The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin. Edited by John Bigelow. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 256 pp. $17.66 (hardcover).
Most people know Benjamin Franklin as a statesman, inventor, scientist, and successful businessman. In addition to those accomplishments, however, Franklin launched the genre of self-improvement books.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a posthumous compilation of letters, including letters Franklin wrote to his son, and notes from a book about self-improvement that Franklin had planned but never finished. With his fatherly advice and anecdotes from his youth, Franklin shows that success, no matter where one starts in life, is a matter of will, thoughtfulness, and effort.
Included in the compilation is a letter from an acquaintance of Franklin, Benjamin Vaughn. Having accidentally stumbled across one of Franklin’s letters to his son, Vaughn sent a letter begging that Franklin write and publish his autobiography. Vaughn pointed out that Franklin’s life demonstrated how, through self-education, discipline, and a rigorous plan to develop moral perfection, Franklin had purposefully built in himself a character and mind capable of achieving great success. Vaughn recognized that Franklin’s example could help in “the forming of future great men” and in “improving the features of private character” (p. 56).
The autobiography consists of four parts, each focusing on a particular stage of Franklin’s development. The first part is a letter to his son, in which Franklin discusses his early youth and how he struck out on his own. The second and longest part of book features Vaughn’s letter and Franklin’s discussions of how he conscientiously built his own code of morals and developed his habits to form his own character. In this part, Franklin reviews (among other things) how he sought to foster greatness in himself by associating with great men. Franklin created a mutual improvement group called “The Junto,” to which he invited prominent and influential men, and through which the group worked to better their minds and their characters:
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 for victory. (p. 45)
More broadly, Franklin “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection” (p. 63). His goal was to build within himself a faultless character. “I would conquer all [evils] that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into” (p. 63). Through reading the histories of great men and by studying philosophy, he chose what he believed were the thirteen best virtues. For clarity, he formulated one simple sentence to express the essence of each virtue. He wrote of temperance: “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”; of tranquility: “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable” (pp. 64–65).
He soon found that attaining moral perfection as he conceived it was harder than he had anticipated. “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined” (p. 63). He found that while he was busy correcting one set of faults, he would commit others. His solution was eloquent: Instead of attempting to work on each of the thirteen virtues simultaneously, he would focus on perfecting one at a time and chart his progress. Once Franklin practiced one of his virtues consistently for a week, he moved on to another.
The third and fourth parts of the autobiography review Franklin’s major successes and ideas that flowed from his self-development. These parts offer (among other things) Franklin’s arguments for freedom of the press, his discussions of why he was a deist, and his account of how he won the debate concerning whether his theory of electricity was true. Franklin also discusses how he sought to account for people’s foibles when dealing with them; for example, when dealing with an envious person, he’d downplay credit due him for some idea or effort.
The virtues of Franklin’s Autobiography are many, its flaws few. One flaw worth mentioning is that the book lacks clear organization and meanders here and there. Yet Franklin to some extent acknowledges and excuses this flaw, writing: “By my rambling digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us’d to write more methodically. But one does not dress for private company as for a publick ball” (p. 9).
The great value of the book is precisely that it brings readers into the “private company” of the great mind and wonderful life of Benjamin Franklin. As Vaughn writes to Franklin, the “nearest thing to having experience of one’s own, is to have other people’s affairs brought before us in a shape that is interesting” (p. 57). Few people’s affairs are as interesting as Franklin’s were. And even fewer know how to express their affairs as eloquently as Franklin did. His Autobiography is an American classic.