This post was written for Latter-Day Homeschooling
Benjamin Franklin strived for moral perfection. He said “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.”
I think we all have had thoughts like this at one point or another in our lives. I remember the day I was baptized. My eight year old self was certain that I would never make another mistake again. From that point on, I was going to be perfect. I lasted less than an hour.
Aside from the fact that I am human and therefore, cannot be perfect, I think I would have done much better if I had followed Franklin’s example and instead of having a blanket “I will be perfect” thought, actually written specific goals down.
Franklin had a list of 13 virtues that he strived for daily in order to achieve his goal. He wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But I would guess he was MORE perfect than I.
These 13 virtues are as follows:
- “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 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.”
Franklin would carry a chart with him with these virtues on them and at the end of each day, he would place a dot next to each virtue he had violated. His ultimate goal was to minimize the marks and therefore live a “clean” life.
He would also make a point to focus on one virtue each week, preferably perfecting it by the end of that week. Benjamin Franklin never met his goal, I wonder if he honestly thought he really would. But regardless of falling short of perfection he said:
“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.”
How wonderful would it be if we all were a little more like that. If we made a point to improve ourselves daily. If we recognized our faults and strived to rid ourselves of them. Even though we will never reach perfection, imagine how much happier we would be if we actually tried.
George Washington was cut from the same cloth. By the age of 16 he had written 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Let’s take a moment and look at a few of Washington’s Rules:
1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2d When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.
7th Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.
15th Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great Concern for them.
17th Be no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d Withal.
18th Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask’d also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter.
19th let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave.
21st: Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.
22d Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
23d When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly Pleased; but always shew Pity to the Suffering Offender.
24th Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Publick Spectacle.
25th Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected.
44th When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.
48th Wherein wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.
49th Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.
52d In your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accomodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places.
56th Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
58th Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.
73d Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
81st Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others neither approach those that Speak in Private.
82d undertake not what you cannot perform but be carefull to keep your promise.
86th In Disputes, be not So Desireous to Overcome as not to give Liberty to each one to deliver his Opinion and Submit to the Judgment of the Major Part especially if they are Judges of the Dispute.
89th Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
91st Make no Shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table neither find fault with what you Eat.
98th Drink not nor talk with your mouth full neither Gaze about you while you are a Drinking.
108th When you Speak of God or his Atributes, let it be Seriously & wt. Reverence. Honour & Obey your Natural Parents altho they be Poor.
110th Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
Washington’s rules include everything from cleanliness and table manners to conversation and “that Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience” By today’s standards most, if not all of these rules seem out dated and unnecessary. But I if you look at the general tone of these rules for decent behavior focus on your actions towards others.
Talk about a lost ideal. In a time when fist fights break out over maple syrup in Denny’s or when a public school teacher is praised for not interfering in the brutal beating of a student. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to think a little bit more about how our actions affect other people, rather then how their actions affect us.
We live in a world where children and adults alike are increasingly disrespectful, selfish, defiant and vulgar. Where five year olds are going into therapy for acting like children and parents all but wash their hands of their responsibilities over their progeny. It’s a world where people think of nothing but themselves but not for the sake of self improvement. They think about how they are the “victim” or how they have been wronged or about how everyone else is messing up and they are without fault.
I, for one, am going to do something about it.
I am going to follow the examples of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. I have already begun to write out my very own “list of virtues”.
Want a peek?
- PURPOSE: I would like everything I do to be done with purpose and thought. (ie, if I am going to sit down and watch TV it is going to be because I INTEND to do so. No more mindless puttering or doing something because there is nothing better to do. There is ALWAYS something better to do. And don’t misunderstand me, I do sometimes intend to do nothing other than sit on the couch and watch TV. It just won’t be mindless.)
- FEMININITY: I am a woman. I would like to always look like a woman and act like a lady.
- TRANQUILLITY: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” (no need to reinvent the wheel, so I’m borrowing from Franklin’s list)
- SILENCE: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” (I really need to learn not to add my 2 cents in every time the opportunity presents itself).
- ORDER: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” (Especially laundry and dishes. And I really need to avoid clutter)
- EDUCATION: The more I learn, the more impressed I am at my own ignorance. There is so much to learn and it is all so interesting to me.
- COURAGE: Even as I will strive to be silent, there are some things that one cannot be silent about. And while I will never set out to offend anyone, I can’t be the person who won’t stand for something just because someone else might get upset.
- DIGNITY: I too, am an elect lady. So I will strive to act in a way that is worthy of honor and respect.
- OPTIMISM: I focus way to much on the scary things. I need to have more hope.
- JOY: I will try to be cheerful and slow to anger.
- CONTENTMENT: I have been blessed beyond imagination. Hebrews 13:5 says “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” I really have no reason not to be perfectly happy. Contentment will take care of a load of vices (vanity, covetousness, lust, anger).
- ATTENTIVENESS: Entirely too many people aren’t aware of what is going on around them. I will strive to be aware of what is going on in the world AND what is going on in my own family.
- TOLERANCE: Believe it or not, but I have a tendency to get really frustrated and angry with people who don’t agree with me. While I won’t necessarily accept another point of view (some things just aren’t open for negotiation), I will try to be respectful and tolerant of the people who hold it.
I’m sure I’ll add some more as my days go on. But this is a great start for me and if I could master these (even if I could only master Purpose and Contentment) then I would be one step closer to being perfect and the world would be one person closer to being a better place. I can only change myself, but in changing myself I can absolutely change the world.
After all, Franklin and Washington did.