Forward the Link

Share this page with friends! Please add your recipient's email address below.

Self-Command

Reading: “Project for Moral Perfection” By Benjamin Franklin

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Benjamin Franklin’s “Project for Moral Perfection” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Consider the virtues of self-command and self-respect and what it means to be self-made;
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; and
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Common Core State Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies

  • RH.9-10.1, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.5, RH.11-12.1, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.4, RH.11-12.5 

English Language Arts: 

  • RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.4, RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.4 

Writing Prompts | Based on Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • Is virtue its own reward? After reading Franklin’s “Project for Moral Perfection,” write an essay that defines “virtue” and explains the reasons Franklin gives for practicing virtue. Support your discussion with evidence from the text. (Informational or Explanatory/Definition; Task 12)
  • Is it possible to be a good citizen in our self-governing nation without first governing oneself? Can one be a “free human being” without self-command? After reading Franklin’s “Project for Moral Perfection,” write a position paper that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text. Be sure to acknowledge competing views. Give examples from past or current events or issues to illustrate and clarify your position. (Argumentation/Analysis; Task 2)
  • Has Franklin provided a necessary and sufficient moral framework for educating free, self-governing citizens in a modern commercial society? What virtues would you add, delete, or replace, for citizens of 21st century America? What about courage and self-sacrifice or generosity or reverence? What about compassion and public spiritedness? Is self-command sufficient to induce the willingness to serve one’s neighbors or one’s community and country? After reading Franklin’s “Project for Moral Perfection,” write an essay that discusses the thirteen virtues Franklin wrote about and attempted to cultivate in his own life, and evaluate the sufficiency of these virtues to create a sustainable civic culture. (Argumentation/Evaluation; Task 6)

About the Author

As the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back, Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) was by custom and tradition destined to be a nobody. Yet thanks to his own resourcefulness, he more than escaped his destiny. His life spanned the 18th century, and he managed to see and to participate firsthand in much that it had to offer.

Reared in Boston, Franklin struck out on his own at age 17 to escape traditional and familial authority, arriving in Philadelphia alone and without any visible means of support. By age 24, he had established his own printing business. Thereafter, in fairly short order, he entered public life and established his indispensability, first to his city, then to his country, and then to the world. He achieved worldwide fame for his writings and statesmanship, his scientific discoveries and inventions, and his philanthropy—or, as he preferred to call it, his “usefulness” as a citizen.

We are indebted to Franklin for many things, including the invention of bifocals, street lamps, the one-arm desk chair, the fireplace damper, and the “Franklin” stove; the founding of the first public library, the first fire insurance company, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society; and his vast service to our new nation, as delegate, counselor, author, and diplomat.

By all measures, Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary man—not in his own time, not in any time. Yet when he sat down, during the last twenty years of his life, to write his autobiography (a work written in four different spurts), he crafted an account of himself and his life which seems intended to serve as a model for every American, then and now: He addressed his audience as “Dear Son,” that is, as one extended family; he omits mention of nearly all of his great accomplishments; he speaks in an engaging and light-hearted manner that hides his own superiority. His “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (found in Part II of the Autobiography) is clearly written as a model that others would do well to imitate. It is the only project that the great Projector turned on himself, and he attributes his own happiness and worldly success to its virtues and methods. With characteristic understatement, he expresses the hope that “some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefits.”

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

Writing the Autobiography in his 79th year, Franklin looks back—almost “once upon a time”—to when, at age 22, he undertook “the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” He wanted to live without committing any fault. He wanted to conquer all that natural inclination, custom and tradition, or the company of others might lead him to wrongly do. He wanted, in short, to reform himself, by himself, to possess full self-command. Alas, he discovered that this was no easy task. Bad habits and wayward inclinations continued to lead him astray. He therefore decided to undertake a more methodical approach.

