Benjamin Franklin, renowned for the pithiness of his sayings, wrote a whole book about virtue. The most useful modern equivalent term for the quaint word "virtue," which is no longer fashionable, might be "self-improvement." The beacons of the Enlightenment were always trying to better themselves; Franklin's Autobiography is not only an early self-help book, but also a prototype of the "how to succeed in business" genre. Thomas Jefferson, with a reputation for magisterial eloquence but not pithiness, several times wrote privately to various individuals, lastly to his progeny, putting his own advice about personal conduct into a list. The list variously had ten (the "Decalogue") or twelve items on it. The most complete and polished version of the list appears to be this one (note that I've modernized the punctuation in a couple of cases):
Thomas Jefferson's Dozen Canons of Conduct in Life
- Never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.
- Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.
- Never spend your money before you have it.
- Never buy a thing you do not want because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
- Take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves.
- Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- We never repent of having eaten too little.
- Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
- How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
- Take things always by their smooth handle.
- Think as you please, and so let others, and you will have no disputes.
- When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, 100.
Sorry if you thought this post was about T3i's and 5D Mark III's—"canon" in this sense means "a secular rule, code, or law," deriving from the ecclesiastical antecedent: church councils often applied the word canon to codes of conduct or rules of church law.
Some of Jefferson's canons are familiar: several are traditional and a few derive from classical sources (Jefferson was a big reader: he donated his 6,487-volume personal library—huge for the time—to the fledgling Library of Congress after the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812). Number nine could be better phrased for today, as something like "Worrying is wasted energy." One or two seem copped from Franklin's populist alter ego Poor Richard.
It's not a bad list. The one that might give us trouble is the counsel to "take things always by their smooth handle." It descends from Epictetus, the Greek Stoic aphorist born in the year 55, who says, "Everything has two handles, one by which it can be borne; another by which it cannot." Julian Boyd wrote in 1957 that what Jefferson meant by this canon was that political discourse should always be civil, but Jefferson never clarified his meaning, so T.J. fans have been happily arguing about it more or less ever since he wrote it.
The pseudoholiday today
"Black Friday"—which is today, as I know most Americans are all too aware—always puts me in mind of Jefferson's fourth canon. A thing is truly cheap only if you really want it and only if you will use it. Acquiring something we neither want nor need, and thus won't use, is a fool's economy, and nothing we put to constant and long-term use can really be thought of as expensive, as it repays its cost and then some. You yourself, by your actions, can make an expensive thing cheap or a cheap thing expensive.
Retailers in general love Black Friday because they believe (on good evidence) that if they can get people started on their shopping early, they'll end up spending more. It's become an important sub-holiday of Christmas, that secular high holiday of our culture's everlasting worship of Mammon.
So go forth today, but be careful. It's easy to get carried away. Remember that Black Friday isn't actually the biggest shopping day of the season, mythmaking to the contrary (usually, several of the days in the week just prior to Christmas beat it), and it's perfectly justifiable to spend a quiet day digesting turkey and meditating further on all the things we have to be thankful for.
(Main source: monticello.org)
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
g carvajal: "American has lost the true meaning of the Christmas holiday. This is sad."
Mike replies: A gentle warning, my friend: you probably don't want to get me started! Once you push that button it can be difficult to shut me up.
However, apropos of yesterday, I will say that none of the Pilgrims would have celebrated Christmas. Being devoted Christians, they considered it a pagan holiday, an indulgence, and immoral. I can't tell you the time period when Christmas began to be acceptable in America, but it wasn't in Puritan New England in the 17th century.
Ed Grossman: "Is anybody else taken by the irony of Black Friday being the day after Thanksgiving? One day of contented thankfulness followed by something very different. To be honest, I think that our 'simple and useful holiday' (well put, Mike) is being clouded by it's calendar neighbor. Quoting Charlie Brown: 'Good Grief!'"
Dave: "It's so fun and easy to point out the hypocrisies of our founding fathers...'Never spend your money before you have it.' After his death, Jefferson's family had to sell Monticello to pay down the debts he left behind. 'Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.' I wonder how Jefferson's slaves would feel about that one."