Ethics: Franklin vs. The Puritans

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin expresses his concern for ethics and encourages his own learned set of values. This is most easily seen in his list of thirteen virtues which include temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Through following these ethical guidelines Franklin believed that one may achieve moral perfection, though when noting his offenses realized that although impossible, the attempt itself was both honorable and meaningful. Through realizing Franklin’s high standards of virtue and the constricting self-control needed to achieve them, we may see many similarities between himself and the Puritans before him. Like the Puritans, Franklin expresses through his writing that strict moral self-awareness and control is crucial in becoming an honest and virtuous citizen. His list of thirteen virtues reflect the ethical guidelines set by the protestant Church and adhered to by the Puritans. However, through these thirteen virtues established by Benjamin Franklin we may also see the many differences between himself and the Puritan community. Unlike the Puritans who sought moral perfection in order to please their God and achieve a place in heaven, Franklin believed one must abide by a rule of ethics as a human being, not just as a Christian follower. He believed one should live by virtue in order to become a better person and a better citizen. He believed there should not only be justice in the afterlife, but on earth as well. One should be virtuous for themselves, not just for God. In his thirteenth virtue, Humility, Franklin advises to “imitate Jesus and Socrates” (Franklin 86). This simple statement places Jesus and Socrates on the same plane of morality, a sentiment the Puritans would certainly not appreciate. It suggests that one imitate Jesus’s life, as well as Socrates, but does not demand their devotion or religious following. Franklin sees Jesus as a moral inspiration and his life an example of virtue but does not claim, nor encourage, a commitment to religion and to Christianity. In this he is vastly different from the Puritans.

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