Dr. Franklin's “Thirteen Virtues:” Timeless advice for business and life

By Charles Waldo

Benjamin Franklin was an American original, a true Renaissance man. Born in Boston in 1706, at age seventeen and with only a rudimentary education, he left his family and headed to the fledgling city of Philadelphia to seek his fortune in the printing and publishing industries. This he did very successfully and, along life’s way, also became a militia commander, a representative from Pennsylvania to the second Continental Congress, was a member of the select committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a long time Ambassador to France, being instrumental in getting French support for the American Revolution, and was a key architect and signer of the initial Constitution.

Franklin was also a noted scientist and inventor– ever hear of the Franklin Stove? Or the lightening rod? He helped found the first Philadelphia Fire Company, the first fire insurance company for the common person, the nation’s first free public library, and what is now the University of Pennsylvania. Plus he became the U.S.’s first Postmaster. He was called “Dr. Franklin” by many although the title was honorary, given to him by several illustrious universities such as Harvard and Yale for his many contributions to American – and world – society.

Passion for Self-Improvement

Franklin had a “way with words,” both printed and spoken, which are still applicable today. In the last issue of the HCBM we looked at fifty-three of over 900 proverbs and observations about life and business that appeared during the twenty-five years he published his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack. In this issue we look at Franklin’s “Thirteen Virtues” which were part of his “moral perfection project.”

Noted biographer Walter Isaacson feels “They were focused on traits that could help him (or anyone) succeed in this world, instead of ones that would exalt his soul for the hereafter…… He had a passion for self-improvement and they are enchantingly American.” Social theorist David Brooks says “They are not particularly spiritual virtues but they are practical and they are democratic.”

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 employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no harmful deceit. Think innocently and justly; if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries as much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed by trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. 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.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

What do you think? While some of Franklin’s Virtues may not be stated in modern terms or seem to apply to today’s world, what about their underlying meanings and implications? Would you be a better employee, manager, or business owner if you followed these principles?

When one reads some of the “classics” in management thinking, we find many Virtues echoed. For example, in Dr. Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive we find his first principle of effectiveness is “Know thy time”…… Franklin’s Virtue #6 Industry. In Dr.Stephen Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the habit of “Putting first things first” that can equate to Franklin’s Virtue #3 Order.

There are many biographies of Benjamin Franklin available and one can learn from any of them. But the Washington Post calls Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life “the most readable, full-length biography of Benjamin Franklin available.” I’ve read it and it is readable, although at over 500 pages not a quick scan. Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve System Paul Volcker has authored a short book containing the works in Poor Richards’ Almanack that is both insightful and humorous and is well worth the time. Enjoy.

By Charles Waldo