By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs
This article is the second 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.
In the first part of the article, we briefly went over who Benjamin Franklin was, his autobiography, the 13 virtues he aspired to live by for most of his life, and especially the 13th virtue, humility. Now, we will go into more detail about humility and how Franklin changed the way he conversed and debated.
In Franklin’s autobiography, he wrote at great length about his 13 virtues, how he arrived at them and how he worked to make them a lifelong way of life. Humility, the 13th virtue, is of particular interest because, as Franklin stated, he tried to imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin Was Honest about How He Viewed Himself and Self-Deprecating
Franklin was often honest about how he viewed himself and self-deprecating. An example of Franklin’s self-awareness can be seen when he writes about humility: “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue [humility], but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance [italics as published] of it.”
This statement about the appearance of humility is applicable to most people. For many of us, the appearance of a virtue is often more important than actually working or making it a habit.
As stated in Ben Franklin Circles, “So if Ben cannot overcome hubris in favor of humility, who amongst us can? Certainly, modesty seems a bit out of fashion. We are encouraged to be self-promotional in education, business, sports and life. We value and reward a healthy amount of pride and ambition.”
Franklin’s distinction is that he understood the differences among reality, humility and the appearance of humility. One of his great personality traits was that he was always working to improve his virtues.
In his autobiography, Franklin recalled how he changed his language when discoursing with people. He noted, “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, [italics as published] etc.”
Franklin was remembering when he used to argue with people during which his positions, thoughts and ideas would be presented with great confidence. If you say that you certainly or undoubtedly believe in something or will prove something using those words, then you are throwing your full weight into the argument. These words do not leave much room for nuance, subtlety or collaborative agreement.
Earlier in his autobiography, Franklin said that by using the Socratic method – that is, asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying suppositions – he became very successful when arguing with his contemporaries. However, his ability to best others did not win over hearts and minds. As Franklin stated, “And I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present.” [italics as published]
Franklin’s Skill in Using Non-Confrontational Language Helped Him to Build People’s Trust
By altering how he conversed with people, especially during an argument, Franklin was able to build trust and not create tension with his opponents because of their disagreement with him. When you say words such as “I conceive,” “I apprehend,” or “I imagine” something, you are using less confrontational, less opinionated, and more approachable language. If you say “it appears to me,” you are trying to convey that you are open to the ideas of others and are trying to understand what they are communicating. This will, of course, build trust, rapport and understanding.
In addition, Franklin wrote, “When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed [italics as published] to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.”
This section is the real essence of Franklin’s point: Always work on your virtues and on humility specifically on humility. Instead of contradicting his opponent and calling out inaccuracies, Franklin would wait to see what was fully said and use more modest and agreeable language to have a more collaborative conversation.
He then noticed that when he did this, those people he was addressing were more pleasant and did not want to argue as much. He found that he was able to be more influential because of his goodwill and understanding.
Franklin Also Cautioned Readers Against the Weakness of Human Pride
Franklin’s autobiography also focuses on the weakness of human pride, which has never changed throughout history. He observed, “In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride [italics as published]. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
That last sentence is classic Franklin: Being proud of his humility is an admission of his struggle with his own virtues. By always working to improve his virtues, Franklin was able to realize that his actions affected others and by adjusting how he spoke to people using specific words, he was able to create goodwill and understanding.
How Franklin’s Ability to Exercise Humility Applies to Us Today
Today, we think of our political environment as contentious, fraught with antagonisms, and never as broken. However, in 18th-century America, our fledgling country was racked with political division and uncertainty. Franklin’s ability to get people to trust him, talk to him and build friendships went a long way.
In addition to the political machinations of the Revolutionary War, the years leading up to, during and immediately after the Civil War would be the most divisive time in American history. Contemporary commentators often over-dramatize their opinions for the purpose of gaining ratings (and money), but they lack many of Franklin’s virtues including silence, sincerity, moderation, and humility.
When we humans argue, we have a terrible habit of thinking we are always correct. You can see this play out every day on network or cable news programs, Twitter, and YouTube when people argue over the biggest and smallest of issues and even issues of no real importance.
If well-known people who wield great influence would just read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, work on his 13 virtues, and try to be more like Jesus and Socrates, we would have a more civil, friendly, and collaborative nation. However, that will require people to actually temper their pride, narcissism, and egos by being humble and actually emulate the examples of those whom Franklin held up as paragons of humility.