Benjamin Franklin Autobiography
I have read and review Benjamin Franklin Autobiography back in February 2006 [my personal journal] and re-read it many times. This book is an excellent book. For me, it’s not a book to read in 30-minute time slot you’ll need an open mind when reading it. There are many valuable lessons in this book, even if it ends far before you get to the very best parts of Franklin's life, but the lessons included are well worth reading. Even though the information in this book was originally recorded in a manuscript in the 1700s, it’s timeless and reaffirms that there are no new ideas. You will come away feeling richer. There are many lessons you can learn from reading this book. I am amazed at the way he used information to educate the masses.

Franklin's attitude to written work is summed up in one of his own aphorisms: 'If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.'

The Autobiography, was not a chronicle of Franklin’s brilliance; the idea was to show how a person’s life and character could become a noble one through constant self-assessment. As a scientist, Franklin wrote it almost as if it is was a report on the failures and successes of experiments in living. At no point does he claim any special mastery over how to live life, but he was committed to finding a formula that could assure a person of some success.

Franklin never tries to show superiority; he speaks directly to the reader and laces it all with subtle humour, giving it the intimate feel of a fireside chat. The first part of the book details experiences with family, friends, bosses and workmates, in addition to travels and attempts to start new businesses, all of which will strike chords with today's reader.

In the history books he looms large as a co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, but The Autobiography has been lauded by biographer Richard Amacher as ‘The first great book written in America.’ His great influence on the affairs of the Western world in business, politics, and science was built on his skill as a writer.

This is why Franklin is seminal in self-help literature. He disregarded any religious conception that we are naturally bad or good people, but saw humans rather as blank slates designed for success. Seavey notes: ‘It was always natural for Franklin to be trying on a fresh identity, as if he were putting on new clothes.’ He was truly modern in seeing that the individual was not a fixed proposition at all, but self-creating. The Autobiography has had a major influence on self-help writing, such as Anthony Robbins’ blockbuster Awaken the Giant Within. Franklin’s slightly bizarre idea of writing one’s own epitaph early on in life, in order to gain control of what you do in it, is now an established self-improvement technique. Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) makes no secret of his debt to Franklin, whose life he describes as ‘the story of one person’s heroic effort to make principles the basis of existence’.

Plots
Franklin's autobiography, although unfinished, represents one of the most famous and influential examples of an autobiography ever written. His book is the record of an unusual life told in his own unexcelled conversational style. The Autobiography is Franklin's longest work, and yet it is only a fragment of it. The account of Franklin's life is divided in a manner that reflects the different periods in which he wrote them. 

The First part, written as a letter to his son, William Franklin, was not intended for publication; the composition is more informal and the narrative more personal than in the second part, from 1730 onward, which was written with a view to publication. Contents: Ancestry and Early Life in Boston Beginning Life as a Printer Arrival in Philadelphia First Visit to Boston Early Friends in Philadelphia First Visit to London Beginning Business in Philadelphia Business Success and First Public Service Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection Poor Richard's Almanac and Other Activities Interest in Public Affairs Defense of the Province Public Services and Duties Albany Plan of Union Quarrels with the Proprietary Governors Braddock's Expedition Franklin's Defense of the Frontier Scientific Experiments Agent of Pennsylvania in London Electrical Kite The Way to Wealth The Whistle A Letter to Samuel Mather. 

In Part Two of his book, Franklin presents letters from friends urging him to complete the rest of his history, then he presents one of his key methods for self-improvement, The Art of Virtue—a thirteen-week self-improvement cycle in which Franklin exercised thirteen virtues, focusing on one per week. He also presents his daily schedule.

Part Three resumes the narrative of Part One and includes accounts of Franklin’s military service during the French and Indian War as well as a brief account of some of his scientific experiments and publications on electricity. Franklin also uses Part Three to elaborate upon his civic works, including an explanation of how he got Philadelphia to pave and then light its streets. There is a little transition between Parts Three and Four.

In Part Four, Franklin describes a diplomatic mission he undertook in London in order to argue on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly against the tax-free status of Pennsylvania’s proprietary governors. The mission was a partial success, and the Autobiography concludes though it is unfinished.

His Early Life
Benjamin Franklin was a writer and diplomat. He was also an inventor. Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 17 January 1706. His father Josiah Franklin was a soap maker. Benjamin went to school for only a very short time. When he was 10 when he started work in his father's shop. Later Benjamin was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. Benjamin soon argued with James and in 1723 he went to Philadelphia where he found a job in a print shop. In 1724 Franklin then went to London to buy print equipment. He returned to Philadelphia in 1726 and shortly afterward he started his own printing business. Benjamin Franklin prospered and in 1730 he bought a newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1732 he began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac. Meanwhile, in 1730 Benjamin married a woman named Deborah Read.

