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 . . .