The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Thirty Nine

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Section Thirty Nine[edit]

In this Piece it was my Design to explain and enforce this Doctrine, that vicious Actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the Nature of Man alone consider’d: That it was therefore every one’s Interest to be virtuous, who wish’d to be happy even in this World; And I should from this Circumstance, there being always in the World a Number of rich Merchants, Nobility, States and Princes, who have need of honest Instruments for the Management of their Affairs, and such being so rare have endeavored to convince young Persons, that no Qualities were so likely to make a poor Man’s Fortune as those of Probity & Integrity.

My List of Virtues contain’d at first but twelve: But a Quaker Friend having kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing & rather insolent; of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several Instances;—I determined endeavoring to cure myself if I could of this Vice or Folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my List, giving an extensive Meaning to the Word. I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it. I made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeable to the old Laws of our Junto, the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, &c. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something, that I thought an Error, I deny’d myself the Pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some Absurdity in his Proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain Cases or Circumstances his Opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some Difference, &c. I soon found the Advantage of this Change in my Manners. The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes & join with me when I happen’d to be in the right. And this Mode, which I at first put on, with some violence to natural Inclination, became at length so easy & so habitual to me, that perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me. And to this Habit (after my Character of Integrity) I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old; and so much Influence in public Councils when I became a Member. For I was but a bad Speaker, never eloquent, subject to much Hesitation in my choice of Words, hardly correct in Language, and yet I generally carried my Points.

In reality there is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself. You will see it perhaps often in this History. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.

Thus far written at Passy 1784

I am now about to write at home, Augt 1788.—but cannot have the help expected from my Papers, many of them being lost in the War: I have however found the following.

Having mentioned a great & extensive Project which I had conceiv’d, it seems proper that some Account should be here given of that Project and its Object. Its first Rise in my Mind appears in the following little Paper, accidentally preserv’d, viz.

OBSERVATIONS on my Reading History in Library, May 9. 1731.

“That the great Affairs of the World, the Wars, Revolutions, &c. are carried on and effected by Parties.

“That the View of these Parties is their present general Interest, or what they take to be such.

“That the different Views of these different Parties, occasion all Confusion.

“That while a Party is carrying on a general Design, each Man has his particular private Interest in View.

“That as soon as a Party has gain’d its general Point, each Member becomes Intent upon his particular Interest, which thwarting others, breaks that Party into Divisions, and occasions more Confusion.

“That few in Public Affairs act from a mere View of the Good of their Country, whatever they may pretend; and tho’ their Actings bring real Good to their Country, yet Men primarily consider’d that their own and their Country’s Interest was united, and did not act from a Principle of Benevolence.

“That fewer still in public Affairs act with a View to the Good of Mankind.

“There seems to me at present to be great Occasion for raising an united Party for Virtue, by forming the Virtuous and good Men of all Nations into a regular Body, to be govern’d by suitable good and wise Rules, which good and wise Men may probably be more unanimous in their Obedience to, than common People are to common Laws.

“I at present think, that whoever attempts this aright, and is well qualified, cannot fail of pleasing God & of meeting with Success. B.F.”