He prepared a list of 13 virtues that he considered either necessary or desirable. To each named virtue, he affixed a short precept that, he says, “fully express’d the Extent I gave to its Meaning” (2). Eager to attain the habit of each of these virtues, he set up a regimen whereby he would concentrate on one virtue at a time, devoting a week to the practice of each, before going on to the next. There being 13 virtues, he managed to perform four 13-week programs a year, a practice he continued for many years until his busy life rendered it inconvenient. The order of the virtues, dictated in part by the fact that the prior acquisition of some of the virtues would make easier the acquisition of the next, is as follows: (1) temperance, (2) silence, (3) order, (4) resolution, (5) frugality, (6) industry, (7) sincerity, (8) justice, (9) moderation, (10) cleanliness, (11) tranquility, (12) chastity, and (13) humility. To aid in his practice, he prepared a little book in which he recorded his daily successes or failures with each of the virtues. He also devised a daily schedule, which helped him give each part of his business its allotted and proper time.

Summing up his progress and success, Franklin reports that he never did arrive at moral perfection and, indeed, “fell far short of it” (7). Nevertheless, he claims that he was a better and happier man than if he had never attempted the project. Moreover, he relates specific benefits that he has enjoyed as a result, both of some particular virtues and of the entire package: felicity, health, prosperity, knowledge, reputation, the confidence of his country and the offices conferred upon him, and the even temper and cheerful conversation that made everyone seek his company. He here invites his readers to imitate him and to reap the same benefits.


Section Overview

Franklin’s project at first glance seems designed to achieve a self-defined self-perfection, entirely by his own efforts: He is to become a self-made, self-commanding, and self-sufficient person. At the same time, however, he calls attention to how his acquisition of self-command made possible his many opportunities for public service and civic achievement. And he also touches both directly and indirectly on certain traditional religious teachings, with which he is explicitly and tacitly in conversation.


A. “The Bold and Arduous Project for Arriving at Moral Perfection”
  1. What is a “Project” (1)? What does it mean to have a project? What does it mean to turn oneself into a project?
  2. What is “moral Perfection”? Is this a reasonable goal for a human being? Is it possible for anyone to attain moral perfection? How does Franklin’s aspiration relate to Jesus’s teaching “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)? In pursuing this project, is Franklin fulfilling or departing from this command?
  3. What is bold about this project? What assumptions about human nature, human (original) sinfulness, and human perfectibility are implied?
  4. What is arduous about this project? Why is it so hard? What is implied in Franklin’s remark that removing his faults was like weeding a garden (5)? What does the very difficulty of such a project say about our nature as human beings?
  5. Do you think you could ever attain a state of moral perfection? Why or why not? Is it still worth seeking even if you can never grasp it fully?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is a “Project”? What does it mean to have a project?

B. The Thirteen Virtues and the Method for Attaining Them
  1. What is a virtue? How does a morality that emphasizes virtue or traits of character differ from one that emphasizes rules (or commandments) about right and wrong acts?
  2. Consider each virtue in turn, with its explanatory precepts (2–3). (Note: Franklin’s precepts are authoritative rules or instructions for action, offered as guides for the attainment and practice of each of the virtues.) Does each make sense? Do you find the precepts adequate? (For example, Franklin’s precept for Sincerity includes, “Use no hurtful deceit.” Is this a good—or good enough—teaching for sincere speech?) Are there any virtues missing? Does Franklin’s order of the virtues and his explanation of it make sense to you? If not, how would you change it?
  3. According to Franklin, what good are these virtues? Is virtue its own reward? Or does it lead to other, more important goods and benefits?
  4. What do you think of Franklin’s method for acquiring the virtues, including cataloguing them in his little book? If you were to try to improve your own character, would you adopt Franklin’s strategy? Why or why not?
  5. Is Franklin’s “Scheme of Employment for the Twenty-four Hours of a Natural Day” a useful (or even necessary) means for making the project effective (5)? What are the benefits of such a scheme? In what areas does it fall short? How would you—could you?—accomplish the project without it?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What would a person who embodied Franklin’s virtues be like?

