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Franklin’s maxims: notes to himself

January 11, 1996
by Pamela Cressey

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Franklin Maxims and illustration published in the 1856 edition of Poor Richard's Almanac extolling the virtues of moderation, frugality, order and humility. Courtesy Alexandria Library, Lloyd House.
Have you started carrying out your New Year's Resolutions? They are customarily aimed at improving ourselves: I resolve to ... lose weight, save money, be on time, plan ahead, exercise regularly, (substitute any other behavior that is suppose to make you better). New Year's Resolutions are also suppose to be hard work, because they necessitate controlling your natural inclinations. It is interesting that the word resolution has several meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary, such as a "state of dissolution or decay", "process of reducing a non-material thing into simpler forms," "solving of a doubt or difficulty," "formal decision," and "firmness and steadiness of purpose."

Why this concern about perfection, and how do we know what perfection is? Benjamin Franklin set about achieving "Moral Perfection" in 1733, two years after his first printing of Poor Richard's Almanack. He set forth 12 moral virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, and Chastity. He added a thirteenth virtue, which he thought he particularly needed, Humility.

Ben embarked upon a checklist system to monitor his performance in the 13 areas. He continued his quest throughout the rest of his life. While his own values were shaped by his Puritan upbringing and his times, they both influenced and mirrored the forming American character. Arthur M. Schlesigner has stated that this quality of hard work is intrinsic to the American Dream, the ability to control your own density.

Franklin spread his virtues through scores of maxims, which are succinct statements of fundamental principles. They appeared in print with humorous drawings in his almanacs and also on children's cups, plates, and primer books well beyond Franklin's life time. As a man of the Enlightenment, Franklin believed optimistically that you could teach virtue.

He discovered that he could approach perfection systematically, but not necessarily obtain the goal uniformly: "But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason."

In his late seventies, he wrote humorously of his lack of perfection: "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....For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."

So perhaps we should not worry about a few excesses, but appreciate the unique we each possess. As Ben wrote at age 78 as his friends dwindled from death, "The fewer we become, the more let us love one another." Happy New Year!

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.