The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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Industriousness Theme Icon
Vanity and Humility Theme Icon
Error and Correction Theme Icon
Self-Improvement and Self-Education Theme Icon
Public Projects, Communality, and Civic Duty Theme Icon
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Vanity and Humility Theme Icon

In his Autobiography, Franklin challenges the traditional idea that vanity is a vice. As he says, “Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves, but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it…” Vanity is something “productive of Good to the Possesor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action” for Franklin, so, accordingly, he lists it as something he hopes to gratify by writing his Autobiography.

Naturally, with his many personal, civic, and scientific achievements, Benjamin Franklin might have more than the average person to be vain about, so it is important for his project of self-improvement that he gratify his vanity without seeming vain. Thus, when he lists Humility as one of the thirteen virtues he aspires to bring to perfection in himself, his instructions are to “be like Jesus and Socrates”—two historical figures who, while maintaining an air of humility, achieved incredible fame.

Franklin considers Pride and Vanity to be the natural passions most difficult for a man or woman to subdue. So, he advises his reader, there will be quite a bit of both in what he calls his “History.” “For,” he says, “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [vanity], I Should probably be proud of my Humility.”

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Vanity and Humility Quotes in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Below you will find the important quotes in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin related to the theme of Vanity and Humility.
Part 1 Quotes

And, lastly (I may as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody), perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words, “Without vanity I may say,” &c., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action…

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage at the beginning of the autobiography, Benjamin Franklin accounts for the element of vanity implicit in any autobiography, in any account one gives of one's self, life, or history.

To try and narrate one's life assumes, at the very start, that one's life is worth being told--that one's life has a certain importance or authority, and that those who read about it will gain pleasure or instruction from it. Franklin seems to be accounting for this here; he tries to depict how aware he is of this assumption at the heart of writing an autobiography. Yet he also wants to defend vanity, to a certain extent, and claims that vanity can propel someone towards action--towards virtuous and good action. It's as if vanity is sometimes a motor for the good, and that the idea of pure humility--humility untainted by a trace of vanity--is a myth. Perhaps some amount of vanity is required for humans to do anything, to perform any action--but vanity doesn't necessarily entail evil.


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That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Errata
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, beginning the second paragraph of the book, Benjamin Franklin says he would be content with reliving his life over again--though he would enjoy having the ability to edit or delete certain faults, errors, and accidents of his history.

Here, Franklin reveals a deep satisfaction with his own life, as well as an affirmation of life against death. He acknowledges his desire to revise and correct certain mistakes and events, but more powerfully claims that he would willingly choose to live his life over again despite these. In a way, Franklin's desire to revise his life (like a printer revises a second printing after checking for errata) doesn't seem to be motivated by wanting more pleasure for his life, but rather to correct the faults and errors he has committed so as to become more virtuous and industrious.

The first [poem] sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances, and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

The "event" mentioned in this quote is the drowning of Captain Worthilake and his two daughters--a tragedy much discussed in Boston at the time. Benjamin Franklin's poem "The Lighthouse Tragedy" gave an account of this incident.

Here, the theme of vanity--at the core of the autobiography's beginning--again surfaces. Franklin notes that his poem's success flattered and indulged his sense of vanity, but his father counteracted this, though perhaps not in the sense of instilling humility in Benjamin. His father's motivation for ridiculing him seems to regard money more than the character trait of vanity; he isn't really trying to prevent Benjamin from acquiring a pretentious personality. Rather, his father seems most intent on preventing his son from writing poetry because it is not profitable. In this way, Benjamin's father ironically exemplifies a different kind of vanity.

My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Having read a book on vegetarianism by Tyron, Benjamin Franklin endeavors to eat a meatless diet. 

Here, Franklin reveals his aptitude for free-thinking and experimentation. His ability to truly think for himself, and not join in with those who eat meat, makes him into something "singular," something detached from and different than the masses (vegetarianism being highly unpopular at the time). Yet Franklin is not concerned with this singularity--he has taken up a vegetarian diet because he sees it as a source of self-improvement; he sees refraining from killing innocent animals as a moral decision, and he finds out that it also saves him money. Vegetarianism is, for Franklin, just one exercise on the road to his becoming a better person.

…despatching presently my light repast, which often was no more than a bisket or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry-cook’s, and a glass of water, [I] had the rest of the time till their return for study, in which I made the greater progress, from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Following shortly after the previous quote, in this passage Benjamin Franklin relays to us the sparseness and restrictiveness of his new diet.