C. Motives, Purposes, Results
  1. Why did young Franklin undertake this project (3)?
  2. What are the project’s goals and purposes: for Franklin, the hero of the story? For us, the readers of the story?
  3. What were the results for Franklin (6)? What did he achieve from it?
  4. Does Franklin become a fully self-made man? A fully free man? A person with full self-command (able to fully control his desires and direct his own actions)? See page 6 for clues.
  5. How might his own self-command relate to his success in the world? To his service to his country?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: What are the results of Franklin's project? What did he achieve from it?

D. Franklin’s Humor and Irony
  1. Franklin’s account of his project, though serious in intent, is sprinkled throughout (as is the entire Autobiography) with humor and irony. (Look carefully, for example, at some of the precepts, at the anecdote about the speckled axe, and at his final comments on pride and humility.) What is irony? What are other examples of humor or irony in the story? Why do you think he uses both humor and irony?
  2. What is the relation between the serious and the ironic or humorous elements in Franklin’s account?
  3. How might that mixture serve Franklin’s overall purposes?
Video Excerpt 4
WATCH: Why does Franklin use humor and irony?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

We have already noted that the Franklin who is the protagonist of the Autobiography differs from the Franklin who writes it: protagonist Franklin lacks much of the superiority of author Franklin. This device is, we suggest, part of the author’s rhetorical strategy for enabling the reader to identify with—and to wish to emulate—the “hero” of the book.

If this is correct, then Franklin is doing something more than merely telling us his life story. He is trying to educate future generations of Americans toward becoming better, happier, and more useful citizens of the United States. He is trying to prepare them to become, like him, a man capable of both personal and political self-government—in a word, to become free. (In Middle English, the word “frank” means “to be free”; hence to become a “Franklin” is, literally, to become a free man.) Accordingly, when we think with the text—and not just about the text—we should think about the implication of Franklin’s teachings (both in content and in manner) for America and for the American character and its education.


A. Human Being and Citizen
  1. What do you think a person who attained all of the 13 virtues would be like?
  2. Would such a person make a good neighbor?
  3. Would such a person make a good citizen?
  4. Is it possible to be a good citizen in our self-governing nation without first governing oneself? What does it mean to govern oneself? Can one be a “free human being” without self-command?
  5. Is Franklin right in implying that it is possible to harmonize self-fulfillment (or concern with one’s own personal happiness) and good citizenship? Or does being a good citizen (civic virtue) require self-denial?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: How is self-command related to public-spiritedness?

B. The Virtues of Civic Life
  1. Has Franklin provided a necessary and sufficient moral framework for educating free, self-governing citizens in a modern commercial society? What virtues would you add, delete, or replace, for citizens of 21st-century America? What about courage and self-sacrifice or generosity or reverence? What about compassion and public spiritedness? Is self-command sufficient to induce the willingness to serve one’s neighbors or one’s community and country?
  2. How do the Franklinian virtues compare to more traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) conceptions of virtue and morality (for example, piety, self-denial, purity, faith, hope, and charity)? Are his virtues compatible with or supportive of the religious virtues? Or do they undermine them?
  3. In What So Proudly We Hail, this reading appears in the chapter on the Virtues of Civic Life, in the section on the virtue of self-command and self-respect. Is self-command really necessary or desirable for American citizens today? Why or why not?
  4. Is Franklin’s list of virtues suitable—and possible—for every American, regardless of race, class, or gender?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: How do the Franklinian virtues compare to more traditional conceptions of virtue and morality?

C. Teaching Good Character

  1. How did you acquire your habits and develop your character? What is the best way to acquire good habits and to develop virtuous character? Should Franklin’s methods be imitated today?
  2. Does humor—and the ability to laugh at oneself—have a role to play in moral education? In civic life? What is it, and why?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

ONLINE DISCUSSION

No Discussions Posted

Post a Comment

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *