One man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. — Ben Franklin
The great Benjamin Franklin has more in common with Stoic philosophers than most people realize. Franklin barely ever mentioned the Stoics. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, in his remarkable Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection, he drew inspiration from an ancient philosophical tradition, which also played an important role in Stoicism.
Franklin believed that the republic would flourish only if the freedoms secured by the U.S. Constitution were combined with wisdom and virtue. I think it’s fair to say that the Founding Fathers’ original emphasis on character, especially the virtues necessary for true leadership, has been largely sidelined from modern political discourse in the United States. However, Franklin took the challenge of improving his own character incredibly seriously.
In his Autobiography, he proclaimed that around 1728, in his early twenties, he “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He reasoned that due to inattention and habit, it was impossible to develop good character without a certain amount of effort and self-discipline, applied in a systematic manner.
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.
“For this purpose”, he concludes, “I therefore contrived the following method”, and he proceeds to lay out his plan for attaining moral perfection.