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According to the recent PBS biography Benjamin Franklin created by Ken Burns, Franklin’s funeral procession included leaders from several religious and philosophical traditions, walking arm-in-arm. The fact that a celebrated scientist, wit, and diplomat never took the trouble to finish writing his autobiography reveals the kind of person he was. He was slow to free his slaves, but he tended to their education. Although he was arguably the most famous American in the world at the time and one of the two brilliant men who were credited with the success of the American Revolutionary War (the other being George Washington), he wanted his deeds to define him. At age 79, he devised a list of 13 virtues he deemed most important to happiness, human relationships, and creativity that ended with Humility in the final position, and the admonition “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Although there were many—including John Adams (showcased in a separate TV series)—who would never have coupled the name Benjamin Franklin and the word humility in a single sentence, Franklin didn’t aspire to aristocracy. He began as a runaway apprentice with little schooling, educated himself, and built his life with intention, beginning with the creation of a successful printing business that included his own wry wisdom. He had no use for pomp and hypocrisy, so he avoided churches. However, in his creed he wrote, “I believe in one God, creator of the Universe. That he governs by Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.” The epitaph he composed for himself in which he referred to himself as “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended by the Author” was edited to only the pertinent dates on his tombstone. Today he might be accused of spirituality. He would almost certainly be criticized for lumping Jesus and Socrates together.
Franklin was an incurably curious (electricity and the course of the Gulf Stream were among his discoveries), thoughtful man. He took time to consider the consequences of his actions. When America was desperate for funds and leaders to finance and conduct the War, he didn’t hesitate to play politician in France, lying about American successes so charmingly and with such careful attention to French sensibilities, that he garnered assistance that almost certainly saved the revolution from disaster. Even after his death, the French loved him. When he wrote of Sincerity as number seven in his list of thirteen virtues, he advised, “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.” He endeavored to hurt no one, with the possible emotional exception of his son William who had been a traitor to the cause of independence. He lived his principles as best he could, principles we could use today.