The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 30 Dec 2020

Benjamin Franklin and the Exercises of Ignatius

Recently I learned of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Wikipedia says (or quotes, it's not clear):

Morning, afternoon, and evening will be times of the examinations. The morning is to guard against a particular sin or fault, the afternoon is a fuller examination of the same sin or defect. There will be a visual record with a tally of the frequency of sins or defects during each day. In it, the letter 'g' will indicate days, with 'G' for Sunday. Three kinds of thoughts: "my own" and two from outside, one from the "good spirit" and the other from the "bad spirit".

This reminded me very strongly of Chapter 9 of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, in which he presents “A Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection”:

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time… Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offense against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day.

So I wondered: was Franklin influenced by the Exercises? I don't know, but it's possible. Wondering about this I consulted the Mighty Internet, and found two items in the Woodstock Letters, a 19th-century Jesuit periodical, wondering the same thing:

The following extract from Franklin’s Autobiography will prove of interest to students of the Exercises: … Did Franklin learn of our method of Particular Examen from some of the old members of the Suppressed Society?

(“Woodstock Letters” Volume XXXIV #2 (Sep 1905) p.311–313)

I can't guess at the main question, but I can correct one small detail: although this part of the Autobiography was written around 1784, the time of which Franklin was writing, when he actually made his little book, was around 1730, well before the suppression of the Society.

The following issue takes up the matter again:

Another proof that Franklin was acquainted with the Exercises is shown from a letter he wrote to Joseph Priestley from London in 1772, where he gives the method of election of the Exercises. …

(“Woodstock Letters” Volume XXXIV #3 (Dec 1905) p.459–461)

Franklin describes making a decision by listing, on a divided sheet of paper, the reasons for and against the proposed action. And then a variation I hadn't seen: balance arguments for and arguments against, and cross out equally-balanced sets of arguments. Franklin even suggests evaluations as fine as matching two arguments for with three slightly weaker arguments against and crossing out all five together.

I don't know what this resembles in the Exercises but it certainly was striking.

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