Lessons In Manliness: Benjamin Franklin’s Pursuit of the Virtuous Life

by Brett and Kate McKay on February 24, 2008 · 13 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life


When most people today hear the word “virtue,” they usually don’t think “manliness.” Having virtue or being virtuous is looked at as being sissy or effeminate. In fact, we sometimes use the word in today’s vernacular to describe a woman’s sexual conduct.

However, virtue is far from being sissy or effeminate. The word “virtue” is actually rooted in “manliness.” “Virtue” comes from the Latin virtus, which in turn is derived from vir, Latin for “manliness.” Cicero, a famous Roman statesman and writer, enumerated the cardinal virtues that every man should try to live up to. They included justice, prudence, courage, and temperance. In order to have honor, a Roman man had to live each of the four virtues. When Aristotle encouraged men in the ancient world to live “the virtuous life,” it was really a call to man up.

One man took up Aristotle’s challenge to live the virtuous or manly life with particular fervor: Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin’s Quest for Moral Perfection

Benjamin Franklin is an American legend. He single handily invented the idea of the “self-made man.” Despite being born into a poor family and only receiving two years of formal schooling, Franklin became a successful printer, scientist, musician, and author. Oh, and in his spare time he helped found a country, and then serve as its diplomat.

The key to Franklin’s success was his drive to constantly improve himself and accomplish his ambitions. In 1726, at the age of 20, Ben Franklin set his loftiest goal: the attainment of moral perfection.

I conceiv’d 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.

In order to accomplish his goal, Franklin developed and committed himself to a personal improvement program that consisted of living 13 virtues. The 13 virtues were:

  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. “TRANQUILLITY. 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.”

franklin-chart.pngIn order to keep track of his adherence to these virtues, Franklin carried around a small book of 13 charts. The charts consisted of a column for each day of the week and 13 rows marked with the first letter of his 13 virtues. Franklin evaluated himself at the end of each day. He placed a dot next to each virtue each had violated. The goal was to minimize the number of marks, thus indicating a “clean” life free of vice.

Franklin would especially focus on one virtue each week by placing that virtue at the top that week’s chart and including a “short precept” to explain its meaning. Thus, after 13 weeks he had moved through all 13 virtues and would then start the process over again.

When Franklin first started out on his program he found himself putting marks in the book more than he wanted to. But as time went by, he saw the marks diminish.

While Franklin never accomplished his goal of moral perfection, and had some notable flaws (womanizing and his love of beer probably gave him problems with chastity and temperance), he felt he benefited from the attempt at it.

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.

Applying Franklin’s pursuit of “the virtuous life” in your life

Here are The Art of Manliness we want to resurrect the idea that being many means being virtuous. We think old Ben Franklin can show us a thing or two on how best to live a virtuous (or manly) life.

In order to help you live the virtuous life, starting next Monday and continuing each week, we’re going to highlight one of Ben’s virtues that you can focus on throughout the week. We’ll find a great man from history that exemplified that virtue and extract practical lessons from them that can help us live that virtue more fully. When we get done with Franklin’s virtues, we’ll add some more.

Until then, why not get started on living the virtuous life by downloading this nifty replica of Franklin’s virtue chart from DIY Planner? See if you can go a whole day without having to give yourself a mark for not living the virtues. If you want to carry around a little book like Franklin did, get your hands on a pocket Moleskine and paste the chart from DIY planner in there. Carry it around just as Franklin did, as a constant reminder at your quest to live a virtuous life.


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy February 25, 2008 at 1:58 am

Nice blog Brett. The Valentine’s Day post was useful. You should have a look at a book called “How to be a Man”, by John Birmingham and Dirk Flinthart. They’re a couple of Australian writers, the style is a bit humorous but basically they’re trying to get across the same points as you. Heaps of useful advice like “How to buy a suit”, “Cooking for sex” and “How to land a jumbo”, amongst other things. I got it for my 21st birthday, and it’s been an extremely useful guide in the years that have followed!

2 Brett and Kate McKay February 25, 2008 at 8:04 pm


I’ve seen that book advertised on some other site. Now with your recommendation, I’ll have to go give it a look.

3 Rod Homor February 27, 2008 at 4:51 am

This is a great article, and reminds me of the lessons of my professor of sculpture a few moons back at the U of I, Peter Fagan. He taught his students to strive to create a sculpture very mindfully, almost in a zen state, so that each blob of clay you use is placed exactly where needed. Ben Franklin’s goal was to live his life in this mindful way. Very inspiring indeed. Thanks.

4 Jason March 2, 2008 at 9:31 pm

The first time I saw this list by Franklin it was in a book titled, “How I raised myself from failure to success in selling”. I believe the author’s last name is “Bettger”. It was a great book and it wasn’t just sales techniques either (I’m not in sales now or when I read it).

There’s a lot of timeless wisdom in that book too and I highly recommend it.

Great post! I look forward to attempting this “virtuous life” once more!

5 Joe May 21, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Gravitas the latin word that summed up good characteristics, there was another that the Greeks commonly used but I can no longer remember it

6 Efrem December 20, 2012 at 10:57 am

Benjamin Franklin was truly an inspiring man. He represented so many traits of manliness that left a legacy on the art. I know this is an old article, but it has inspired me, and i WILL be taking on the challenge to improve myself, and to be a happier person.

7 henry cook January 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Ben frank is a man! He set a good goal l’m yet to practice. I will set more beyond him and obtain all of it to perfection! Only the grace of God is my plea to succeed! Thank God l’m motivated to always do or like the “RIGHT” thing! May the world be revitalized through the rebirth of virtue in me and you! I love you all.

8 Arthur Hovey January 27, 2013 at 9:33 am

Men, women and children old enough to understand can all greatly benefit from the practices of Benjamin Franklin. I, personally have become a much happier person by following great virtues. I know that others will also.

9 Mark McGowan September 26, 2013 at 8:58 am

The random post generator lead me to this series and i am thrilled to get stuck in. Thanks for this wonderful well of inspiration and for all you do with this site.

10 Vinayakam November 26, 2013 at 8:05 am

Time for some resolution. Change in life is required to become more manly. AOM Rocks………….!

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