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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

On Polymaths, Luddite Spreadsheets, and Virtue

I learned a new word while researching Benjamin Franklin. A polymath is a person with wide-ranging knowledge who is able to solve problems. That's Franklin, yes, but he was also a person who devoted his life to becoming the best version of himself.

Signing the US Constitution wasn't a slam dunk. Fifty-five delegates, including Franklin, showed up from most of the original states, meeting from May to September, 1787. Twelve of the 13 states sent delegates. Lots of conversation and debate ensued, and ultimately 39 delegates chose to sign. The oldest, Franklin at age 81, wrote a speech for the final day but was unable to deliver it himself because of frail health. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men [sic] indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.

Franklin didn't love every part of the Constitution, but he signed it knowing he might well be wrong in his opinions.

Now 234 years later, Franklin's words challenge us. How often today do we admit we might be wrong about a thing? Instead, we tend to elevate our own reasoning, religious views, and judgments above others', feeling confident we have it right while questioning the intelligence or character of those who disagree.

Curious about Franklin, I read his autobiography and discovered an intriguing practice he began 55 years earlier. Franklin stopped going to church as a young man, mostly because he didn't care for the preaching at his local Presbyterian church, and instead embarked on a quest to reach moral perfection. The first step involved identifying 12 virtues he wanted to master: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, and chastity. A Quaker friend convinced him that he needed a 13th virtue--humility--because Franklin could come across as quite proud. He agreed with his Quaker friend and added it to the list.

A printer by trade, Franklin developed a grid that today might seem like an obsessive-compulsive Luddite spreadsheet. It looked like this:

Each of the rows reflects a virtue, and each column a different day of the week. The virtue at the top of the sheet rotated each week, so that Franklin could concentrate on developing one particular virtue at a time, even as he monitored all 13 virtues throughout the week. The asterisks reflected the times he fell short, not living up to the virtues he tried to develop over the course of his lifetime. So on this particular week, temperance was his primary focus but silence and order were the most challenging for Franklin, probably because he tried to balance many pressing demands in his busy life.

Decades later, Franklin concluded that he never reached moral perfection, but he thought himself a better person for having tried. Those familiar with the Ignatian practice of Daily Examen will likely agree with Franklin on this point.

What I especially admire about Benjamin Franklin's speech on the last day of the Constitution convention is his humility, acknowledging that some of his judgments were likely wrong and his need to trust the judgments of others. Recall that humility almost didn't make his list of virtues to practice, and did only because a friend convinced him that he was sometimes too proud. Decades later, he demonstrated profound humility at one of the most pivotal moments of U.S. history.

Franklin worked for decades to develop humility, and it made a difference in who he became. It has me wondering, what am I doing to intentionally foster the virtue of humility in my life? Am I being honest about my greatest struggles and failures and my profound need for grace? Do I offer others the grace I so desperately need myself?


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