Over the last few weeks my son and I have been reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. In part II of the book Franklin spends time writing about his pursuit of virtue.
Benjamin Franklin was a genius that helped lay the foundations of our country and a man that wrote much about virtue, even writing his own liturgy. Much as politicians, humanist, and religious leaders speak of virtue today, a person’s virtue shows its true face when placed in the slightest of candlelight. Virtue without a solid pedestal is simply, evil. It is important to take all the words of an individual side by side with their actions, and their view of God to determine if they are worth following or useful for counsel.
In Franklin’s autobiography he shares his thoughts on creating his own commandments and this plan to achieve perfection, “I had some years before I performed a little liturgy or form of prayer for my own private use entitled Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. It was bout the time I conceived of the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. ” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin, Dover Publications, Pg. 61)
Like all of mankind, created in the image of God, Franklin had an understanding of right from wrong. As the Apostle Paul wrote while in Corinth, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” - Romans 2:15. Not only did Franklin have a God given understanding, but also he invested time in building content for his own personal tenets. “The library offered me a means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day.” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin, Dover Publications, Pg. 61)
Franklin defines his virtues as, “Temperance – Silence – Order – Resolution – Frugality – Industry – Sincerity – Justice – Moderation – Cleanliness – Tranquility – Chastity – Humility” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin, Dover Publications, Pg. 64-65). Keeping them however, was another task. He would focus on one at a time leaving chance to the others as he focused on the one for a day or a week. As we know of Franklin’s life, he would struggle for a lifetime to keep those most sacred of virtues. A struggle we all face.
History is kind to Franklin, however, this founding father was missing something in his list of virtues, a foundation from which to build them; there was no theological virtues to support the human virtues. “It will be remarked that, tho’ my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any distinguished tenets of any particular sect.” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin, Dover Publications, Pg. 70)
There will always be an empty orthodoxy when virtue stands on a human measure solely.
Franklin was a Deist. This is evident in his own words and those of scholars. His belief, that some power established the world and then left it to run itself.
His own self created book of liturgy includes the line from Joseph Addison’s Cato:
“Here will I hold! If there is 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.”
(Cato, A Tragedy, Joseph Addison)
“Franklin was brought up in a Puritan household, a form of the Episcopalian denomination of Christianity. However, Franklin, as one of the messengers of the Enlightenment to America, abandoned his religion as an adult in favor of reason and science and the man-made ethics of that movement. Franklin valued reason, science and secularism over religious faith. Scientific progress–without the hindrance of religion–was atop Franklin’s priority list.” (The Hollowverse, Religion and Political Views of the Influential)
Christianity is not at odds with reason, science, or ethics, it is in fact, the foundation on which they were created and can stand in fullness. Franklin however pulls the carpet out from under the things he holds dear, and in doing so, leaves us with a life with a failed orthodoxy of action, community and no element of faith. As he would have Democracy stand on its own, a free society cannot stand without Christianity, for Christ defines and was the provider of “free will” in balance with His direction.
The number of sexual affairs of Franklin is not fully known, but the list known by historians is long. “Yes, even Ben Franklin-who is ensconced in our national consciousness as a kindly, bespectacled dispenser of aphoristic advice-was a womanizer. Make that especially Ben Franklin.” (Ben Franklin`s Dangerous Liaisons, The Chicago Tribune, May 06, 1990|By William Ecenbarger)
As he grew older, more of what he defined in his liturgy he departed. “Franklin also abandoned Poor Richard`s penny-saved-penny-earned philosophy in London by dressing elaborately and dining lavishly in the city`s best restaurants. He belonged to at least six private clubs, and when he went on the road, he rented the best carriages and stocked them with expensive food and wines. And, like any lobbyist on an expense account, he charged everything to his employer-in this case the people of Pennsylvania.” (Ben Franklin`s Dangerous Liaisons, The Chicago Tribune, May 06, 1990|By William Ecenbarger)
We can pull truth from men and women of all walks of life, but the only way we know if they have an element of truth is to hold their actions, teachings, and counsel up against the person of Jesus Christ and His Word. Benjamin Franklin provides elements of truth in his liturgy of virtues, but in the light of Christianity, we see instantly we must be careful how much we accept his counsel, and that it all must be considered with a squinted eye and a mindful ear.
All counsel should be weighed against the scripture, but if someone is not of the faith, their counsel must always be viewed with circumspect.
The Catholic Church gives us the best views and definitions of virtue. The Catholic Catechism defines the human virtues as: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The catechism helps us understand what must come next: “The moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle. Divine grace purifies and elevates them.”
There is action we must take to live out the virtues. Much as Franklin studied, so must we, and much as Franklin sought to keep the virtues, so must we. But the next statement of the catechism is the most important, “Divine grace purifies and elevates them.”
In essence, the finished work of Jesus Christ gives them value. The person of God is the source and creator of virtue and apart from Him, virtue might bring some stability to a life, but it does not bring peace and harmony with God. We all will fail throughout our lives in keeping these virtues, so how will we pass any judgment but for the covering of Christ?
Not only this, but human virtues are a means to an end without the Theological Virtues in unison: faith, hope and love.
Further God’s Holy Spirit must be present for learning, conviction and correction. “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Christians are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Dignity of The Human Person, Article 7, The Virtues)
Franklin departed the faith, had no foundation of hope and showed clearly in his actions he did not have love for others as a motivation. His actions are those of an intelligent, proud, and selfish man.
God is calling us to take our study and actions seriously. He is asking us to take trusted counsel. He is telling us that He must be our foundation if we want our actions to be fruitful. Without Him, virtue is shallow, temporal, and can be used to disguise a wealth of evil.
We can pull useful elements for our democracy from Franklin's genius, but when he is weighed and measured in whole, his life reveals something evil. Intelligence is not what begets goodness.