Monday, August 3, 2009

Benjamin Franklin's The Way to Wealth

Benjamin Franklin made part of his fortune through his trade as an author and publisher and is principally known in the literary fields for his more than quarter decade publishing of the annual Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of essays, weather forecasts, poems, puzzles, home truths and more. The adages and sayings were culled from the Bible, folklore, Aesop and many other sources but most often recast in Franklin's own words. Poor Richard's Almanack was so popular that in proportion to the population of the colonies at the time, it would be the equivalent of selling a million copies each year today.

In 1758, Franklin gathered many of the adages from all the earlier editions of Poor Richard's Alamanck together and published them as an extended essay, The Way to Wealth which can be read online here.

Of course much of this folk wisdom both reflects our culture and helped form it as well. What is striking is just how common-sensical most of it is and to what degree most ordinary Americans live, or attempt to live by its precepts. It is hard to argue with most of the principles underpinning these adages and sayings. Now if we could only get our politicians, risk-taking bankers and negligent borrowers to sip from the cup of Franklin's accumulated wisdom!

On a whim, I have gone through The Way to Wealth and have stripped out all the narrative to leave only the adages and rules for wealth (and right living). I may have omitted a couple but I think the list looks something like the following. I was prepared to find that a good portion were dated or inapplicable in a more modern and complex world. Instead, I think they have all dated extraordinarily well. Think how much financial misery might have been averted if all had adhered to these ideas.

A couple of the sayings are hard to make sense of. A couple use phrases with which we are no longer familiar (since you ask, a mickle is a Scottish term for much or a lot). Many of them are cast in such a way as to cause you to think a minute to catch his gist (e.g. "Industry need not wish") but it is obvious once you think about it and make adjustments for how terms were used then and now. Some are so on the mark as to almost make you laugh out loud ("Laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him").

Each time I read through these, I keep mentally exclaiming "of course." Here, from a quarter of a millineum ago, are the words of advice of one of our greatest founding fathers, self-made man, scientist, diplomat, and elder statesman; Benjamin Franklin.
A word to the wise is enough

Many words won't fill a bushel

God helps them that help themselves

Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright

Dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of

The sleeping fox catches no poultry

There will be sleeping enough in the grave

Lost time is never found again

Time-enough, always proves little enough

Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy

He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night

Laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him

Drive thy business, let not that drive thee

Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Industry need not wish

He that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains,

Help hands, for I have no lands

He that hath a trade hath an estate, and he that hath a calling hath an office of profit and honor

At the working man's house hunger looks in, but dares not enter.

For industry pays debts, while despair encreaseth them

Diligence is the mother of good luck

God gives all things to industry

Plough deep, while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep,

One today is worth two tomorrows

Have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today.

Be ashamed to catch yourself idle

Let not the sun look down and say, inglorious here he lies.

The cat in gloves catches no mice

Constant dropping wears away stones

Diligence and patience the mouse ate in two the cable

Little strokes fell great oaks

Employ thy time well if thou meanest to gain leisure

Since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour

A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things

Trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless ease. Many without labor would live by their wits only, but they break for want of stock.

Fly pleasures, and they'll follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift, and now I have a sheep and a cow, everybody bids me good morrow

I never saw an oft removed tree,
Nor yet an oft removed family,
That throve so well as those that settled be.

Three removes is as bad as a fire

Keep the shop, and thy shop will keep thee

If you would have your business done, go; if not, send
He that by the plough would thrive,
Himself must either hold or drive.

The eye of a master will do more work than both his hads

Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge

Not to oversee workmen is to leave them your purse open

In the affairs of this world men are saved not by faith, but by the want of it

Learning is to the studious, and riches to the careful

Power to the bold, and Heaven to the virtuous

If you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve yourself

A little neglect may breed great mischief

For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the rider was lost

Keep his nose all his life to the grindstone

A fat kitchen makes a lean will,
Many estates are spent in the getting,
Since women for tea forsook spinning and knitting,
And men for punch forsook hewing and splitting.

If you would be wealthy, of saving as well as of getting: the Indies have not made Spain rich, because her outgoes are greater than her incomes
Women and wine, game and deceit,
Make the wealth small, and the wants great.

What maintains one vice, would bring up two children

Many a little makes a mickle

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship

Who dainties love, shall beggars prove

Fools make Feasts, and wise men eat them.

Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries

At a great pennyworth pause a while

Many have been ruined by buying good pennyworths.

'tis foolish to lay our money in a purchase of repentance

Wise men learn by others' harms, fools scarcely by their own

Felix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum. [Fortunate the man who learns caution from the perils of others.]

Silks and satins, scarlet and velvets, as Poor Richard says, put out the kitchen fire

For one poor person, there are an hundred indigent

A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees

A child and a fool, imagine twenty shillings and twenty years can never be spent

Always taking out of the meal-tub, and never putting in, soon comes to the bottom

When the well's dry, they know the worth of water

If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some, for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing
Fond pride of dress, is sure a very curse;
E'er fancy you consult, consult your purse.

Pride is as loud a beggar as want, and a great deal more saucy

'tis easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it

And 'tis as truly folly for the poor to ape the rich, as for the frog to swell, in order to equal the ox.
Great estates may venture more,
But little boats should keep near shore.

That dines on vanity sups on contempt

Pride breakfasted with plenty, dined with poverty, and supped with infamy
What is a butterfly? At best
He's but a caterpillar dressed.
The gaudy fop's his picture just,

Think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty

The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.

Lying rides upon debt's back.

'tis hard for an empty bag to stand upright,

Creditors have better memories than debtors

Creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times

Those have a short Lent, who owe money to be paid at Easter

The borrower is a slave to the lender, and the debtor to the creditor
For age and want, save while you may;
No morning sun lasts a whole day,

'tis easier to build two chimneys than to keep one in fuel

Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.
Get what you can, and what you get hold;
'Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold,

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that

We may give advice, but we cannot give conduct

They that won't be counseled, can't be helped

If you will not hear reason, she'll surely rap your knuckles."

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