account of the fact that Franklin never got around to finishing his autobiography – and not in the sense of he dies before he can write about his death, either, as the book actually just cuts off while he still has a great deal of his life left to cover. I suppose all of us leave some things unfinished when we go, but it was a little jarring the first time I read this piece. It makes me wonder if, someday, people will be reading all of the unfinished story starts that I have saved and wondering why I never got around to finishing them.
That Franklin did not finish his autobiography is a little ironic, considering that much of it is powered by his extraordinary diligence, self-discipline, productively, and industry. His youth is perhaps the most interesting, because it features him in a peculiar juxtaposition of self-disciplined, diligent, and ambitious with some really reckless, irresponsible, immature, and poor decision-making and behavior. It is also in his formative years that he developed many of the underlying principles that would make him so successful later in life, including his list of thirteen virtues and method of living by them, which I consider by far the most useful part of the entire piece (I will list those virtues and their definitions at the end of the post). In fact, the first time I read this book I created my own spreadsheet to track my progress on living by the thirteen virtues, pinned a copy of the definitions to my bulletin board, and for a couple of years diligently sought to live by the goal of improving my performance in all thirteen categories. That eventually lapsed, but I don’t feel too bad – Franklin admits that he lapsed at times, too.
Second to the virtues in interest are the techniques he described by which he endeavored to become a better writer. Taking a book which he found particularly noteworthy, he would write out the main idea from each chapter or page on a blank sheet, and put it aside until a few days later, when he would try to explicate the same concepts as the original author. He would also shuffle the sheets and attempt to order them in an approachable manner. This is a whole different take on learning to write, and perhaps more useful than the advice most commonly given these days, which is simply to write. I wonder if I should attempt something similar, although I’m not certain what book I would choose, since I’m not certain that the technique would translate as well to works of fiction.
When I first read the book, I had only barely begun my reading of the “classics,” like Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Locke, and so forth. The second time around, I’ve now read many of the same books that Franklin read, which is both a bit of an ego boost, and a subject for some reflection – those books would have seemed almost as old to him as they do to me today, and the thought that those same ideas, the very same words, have been shared through the centuries. Or maybe that’s a little too deep and pretentious. One that I had not previously read that was mentioned in the autobiography was Pythagoras’s Golden Verses, which is a short read and will be next week’s review.
Don’t expect a text that exists primarily to inform or tell a coherent story, because that’s not what Franklin was setting out to do with his autobiography. It was instead intended originally for his son, and eventually for a wider audience of the burgeoning America, as a moral guide, an example and explication of how it might be possible to live a moral, productive, and well-regarded life, such as Franklin himself led. While he can come across as arrogant at times, at other times he is quite humble, and both are rarely off-putting. Nor does he shy away from sharing what he refers to as the great errata of his life, or the means by which he sought to correct a given erratum.
I often wonder how the founding of America will be perceived in two thousand years, if perhaps it will be perceived much like we now perceive the founding of democracy in Athens. Benjamin Franklin was a unique, immensely creative, and hugely productive individual who profoundly influenced that period of history, and reading about his life from his own perspective is probably more valuable than any non-contemporaneous biography could hope to be. From the genesis of the public library to the development of America’s dynamic press, from diplomacy with foreign monarchs to experiments with electricity, he was a true polymath. Even if you think you know about Benjamin Franklin, I highly suggest that you give this autobiography a read.
Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues:
- 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; 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 extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness: 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 dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
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