What Writers - and Others - Can Learn From Ben Franklin
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
What do you know about Ben Franklin?
Most people probably respond that he flew a kite in a storm and discovered electricity.
Maybe you know that he was important to American politics and that he was a stout dude who invented bifocals.
Did you know he also developed our modern day library system? That he authored American proverbs, "A penny saved is a penny earned," "A rolling stone gathers no moss," and "Nothing can be be certain except death and taxes"?
A pretty incredible guy
Benjamin Franklin was the only man in American to sign the four documents which built our country:
The Treaty of Alliance with France which aided us in the war against Britain
The Treaty of Paris, the peace treaty with England ending the Revolutionary War
The Constitution of the United States
The Declaration of Independence
Even with the import of these major historical achievements, Ben never lost his wit. When he signed the Declaration, he quipped to John Hancock, "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
Franklin had a phenomenal mind. He made advancements in science, medicine, journalism, and foreign affairs.
The things he dreamed up
Amazing advancements that we're still using today...
Important developments that we often take for granted...like the urinary catheter.
In Franklin's time, the catheter would be inserted into the bladder to drain urine, but it was a rigid, metal pipe (YIKES!) that caused extreme pain. Good old Ben, who watched his older brother John suffer from kidney stones, decided to do something so his ailing brother wouldn't have to jam a cannon into his private parts every day. In 1752, Franklin modified the original catheter design by using a flexible rubber tube.
And he wasn't even a doctor.
Benjamin Franklin helped establish libraries, fire departments, and post offices. He created the lightning rod, the odometer, swimming fins. He even re-designed streetlamps so that the light wouldn't be obscured by soot.
A ladies' man for the centuries
I have a big-time crush on old Benjamin, just like many ladies in America and Europe who experienced his charm first-hand in the late 1700's. There is just something about a man with a huge brain, charisma, and a flair for the dramatic.
Ben was a thinker on all levels, including the importance of fashion. (Think of him as a colonial stylist with a statement.) He went to Paris as America's ambassador in 1776 wearing a fur hat. Savvy soul that he was, Franklin knew the hat identified him as "American" and helped further the image of a frontier country seeking its independence.
He knew exactly what he was doing. In a letter to Emma Thomas he wrote,
“Figure me in your mind as jolly as formerly, and as strong and hearty, only a few years older; being very plainly dress’d wearing my thin gray strait hair, that peeps out from under my only coiffure, a fine Fur Cap, which comes down to my Forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how this must appear among the powder’d heads of Paris!”
But what I love most about Franklin is that, like William Byrd, Franklin is a flawed human-being attempting to be better.
Among Franklin's many other projects, he decided he would undertake "the bold and arduous project of arriving at Moral Perfection" because he wanted to live "without committing any fault at any time."
Kind of a lofty goal.
But I have to admire his gumption, his high standards, the methods to his madness, and the fact that he wrote it all down so that we know about it today.
It's refreshing for a political leader to undertake the quest for Moral Perfection.
The Chart for Self-Improvement
Being a man of science, old Ben believed that if a logical sequence was followed, all obstacles could be studied, overcome, and corrected. Take the system for achieving Moral Perfection that he immortalized in his autobiography.
He made a list of thirteen virtues, kept a calendar of when he failed in these, and devoted time to improving that characteristic in himself.
His list of the thirteen virtues still makes sense today
First, there's temperance, paying attention to eating and drinking habits. Secondly, there's silence, knowing when to keep thoughts to yourself. Next comes order, one of my personal favorites. Franklin says, "Let all things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time. I follow his lead. "Everything in its place" is my motto as I continually battle chaos by imposing order. (Forget that this is in direct contrast to Einstein's comment: "Order is for idiots. Genius can handle chaos.")
Close behind comes resolution, (modern-day goal-setting.) frugality, "Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself," and industry: "Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful."
Virtues seven, eight, and nine are sincerity, justice, and moderation. Franklin ends his list with cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
Please note that he added humility because he was a proud man. He even suggested that should he ever achieve it, he'd be proud about being humble.
Now, you ask, what does any of this have to do with our personal lives, our families, the way of the world today? What "warm, fuzzy," can we take away from Ben's autobiography?
The quest for virtue is still an incredibly important element of being human.
We can't be perfect, but we can consciously try.
Maybe greatness lies not in the achievement of perfection, but in the desire to strive for it at all.
What can we learn from Ben Franklin?
That writing down goals is effective.
That putting thoughts into ink creates action.
That we write for ourselves, but that somewhere, sometime in the future, someone unknown to us may be touched by what we write.
And The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin proves that writers and thinkers everywhere should keep journals. We won't come close to the multi-faceted genius of Franklin, and we won't achieve moral perfection any more than he did. But someday, we, too, might provide insight to the condition of humanity in the early 21st century.