Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, a Renaissance Man of the Colonial Era, is considered one of America’s greatest thinkers. One can find within the pages of his autobiography: The 13 Virtues and Precepts; which he developed in 1726 as a guide for his own process of development into manhood. Ben Franklin maintained a disciplined practice; keeping a thorough daily account of his activities and how they rated on his self-designed chart. (shown below)

Although the concept of virtue goes back at least as far as the Ancient Egyptians, the word itself probably originated from the Latin word Virtutem: meaning moral strength and high character. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, the Anglo-French and Old French word for conducting oneself with excellence in the moral life; Vertu, eventually, was Anglicized and became Virtue.

In the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word moral comes from the Latin mos; meaning custom or habit. It is a translation from the Greek ethos which means ethics.

*As with any list of rules for self-improvement, having perspective and using good judgement is always best.



The Virtues and Precepts of Benjamin Franklin

 1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

Don’t stuff yourself; don’t drink or do drugs to get high.


When stressed, some have a tendency to overeat. Some ideas that you might find helpful:
1. Drink water throughout the day; especially one hour before mealtimes.
2. Be conscious of chewing your food well.
3. Put the fork or spoon down after each mouthful.
4. Be aware when the tank is full. Then, stop shoveling.
5. At that point, excuse yourself from the table for a breather.

If you feel like you need to eat and just can’t stop until you’re stuffed or drink and do drugs to get high, then that’s telling you something about your life right now. The virtuous would look at this and begin to make the required changes to rectify this situation.

13 Virtue Daily ChartThere’s nothing cool about someone drinking so much that they become impaired; slurred speech, staggering, smelling like a drunk, etcetera. Or, being so stoned that the person is disoriented, unsure of themselves, or just “out-of-it!”

While drinking alcohol;
1. Try to be aware when you feel just right and take a pause. Savor the feeling. Often this is midway or at the end of your first drink; depending on what proof alcohol content it is.
2. Have a tall glass of ice water on hand (in a bar it’s called a “water back”) to drink in combination with your alcohol consumption.
3. Always try to have something to eat while enjoying an alcoholic beverage. It often enhances both the drink and the food.
4. Learn to savor the tastes, find a slower more relaxed pace, enjoy conversation and the company of friends.
5. Refrain from imbibing when you’re upset; at least not more than one shot!


Learning balance and self-control are essential to living a life of virtue.

2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Don’t speak ill of someone; either to their face or behind their backs. And, avoid gossip and small talk. (In the 1700’s, the word trifling could still have connoted meaning from the Middle English troeflen; meaning to mock.)

Most of this is obvious. Within the classic education of the day, conservation of speech was an esteemed quality showing restraint, dignity, good breeding, and education.

All of this is good, but I find that some friendly small talk can be a pleasant way to break the ice with someone. It’s a way to have some fun at the moment, especially in a social setting. It’s good to sometimes not have so much starch in your collar and powder in your wig.

3. Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Have a place for everything; learn patience, allow events to unfold and develop in their time.

Some things that are helpful:
1. Get yourself some Tiles. Here’s a link: Tile  Put them on your key ring (I use a hook by the entrance door, some use a bowl on an entry table.)
2. You can also use Tiles for your purse, briefcase, laptop, umbrella, hat, etc.

Patience is a necessary virtue for just about everything we get involved in; whether it’s investing, learning something new, beginning a fresh venture, teaching, being a parent and more.

4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Finish what you started; take care of business.

One of my favorite sayings by Lao Tsu in the Tao Te Ching is: “Do nothing but leave nothing undone.”

Learn skills like following up on loose ends, paying attention to details. Develop the efficiency of effort and time.

5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Spend money and resources, time and effort, on what is necessary for your living situation and life purpose or to improve someone else’s situation.

I recently bought some plants for our apartment. Did we need them? Not really, but once they were in place, we realized that having them around gave us a good feeling. Same with our dog, Scooter. He enhances our lives.

If you get a thrill from buying things that aren’t necessary, you might want to consider if these possessions are filling a void in your life. Often, many who didn’t get the proper amount of love when they were growing up displaced love by being comforted by their toys, imagination, and possessions. It usually carries through into adulthood.

6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Don’t waste time with frivolous activity.

What constitutes a misuse of time is fairly subjective. My wife considers my love for watching and following my favorite sports teams a waste of time. On the other hand, I find it a pleasant diversion from my intensity; helping to give my mind a psychic break. It also presents great conversation fodder; providing a way to learn more about others without having to get into more distasteful topics.

