The Means and Manner of Obtaining Virtue

This week, for the first time in two months, I realized it was almost Thursday and I had yet to start a book for today’s blog post.  Not wanting to fall behind, I picked up something small: The Means and Manner of Obtaining Virtue by Benjamin Franklin.  It’s only 56 pages long and it’s divided into three personal essays, making it even easier to digest.

“Steady Industry and a Prudent Parsimony” may have been the most interesting, though it doesn’t sound so from its title.  Though it can still be said to have a moral, it is far more subtle than the other two and is more a personal history than a lecture.  As Franklin details his beginnings in journalism, he emphasizes how his persistence  gained him opportunities and how his availability to those opportunities – even when they were not exactly ideal – gave him momentum.  It ends when he is still young (less than 21) and one door has closed to him, but it promises that he will still succeed thanks to “steady industry and a prudent parsimony.”

It has been a while since I read colonial-era literature, but even in comparison to the book’s other parts, the language in “The Art of Virtue” sounded pretentious rather than arcane.  You would have to be a little pretentious to tell people how you contrived to rid yourself of every vice and suggest they follow your example.

In case you’re curious: Franklin focused not on the vice itself but on the virtue he wanted to replace it with.  He practiced one at a time, marking each time he made a mistake.  He hoped there would come a day when he made no marks in his record.  To his credit, he confesses he was “much fuller of faults than [he] had imagined” and he “never arrived at the Perfection.”  Though not perfect, he did find he was better for having done so, and he finally decided “a speckled ax was best.”  With the language, it sounds like bragging: “look how much I bettered myself,” he seems to say.  But by interjecting some of the ways he failed and appealing to his descendents, he shows he is also trying to teach by example.

I say also because even he says his pride was the one vice he managed to hide but never expel.  I have no doubt he would take the opportunity to boast if he thought he could write it off as something else.

He further extols his own wisdom in “The Way of Wealth.”  He frames it as a true story, where “Father Abraham” lectures a crowd by quoting (repeatedly) Poor Richard’s Almanack.  My guess is that it’s entirely fictional and mainly an excuse to present his favorite adages in one place.  Despite the hokeyness of it, this one fascinated me most because parts of it are still relevant.  He warns against a good “pennyworth,” saying that even something cheap is a bad deal if you don’t need it, and that you shouldn’t borrow money to buy nice clothes because the appearance of wealth is pointless if you have to owe someone for it.

It was also funny to see that he’s the one who said “God helps them who help themselves” and would agree with  my “I can sleep when I’m dead” philosophy, though he might disagree with what I do instead.  (His exact words were “there will be sleeping enough in the Grave,” though he thought people should use this time to be industrious.)

Some of it is actually good advice, but throughout he makes it sound as though the only way to succeed is to do nothing but work and failing in these will ruin you.  It isn’t until the end that he acknowledges you can follow all this advice and still fail.

The Means and Manner of Obtaining Virtue should probably be considered a classic.  Right or wrong, Franklin’s message has a timelessness to it, even if his language doesn’t.  He does admire where he’s failed, but history has shown his success.  As one of the most prominent of our country’s forefathers, he has some authority when it comes to getting things done.  If in reading these essays, one can separate the good from the bad, they may glean something they can use to better their own life.

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