For Franklin, the vegetarian diet not only saves him money and supports his belief in not harming animals, it also benefits his self-education. The meatless diet allows him to eat very quickly and maintain a clear-headedness that enhances his studying. Here, the meticulous nature of Franklin's industriousness stands out--even the adjustment of his diet serves some purpose that improves his progress towards becoming well-read and educated. He has singled out the goal of advancing his intellect, and meticulously alters any possible hindrances to achieving it.

I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the [Socratic Method]. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs shortly after Benjamin Franklin discusses his conversion to a vegetarian diet.

Having formerly argued in a direct, confrontational and oppositional manner, Franklin has decided to adopt the more humble approach to argumentation afforded by the Socratic method. Using this method, Franklin stops directly arguing with his opponent, but rather focuses on asking questions and doubting his opponents in order to bring them to a point where they contradict themselves (or he himself changes his mind). Franklin no longer tries to intervene with his own arguments and reasoning in order to bring his opponents to contradiction, but rather leads them to contradict themselves, to make their own errors. In this way, Franklin adopts a much humbler method of argumentation--humbler at least in its outward appearance, and much less likely to lead to a fight or a deadlock.

Instead of proclaiming a wealth of knowledge about a topic--which he may not posses--and aggressively arguing for a certain position, he decides to proclaim no such special knowledge, and to intently listen to the other's point of view. By adopting this method, Franklin comes to a fuller understanding of his opponents' positions, an understanding which also affords him more opportunities to lead them to commit errors of logic, ultimately giving him the upper hand.

So I sold some of my books to raise a little money, was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair wind, in three days I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to, or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Having had a dispute with his brother, and unable to find work at another printing-house, Benjamin Franklin decides to leave for New York (without informing his family).

The daringness of Franklin's ambition, as well as his prodigious sense of independence and self-sufficiency at such a remarkably young age shine out in this passage. Franklin displays a willingness to take an extraordinary risk--to thrust himself into a totally foreign environment with no connections and little money. But he accepts his humble yet inevitable status as a poor outsider in order to improve the quality of his life--to escape the frustrations he encountered in Boston. Though Franklin ultimately ends up in Philadelphia, his trek to New York reveals his readiness to experience new environments and his confidence in his ability to adapt to them.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Benjamin Franklin writes this after deciding to reincorporate fish into his diet. After reflecting on the fact that fish eat one another, he reasons that this justifies humans in eating them.

Here, it seems that Franklin is at once praising the merits of reason--that it enables our minds to logically explain our behavior as well as adjust it when new evidence suggests we should--while also playing on the humorous ability for reason to provide an explanation for practically anything the mind wants to justify. Franklin's resumption of eating fish, though based on a justification provided by his reasoning--that fish eat other fish--will, nevertheless, result in the death of fish which could otherwise be avoided (by continuing the vegetable diet). However, Frankin seems to mostly view his return to eating fish as a triumph of reason, as an improvement of his mind and health.

I continu’d [the Socratic Method] some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Having acquired Memorable Things of Socrates by Xenophon, young Benjamin Franklin decides to adopt Socrates's method of argumentation. Though he ultimately moves on from this method's emphasis on pure doubting, Franklin retains a hesitance towards sounding absolutely certain about any topic of argument.

This move by Franklin to resist appearing totally confident demonstrates his intention to be more humble in conversation. Humility is one of the virtues he later enumerates as the ingredients of a good character--becoming humble is one of the elements of his journey towards moral perfection. Here, we see how humility operates at the very level of speech and conversation--Franklin must rethink the way he approaches discussion with others. As we read later, this proves difficult, and Franklin says he has only been able to achieve humility at the level of outward appearances.

Part 2 Quotes

It will moreover present a table of the internal circumstances of your country, which will very much tend to invite to it settlers of virtuous and manly minds.

Related Characters: Benjamin Vaughn (speaker)
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in section two of the autobiography, in Benjamin Vaughan's letter.

Vaughan is trying to convince Benjamin Franklin to continue writing his autobiography, believing that it will paint a portrait of New England life which will attract people with virtue and intellect similar to Franklin's. Reading about New England through the lens of Franklin's mind may attract people who might see America in a similar light. Vaughan sees Franklin as the perfect person for introducing New England to the world; he's the ideal combination of industriousness, humility, ingenuity, and passion--those qualities which make up the prototype of a productive citizen invested in bettering himself and his society.

