Moral Perfection

This is the first in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts will be available here.

In response to Socrates’s professed ignorance of virtue, Meno lists the different virtues of men and women, children and the elderly, freedmen and slaves. And Socrates, ever the jerk, replies, “I seem to be in a most lucky way, Meno; for in seeking one virtue I have discovered a whole swarm of virtues there in your keeping!”

The clear disconnect is that Socrates and Meno have different objectives. Socrates is interested in the metaphysical question of what virtue is. Meno is interested in the practical question of how virtue is obtained. Over two thousand years later, Ben Franklin takes Meno’s side.

In His Autobiography, Franklin describes how he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” And rather than start from a professed position of ignorance as Socrates does, he starts with a practical division of virtue into several virtues for each occasion. In the end, he settles on 13 moral virtues, acknowledging that various writers have combined or divided different virtues in a number of ways. For example, it could easily be argued that moderation could be an umbrella term that would include temperance, silence, and chastity as Franklin defines them. But this is a practical project, and Franklin finds it more advantageous to use “more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas.”

And rather than attempt to simply adopt all of the virtues at once, an unreasonably difficult task, Franklin plans to work his way though them, one-by-one, dedicating a week to temperance, a week to silence, a week to order, etc. By the end of each week, he hopes to have habituated himself to practicing that week’s virtue, so that by the end of 13 weeks, he will have developed the habit of moral perfection.

It is a very ambitious program, but well worth the effort. Over the next 13 weeks, you are invited to join this blog in progressing through Franklin’s program, with readings and reflections on each of his moral virtues. By the end, we will probably not be able to say what virtue is, but we may well be able to say that we have gotten closer to moral perfection.

And, at the very least, we’ll have had some good beer and read some good books. Next week: 1. Temperance.


Beer of the week: Šenkovní 10 – This is a fairly standard Czech lager from Pivovar Jihlava (Hedgehog Brewery.) It is very pale and very carbonated. There is not a lot of aroma or flavor. There is a hint of honey to this beer and just enough hops in the finish to lift this brew to the level of “serviceable”. I would certainly drink it again. By the way, the “10” in the name of this beer is the specific gravity, measured in Plato units. Beers in most of central Europe have to have their specific gravity on the label. The specific gravity is the density of the wort (the mixture of water and barley malt that gets fermented into beer.) The higher the specific gravity, the more malt. More malt means more flavor and more alcohol.

Reading for the week: His Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin – As promised, excerpt is where Franklin describes his program of moral improvement. Although it was conceived as a 13 week regimen, Franklin periodically revisited this program over the years to stay on top of his moral game.

Question for the week: Must one be able to define morality in the abstract to make any concrete progress in moral improvement?

A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…


Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?

Trust Me

One of the easiest mistakes to make when reading a story is ignoring the narrator. Not ignoring what the narrator says, but ignoring who the narrator is. Like an eye witness on the stand in a murder trial, a narrator’s biases, perception, and credibility ought to be carefully criticized.

Among the most suspect narrators are autobiographers. Who could possibly be less reliable than somebody testifying to their own great deeds? Giacomo Casanova would likely be forgotten today if he had not published outlandish memoirs of his adventures and sexual conquests. Similarly, Benvenuto Cellini would only be known as a relatively minor Renaissance artist if not for his (quite literally) incredible autobiography which features not only daring feats, but supernatural beings. But there is good reason to question the reliability of even less outrageous autobiographers. Neither the Confessions of Augustine nor Rousseau are totally reliable since each man had a specific agenda in writing about his own life. Benjamin Franklin was notoriously self-serving in his public and professional life, so why not in his autobiography?

Even more academic work must be critically examined for author bias. Herodotus, “the father of history”, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Plutarch was similarly more interested in the stories of his Parallel Lives than the facts. (To say nothing of the fact that both Herodotus and Plutarch include anecdotes about events and conversations that they could have no way of knowing.) And how could Tacitus be objective about the lives of the early emperors of Rome when he was a member of the Senate that had lost so much of its power to those princes?

What is easier, but no less important, is to assess the biases, perceptional flaws, and reliability of fictional narrators. Faulkner has a habit of telling his stories through very unreliable narrators. The mentally retarded narrator Benjamin in The Sound and the Fury obviously has perceptional issues that make it very difficult to be sure what is actually going on. Similarly, his older brother Quentin’s deteriorating mental health makes him an unreliable narrator. In As I Lay Dying the narrators include a very confused little boy, a dead woman, and a young man sent to a mental institution. Clearly they are not all capable of telling the entire story.

Obviously the reader of any story cannot simply take everything the narrator says at face value. That is not to say that the narrator or the story itself should be totally discounted. Despite the observations above, not one of the books that I have mentioned is not worth reading. You can trust me, right?


Beer of the week: Post Road Pumpkin Ale – Halloween is tomorrow, so we are well and truly into the season for pumpkin beer (and pumpkin everything else.) The Brooklyn Brewing Company makes some fine brews, not the least of which is Post Road. This pretty orange beer pours with a fluffy head and smells of gingerbread. The rich, full body of Post Road is balanced nicely by tingling carbonation and spice. It evokes thoughts of warm pumpkin pie without trying to taste like pie. It is still a beer, and it tastes like a beer. A good one, at that.

Reading for the week: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This story is a Halloween classic. What I have never considered before, however, is the fact that Irving does not tell the story in his own name. Before the story even begins, Irving tells us that it was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Is the story more or less reliable because it was found rather than written by Irving?

