The Stoicism of Benjamin Franklin

Was the Founding Father Influenced by Stoic Philosophy?

Donald J. Robertson
Feb 4 · 11 min read

One man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. — Ben Franklin

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The great Benjamin Franklin has more in common with Stoic philosophers than most people realize. Franklin barely ever mentioned the Stoics. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, in his remarkable Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection, he drew inspiration from an ancient philosophical tradition, which also played an important role in Stoicism.

Franklin believed that the republic would flourish only if the freedoms secured by the U.S. Constitution were combined with wisdom and virtue. I think it’s fair to say that the Founding Fathers’ original emphasis on character, especially the virtues necessary for true leadership, has been largely sidelined from modern political discourse in the United States. However, Franklin took the challenge of improving his own character incredibly seriously.

In his Autobiography, he proclaimed that around 1728, in his early twenties, he “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He reasoned that due to inattention and habit, it was impossible to develop good character without a certain amount of effort and self-discipline, applied in a systematic manner.

I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.

“For this purpose”, he concludes, “I therefore contrived the following method”, and he proceeds to lay out his plan for attaining moral perfection.

In his youth, Franklin had studied Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates and became obsessed with the Socratic method of questioning, somewhat to the annoyance of others. He soon realized, though, that it was much healthier to begin by applying the same scrutiny to his own character. He tells us that he was inspired to develop this practice of moral self-examination into a daily self-improvement routine based on an ancient poem called The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which had been very influential in among the Hellenistic philosophers who followed Socrates.

Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

We’ll return to the details of Franklin’s method of self-examination below. However, the lines from the Golden Verses to which he’s referring were very famous in the ancient world and read as follows:

Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed, until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.

The Golden Verses then lists three questions meant to be posed during this routine of moral self-examination:

  1. What have I done wrong?
  2. What have I done well?
  3. What have I omitted that I ought to have done?

The text continues:

If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it; and if you have done any good, rejoice. Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; you ought to love them with all your heart. It is those that will put you in the way of divine virtue.

The ancient Stoics were also greatly influenced by the same text and borrowed the same techniques from it. We don’t know when this started. The Golden Verses is hard to date. However, some scholars believe it may have been around even at the time when the Stoic school was founded.

Zeno of Citium, the first Stoic, the founder of school, wrote a book known as Pythagorean Questions, of which nothing survives except the title. Likewise, the last famous Stoic of the ancient world, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, lists Pythagoras as one of the philosophers he most respects (Meditations, 6.47). Marcus is also intrigued by ancient Pythagorean contemplative practices:

The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. — Meditations, 11.27

Zeno’s fascination with Pythagoreanism therefore appears to have continued throughout the entire history of the Stoic school, right down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, almost five centuries later. However, what’s even more interesting is the way that The Golden Verses of Pythagoras are used by Seneca and Epictetus, Marcus’ Stoic predecessors.

Epictetus quotes the lines from The Golden Verses we mentioned above: “Never allow sleep to close your eyelids…” He tells his students that they ought to memorize the advice they contain in such way that they can actually put it into practice rather than just reciting the words without paying attention to their meaning (Discourses, 3.10; quoted again briefly in 4.6).

Seneca likewise talks of the “ardent zeal” he felt for Pythagoras’ teachings as a young man. In his treatise, On Anger, he describes the practice of a Pythagorean philosopher called Sextius, which involved strengthening his character by examining his own mind on a daily basis. Each evening as he was about to retire to bed, Sextius would ask himself three questions:

  1. What bad habit of your have you cured today?
  2. What vice have you checked?
  3. In what respect are you better?

Seneca says that he sleeps more deeply each night as a result of following the same practice. Also knowing he is going to review his own character and actions at the end of the day, he finds himself naturally more self-aware and less inclined to be swept away by passionate anger.

I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself. When the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done. I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing.

Seneca is describing a process moral self-analysis resembling the cross-examination of a witness in a law-court. Indeed, that was the original analogy for the Socratic method of questioning, known as the elenchus. However, Seneca is also careful to explain that this must be done compassionately.

For why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously. Do not for the future argue with ignorant people. Those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways. In dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.” — On Anger, 3.36

He adds: “A good man delights in receiving advice; all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.”

