1735 | Philadelphia

Code of Conduct

Benjamin Franklin on the joy of virtue.

The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it; all have this one end in view, though they take such different methods to attain it and are so much divided in their notions of it.

Evil, as evil, can never be chosen; and though evil is often the effect of our own choice, yet we never desire it but under the appearance of an imaginary good.

Many things we indulge ourselves in may be considered by us as evils and yet be desirable; but then they are only considered as evils in their effects and consequences, not as evils at present and attended with immediate misery.

Reason represents things to us not only as they are at present but as they are in their whole nature and tendency; passion only regards them in their former light. When this governs us, we are regardless of the future and are only affected with the present. It is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties, and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.

While there is a conflict betwixt the two principles of passion and reason, we must be miserable in proportion to the struggle; and when the victory is gained, and reason so far subdued as seldom to trouble us with its remonstrances, the happiness we have then is not the happiness of our rational nature but the happiness only of the inferior and sensual part of us, and consequently a very low and imperfect happiness to what the other would have afforded us.

If we reflect upon any one passion and disposition of mind, abstract from virtue, we shall soon see the disconnection between that and true, solid happiness. It is of the very essence, for instance, of envy to be uneasy and disquieted. Pride meets with provocations and disturbances upon almost every occasion. Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety. Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us; its appetite grows the keener by indulgence, and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

The passions, by being too much conversant with earthly objects, can never fix in us a proper composure and acquiescence of mind. Nothing but an indifference to the things of this world, an entire submission to the will of Providence here, and a well-grounded expectation of happiness hereafter can give us a true satisfactory enjoyment of ourselves. Virtue is the best guard against the many unavoidable evils incident to us; nothing better alleviates the weight of the afflictions, or gives a truer relish of the blessings, of human life.

Shiva Seated with Parvati, eleventh century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Ex Coll.: Columbia University, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1987.

What is without us has not the least connection with happiness, only so far as the preservation of our lives and health depends upon it. Health of body, though so far necessary that we cannot be perfectly happy without it, is not sufficient to make us happy of itself. Happiness springs immediately from the mind; health is but to be considered as a condition or circumstance, without which this happiness cannot be tasted pure and unabated.

Virtue is the best preservative of health, as it prescribes temperance, and such a regulation of our passions as is most conducive to the well-being of the animal economy, so that it is, at the same time, the only true happiness of the mind, and the best means of preserving the health of the body.

If our desires are to the things of this world, they are never to be satisfied. If our great view is upon those of the next, the expectation of them is an infinitely higher satisfaction than the enjoyment of those of the present.

There is no happiness, then, but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct. Unless our actions will bear the test of our sober judgments and reflections upon them, they are not the actions, and consequently not the happiness, of a rational being.

Contributor

Benjamin Franklin

From “On True Happiness.” Born in Boston, Franklin was first published at age sixteen in his brother’s newspaper as the widow Silence Dogood, a persona he created after his brother had rejected work submitted under his own name. “We lived happily together in the height of conjugal love and mutual endearments for near seven years, in which time we added two likely girls and a boy to the family of the Dogoods,” Franklin wrote of his fictitious female self. “But alas!” Several readers proposed marriage to Dogood.