Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Life of Benjamin Franklin

I recently finished reading the autobiography of Ben Franklin. I think this book should have been more aptly named “Excerpts and Principles from my life”. It is an enjoyable read, but don’t expect to have a complete chronological account. He wrote it at three different times in his life and there are gaps in the chronology. He does cover his formative years very well which is good, because it gives a lot of background on how he became who he was.

One of the interesting things he addresses is his religion. He states that he became a Deist, but soon left it off because he found it didn’t explain God fully. He returned to mainstream Christianity but, although he was raised Presbyterian, refused to join any specific denomination. He does speak twice of attending a church. The first was a preacher who seemed to think that his pulpit was a seminary classroom. He soon bored Franklin who stated that he felt that every sermon should have some moral or virtue, in other words, application to our daily lives. The second minister did a good job of this, but because he differed with the denomination on some points of doctrine was soon expelled. Unfortunately, we have the same issue in the modern church. We get so far beyond the essentials of our faith that we major on the mint, thyme and cumin and ignore the weightier matters of righteousness, justice and mercy.

Not being a member of any specific sect helped Franklin. He was able to be the mediator between sparring factions more than once and became a friend to many different denominations. He had an especially interesting relationship with the preacher George Whitfield. Whitfield did not see Franklin as saved, and attempted to convert him, but Franklin did not budge. Franklin was familiar with Whitfield’s oratory and went to listen to him one time, knowing that Whitfield was going to make an appeal for money for the orphanage he was putting together in Georgia. He made the firm determination that Whitfield would not get a penny. However, by the time Whitfield had finished, he had given all the money he had in his pocket! Interestingly enough, one of his few criticisms of Whitfield was that Whitfield printed his sermons. He stated that in print they sounded far different than when preached and that it gave rise to being taken out of context and criticized unfairly. The interesting part about this was that it was Franklin’s printing business who did all the printing for Whitfield in America!

Franklin also understood the need for experience. During the colonial period in the French/Indian war, the city of Philadelphia organized a militia to defend and watch the city. By this time he was considered one of the city fathers and could easily have demanded leadership in the militia. In fact, it was offered to him, but he refused and served as a private. He stated that as he had not been a military man before, and knew nothing of the subject, he would serve his city as a private. At a later time when he had the experience he accepted a leadership position.

Franklin understood business. Here I’d like to quote an excerpt:

Partnerships often finish in quarrels; but I was happy in this, that mine were all carried on and ended amicably, owing, I think, a good deal to the precaution of having very explicitly settled, in our articles, every thing to be done by or expected from each partner, so that there was nothing to dispute, which precaution I would therefore recommend to all who enter into partnerships; for, whatever esteem partners may have for, and confidence in each other at the time of the contract, little jealousies and disgusts may arise, with ideas of inequality in the care and burden of the business, etc., which are attended often with breach of friendship and of the connection, perhaps with lawsuits and other disagreeable consequences

In other words, business is about expectations. If you set the expectations correctly and then follow thru, much of the angst that can be caused will be avoided. Having said that, Franklin was in partnership several times and only one of his partners treated him fairly. The others ended up costing Franklin. He paid off the debts and did not seem bitter, but it still cost him dearly. His last partner worked out well and they were in partnership for 18 years. He had been a journeyman for Franklin for 4 years already so Franklin knew his work habits quite well.

Franklin was a man who was always trying to improve himself. He understood his faults and attempted to correct them. He had an interesting way of looking at it:

…My faults in it vexed me so much, …that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn'd, while the smith press'd the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. "No," said the smith, "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled." "Yes," said the man, "but I think I like a speckled ax best." And I believe this may have been the case with many, who, having, for want of some such means as I employ'd, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that "a speckled ax was best"

The system he is talking about is his 13 virtues. He found 13 areas of his life that he wanted to work on, wrote them each down on a card, and worked on one per week, letting the others fall to the natural chance. In doing this, he was able to improve his character. Below are his 13 virtues.

Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

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.

Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

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.

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.

He stated that his biggest issue was orderliness, which I can relate to.

Franklin was a giant of his time, and an example to ours and future generations of the benefits of hard work and benevolence to your fellow man. This book is highly recommended.