Saturday, January 28, 2006

Self-made men

Just finished rereading Ben Franklin's Autobiography. It's fun to see the inspiration his prototype gave to Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, which I have been teaching. I made my students a handout quoting first Franklin's self-improvement program:
{5-7} Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive day's business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.
Question. What good shall I do this day? ... [etc.]
Then Gatsby's:
Rise from bed - 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling - 6.15-6.30 A.M.
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it - 5.00-6.00 P.M.
Resolves: ... Bath every other day ... Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week ... [etc.]
I love these perfection systems, which remind me of utopian languages like Esperanto and utopian keyboards like Dvorak. Unlike the abs exercises in Cosmo, or various diet recipes, they are a comprehensive order for all aspects of life. The wide-eyed ambition is irresistible. Here is Franklin explaining his system:
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.
And his list of precepts:
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 employ'd 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 extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
I love to wonder, how many of these do I, and my friends, believe? What would be my list?

I asked my students which of these they agreed with (though I skipped chastity). The principles they rejected were temperance, silence, order, industry, and moderation; they strongly defended occasional wildness, passion, and anger. One student even meekly raised her hand and stood up for her right to get drunk. A job well done on my part!