Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Principles

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Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves, but I give it fair Quarter […] it is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of Action: And therefore in many Cases it would not be quite absurd if a Man were to thank God for his Vanity among the other Comforts of Life. (1.1)

You've got to wonder why Franklin is always defending things like vanity and pride – perhaps because he recognizes his own tendency to have vain or proud moments. Here, though, he makes a really persuasive argument for why vanity should be allowed, and why it even can be seen as a gift from God. This also shows us the strength of his argumentative skills, which he tells us about in Part 1.

I began now to have some Acquaintance among the young People of the Town, that were Lovers of Reading with whom I spent my Evenings very pleasantly and gaining Money by my Industry and Frugality. (1.38)

What a model gentleman: this is Franklin's idea of a wild night out on the town, reading, working, and saving cash. It's actually kind of sweet; according to this description, he's the kind of guy you'd do well to bring home to Mom and Dad. Funnily enough, though, later in life he gets quite a reputation as a ladies' man. How do we reconcile those two things?

[My father] advis'd me to behave respectfully to the People there, endeavor to obtain the general Esteem, and avoid lampooning and libeling to which he thought I had too much Inclination; telling me, that by steady Industry and a prudent Parsimony, I might save enough by the time I was One and Twenty to set me up, and that if I came near the Matter he would help me out with the Rest. (1.44)

Here, by giving this kind of advice, Franklin's father sounds like another famous literary father: Polonius in Hamlet. Josiah's advice to his son is realistic, brief, and practical; from it, we learn both what he values (respect, good opinions, hard work) and what he thinks Franklin needs to work on (not making fun of people, saving money).

The Breaking into this Money of Vernon's was one of the first great Errata of my Life. And this Affair show'd that my Father was not much out in his Judgment when he suppos'd me too Young to manage Business of Importance. (1.48)

Again, Franklin's father is right: he's got some growing up to do and some big stuff to work on. But also, when Franklin screws up, he does it big time, and he's not afraid to own up to it. This isn't just borrowing money, Franklin's taking it without permission. It's almost stealing. He's breaking the trust Vernon has in him, and because of how many times Franklin brings this up and harps on it, we know how much he regrets this error later.

Before I enter upon my public Appearance in Business, it may be well to let you know the then State of my Mind, with regard to my Principles and Morals, that you may see how far those influenc'd the future Events of my Life. (1.88)

Well, this isn't exactly cocktail party chitchat. Nor is it the kind of thing you'd want to hear on a first date. Indeed, this kind of statement isn't for the faint of heart, which is maybe why Franklin doesn't hit us with it until he's most of the way through Part 1. What it does, when it shows up, is reveal to us the connection Franklin's making between his inner self and his actions, and impresses on us that this link between the two is a really important part of how he's telling his story.

I grew convinc'd that Truth, Sincerity and Integrity in Dealings between Man and Man, were of the utmost Importance to the Felicity of Life, and I form'd written Resolutions, (which still remain in my Journal Book) to practice them ever while I lived. (1.89)

Sounds familiar; we might have the same kind of thoughts on New Year's Eve – resolve to do better, be better, etc. But Franklin seems more invested in this kind of self-improvement, working on it actively and in the long term. Something for us to think about is how much these qualities of "Truth, Sincerity, and Integrity" show up in the Autobiography, and whether Franklin seems to have achieved good, consistent practice of them.

I mention this Industry the more particularly and the more freely, tho' it seems to be talking in my own Praise, that those of my Posterity who shall read it, may know the Use of that Virtue, when they see its Effects in my Favor throughout this Relation. (1.94)

Franklin gives himself an out for why he seems to be praising himself so much; the question is, whether he's justified. Do the benefits of learning from his experience outweigh his self-congratulations? We wonder whether this statement has the effect of making the Autobiography seem more like a balanced, well-rounded self-portrait, or whether it's another way of saying why its subject keeps showing up in a good light.

In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the contrary. (1.104)

Good old appearance vs. reality. We have a feeling you might have seen this kind of comparison before. Significantly, this passage makes a parallel between "credit and character," or money and virtue. Once again, wealth and principles are linked. In order to succeed as a businessman, Franklin has to appear virtuous; but, in order to save money and build up his business, he really has to act virtuous, too.

My intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my Attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and when I should be Master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on till I should have gone thro' the thirteen. (2.43)

Once again, we're presented with what a reasonable guy Franklin is. He has a whole list of stuff to work on in order to improve himself. But, instead of getting overwhelmed and all worked up about trying to accomplish them all at once, he creates an organized system for dividing and conquering the virtues. This raises some interesting questions about how you judge virtues against each other – for example, how do you pick what to work on first? last? – and how it's possible to "learn" humility, say, in the same way you might try to study French.

There seems to me at present to be great Occasion for raising an united Party for Virtue, by forming the Virtuous and good Men of all Nations into a regular body, to be govern't by suitable good and wise Rules, which good and wise Men may probably be more unanimous in their Obedience to, than common People are to common Laws. (3.3)

Imagine that. Instead of just a two-party political system, we also had Virtue-icans or Virtue-acrats who we could vote into office. How might that change the political landscape? And yet that's precisely what Franklin is arguing for here: an organization that can rise above individual or national quibbles and quarrels to focus on what he thinks are the really important things. Even so, this is already problematic. Who decides what the "good and wise" rules are? How do we know that "good and wise" men would abide by them? What does it even mean to be "good and wise"?

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