Franklin’s Virtues Revisited For Today’s Mason

Following on from the previous article – ‘Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues, Freemasonry, and Jewish Practice,‘ by Shai Afsai – we here reproduce the ‘Thirteen Virtues’ listed by Franklin, and the list of questions that were pondered by members of The Junto, a club established by Franklin for the purpose of debate and self-improvement.

Franklin was initiated into his local Masonic lodge in 1730/1731.

He became a Grand Master in 1734, The same year, he edited and published the first Masonic book in the Americas, a reprint of James Anderson‘s Constitutions of the Free-Masons.

He was the secretary of St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia from 1735 to 1738, and remained a Freemason for the rest of his life.

These virtues and the pursuit of self-improvement and knowledge, are as pertinent for today’s Mason as they were for Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin sought to cultivate his character by a plan of 13 virtues, which he developed at age 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life.

His autobiography lists his 13 virtues as:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

A tree bearing apples labelled with virtues; representing the life of Christian virtue. Coloured lithograph, 1870, after J. Bakewell, 1771.
IMAGE LINKED:  Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)>

Franklin did not try to work on them all at once. Instead, he would work on one and only one each week ‘leaving all others to their ordinary chance’.

While Franklin did not live completely by his virtues, and by his own admission he fell short of them many times, he believed the attempt made him a better man contributing greatly to his success and happiness, which is why in his autobiography, he devoted more pages to this plan than to any other single point; in his autobiography Franklin wrote, ‘I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.’

Benjamin Franklin. Stipple engraving by T. Kelly after D. Martin, 1767.
IMAGE LINKED:  Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)>

Franklin established The Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club, in Philadelphia in 1727.

It was a club for mutual improvement and its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.

The group, initially composed of twelve members, called itself the Junto (from the Spanish word junta, or assembly).

The members were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others.

At just 21, he oversaw five men, including Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb, who were soon to form the core of the Junto.

Franklin was an outgoing, social individual and had become acquainted with these businessmen. This gathering included prominent merchants who met informally to drink and discuss the business of the day.

Franklin’s congenial ways attracted many unique and learned individuals, and from these, he selected the members for the Junto.

Franklin describes the formation and purpose of the Junto in his autobiography:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings.

The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

All members lived in Philadelphia and came from diverse areas of interest and business.

Along with Meredith, Potts, and Webb, they included Joseph Breintnall, merchant and scrivener, who also loved poetry and natural history.

Thomas Godfrey was a glazier, mathematician, and inventor; and Nicholas Scull and William Parsons were both surveyors.

Scull was also a bibliophile and Parsons a cobbler and astrologer.

William Maugridge was a cabinetmaker, William Coleman a merchant’s clerk, and Robert Grace a gentleman.

Grace’s wealth meant he did not have to work, but apparently he brought an intellectual element to the group and a fine library.

The twelfth member of the Junto remained a mystery until 2007, when Professor George Boudreau of Penn State discovered a long-forgotten account of the club’s refreshments, and verified that shoemaker John Jones Jr. was an original member.

Jones was a Philadelphia Quaker, a neighbour of Franklin’s, and later a founding member of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The club met Friday nights, first in a tavern and later in a house, to discuss moral, political, and scientific topics of the day.

The Junto’s Friday evening meetings were organized around a series of questions that Franklin devised, which covered a range of intellectual, personal, business, and community topics.

These questions were used as a springboard for discussion and community action. Through the Junto, Franklin promoted such concepts as volunteer fire-fighting clubs, improved security (night watchmen), and a public hospital.

List of Questions

 

This is the list of questions Franklin devised to guide the discussions at Junto meetings (from Franklin’s papers, dated 1728, and included in some editions of his autobiography):

 

  1. Have you met with anything in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto? Particularly in history, morality, poetry, physics, travels, mechanic arts, or other parts of knowledge?
  2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
  3. Has any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?
  4. Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
  5. Have you lately heard how any present rich man, here or elsewhere, got his estate?
  6. Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
  7. What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?
  8. What happy effects of temperance? of prudence? of moderation? or of any other virtue?
  9. Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?
  10. Who do you know that are shortly going [on] voyages or journeys, if one should have occasion to send by them?
  11. Do you think of anything at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
  12. Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting, that you heard of? and what have you heard or observed of his character or merits? and whether think you, it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him, or encourage him as he deserves?
  13. Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
  14. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
  15. Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
  16. Hath anybody attacked your reputation lately? and what can the Junto do towards securing it?
  17. Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?
  18. Have you lately heard any member’s character attacked, and how have you defended it?
  19. Hath any man injured you, from whom it is in the power of the Junto to procure redress?
  20. In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?
  21. Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
  22. What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?
  23. Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice, and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?
  24. Do you see any thing amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?

Any person to be qualified as a member was to stand up, lay his hand upon his chest, over his heart, and be asked the following questions, viz.

 

  1. Have you any particular disrespect to any present members? Answer. I have not.
  2. Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general, of what profession or religion soever? Answer. I do.
  3. Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship? Answer. No.
  4. Do you love truth for truth’s sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself, and communicate it to others? Answer. Yes.

Benjamin Franklin’s Book of Virtues

 

This pocket-sized hardcover edition contains all thirteen “moral virtues” as Benjamin Franklin wrote them in his memoirs, first posthumously published in 1791. 

In the heart of this larger work–today known as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin–he writes of the “bold and arduous Project of arriving at Perfection” that he set for himself as a young man.

In this task for perfection, young Benjamin prepared a catalog of thirteen necessary or desirable virtues that he might strive to acquire by means of habit and daily practice.

This Applewood Books edition includes a chart that Benjamin Franklin used to track his personal progress towards perfection.

 

 

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