I’m in a little “book club” that meets once a month. I put book club in quotes because it’s just one other friend and myself. (Cassie calls it a man date to keep me humble.) We meet at a bar and, depending on the book, spend about 25%-35% of the night talking about it between other topics. We alternate who picks the book each month which has been really fun. He usually picks books that I’d never consider picking up on my own. (I like to think that I’ve done the same.) One such book my friend picked was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
I’m not really a history buff. Despite my healthy dose of cynicism about “official accounts” I can appreciate the purpose and role of recorded histories, but it just kind of bores me. Needless to say I wasn’t really excited about reading this book. I’ve seen the Walt Disney movie Ben and Me, so I knew the basic facts about Ben Franklin. He ran a printing press, was an inventor, a statesman, and an enlightened thinker. So what? I was skeptical of how much I’d enjoy the book. How could knowing anything more about Ben Franklin benefit my existence? Thankfully it turned out to be a really charming and delightful read and I walked away appreciating Ben Franklin more than ever. Not so much his “official” achievements, but the man himself.
What broke down my defenses right away was his wit and levity in the opening paragraphs. The book starts off with letter written to Franklin’s son. He first claims that the reason he is recording a history of his life is for his son’s benefit; so that his children can have an easier time tracking the family heritage and history. Almost immediately though, as if breaking from a joke, he admits that since he can’t relive his life “the next thing most like living one’s life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.”
His honesty and charm continue to increase in the next paragraph where he admits the real reason for the book.
“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; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.”
The book was written at various points between 1770 and 1790, and because of the disjointed nature of the composition suffers from large gaps in time. Franklin begins at his birth and describes much of his childhood relationships with his father and brothers. He covers a multitude of events including some of the well known ones like flying a kite in a lightning storm and his time as a printing press apprentice. Surprisingly most of those famous events from school history books are given little or no time at all. It’s almost as if Franklin himself didn’t find the events all that important or momentous.
What Ben did find important enough to record were his attempts at self discipline and social engineering. His first exploit was as a young apprentice at his brother’s printing house. Benjamin wanted to publish some of this thoughts in his brothers paper, but his older sibling dismissed him as childish. Not to be thwarted — another endearing trait of Franklin — he wrote letters to the editor using a pen name. His older brother and friends found the letters so thought provoking and well written that they published them. Later on we see Benjamin use that same cleverness to procure his own printhouse, put his old boss out of business, and to playfully manipulate the diets, work patterns, and attitudes of co-workers and friends.
One accomplishment Franklin was most proud of was his Junto club which he formed with a small group of friends to debate politics, philosophy, and morality. Franklin handpicked the original group from diverse occupations and chose readers with sharp minds and a desire for self improvement. The group met on Fridays and used a list of questions to guide discussions. Often these meetings led to great community action and organization. It spawned many social changes and helped to birth the public library and volunteer fire department we have today.
My favorite section of the book however, was Ben’s “arduous project of arriving at moral pefection.” Of course this seems silly, but almost every person I’ve ever know who is as systematic and clever as Benjamin Franklin has tried it. I certainly find a great joy in order and processes myself and the idea of codifying morality is certainly a struggle I can relate to. Franklin sets about in it in timelessly, geeky fashion. He developed the following list of thirteen virtues and precepts that he found to be desirable.
TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
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.
HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
He then created a chart with a column for each day of the week and a row for each virtue. Starting with only one virtue in the first week and cumulatively adding a virtue as he completed each week, He tracked each time he failed with a little black dot in the corresponding day. Only when he had made it through an entire week without any failures could he add the next virtue. Needless to say he didn’t fair well in such a lofty endeavor.
“I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish. After a while I went thro’ one course only in a year, and afterward only one in several years, till at length I omitted them entirely.”
This book is filled with many more of Benjamin’s experiments and thoughts. His stories not only give you a clear insight into man himself, but also the stark difference between his time and ours. While I’m not that interested in history, I did find it much more compelling to read first hand accounts of historical events and times rather than the usual post-event retellings generally presented in history books.
As with any autobiography there is a degree of bias. Despite that, the work still reveals many of Franklin’s flaws and failures. It leaves you with the impression of a driven and ambitious person, sometimes arrogant and egotistical, but always likeable and humorous. If you like history or even just biographies you will certainly find much to enjoy in Ben Franklin’s autobiography.