7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Do no harm and speak no harm. If you have to put your foot down, then be direct without projecting your anger onto that person or persons. Let people finish their sentences before speaking.

You will find more on this topic in my article, “Practical Assertiveness.” Assertiveness

8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Don’t harm another with your words or actions and don’t cheat them of their due rewards, payments, or repairs.

These are fairly explicit. Additionally, if you owe money, pay it back. If you don’t have it, offer to pay in installments or barter services. If someone is renting from you and the roof is leaking; fix it.

9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

If you are angry with someone, hold off until you calm down. Don’t do anything that you may regret in the future. Violence from the hand or word, never accomplishes anything. It can only hurt both parties.

10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

Have respect for yourself. Keeping a clean body, clothing, and home all help you to feel good about yourself. It brings health and well-being to your life.

11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Most of it is small stuff. Know that if something happens that was not your fault, or you couldn’t prevent from happening; that you just need to deal with the mess and move on. That’s life!

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.

Sex is a wonderful thing. Enjoy it for well-being and making a family, but learn self-control; know the difference between healthy sensuality and unwholesome involutions or misuses.

13. Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The word humility originates from the Latin word Humus; meaning the earth or soil. Humilitas means the ground or earth that is beneath our feet, or the dirt we walk on. Humility means that we are no better than anyone else and have a modest view of our importance. It implies that our motivation is one of service to others and not ambition or self-aggrandizement.

Most of what we know about Socrates comes from two of his students; Plato and Xenophon. Because of the bias of the recounts, historians question their accuracy. This concern, known as the Socratic problem could relate to concerns about the deftness of the accounts of Christ’s disciples who were mostly simple fishermen. ( They were seven fishermen, one tax collector, one anti-Roman zealot, and three probably tradesmen of some kind. We all know Judas had money issues.)

I know from having taught, that a student can only understand a lesson or concept to the depth that their experience and knowledge can comprehend. Fortunately, in the case of Christ’s lessons on forgiveness, which I cherish as his most powerful ideas, this was made brilliantly clear in scripture.

We know that both Socrates and Jesus placed a high value on virtue. In his book, Metaphysics, Aristotle claims that Socrates said: “Virtue is Knowledge.” On moral values, Aristotle wrote: “He was the first to search for universal definitions for them.” Two other famous quotes of Socrates on this topic are:
1. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
2. “The pursuit of virtue over any other pursuit is the best and noblest way to live.”

Socrates’ Paradoxical Wisdom has lasted the test of time. Because he was aware of the vastness of what he didn’t know or understand he implored that being cognizant of one’s ignorance accordingly makes one wiser than most self-professed wisemen.

Two famous translations of his supposed saying are:
1. “I know that I know nothing.”
2. “What I do not know I do not think I know.” I imagine that Socrates and Yogi Berra would have gotten along splendidly!


My old sax teacher, the late, and great J.R. Monterose, often spoke of the importance of being humble. I cherish his saying;”When you think you got it, that’s when you don’t!” Loved him!


We know the famous Jesus story of “turning the other cheek.” It is perhaps the first non-violent passive resistance protest ever demonstrated. Jesus placed the importance of being non-violent over his corporeal self.

Both Socrates and Christ demonstrated the ultimate acts of humility when they died for what they believed. The Crito recounts the reasons why Socrates didn’t bolt from his impending death sentence. We all know the story of the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus. Both men believed so strongly in their beliefs and convictions that they viewed themselves as secondary.

One final note: To be able to forgive is a powerful act of humility. I’d prefer to spell it FORE-GIVE: To be forgiving before an act of trespass is committed. This concept echoes Christ’s last words: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

I hope that someday all Christians, Moslems, and Jews can forgive each other and learn to work cooperatively side by side to help better the lives of all those suffering. In New York City, we see families from these three faiths and more, living in the same communities, attending the same schools, working and getting along easily. If peace is the standard among us in this crowded and intense city, then it can be throughout the world.


*The find more on Humility and Service you are welcome to read: “Leadership in the Modern Workplace Using the Lakota Path of the Warrior.” Leadership

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James Finn

Author: James Finn

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1 Comment

  1. James this is great stuff! Appreciate the time, work and wisdom you put into this article and it definitely will enhance the life of me and other readers. I hope that someday all christians, Moslems and Jews can forgive each other and learn to work cooperatively to better the lives of all those suffering!

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