By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs
This article is the first in a two-part series on humility as practiced by some of the world’s eminent thinkers.
The skills, competencies, and knowledge that are expressed in this article are directly connected with the online degrees of a bachelor of arts in philosophy and a bachelor of arts in religion. In addition, specific courses, such as PHIL302 Ancient Western Philosophy and RELS422 The Teachings of Jesus, provide more in-depth learning about the teachings of Socrates and Jesus.
To argue and disagree is to be human. It is firmly ingrained in the human condition that even when we have the mildest of conversations, half the time the conversation ends in complete disagreement and with what seems like no path for resolution. But why?
There are many reasons why people disagree; different perspectives on the world, different personal experiences, different foundational values that include religion and culture, or being part of the red or blue team (or non-affiliated). For some, it’s an inability to understand the needs of others.
With so many reasons to have different views on issues that vex humans, it is understandable why people argue so much. But one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, explored a different way to argue.
Franklin Is Remembered for His Great Work as a Diplomat for the United States
Americans venerate their Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams are the most well-known with James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Samuel Adams also among their ranks. There are of course other important founding fathers, and the one who is always among them and is fascinating and different from the others is Benjamin Franklin.
By the time the Revolutionary War started, Franklin was already an elderly man. He is now remembered for his great work in France as a diplomat for the then-struggling United States of America. In addition to all of the things Franklin did, he is also remembered today for his approach and attitude towards life that is found in his autobiography.
Franklin began his autobiography in 1771 when he was in his sixties, and it was published posthumously. The volume is important for many reasons. As stated in a Library of Congress biography, Franklin’s book “is both an important historical document and his major literary work. It was not only the first autobiography to achieve widespread popularity, but after two hundred years remains one of the most enduringly popular examples of the genre ever written.”
One of the more interesting parts of the book covers his experience with Junto, a social club he belonged to that discussed topics including “morals, politics, or natural philosophy” (known today as science). The Junto was an important part of Franklin’s development as an intellectual for how he changed in his conversing with people. At first he liked to argue, as many young and headstrong people do. He then developed a Socratic approach to arguing that made him successful with almost any opponent.
Franklin Used Conversation that Did Not Humiliate His Opponents
After great success, Benjamin Franklin settled on a less confrontational form of conversing that did not force anyone to be humiliated by verbal sparring or admitting defeat. As stated in Ben Franklin Circles, an organization that advocates for creating civil discussion groups, “As a young man, Franklin discovered immediate benefits in his new approach to engaging others. His willingness to listen to others made them more receptive to his ideas. Having given up trying to best others in debate, he found them much more amenable to his proposals.”
Throughout his life, Franklin also created a plan for attaining moral perfection that included his 13 Virtues, which came about after studying the virtues expounded by other writers. The 13 Virtues was his way to live a better life, interact with others more effectively and acquire these virtues through constant dedication until they became a habit.
Brett and Kate McKay, founders and editors of The Art of Manliness, write that “The key to Franklin’s success was his drive to constantly improve himself and accomplish his ambitions…Franklin developed and committed himself to a personal improvement program that consisted of living 13 virtues.”
For Humility, Benjamin Franklin Suggested Imitating Jesus and Socrates
Franklin mentions humility as the 13th virtue in his autobiography. Of humility, he states, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” But in the book, he mentions Jesus just that one time. In a letter to Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale College who was a Calvinist, Franklin said of Jesus, “I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw.”
In an article about Franklin’s religious beliefs, John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, writes that Christian morality “made for a better, more humane society. Civil life could not function without virtue. Franklin believed religion was vital to sustaining a moral republic. [But] Not everyone needed religion to be virtuous.”
Franklin’s own personal faith is more complicated than his being associated with Calvinism, deism or just being a man of faith. In addition to the moral teachings of Jesus and the structure that Christianity provides for people, Franklin cites Socrates.
Now, humility and philosophy are sometimes strange bedfellows. Philosophers typically write with great detail and precision about ideas they hold strongly and advocate for ways of living and thinking that can come off as being forceful. But for many philosophers, humility, in simple terms, is questioning the world around them and about being open to new ideas and concepts.
Franklin’s View of Humility Derives from the Socratic Method of Questioning
Franklin’s view of humility and Socrates derives from the Socratic method and how effective Socrates was when conversing with people. In an article about stoicism and Benjamin Franklin, Donald J. Robertson, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, writes that Franklin was “obsessed with the Socratic method of questioning, somewhat to the annoyance of others. He soon realized, though, that it was much healthier to begin by applying the same scrutiny to his own character. He tells us that he was inspired to develop this practice of moral self-examination into a daily self-improvement routine.”
Franklin was a champion of the Socratic method, which he used widely in the Junto until he realized how his actions and his line of questioning were making his opponents feel bad about themselves. “I continued this method some few years,” he wrote in his autobiography, “but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence.”
It takes a confident and reflective person to realize that what he was doing – even though it was successful and helped him “win” many single conversations – did not always convince the other person.
By approaching people humbly and modestly, Franklin was able to persuade people to his position while still using the Socratic method. “This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me,” he wrote, “when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting.”