BENJAMIN FRANKLIN ON PRIDE AND HUMILITY

Jean-Baptiste Greuze portrait of Benjamin Fran...

Jean-Baptiste Greuze portrait of Benjamin Franklin used on the $100 bill from 1929 until 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In retrospect, I now find it strange how I was taught history.  Instead of reading the writings of the people who lived during the times I studied, my teachers primarily instructed from history books.  I would happily have read both works from the period of study and history books, but that never seemed to be a matter of much consideration.

Admittedly, because its English is so remote from our time, Shakespeare is hard to read.  Yet with a little practice, high school students still do it, but it seems to me they now do it less often.  Franklin’s autobiography, however, is eminently readable.  So for your enjoyment and edification, I offer a couple of passages from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin.

The first is a list of virtues.  Conscious that his character needed improvement, Franklin set about the task.   He contrived a written plan, and in this plan he identified the virtues he thought important.

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1.  TEMPERANCE.  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.  TRANQUILLITY.  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.

13.  HUMILITY.  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Note that Franklin’s original list contained but twelve virtues.  Here he explains.

My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.  I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto (a group of men with which Franklin carried on carefully conducted discussions), the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present.  When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc.  I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly.  The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me.  And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

[Thus far written at Passy, 1784.]

It is fortunate that Franklin added humility to his list.  Pride is the greatest of sins.   Pride is the sin that led to Lucifer’s downfall.

The Fall of Lucifer

12 “ How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
13 For you have said in your heart:

‘ I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’
15 Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit.
16 “ Those who see you will gaze at you,
And consider you, saying:

Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
Who shook kingdoms,
17 Who made the world as a wilderness
And destroyed its cities,
Who did not open the house of his prisoners?’
18 “ All the kings of the nations,
All of them, sleep in glory,
Everyone in his own house;
19 But you are cast out of your grave
Like an abominable branch,
Like the garment of those who are slain,
Thrust through with a sword,
Who go down to the stones of the pit,
Like a corpse trodden underfoot.
20 You will not be joined with them in burial,
Because you have destroyed your land
And slain your people.
The brood of evildoers shall never be named.
21 Prepare slaughter for his children
Because of the iniquity of their fathers,
Lest they rise up and possess the land,
And fill the face of the world with cities.”

Isaiah 14:12-21 (New King James Version)

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1.  TEMPERANCE.  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.  TRANQUILLITY.  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.

13.  HUMILITY.  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
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About Citizen Tom

I am just an average citizen interested in promoting informed participation in the political process.
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3 Responses to BENJAMIN FRANKLIN ON PRIDE AND HUMILITY

  1. John Doe says:

    Tom: I’ve always been a great admirer of you and your blog. I know, I know, I am a firebrand who brings discredit to our cause. I’m just fighting fire with fire against the libs, and hoping that people look to blogs like yours after I have obliterated the landscape with nukes. He he.

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  2. Citizen Tom says:

    John Doe — There is a point where we all must make our point emphatically. If you want something to look this post on Bacon’s Rebellion. The poster apparently thinks that you must either agree with him or you are some kind of religious extremist. In other words, if you don’t agree with him and do what he thinks is right, you are denying his rights.

    It is a shame really. Bacon’s Rebellion usually has better posts than that.

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  3. edhird says:

    Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award http://bit.ly/z8Ckp

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