In my American Heritage class, my professor asked us to read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. In his autobiography, Franklin writes that his ultimate goal is centered on success. Franklin points out that the disposition to industry and frugality would lead people to success. Therefore, Franklin had keen foresight about the business world and maintained efficiency in everything he did.
One of the things Franklin writes about is virtue and the benefits of virtue. Franklin created a list of thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. In the explanations for these virtues, Franklin writes how each affects the individual. If somebody, especially the person trying to live out these virtues, lives these virtues out in efficiency, Franklin argues that they will be successful. Thus, Franklin thinks that living a virtuous life is the right thing to do because it results in benefitting people. Therefore, Franklin valued an earthly reward for a life full of virtue rather than the commonly held value for a heavenly reward.
Franklin’s views of virtue and how they pertain to efficiency in industry and frugality warrant attention from the reader. It is true that by being virtuous, one may be able to focus on more important things in life. For example, by having temperance in food and drink, one may be able to think clearly and not be governed by addiction. Efficiency also aids much in industry and frugality by helping people focus on what they deem important. Franklin had a deep view that time was money-all wasted time was wasted money. Thus, all of the virtues (excluding industry) helped aid in focusing on just being successful.
This utilitarian view of virtue does seem to provide an answer to a search for a way to success, however Franklin presents an idea very different from a Christian perspective. In the Christian tradition, the reason for living virtuously is to be successful in the spiritual world, meaning going to heaven. Part of the Christian tradition is to be charitable to others so that they see the goodness of Jesus Christ and go to heaven, not so that they achieve a grand level of greatness on earth. In the bible, it states “but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). According to this quote, Jesus teaches to prioritize spiritual life over temporal life. It seems like Franklin did the opposite; Franklin used spiritual virtues to aid in temporal success. By placing temporal success as the end goal for living virtuously, Franklin valued virtue for its utility.
Although Franklin’s view of virtue seems too utilitarian for the average Christian, his emphasis on valuing time and success has helped shape American society. In the American society, hard work is extremely valued, along with time and keeping a schedule. These things stem from efficiency and the value of success. Perhaps there is a way to have both—to value time and efficiency while also placing God as the most important in our lives.
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches English as a second language in Spain and plays basketball professionally there. She recently received her Bachelor's degree from Hillsdale College, one of the nation's top Liberal Arts schools in MI. At Hillsdale, she played basketball and studied English and Spanish. Some of her hobbies include reading, writing, painting, surfing, and playing the piano.