The first letter Franklin includes to show why he is continuing his Autobiography is from a man named Abel James who wrote to Franklin while Franklin was in Paris. James says he has wanted to write Franklin for some time but feared the letter might fall into the hands of the British.
There is an obvious shift, between Part One and Two of the Autobiography, in Franklin’s estimation of the value and scope of his work. He begins to think of it as something for the public at large.
Abel James read over 23 pages of Franklin’s handwritten draft of Part One of the Autobiography. He includes a copy of it so that Franklin might continue to write the history of his life. He says the book would be entertaining to millions. He says it would instruct the world’s youth to achieve Franklin’s industry and temperance. The work would have many other values, he adds, but this would be most important.
Because Franklin has begun to think of the Autobiography as a work that might be suitable for a larger audience, it seems he feels anxiety and a corresponding need to justify the vanity inherent in writing a book about himself. Perhaps this is why he includes the letters of other men to support the belief he already secretly harbored of his work’s merit.
The second, longer letter Franklin includes to demonstrate why he’s undertaken to complete his Autobiography was sent by Benjamin Vaughn in Paris, January 31st 1783. After reading over a description from a mutual friend (perhaps James) of what was to become Part One of Franklin’s book, Vaughn says, he found it necessary to urge Franklin to complete the work.
The second letter is longer and more categorical than the first, containing many of the same arguments, and much to the same purpose, but expounding those arguments in greater detail. Perhaps Franklin included the letters of these friends as much for personal motivation as public justification.
Vaughn says he solicits the history of Franklin’s life because: (1) His life is remarkable (2) It will be a valuable document of the foundation and working of the newly created United States. (3) Most importantly, it will allow for the formation of future great men who might follow in Franklin’s example, in particular by giving a “noble rule and example of self-education.”
Vaughn’s argument that Franklin’s work will allow for the formation of future great men may have persuaded Franklin to include more in the way of instructions for self-improvement and shows how even Franklin’s contemporaries noted his unique position to pioneer the genre now somewhat grossly known as “Self Help.”
Franklin’s Autobiography, Vaughn continues, will not only teach self-education, but the education of a wise man. He insists that the small, private details are as important as the larger plans because what people need is “rules of prudence in ordinary affairs.” His book will be a “key to life.” His readers will see that even Franklin formed a plan by which he became considerable—that he wasn’t simply born to greatness. A man should arrange his conduct to suit the whole of a life, not simply a moment.
Vaughn notes that Franklin’s work might have very real practical educations, that, by following Franklin’s example, they too might develop the habits to improve their station in life, and, if not become rich, at least possess a certain quantity of wisdom. Vaughn’s wise insight that a man should conduct himself to suit the whole of his life is also an attempt to get Franklin to share the whole of his.
Vaughn praises what he calls Franklin’s modesty and disinterestedness. Yet another reason, Vaughn continues, is that Franklin’s style of writing is serviceable, shrewd, and well-composed and his continuing it may inspire more writing of the same kind rather than the vain trifles of the pretentiously literary. He concludes his letter with a personal application. Vaughn says he himself is desirous of seeing the Autobiography come into the world. He asks Franklin to show himself as he is, a great man, one who loves “justice, liberty, and concord.”
The final note, perhaps most interesting when considering the Autobiography as a work of literature rather than an historical document, is an argument for the literary merits of the work. Once again, Vaughn praises Franklin’s pragmatism, saying that his words and teachings have practical value and that this enhances their artistic merit. It is a work applied to life, not built purely on literary concern and allusion.
Franklin continues the account of his life, writing from Passy, near Paris, in 1784. He says he had been too busy to set to work again when he first received the letters. He says if he lives until he gets home to Philadelphia he might improve his present recollections from his notes and adds that he can’t remember if he gave an account of the means he used to establish the Philadelphia public library. He speaks of the lack of booksellers and the poor state of printing houses in New York and Philadelphia when he first moved from Boston.
Franklin retreads some of the ground he began to cover at the end of Part One, which is understandable given that nearly twenty years have passed since he last looked at the manuscript and that he is restarting his story without a copy of the old manuscript in front of him. He summarizes, to some extent, the state of affairs in the colonies when it came to a person’s access to books and, therefore, one’s ability to self-educate.
Franklin recounts how the Junto formed a small library, and he transformed this into a subscription library after seeing its utility. Other towns copied the idea, reading became fashionable, and people became better read. He says that Brockden, the scrivener who helped him start the library, criticized that they would all be dead before the term of subscription had expired, but he says that, in his case, Brockden was wrong, and a charter allowed the library to continue in perpetuity without subscriptions anyway.
Franklin here resumes the story he left off with the Junto’s small lending library, but the scope and detail have somewhat changed, perhaps due to the rift opened by the intervening decades. Once again we see Franklin get the last laugh with a naysayer. As with the old man who prophesied Philadelphia and the colonies doom, time vindicated Franklin’s judicious optimism.
Franklin says his attempts to gain subscribers showed him that soliciting his fellows was more easily done if he did not present himself as the author of the idea. It was best to fain modesty because the sacrifice of vanity would later be amply repaid. He said the library gave him a chance to improve by constant study, for which he set aside an hour or two every day.
Presenting another lesson in humility and the importance of seeming humble to one’s neighbors, Franklin describes how he collected the necessary subscriptions to start his lending library. His own self-improvement, like the improvement of his fellow citizens, was part of the reward.
Reading, Franklin adds, was his only amusement. He says he became industrious to provide for the family he was starting and to achieve success, eventually standing before five kings and sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, for dinner. He reiterates his luck at having such a good wife, and tells how he eventually went from eating from a wooden bowl with a pewter spoon to eating out of china bowls with silver.