The Statesman
Franklin was clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1736 to 1751. He was a member of the assembly from 1751 to 1764. He was deputy postmaster for the colonies from 1753 to 1774. Franklin also invented a kind of metal stove in 1742. In 1752 he carried out a famous experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm which proved lightning is a form of electricity. In 1757 Franklin went to England as a diplomat as relations between Britain and the North American colonies deteriorated. Franklin spent the years 1757-1762 and 1764-1775 in England. He returned to America in 1775. Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence. At the end of 1776, Franklin was sent to France as a diplomat. France declared war on Britain in support of the colonies in 1778. Franklin returned to France in 1785. Benjamin Franklin died on 17 April 1790. He was 84.

Creating the best possible self
Franklin believed that virtue was worth it for its own sake, whether or not it was to the glory of God. His background was Puritan, and culturally, he remained one, self-examining and self-improving. In his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber names Franklin as a key exponent of this ethic. Franklin was a printer by trade, and believed that character was the result of correcting the 'errata' (errors) that prevent us from attaining perfection. Life is not something we must suffer through but is ripe for endless tinkering.


Franklin's law of constant self-improvement
Franklin wrote the Autobiography as an old man, considered a great man. He had arrived in Philadelphia from Boston with a couple of shillings and three bread rolls, two of which, characteristically, he gave to a woman in need. Instinctively knowing that mastery of words would be his ticket out of mediocrity, he would persuade a friend working at a bookseller to 'lend' him books overnight, devouring them between finishing his day's work and starting another. Franklin would have agreed with the phrase 'leaders are readers'; read at least a dozen non-fiction books a year and your life will be immeasurably enriched and improved.

But as a young man, Franklin never dreamed of becoming an independence leader or ambassador to France. The reader of his life should not dwell on his actual accomplishments - they are less important than the efforts described to achieve self-mastery. Franklin's message is timeless: greatness is not for the few, but the duty of all of us. We protest that we are not that special, that we don't have the talent or the drive, but Franklin knew that an ethic of constant self-improvement is the yeast that makes an individual rise.

Five Great Ideas from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin :
  1. Develop a Code of  Conduct for the way you live and work, so that when situations arise you know how to respond
  2. Provide useful information to your clients
  3. After making the first $1 million, it is easier to make the second
  4. Before going into partnerships, develop contracts with clearly defined expectations and exit clauses to protect all involved parties
  5. History is filled with mistakes, learn from them
These are another 3 titles that I recommend you to read if you enjoy reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. These 3 also bring similar vibes.
1. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
2. Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
3. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Final word
Franklin's prescriptions (The Art of Virtue) have not been without criticism. Thoreau believed that they made for a dreary race against time to amount wealth, never stopping to enjoy nature or the moment. Franklin has also been dubbed 'the first apostle of frugality and the patron saint of savings accounts'. This comment was probably more directed to Franklin's collections of aphorisms on money and thrift, The Way to Wealth.

The man's life, however, does not fit the image of penny-pinching Puritanism, for it is obvious he lived with great panache. Franklin appreciated that the self-help ethic is not about earnest striving, simply the prospect of a fuller and more exciting life.

Franklin was also an excellent time manager, accounting for every minute in the day and would never go to bed without first examining his day. As I am revisiting this book review, I am reminded of Socrates‘ famous quote “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Benjamin's Table of Virtues (from The Art of Virtue)
“The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
1. Temperance. Eat not do 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, cloths, 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 dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
― Benjamin Franklin



“Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.


[Letter to his wife, 17 July 1757, after narrowly avoiding a shipwreck; often misquoted as "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."]”― Benjamin Franklin

“Never confuse Motion with Action.”― Benjamin Franklin


“When the well is dry we know the value of water”― Benjamin Franklin


 “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.


[written for the Pennsylvania Assembly in its Reply to the Governor, 11 November 1755”]― Benjamin Franklin

 “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”― Benjamin Franklin


“it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright”― Benjamin Franklin


“Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools, that don't have brains enough to be honest.”― Benjamin Franklin


“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations get corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”― Benjamin Franklin


“... the Existence of Deity, that he made the World, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that our Souls are immortal; and that all Crime will be punished and Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter...”― Benjamin Franklin


“A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little.”― Benjamin Franklin


“There are no gains without pains.”― Benjamin Franklin


“How much more than necessary do we spend in sleep, forgetting that the sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that there will be sleeping enough in the grave, as Poor Richard says.”― Benjamin Franklin


“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”― Benjamin Franklin


“I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continu'd this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire. Pope says, judiciously: "Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot;" farther recommending to us "To speak, tho' sure, with seeming diffidence.”― Benjamin Franklin