Ben Franklin was an interesting fellow. He had a wide range of experience compared to many of his contemporaries, who were educated farmers from Virginia, for the most part. Having experience in many facets of life is very useful, I think, if only for one thing: It reminds a person that they don’t know very much about any particular thing, never mind most things. I find people who are scholars tend to think they know a great deal more than they actually do, and it’s because they’ve mistaken the library for the whole world. There’s a whole world of books in a library, but that’s not the same thing. Oh, and politicians: You can’t run the whole world if you’re bright and expend “sleep on the couch in your office” effort. Scholars don’t know much; you don’t know anything.
Franklin and many of his peers wrote lists and papers and folios and whole books filled with advice on mundane matters. I have a wonderful book written by George Washington as a young man called Rules Of Civility, and while it’s great fun to read, advice like “don’t stick your knife in the salt cellar if it is greasy” is of dubious utility right now.
George was only thirteen when he wrote his book on civility, and he really wasn’t writing, per se, he was copying imperfectly lessons he was being taught, in French, which were just tradition forms of etiquette. You can easily trace Washington’s lessons back to Il Galeteo, written by a Jesuit priest named Giovanni della Casa in the mid 1500s in Florence. Renaissance Humanism manifested itself in many more ways than naked statues and paintin’ on the ceiling.
Anyway, there’s lotsa dopey stuff mixed in with perfectly good advice in Washington’s book, which is interesting but not useful, and explains why Washington bowed instead of shaking hands, for instance. But you can still read Franklin — lots of Franklin — and use almost everything to your advantage, and it probably will continue to be useful 300 more years into the future.
In a way, you can simply hold up your life to Franklin’s advice and make your comparison. Rank your success as a human being on a sliding scale and it will have an uncanny correlation to how closely you adhered to his advice:
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
You can refrain from sticking your greasy knife in the salt cellar all day long and be a wastrel jerk. Franklin listed the thirteen bones in the decency skeleton, right there for you.
Me, I’m just trying to beat Ted Williams’ batting average.