Like the Stoics, Franklin was inspired by these lines from The Golden Verses to begin following a daily regime of moral self-examination. He created a “little book” to track his progress, rather like the “self-monitoring” record sheets we use in cognitive-behavioural therapy today.

He says: “This my little book had for its motto these lines from Addison’s Cato”, quoting these words spoken by by Cato in the play:

Here will I hold. If there’s a power above us
(And that there is, all nature cries aloud
Thro’ all her works),
He must delight in virtue;
And that which he delights in must be happy.

Franklin immediately follows this with a Latin quote from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, a book on Stoicism and the promise of philosophy:

O philosophy, guide of life! O searcher out of virtue and exterminator of vice! One day spent well and in accordance with thy precepts is worth an immortality of sin.

Franklin’s little book contained a table consisting of seven columns, one for each day of the week, and separate rows for each virtue. His plan was to focus on a different virtue each week. Every time he noticed himself failing to live up to the virtue he would put a black mark in the corresponding cell, trying thereby to develop greater self-awareness and minimize his failures.

The Stoics had a fourfold classification of the virtues, derived from Socrates, which later became famous among Christian authors as the four “cardinal virtues”: wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Franklin was a devoted Freemason and, alongside its admiration for Pythagoreanism, the symbolism of Freemasonry had assimilated the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, symbolized by the four corners of each lodge.

Franklin’s Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection contains a more extensive list of virtues. He noted down this system of classification in his little book, attempting to express the essence of each in a short saying, as follows:

  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, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. 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 thought it would be logical to proceed by focusing on one virtue at a time, attempting to train himself to acquire the habit of acting in accord with it and thereby improving his own character over time. Interestingly, he concluded that it made sense to begin with temperance:

Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.

Epictetus likewise taught his students that they should begin their training by focusing on the Stoic Discipline of Desire, which is to say the virtue of temperance, as this provides a solid foundation for everything else they must learn.

The next virtue Franklin sought to acquire was silence, because he says he desired to gain knowledge and observed that “in conversation it was obtain’d rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue”. That’s somewhat reminiscent of a saying of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, to the effect that we have two ears and one tongue because nature intended us to listen twice as much as we talk.

Franklin tracked his progress on the tables contained in his little book, as he tried to develop each of these thirteen virtues in turn. In doing so, he also asked himself two questions each day: one at the start of the morning and one at the end of the evening.

  • Morning: “What good shall I do this day?”
  • Evening: “What good have I done today?”

He would write down the answers in a few concise phrases, e.g., one evening he wrote of the good he’d achieved that day:

Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day.

Franklin followed this practice for years. He even wore out the pages in his notebook eventually and had to contrive a method for recording his progress on a re-usable tablet, which could be wiped clean each week with a sponge.

Franklin admitted this was a laborious process and that he made more progress in some areas than others. Nevertheless, it was worth doing.

But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it…

He explains that the technique for cultivating virtues described in this chapter of his Autobiography was originally intended to form part of a larger book called The Art of Virtue. We’re told that he was unable to complete this “great and extensive project” because it was too ambitious in scope. However, his fundamental goal was actually to demonstrate a particular theory of virtue.

[…] that vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the nature of man alone considered; that it was, therefore, everyone’s interest to be virtuous who wish’d to be happy even in this world...

Now, that’s essentially the ancient doctrine that “virtue is its own reward”, which is typically associated with Socrates and particularly with the Stoics who came after and were influenced by him.

Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? — Seneca, On the Happy Life, 9

Virtue is good because it is inherently beneficial, and constitutes our happiness, and not good just because it’s praised by others. Virtue ethics is central to Freemasonry. However, Franklin must also have inherited this moral doctrine, consciously or unconsciously, from his early study of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, and perhaps also from his exposure to Stoic ideas in the writings of Cicero.

As far as I can see, Franklin mentions Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in passing, only briefly, and once quotes a Latin saying from Seneca, which can be translated as:

He whom the dawning day has seen exalted in his pride, the departing day has seen downfallen.

Nevertheless, he seems to have shared the Stoic conception of virtue as an end in itself. Like the Stoics he saw temperance, and self-discipline, as the foundation of a rigorous practice of moral self-examination, based on The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. Franklin’s Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection contains a method of cultivating specific virtues, by monitoring one’s daily progress in a little book, and thereby developing habits that would lead to improvements in one’s character.

I recently visited Washington DC and took this photo of Franklin’s statue outside the Trump hotel

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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