Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin

Summary

  1. Franklin tells us about his life and path up until 1791. It was published before his death and has become one of the most famous examples of an autobiography: “He felt the need of school training and set to work to educate himself. He had an untiring industry, and love of the approval of his neighbor; and he knew that more things fail through want of care than want of knowledge. His practical imagination was continually forming projects; and, fortunately for the world, his great physical strength and activity were always setting his ideas in motion.”

Key Takeaways

  1. From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.
  2. About this time I met with an odd volume of the “Spectator.” It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my “Spectator” with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
  3. I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather saying, “I conceive” or “apprehend” a thing to be so and so; “it appears to me,” or “I should think it so or so,” for such and such reasons; or “I imagine it to be so;” or “it is so, if I am not mistaken.” This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us,—to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.
  4. So convenient a thing it is to be a “reasonable” creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
  5. I should have mentioned before, that in the autumn of the preceding year I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the “Junto.”
  6. I began now gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the printing house. 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 to the contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores through the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus, being esteemed an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom; others proposed supplying me with books, and I went on swimmingly.
  7. And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature,—that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form by our great scrivener, Brockden, and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterward obtained a charter, the company being increased to one hundred. This was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous.
  8. The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a “number of friends,” who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practiced it on such occasions, and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterward be amply repaid. If it remains awhile uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice by plucking those assumed feathers, and restoring them to their right owner.
  9. This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary.
  10. It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. 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. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded at length that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning. These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
    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 employed 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. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
    12. Chastity.
    13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
  11. My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged 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 through the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, Silence would be more easy; and, like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplished the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till in the end, by a number of courses, I should be happy in viewing a clean book, after a thirteen-weeks’ daily examination. I entered upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continued it, with occasional intermissions, for some time. I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.
  12. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel. He turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” says the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.” And I believe this may have been the case with many, who, having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that a “speckled ax” was best.
  13. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue, inimical proceedings.
  14. My business was now continually augmenting, and my circumstances growing daily easier, my newspaper having become very profitable, as being for a time almost the only one in this and the neighboring provinces. I experienced, too, the truth of the observation that “after getting the first hundred pounds it is more easy to get the second,” money itself being of a prolific nature.
  15. When I disengaged myself as above mentioned from private business, I flattered myself that, by the sufficient though moderate fortune I had acquired, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements.
  16. Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.
  17. The above fact I give for the sake of the following observation. It has been remarked, as an imperfection in the art of ship building, that it can never be known, till she is tried, whether a new ship will or will not be a good sailer; for that the model of a good sailing ship has been exactly followed in a new one, which has proved, on the contrary, remarkably dull. I apprehend that this may partly be occasioned by the different opinions of seamen respecting the modes of lading, rigging, and sailing of a ship. Each has his system; and the same vessel, laden by the judgment and orders of one captain, shall sail better or worse than when by the orders of another. Besides, it scarce ever happens that a ship is formed, fitted for the sea, and sailed by the same person. One man builds the hull, another rigs her, a third lades and sails her. No one of these has the advantage of knowing all the ideas and experience of the others, and therefore cannot draw just conclusions from a combination of the whole.
  18. Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.
  19. If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone.

What I got out of it

  1. Some simple and beautiful anecdotes on how to improve ourselves and our thinking