Books: ‘Benjamin Franklin: An American Life’

Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary human being. Our society has had its heroes in science, writing, politics, and business. Franklin achieved world-class excellence in each, while staying true to his middle-class roots and the emphasis on a virtuous life. There is much to learn from his story, and Walter Isaacson as done a terrific job in writing about the various facets of his celebrated life in his book

Ben Franklin began his life as an apprentice to his brother, ran off to Philadelphia to start on his own, conducted successful experiments that helped the society understand lightning and build better chimneys, wrote about morals and religion and business, conducted historical diplomacy with France, helped edit the Declaration of Independence, all the while maintaining a down-to-earth persona. He is often credited with defining and exemplifying what we now know as the middle-class values of industry (hard work), pragmatism, and honestly. Franklin hated pretense and show-off. In reading about his life, it is not hard to guess that Franklin would have had an off-the-charts IQ, but one comes out realizing that what made Franklin so special and revered was his ability to connect with people and communicate effectively. 

Franklin embodied a sense of practical utility in his conduct. He was tolerant to different religious views, and proclaimed “the most acceptable service of God was doing good to man“. Similarly, he emphasized the importance of compromise in diplomacy and politics. And what made him particularly relate-able was his way of communicating arguments with homespun similes, stories and metaphors. Consider, for example, the quote below which he used to highlight the importance of compromise:

When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part from some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.

Another fascinating aspect of Franklin was his lifelong love of learning and exploration. Franklin loved to travel, and during his voyages, amused himself by scientific studies on topics such as winds, currents, and behavior of oil on water. When he was young, Franklin compiled a list of 13 virtues, that in his opinion would lead to a successful life. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

His autobiography lists his 13 virtues as:

  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. Tranquility. 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 then made a plan to master each virtue per week, using a slate to mark crosses for days when he would miss. This is where the phrase “having a clean slate” traces its origins from.

There is a lot more to learn from Franklin, beyond what I can quickly summarize here. Above all, I came away from Walter Isaacson’s book with an impression of a full-of-life, practical, rational, and fun-to-be-with person. 

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