Franklin emphasizes how his industrious was so prevalent that his only leisure activity is one many of us consider to be industrious as well. This industry, he said, not only transformed the material conditions in his life, it also changed his social station, so that no sphere of social experience was closed to him.
Franklin tells how he was raised Presbyterian, didn’t attend service, but never doubted God existed. The best way to serve God, he thought, was to do good to man. He eventually refrained from debating points of religion with others. Though he didn’t attend church service, he paid an annual sum to the Presbyterian church. He said he would have gone to church more if the minister had been a good preacher. He laments that when he did go to church he received no practical moral instruction.
Questions of religion and spiritual searching were of the utmost importance to Franklin. His chief issue with his religious experience was that he found the services and teachings to lack practical value—he found them inapplicable to his daily life. It is unclear why he continued to donate to his church despite his feelings about the services. Perhaps he felt morally obligated.
It was about this time, Franklin writes, he conceived the “bold and arduous plan of arriving at moral perfection.” He wished to live faultlessly, but soon found he couldn’t. He devised what he calls a more practical means for moral improvement. He established a list of thirteen virtues with definitions. They are: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility.
Franklin’s dissatisfaction with the practical application of traditional Christianity and, even, with the Deism he practiced, eventually led him to formulate a more rigorous, practical plan for spiritual and moral self improvement. Of course, the question remains, is Franklin’s plan practical? Is it practicable for people who aren’t Ben Franklin?
Franklin wanted to achieve all these virtues, but thought it best to focus on one at a time. He resolved to pay strict attention to one virtue per week for thirteen weeks, improving in one area before moving on to the next. The ordering of the virtues was planned to build toward success. He made charts, and tracked his failures in each realm of virtue with a dot, wanting, eventually, to keep the charts completely clear of marks.
One of the ways Franklin sought to enhance the practicality of his plan for moral improvement was to focalize his efforts on one of his thirteen virtues, only moving on to the next virtue after a week of concentrated effort. Naturally the reader may pose such questions as: How accurately can a man track his own moral failings? Are moral failings not relative?
Franklin chose quotations from Cato, Cicero, and King Solomon to preface his book of charts, wrote a prayer to God asking him for wisdom, guidance, and strength, and used sometime a prayer of Thomson’s asking God to teach us what is good.
Franklin looked to his moral heroes for guidance in his path toward moral perfection, Regardless of whether his plan is more practical than traditional Christian services or other spiritual paths, the quest alone is admirable.
One page of Franklin’s notebook contained a daily schedule which entailed: (1) rising at 5:00 A.M., washing, addressing the “Powerful Goodness” and asking “What good shall I do this day?” (2) a work period from 8:00-12:00 (3) two hours for lunch and looking over accounts (4) working from 2:00-6:00, and (5) putting things in their proper places, listening to music or taking diversion, examining the day and asking the question “What good have I done today?”
More than any of his anecdotes or advice, Franklin daily schedule is perhaps the most convincing document of his industriousness, and the daily manifestation of his quest for self-improvement makes one question if one could be doing more to get the most out of life. Couldn’t we be living better?
Franklin said he went through with the plan for several cycles of thirteen weeks, with occasional intermissions, and was surprised to find how full of faults he was. He was satisfied to see himself improve. In time he went through only one cycle per year, then one every several years. He says that Order was most difficult for him, that he almost gave up pursuing it, and he wishes he had gotten better at it because his memory has grown worse as he has aged and it would have been a great thing to have all his documents in order.
For Franklin, perhaps his most practical finding of his thirteen week regiment was the self-sight or self-knowledge that came with tracking his daily failings. One must see and know oneself before one is able to change. It is interesting that “Order” or cleanliness was the most difficult virtue for Franklin—perhaps his energies were such that he couldn’t bear to break from his larger projects to take the time to tidy.
Franklin says he owes all his happiness, right down to his 79th year (his age at the time of writing), to pursuing this plan. He says he owes his health to Temperance; to Industry, his early success; to Sincerity and Justice, the confidence of his country; and to the influence of all the virtues, his evenness of temper and cheerfulness. He says he avoided the tenants of any particular religion because he hoped one day the plan might be serviceable to people of all faiths, and considered publishing it as book called “The Art of Virtue,” which he never did.
Perhaps more important than any kind of moral “perfection” or superiority, Franklin says his plan gave him health and happiness. Though his industriousness seems, throughout most of the Autobiography, to be his most prized virtue, he gives it no special place here. As usual, with an eye to the public good, Franklin wanted to share his plan with the world, and, though he never published “The Art of Virtue,” his plan eventually came to light in the present work.
Franklin says that vicious or immoral actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden by various religions, but are forbidden by those religions because the actions are hurtful in themselves. He tells how his list first only had twelve virtues, but a friend convinced him he was sometimes vain, so he added humility.
Franklin reiterates a point he makes several times throughout the Autobiography: actions aren’t immoral because religions or gods condemn them—they are immoral because of their own inherent badness. Franklin broaches the subject of vanity with his usual irony.
Franklin says it is more important, perhaps, to seem to others to practice humility than actually to possess it. He followed the rules of the Junto in expressing dissent and tried never to rush into contradicting someone, even if that someone’s point was ridiculous. This led others to respect him and be more easily persuaded to his reasoning. Expressing himself in this way eventually became easy to him.
Here, again, Franklin stresses the importance of seeming to others to be virtuous over actually being it. It is Franklin’s most Machiavellian strain. The restraint he was able to impose on his vanity and intellect were as important as his vanity and intellect themselves when it came to his self-improvement.
Pride and vanity, Franklin adds, are the hardest passions to overcome. Even if he could get rid of them, he says he would probably end in being proud of his humility.