It will be so far a sort of key to life, and explain many things that all men ought to have once explained to them, to give them a chance of becoming wise by foresight.

Related Characters: Benjamin Vaughn (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Continuing the sentiments of the previous quote, Benjamin Vaughan believes that the autobiography will be a source of education for many people. Benjamin Franklin's principled way of conducting himself, and his wide variety of experiences--from his poverty to his extraordinary wealth, his political participation, travels, free-thinking, and many innovations--will inspire and inform people in a way that will prepare them in advance--give them wisdom by foresight--to successfully deal with future hardships and obstacles. Franklin's story proves that poverty (in some cases at least) doesn't necessarily limit one's future; it also provides a method for achieving "moral perfection," and it discusses the nature of human relations at large. As such, it's a vehicle for the reader's self-improvement.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs after Benjamin Franklin discusses his endeavors to embody the virtue of humility more in his life. 

Here, Franklin accepts that the presence of pride in one's mind is inescapable--"it is still alive" despite the best of attempts at deleting it from one's thinking. He therefore admits that it will not be absent from his autobiography. Even if he could conceive of having totally rid himself of pride, he says, he should still be 'proud' of his humility, ironically pointing to the inescapable and paradoxical nature of pride--for even the possession of humility is something that is likely to become a source of pride. 

Part 3 Quotes

I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 107-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Benjamin Franklin says this after discussing his project of forming The Society of the Free and Easy, a society to be composed of the "good men of all nations."

Franklin's sense of industriousness and dedication to his work--no matter the magnitude of its requirements--shines out in this passage. Franklin's philosophy about how to achieve one's goals doesn't begin by saying that one must have so much talent that the ascertainment of any goal be effortless; rather, he says that a tolerable or average ability is sufficient to achieve great things. He doesn't see the need to work hard at something as necessarily correlated with lack of aptitude; rather, he seems to view achievement as the process of enduring hard work which leads to self-improvement. Seen as a process, self-improvement is almost a never-ending goal. 

Further, Franklin believes that the most effective way to achieve one's goals is to clearly plan them out and refrain from engaging with anything that might serve as obstacles. Perhaps this is also an element of the hard work that goes into self-improvement: stopping those behaviors, habits, and activities that distract one from more meaningful but perhaps more difficult things.

When I disengaged myself, as above mentioned, from private business, I flatter’d myself that, by the sufficient tho’ moderate fortune I had acquir’d, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements… but the publick, now considering me as a man of leisure, laid hold of me for their purposes, every part of our civil government, and almost at the same time, imposing some duty upon me.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Having given over the management of his printing business to David Hall, Benjamin Franklin thought he would be able to dedicate most of his time to purely intellectual pursuits. Here, however, he tells us that much of his time would be soon taken up performing civil service instead. 

Franklin reveals a strong sense of civic duty and community involvement here. Besides his own willingness to perform roles in public office, there's a sense that the community expected him to--that the community, aware of Franklin's ingenuity and industriousness, felt him to be an indispensible staple to the workings of things. It seems that, for Franklin, retirement is not an option for him--but he also might agree that complete retirement should never be an option for anyone, and that everyone should maintain an involvement in public affairs and the greater good.

Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas. The money may be soon spent, the regret only remaining of having foolishly consumed it; but in the other case, he escapes the frequent vexation of waiting for barbers, and of their sometimes dirty fingers, offensive breaths, and dull razors; he shaves when most convenient to him, and enjoys daily the pleasure of its being done with a good instrument.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

After having described his innovative plan for keeping the streets of London and Westminster clean, Benjamin Franklin gives us this anecdote.

This quotes further reveals Benjamin Franklin's philosophy of industriousness--that it is much more important to acquire lasting skills and good habits than to seek satisfaction in temporary or material pleasures. To start of with a lot of money but little skill will not get one very far; knowledge and routine must be established in order for one to enjoy the freedom of independence and the satisfaction of self-sufficiency--qualities which support the pursuit and maintenance of wealth. The work of self-improvement leads to lasting pleasure, despite the investment of effort required--as opposed to the instantaneous and temporary pleasure made possible by the finite resource of money.