Question for the week: This post is about narrators of stories and histories, but what about purely philosophical writings (if such a thing exists)? How much must one know about Kant’s background before he can seriously study Kant’s writings? How much does it matter which pseudonym Kierkegaard used for a given work?

Intellectual Heritage

Samuel Adams defended (if not participated in) the destruction of private property as a form of protest. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Ben Franklin was probably some sort of super villain. Besides not being perfect, (who is?) what did these men have in common? Well, they were all talented writers. They were all white. All land-owners. They had lots in common actually. But the most important things they have in common were that they were Americans and they are on this blog’s Reading List. And these two things are related.

I, like so many Americans, have a certain respect and curiosity about great Americans. Because we have a nationality and history in common, their lives and ideas seem to have more direct baring on my own life and ideas. As the Venerable Bede wrote, ” take care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former men of renown, especially of our own nation.” Because one’s own countrymen present a more immediate and relateable example, it is easier to take that example to heart.

The book from which I quoted Bede is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Astute readers may have observed some irony in me quoting a British author when talking about the value of studying the lives of great Americans. However, I regard Americans as supremely fortunate in their lineage. The American government, culture and language all have a mixed heritage, so when I want to study the lives of “former men of renown” I regard more than just Americans as my predecessors. The history of America includes much of the history of England and, indeed, of most of the world. From Homer forward, there is an intellectual common thread that runs right down to the present. And that is why this blog is not only American authors.

One may object that my Reading List has a number of categorical omissions. Every single reading to date was written by a European or an American man. The closest thing to an exception would be the colonial works of Kipling and Orwell, inspired by their time in India and Burma, respectively. Of course, they maintained their Britishness throughout their colonial adventures. In fact, one could argue that there is nothing more British than staying British while colonizing the world. But that is another topic all-together.

Clear omissions include: women and anybody not of European heritage. These are not intentional. The omission of women is the product of probability: this is basically a classics blog and the bulk of classic literature and philosophy has been produced by men. I have read some female authors in my day, but the idea of combing Middlemarch for a 5 paragraph excerpt worth writing about is a bit daunting.

As far as non-Europeans, the problem is that there is a certain remoteness about them. I am not sure how to approach, for example, Confucius because his writings and ideas are not ingrained in the culture around me. I suspect that there are common threads that can be grasped, but they may be harder to find.

So I will appeal to you, the reader: If there is an author or class of authors that you think I should read and discuss here, make a recommendation on the appropriate page or in the comments section. (Just as a heads-up, I am not likely to write about anything very modern or very obscure because the Reading List is only possible because the texts I use are in the public domain.)

Beer of the Week: Old Speckled Hen – America’s mixed heritage shows itself in its beer as much as anything. Although the biggest producers are inspired primarily by central European lagers (cf. the American and Czech Budweisers,) American brewers are getting back to their roots by brewing more ales. And the English have been a big influence on us in that regard. This smooth, malty ale is a real treat. The malt is balanced very nicely by a very pleasant bitterness that lingers slightly, beckoning to be washed away by another smooth, malty sip. This cycle continues until the glass is suddenly empty. Plus it is very nearly the same color as my beard… so that’s cool.

Reading for the Week: the Preface of Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede, Excerpt – Bede is the only Englishman included in Dante’s Paradiso and is the only English doctor of the Catholic Church. So as it turns out, Bede is one of the most renowned men of his own nation, and rightly so. Although much of the Preface is Bede citing his sources, he slips in at the end that the “true rule of history” is “the instruction of posterity.”

Question for the week: What, exactly, is posterity supposed to learn from history?

The Right Man Was Convicted

I have, on the rarest of occasions, been mistaken. If that admission has not rocked your world to its foundation, I am sure it is because you reasoned thusly: “I am always right. Jake is not me. Anybody who is not me must differ from me in some respect. Therefore, Jake must be wrong at least sometimes.”

As Ben Franklin wrote, “Most men… think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.”

We regard this as something of a joke. We agree that people tend to be extremely confident in their beliefs even (or perhaps especially) when they do not have all of the information. But since we really do know better, the convictions of others are laughable.

However silly self-confidence can seem in such an uncertain world, it does serve one useful purpose. Namely, it gives people the grounding required to act. Without convictions, one can hardly be expected to do anything wholeheartedly. That has long been one of the great arguments against philosophy in general is that it produces no action. Socrates’ “I know that I do not know” is not exactly a call to arms.

The problem of how to be a man of action while still living the life of the mind is one that Franklin himself seems to have over-come. It seems that part of his ability to act was his willingness to compromise for the sake of practical progress. He never lost sight of the his real world goals and always looked for a way to realize theoretical progress.

Beer of the week: Budweiser – As part of “America Night”, I read Franklin and made a delicious cheese steak sandwich with real American colby-jack cheese. However, the night went wrong when it came to the beer. A careful examination of my Budweiser bottle revealed the OB logo on the glass. Further research indicates that Budweiser sold in Korea is brewed in Korea. The tasted confirmed it. Imagine a bland, watery beer… then add water. In general, I do not care much for Korean beer (or Budweiser for that matter,) but this was the worst Korean offering yet.

Reading for the week: Disapproving and accepting the Constitution by Benjamin Franklin – In a very short address, Franklin makes a few bons mots about self-confidence and then proceeds to justify compromise for the sake of the practical end of a working federal government.

Question for the week: What is the limit to which one can “sacrifice [his opinion] to the common good” before he does the common good a disservice by not insisting on some point of principle?