There’s something quintessentially American about New Year’s resolutions. We are always vowing to reinvent ourselves, to cultivate better habits. But few of us take self-betterment more seriously than Benjamin Franklin, the founding father and polymath whose birthday we celebrate this month.
Franklin was constantly looking for ways to improve himself and his community. When he was 20 years old, he “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” as he writes in his autobiography. “I wished to live without committing any fault at any time.” To do this, he created a list of thirteen virtues—from frugality and humility to justice and resolution—and set out to master one virtue a week.
Franklin soon learned just how difficult it is to lead a perfectly virtuous life. But he didn’t allow his failures to get the better of him. A year after embarking on his project, he set his sights on another self-improvement scheme—one that was more accessible than moral perfection. When he was 21 years old, he founded a club called the Junto, Latin for “to join.” Its twelve members—which included a mathematician, a mechanic, and a shoemaker—met every Friday evening at a tavern in Philadelphia. At each meeting, the Junto members discussed morality, philosophy, and politics, and they presented and debated essays they had written.
Franklin called Junto “a club of mutual improvement.” The members aimed to become better citizens, and for them that meant contributing to society. This time, Franklin and his friends succeeded, and many of the institutions they went on to build—a library, a fire brigade, a hospital, and a school—are remembered even today.
Franklin’s Junto met for nearly forty years. During that time, Franklin said it “was the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics as then existed in the province.”
If, like Franklin, we resolve to do some good in the world this January, we could do worse than follow his example. Last year, the 92nd Street Y in New York, in collaboration with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Citizen University in Seattle, launched an initiative that makes doing so a lot easier: the Ben Franklin Circles project.
The Circles are nationwide clubs modeled after the Junto. Anyone can start one, and several dozen of them already exist, meeting monthly at homes, libraries, restaurants, and houses of worship. The existing Circles have a broad range of members—there’s one in Salt Lake City fostering cross-partisan dialogue and another in the Bronx for seniors who crave community. A number of high schools in New York City will soon be launching Circles, too.
At a time when communities are in decline, empathy is waning, and civic organizations play a dwindling role in public life, one aim of the Circles is to bring people together to have meaningful face-to-face conversations. Using a conversation guide provided to them by the 92nd Street Y, members discuss Franklin’s thirteen virtues and how they can incorporate them into their lives. They talk about the kind of people they aspire to be and what they hope to contribute to the world. And they brainstorm ways to help one another achieve those goals.
Above all, the Circles are designed to help inspire members to band together and make their communities better. At Harvard, a group of undergraduates recently started a likeminded club called the Franklin Fellowship, where twelve students meet weekly to discuss topics such as how to be a good partner in a relationship and how to gracefully give and receive advice. “We were disappointed by the focus on titles and prestige on campus and how conversations could be so superficial and friendships so fleeting,” says founder Stephen Turban, a senior. “So we wanted to create an intimate community, where members could discuss and develop the habits that will help us serve the world in the future.”
Some ten years after the first meeting of the Junto, Franklin wrote, “The noblest question in the world is, ‘What good may I do in it?’” More than three hundred years later, the importance of this question is undiminished. Answering it is the work of a lifetime, yet we can begin modestly, as Franklin did. We might not achieve “moral perfection,” but by getting together with friends to talk about values, we can take the first step on the path to transforming ourselves and the world around us.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, out this month from Crown. She is also an editor at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build purpose and community throughout the nation.
Photo Credit: Kevin Curtis