I conceived 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.
It’s been a little over three months since I started this Wrestling with Franklin project with the above quote from Franklin’s autobiography. I am not sure what I expected to happen or to be after working through his 13 virtues but I know I wasn’t so foolish to believe that even working through them once was going to grant me some Great Insight into myself. On the contrary, I think I expected it to be the start of some longer revelation and I’d have the seed of something start to germinate, like the end of a long winter.
At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, here’s what I said back in January:
“I am, however, not striving for moral perfection. I don’t know if I even fathom what that would look like given my beliefs and place in the world. But it is no matter: the process of watching myself, having a focus, should help reveal it.”
I’ve made a few particular insights each week and I feel like I have a better sense of what the virtues mean to me after having studied them from Franklin’s writing. For one so ambitious as Franklin, who says himself he’s seeking perfection, he didn’t really write that much about virtue. He was probably too busy inventing the post office, the public library, or a country, I suppose.
So I feel like I have a sense of what these virtues had to mean for Franklin given his time and place in society. And I see how the virtues would work or not work for me then and now. But I don’t think I can quite articulate that today.
Which is entirely fine. Franklin’s intention for his Moral Perfection project was an ever-spinning cycle of focus for each virtue. After 13 weeks, one simply starts anew with focus on Temperance again. He offered no process for evaluating progress or suggestions for righting wrong behavior. I don’t even think he kept a record of his own weekly progress - he says himself that he erased each week’s grid marks when he started again:
To avoid the trouble of renewing now and then my little book, which, by scraping out the marks on the paper of old faults to make room for new ones in a new course, became full of holes, I transferr’d my tables and precepts to the ivory leaves of a memorandum book, on which the lines were drawn with red ink, that made a durable stain, and on those lines I mark’d my faults with a black-lead pencil, which marks I could easily wipe out with a wet sponge.
From all of this, there seems to be no record or writing on how Franklin progressed, if he got better over time. Which is fine, I suppose, since his “better” is not necessarily my better. As I see it, virtues change over time. Things once valued may no longer be centuries or decades or even months later. Society fluctuates. What I value and what modern society values and, what both would deem “Virtuous” is going to be different necessarily.
So after spending 3 months trying to understand what this all meant to Franklin, I have to start figuring out what this means to me. Starting tis coming Sunday, it;s back to the top with Temperance but I shall endeavor to outline what the virtue meant to Franklin, briefly, and then outline what the virtue means to me today. The delta between these two is interesting because maybe we can see how society has changed since Franklin started his own exploration over 200 hundred years ago.
Let us begin chapter 2, eh?