Excerpt of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

Text: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

As perhaps one of the most celebrated intellectuals since the begin of America, Benjamin Franklin’s moral orientation was not based in a single set of religious beliefs, but in the fallible nature of the human soul. In his autobiography, Franklin details his pursuit of virtuous perfection by deriving 13 fundamental virtues which characterize a “good” person. His experiment, to attempt becoming a virtuously incorruptible person, called for him to designate a week to focus on each individual virtue, then compound each virtue on the other until he concluded his virtuous experiment with the virtue Humility.

Benjamin Franklin sought perfection. As humans, perfection is impossible, a fact which Franklin was confronted with face to face when he attempted to overcome his pride. While through his autobiography we can see that his heart rightly sought for a perfectly virtuous moral character, Franklin made a basic error in assuming that man, as a being separate from any moral boundary or virtuous higher authority, could in any circumstance be completely infallible at any given moment. Instead, virtuous and moral standard of perfection is not something to be attained, but something to be gained on the search and constant endeavor to become that truly virtuous and moral soul.

2 comments

  1. Hmm. Good thoughts. I was thinking a lot of the same things, but couldn’t really express myself.
    ^I hate it when people say that. It’s like saying, “Oh yeah, I’m just as smart as you but it doesn’t look like it.”
    Anyway.
    I like that you said that man can’t be “completely infallible at any given moment.” I believe that’s true. We are by nature flawed, and incapable of leading impeccable lives. But what if you bring God into the picture? After all, He teaches us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Would God command us to be something we aren’t capable of? I don’t mean to imply the answer is ‘no’, and in fact as I stated before we are by nature flawed and incapable of being perfect. So why does Jesus command us to be? Jesus’ command to be perfect is found in the middle of the sermon on the mount, which is followed immediately by a story of Jesus cleansing a leper. (Matthew 8:1-4) The leper in this story does nothing but fall on his knees before Jesus. All the cleansing is done by Jesus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this story comes where it does. We were just given a vast, impossible picture of how to live our lives, and are given a parable of how we accomplish it. It’s not out own doing (Ephesians 2:8), but we must receive the gift from God. Did Benjamin Franklin, then, go about it all the wrong way? I don’t think the pursuit itself was a bad idea, or the wrong thing. But where he went wrong was not in striving for the impossible, but in striving for it without his greatest ally.

    1. When you brought up the thought of Humanity being capable of perfection, I paused for a moment to compose my ruffled feathers. Then I kept on reading.

      Regarding your distinction between God’s perfect plan and Man’s perfect nature, I wholeheartedly agree. It does give you reason to pause for a moment and consider how God developed (almost said created) man with an unreachable goal of perfection. If he truly does want the best for us, then why not just create us at our best? What’s the whole point of this life if we can’t possible attain this perfection?

      The answer, I believe, to the same question that has deterred many from believing in the faith that we do, is a simple one: the goal of perfection is there for us to strive for, not to attain.

      Now, however pessimistic it may seem, this plan is in place because the perfection we seek WAS once ours; we simply gave it up for imperfection. Therefore, one can conclude that the majority of our lives straining to reach some standard of perfection is not spent in vain, but rather spent as an attempt at regaining what we lost. The perfection we look for cannot be found on this earth, but for those who earnestly seek it through the closest means possible, the being Christ, then in the end the perfection God planned for man to be created with will once again be present in their souls.

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