Seminar on Self-Command: “The Project for Moral Perfection” by Benjamin Franklin

As the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was by custom and tradition destined to be a nobody. Yet thanks to his own resourcefulness, he more than escaped his destiny. His life spanned the 18th century, and he managed to see and to participate firsthand in much that it had to offer.

By all measures, Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary man—not in his own time, not in any time. Yet when he sat down, during the last twenty years of his life, to write his autobiography (a work written in four different spurts), he crafted an account of himself and his life which seems intended to serve as a model for every American, then and now: He addressed his audience as “Dear Son,” that is, as one extended family; he omits mention of nearly all of his great accomplishments; he speaks in an engaging and light-hearted manner that hides his own superiority. His “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (found in Part II of the Autobiography) is clearly written as a model that others would do well to imitate. It is the only project that the great Projector turned on himself, and he attributes his own happiness and worldly success to its virtues and methods. With characteristic understatement, he expresses the hope that “some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefits.”

Watch editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) about the story. For a discussion guide and more, visit