Arts & Culture & Public Square

Are Franklin’s List of Virtues Needed Today?

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The framers of our constitution…said that certain virtues are necessary for self-government when it comes to compromise, or moderation, or civility…where do we get those virtues now?

 – Michael Gerson, columnist

On March 13, PBS launched a new conservative talk show called “In Principle,” featuring syndicated Washington Post columnist Mike Gerson and commentator Amy Holmes. On the first episode, Gerson asked the question above on the source of virtues to talk show host Glenn Beck, who answered, “I don’t think they are being taught. Because those virtues require pain—self-reflection.”

The show has already received interesting feedback from the right and the left—some doubting whether PBS can do justice to conservative ideas, others wondering why we need yet another conservative talk show.

The debut show focused on the idea of “echo chambers” and on how many leaders today seem to be living in one—unanchored to a principled worldview and drifting on a sea of self-justification.

The question for us is, how do we avoid living in our own echo chamber? How do we keep sight of the fact that our gifts and talents are to be used within a framework of virtue?

Right Virtues, Wrong Motivations

Benjamin Franklin offers one of the most famous examples of a leader who wanted to avoid such an echo chamber and, instead, live within a principled code of conduct. In 1726, as a young man, he conceived for himself the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”

After a time of introspection, he came up with a list of twelve virtues. He wrote them down, along with a short description of how each should be applied. Many of the virtues on Franklin’s list reflect those that Paul writes about in Philippians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Although Franklin was a deist, not a Christian, he drew his list from biblical principles:

  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 employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  7. Sincerity – “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, 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 so much as you think they deserve.”
  10. Cleanliness – “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
  11. Tranquility – “Be not disturbed at 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.”

Franklin showed the list to a Quaker friend of his and asked him what he thought. After looking at the list, Franklin’s friend suggested adding “humility.” Franklin quickly added it as the last of his virtues. He wrote, “Humility: imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin then committed to giving strict attention to one virtue each week. After thirteen weeks he moved through all thirteen virtues and would start the process over again, continuing to do so for most of his life. He tracked his progress by using a little book of thirteen charts, putting a mark next to each virtue for each fault committed with respect to that virtue for that day.

While Franklin, by his own admission, did not live completely by his virtues, he believed the attempts made him a better man. Franklin writes in his autobiography,

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.

In following Franklin’s example, though, we need to be careful. Franklin developed his list of virtues in order to be morally perfect. He did the right things for the wrong reasons. As Christians, we live virtuous lives because we love God and seek to honor him in response to the grace he has shown us in offering his son for our salvation.

There are many other examples of moral codes that have their roots in biblical principles. The Boy Scout Law says a scout is:

  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Kind
  • Obedient
  • Cheerful
  • Thrifty
  • Brave
  • Clean
  • Reverent

The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics has written ten virtues, or guiding principles, as we call them. They follow logically from the company’s mission, vision, and statement of faith. Each principle is an important statement about creating value and the way our company does business. Our staff agrees to adhere to these principles as we work with one another and others outside our company.

Whether our nation’s leaders remain anchored to a moral code should have little impact on our own ability or resolve to do so. Let us each commit, in response to God’s grace, to live by biblical virtues in such a way that we bless our communities and glorify God.

Editor’s note: Are you a business owner? Learn more about how to integrate biblical principles into your leadership and management strategy with The Principles Consulting, faith-based consulting for businesses, family offices, and foundations. 

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