The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Part II


Franklin, Benjamin


Book Excerpt


Benjamin Franklin was one of the great statesmen of the American Revolution. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as our first ambassador to France, and was critical in forging the compromises that made the Constitution possible. In his Autobiography, a classic of the genre, Franklin credits his public success to his private work on self-improvement. Halfway through Part Two of the work, he describes, in typically matter-of-fact speech, how he conceived and pursued "the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." In struggling with humility, the virtue which gave him the most difficulty, Franklin describes how he became less dogmatic and learned to speak in a conciliatory way which he says gave him "so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils."

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The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Davis & Lynn, (Great Books Foundation, 2006).




Citizenship and DemocracyFaith and BeliefMotives and ValuesWisdom and Contemplation

Big Questions

What are our responsibilities as citizens? Who or what are we responsible for?What makes a "good" citizen?What is the relationship between faith and service, justice and/or poverty?Where do our values come from? Why do we care about what we care about?How do we become wise?What do we hope to learn from meditation or contemplation?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What does Franklin mean by "virtue"?
  2. What do you make of Franklin's line about perfection: "On the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it"?
  3. What are Franklin's thoughts about humility?
  4. What does he suggest about society and its virtuous responsibilities?
  5. What do you think are society's ethical responsibilities?
  6. Who should regulate society's ethical responsibilities? How should it be regulated?
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