The British government, not chusing to permit the union of the colonies as propos’d at Albany, and to trust that union with their defense, lest they should thereby grow too military, and feel their own strength, suspicions and jealousies at this time being entertain’d of them, sent over General Braddock with two regiments of regular English troops for that purpose.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

The British government, denying the proposed union of the colonies--which commissioners (including Benjamin Franklin) from each colony had drafted in Albany--has sent English troops to New England in order to satisfy the colonies' need for a military power to defend against the Indians (and to have an excuse to tax America). Franklin intimates that this is also a gesture aimed at intimidating the colonies, as the British government is suspicious of New England growing an independent military power.

Franklin's keen sense of diplomatic and military relations continues revealing itself here. He understands England's fear that a union of the colonies may allow them an independence that could threaten British power. England is painted as a force of vanity, concerned with regulating the American economy and maintaining its revenue from taxation, rather than a genuine force that acts out of practical or strategic concern for America's growth.

…common sense, aided by present danger, will sometimes be too strong for whimsical opinions.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Benjamin Franklin, discussing the Moravian village of Gnadenhut's anti-arms policy with bishop Spangenberg, learns that many of Gnadenhut's residents have recently started to bear arms after the recent Indian attack.

Here, Franklin's pragmatic view of human behavior is exposed. He thinks that the "whimsical" anti-arms policy of the Moravians has had its idealism deflated by the violent reality of the recent Indian attack. The high ideals of the Moravians, being in reality inadequate for their survival, are suddenly being ignored as they begin to acquire arms. Franklin points out a kind of vanity in the Moravians' holding of beliefs that ultimately cannot be followed--as if the refusal to hold practical beliefs about self-defense, when that refusal budges under the pressure of actual violence, is a vain way of thinking. The realities of war and of the need to protect themselves are now demanding common sense.

One paper, which I wrote for Mr. Kinnersley, on the sameness of lightning with electricity, I sent to Dr. Mitchel, an acquaintance of mine, and one of the members also of that society [the Royal Society], who wrote me word that it had been read, but was laughed at by the connoisseurs.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

The paper to which Benjamin Franklin refers in this quote is one where he argues for the sameness of electricity with lightning.

Franklin's sense of confidence in his own thinking and innovation is humbly shown to us here. He paints the "connoisseurs" as vain and unimaginative people who cannot look past their current beliefs in order to consider the possible truth behind Franklin's new theory. That Franklin's theory was "laughed" at shows that even people in very eminent academic positions can lack the decorum and intellectual integrity to consider a radical theory with levelheadedness and open-mindedness. Franklin oozes humility here, considering that his theory would later be proven correct and he would be heralded as a genius for it.

There was a great company of officers, citizens, and strangers, and, some chairs having been borrowed in the neighborhood, there was one among them very low, which fell to the lot of Mr. Shirley. Perceiving it as I sat by him, I said, “They have given you, sir, too low a seat.” “No matter,” says he, “Mr. Franklin, I find a low seat the easiest.”

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Benjamin Franklin writes about the party given for Lord Loudoun's succession of Mr. Shirley as (British) Commander-in-Chief of North America. The party occurred in New York, and Shirley was in attendance despite his being replaced by Loudoun.

Franklin acknowledges Shirley's sense of humility and dignity in this passage--a dignity that Shirley holds at the same time that he is averse to holding a position of extraordinary military power. Shirley metaphorically plays off of Franklin's polite concern--that Shirley has received too low a seat--in support of that aversion, that he dislikes positions of great power and prefers to be out of the spotlight, with less pressure and overwhelming responsibility. Franklin paints Shirley as a humble man who knows himself and his strengths firmly, such that he graciously steps down from his position and celebrates Loudoun's promotion.

On the whole, I wonder’d much how such a man [Lord Loudoun] came to be entrusted with so important a business as the conduct of a great army; but, having since seen more of the great world, and the means of obtaining, and motives for giving places, my wonder is diminished.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker), Lord Loudoun
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

After describing Lord Loudoun's indeciveness and irresponsibility in directing several 'paquets' (or mail, freight, and passenger transportation boats), Benjamin Franklin makes this remark about his own lack of surprise that an incompetent person like Loudoun can come to occupy such an eminent position as General.

Here is another one of the few instances of Franklin's pessimism in the autobiography. Like his belief that the mistakes of history are commonly repeated, this passage reveals his sense of wisdom about the corrupt and haphazard ways people acquire positions and offices of great authority. Franklin is taken aback by Loudoun's incompetence, but at the same time, based on his experiences traveling the world and meeting many people, he is after all not so shocked.