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.

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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?


“Something Specific”

Today, I gave 31 cents to a beggar. He asked for 50 cents, but all I had was 31. He said that he intended to purchase a can of Miller Genuine Draft. “Sometimes” he informed me, “you just get a craving for something specific.”

I am not bragging about giving such a small amount of money toward an arguably questionable cause. But it reminded me of a brief interaction with a former teacher several years ago. When she asked what I was up to, I replied that I was engaged in “constant self-improvement.” The answer was only mostly a joke.

It is remarkably easy to be a better man tomorrow than I was today, if I put my mind to it. Today I gave 31 cents to a guy who was down on his luck and wanted a cold beer. Tomorrow, I could cut a check to a much less dubious charity such as 2 Seconds or Less, that works with African schools to build nutritional gardens for student lunches. Or something like that. But being better tomorrow than today doesn’t have to be in the form of charity.

I didn’t make the bed today. I didn’t wash the dishes immediately after lunch. There are hundreds and thousands of ways that I could have lived today better. The key is recognizing these shortcomings and making the effort to be a better man tomorrow. So tomorrow I will make the bed and I will do the dishes as soon as I finish my meals. And if a man asks me for change so that he can by a can of beer, I will offer to buy him a pint myself. Something better than MGD. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Beer of the week: Miller Fortune – Well this is no MGD, that’s for sure. Supposedly, Miller designed this beer to try to capture some market share back from liquor companies that have been targeting “millennials”. Hence the higher than usual alcohol (6.9%) and the suggestion that the beer to be served in a rocks glass. The overall idea is to make a classier beer. If I were in charge, I’d have made “taste” a priority, but what do I know? Fortune comes in a fancy black glass bottle and pours a pretty, crystal clear, amber color. After that, things go down hill. The smell is unpleasant and reminds me of ice beer, which may be related to the higher alcohol content. Aside from the taste of corn, I am also reminded of cheap malt liquor. (I suppose that “cheap malt liquor” is redundant.) It certainly has more flavor than I would usually expect from anything marketed under the Miller name, but in this case I don’t think that is a good thing. There is a very slight upside; the use of the rocks glass supposedly lets the beer warm in the drinker’s hand. As the beer warms, there appears a slight hint of caramel at the end of each sip. It doesn’t make the beer to good by any means, but it does show some complexity. At least they deserve some credit for trying, right?

Reading of the week: Some Fruits of Solitude: Censoriousness by William Penn – A problem with self-improvement is that it can be difficult to see one’s own faults for what they are. “And nothing shews our Weakness more than to be so sharp-sighted at spying other Men’s Faults, and so purblind about our own.” Penn suggests being more charitable is a good place to start self-improvement because it gives us a more sympathetic view of the faults of others.

Question of the week: How can you be better today than you were yesterday?