Somewhere in the past, nearly every American student read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, but I only teach excerpts, and one moment always tells me why. In the middle of discussions of his life’s minutia—the people and events Franklin met—he says:
It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.
For me—and probably for many 21st century minds—this declaration is a punch line. A human seems as likely to reach “moral perfection” as to row across the Pacific in an ice bucket or to handwrite the sum of Wikipedia’s entries, from memory, on the back of a postage stamp. We would need a lifetime to debate what “moral” is and then another to address “perfection.” Then we could begin disputing what project might bring us there. By the time we resolved just that much, we would need to begin again.
At least Franklin calls his endeavor “bold and arduous.”
And you have to stand in awe of his chutzpah. Franklin wants “to live without committing any fault at any time” and “conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into.” He says, as if he were compiling this week’s grocery list, “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”
He aspires to 13 virtues, each of which he delineates and describes. Among them are temperance, industry, sincerity, and chastity. He also desires silence, order, justice, and more. He plans to take these virtues one at a time and master each before moving on. His last virtue is humility, which—given what’s gone before—seems especially ambitious. Anyone who attained one of his virtues would rightfully feel a little boastful.
Every year when I encounter this passage, my inner John McEnroe screams, “You CAN’T be serious!” However, I’m much more restrained in class. “How should a reader regard Franklin’s plan?” I ask, “Is he sincere in the endeavor he describes or should we regard his proclamations as ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and intended to lampoon the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and order?”
They don’t know the biographical Franklin as I do, his reputed dalliances, his affection for fine wine and iconoclastic company, his acrimonious disputes and denunciations. They don’t know that among the inventions credited to him is an improvement on the condom.
At the end of his list, Franklin admits his intention was really to attain “the habitude of these virtues”; that is, he hoped to achieve all the signs of attaining them. Franklin says, “Constant vigilance was to be kept up” in order to “guard against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.” The appearance, it appears, was all that mattered—to show them was, in large measure, to be them.
Routinely, a few students defend his sincerity—he is Ben Franklin after all—and they like to believe he means exactly what he says. When he turns to the 13th virtue, humility, they laud what they perceive as an honest admission:
My list of virtues contained at first but twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added humility to my list, giving extensive meaning to the word.
This moment, they say, is a demonstration of Franklin’s self-awareness, proof that he looks truly at his shortcomings and means to do better. And if he falls short, they argue, he is at least trying, and some virtue lies in the effort regardless of its outcome.
Their defense is charming. It goes a long way toward restoring my belief in the positive power of American idealism and—as they insist they believe in Franklin—they insist I believe in them. A better day lies ahead.
But then I read the next sentence, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” Pride, he says, is our abiding sin. “Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases,” Franklin admits, “it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” That’s the moment I really hear Franklin speak—we will never be perfect because we’ll spoil it.
Franklin concludes, should he achieve humility, he’d be proud of it.
Sometimes I wish I weren’t so infected by 21st century irony and accepted Franklin at his word. I wish I didn’t see him doubling meaning. Believing what he says could make me a better person, but, if that was Franklin’s hope, that the common, unsophisticated man—not knowing him—would take him at his word, he misunderstood humanity and the devastation arising from the ambition he fosters. Maybe we shouldn’t want perfection if it means flailing at whatever version appeals to us at the moment. Our effort does damage as well as good.
I wonder if we should write another autobiography, one sincerely facing flaws we’re heir to, one listing our abetting faults and creating a plan to acknowledge them squarely.