When Ben Franklin was in his twenties and about the time when he started a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, he decided to make an earnest effort to improve his moral character. He made a list of 13 moral virtues and annotated each with a short precept. He described all of this in his famous Autobiography which he wrote much later in life. His list of virtues may have left some out—such as charity—or, in the case of “Chastity”, may not be exactly what a purist would expect, but his list does provide a good model for New Year’s resolutions. When I was in college, I wrote the list in a notebook, and regularly reminded myself of its , in Franklin’s words, “necessary and desirable” virtues.
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. Waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed 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, clothes 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.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Each of us , assuredly, needs improvement in at least one of Ben’s baker’s dozen. Franklin himself admitted that the Deadly Sin of pride challenged him the most. “For even if,” Ben rued, “I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I would probably be proud of my humility.”
And what about that glaring omission of “charity”? Well, according to historian Edmund Morgan, it was “the guiding principle of Franklin’s life.” Or as Ben repeatedly declared: “The most acceptable service to God is doing good to man.”