With independent careers as a diplomat, scientist, businessman, statesman, printer, and writer, Benjamin Franklin was the most versatile genius ever produced in North America.
He was also a wily old hypocrite. His Autobiography—still very much worth reading today—reads like a collaboration between Andrew Carnegie and John Stuart Mill.
And yet. There is something slithery about him, this wispy-haired little Benjamin. One gets the feeling that he is trying to put something over on us. Trying to rope us into his little Benjamin-esque corral. So he can control us. And take all the cookies from the jar for himself.
He even drew up a list of “virtues” which he claims to have aspired to and followed on a daily basis. Maddening. Benjamin wants to tap us on the head–tap, tap, tap–and send us out into the pitiless world armed with nothing but his “virtues”. Well, noli me tangere, Benjamin. I loathe your little checklist. Here is what he says:
Temperance: Eat not to fullness; drink not to elevation.
Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself—i.e., waste nothing.
Industry: Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Moderation: Avoid extremes, forbear resenting injuries as much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
So there we have it. Benjamin’s little list. And with it, he pats us on the cheeks and relegates us to slavery, while he himself does what he likes. Uns tapinhas nas bochechas, Quintusinho.
One could just cringe. Because this is the same man who fled to Philadelphia from Boston at the age of fifteen to escape his brother’s tyranny, and became a fugitive in the process. The same man who, at the court of the French king at Versailles, slept with every girl he could lay his hands on; the same man who played the role of the American rube in Europe, with his affected bear-skin cap; who hoarded money and titles like an Oriental satrap; and the same man who had several illegitimate children kept safely in the background.
But I don’t resent him for this, really. I resent him for sending me out into the world with “virtues” that leave me naked, and ill-prepared for the hurly-burly, the stink, the sweat, and the eye-gouging gristle of life.
But, you see, that’s the game after all, isn’t it? He wants us sniffling into a wet hanky, like Paul Elam. Bemoaning your lot while doing nothing to improve it. And then going back to Benjamin and Poor Richard and whomever else for precious guidance. Long ago I broke free of you, Benjamin, and your ruinous morality.
So with my life and blood-experiences, I remedied little Benjamin. With my own list of virtues. My own code. My own creed. Nothing is so boring as metaphysics, and nothing is so important. And so here you have it:
Temperance: Be suspicious of any man who doesn’t drink. He’s usually concealing something. A great many things have been solved in this world with a good cocktail.
Silence: I shall remain silent about silence.
Order: Too much order, too much pedantic organizing, often creates only a dead mechanism. I am not a mechanism. I am not a slithery Benjamin. I am a man. I contain a universe within myself. My soul–yours also–is the Axis of the World, the qutb of the mystics Ibn Arabi and Hallaj, around which the universe revolves.
Resolution, Frugality, Industry: These are the sign-posts on your journey towards your ultimate purpose. Your hunting down of your essential Blood-Spirit. Hunt it down and harpoon it, like a white whale, until it spouts black blood. Your mission in life is to learn your purpose, your innermost Blood-Spirit. Nothing was ever achieved without brutal struggle and sacrifice. Success comes when you realize no one is going to help you.
Sincerity: You owe no duty of honesty to a scoundrel. As Ernest Borgnine said in the 1969 film The Wild Bunch, “It’s not your word that’s important…it’s who you give it to.”
Justice: True justice is the knowledge that my woman cannot complete me. We are each separate, and must remain so. There are no perfect relationships. My friend cannot complete me. I must complete myself. I am the artisan of my soul. Beware any woman who wishes to “complete” you, for she harbors the unconscious desire to dethrone you and see you roll in the mud.
Soul. I am attracted to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. My soul is part of the World-Soul. From the One emanates Intellect, which itself emanates the World Soul. My body does not contain my soul, but rather my body was generated by my soul, which preexisted the body. I am awash in the World-Soul. Because I am part of the World-Soul, my own individual soul, my essence, is eternal and indestructible. All three levels of being reside within me, and within us. You and I. My highest purpose is to rise up, by a study of virtue and philosophic truth, through the levels of being from Soul, through Intellect, to the One. To achieve union with the One, we must become that complete man, that universal man, by a regimen of disciplined study and right conduct. The greatest journey is the voyage within. This is the ultimate Good. To know that this world, and everything in it, is nothing but shadow, and illusion.
Chastity: Do not practice chastity. Passion is always a virtue as long as it is sincere. If it is insincere, it is not. Venery is good. Debauchery is not. Learn the difference.
Serenity: Moderation, tranquility, and humility will come from our knowledge of the universe within us. Seek the gods within you. Know, O my brother, that your soul is immortal, and you will never fear for anything, and you will carry all before you. How to show the immortality of the soul? Soul moves itself and matter, but it is not moved; and soul is indivisible. As the poet Richard Watson Dixon said:
There is a soul above the soul of each,
A mightier soul, which yet to each belongs;
There is a sound made of all human speech,
And numerous as the concourse of all songs:
And in that soul lives each, in each that soul,
Tho’ all the ages are its life-time vast;
Each soul that dies, in its most sacred whole
Receiveth life that shall for ever last.
So this is my response to wispy-haired Benjamin. Make your virtues a pulse-pounding interplay, not a dead grocery-list. I pat you on the cheeks, Benjamin, and send you on your way. Agora vai receber uns tapinhas nas bochechas, Benjamininho.
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