RtO: Thirteen Virtues: The First Seven

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “Thirteen Virtues: The First Seven”

I admit my bent toward Siddhartha, but, as regards the atheistic spirituality and secular morality that I’m meditating upon here, and especially to American audiences, I’m happy to look at the way to do good and to be good, from the perspective of Ben Franklin, who, I dare speculate, would have loved baseball. Lots to work with in that sentence.

A couple of weeks ago I read in the Washington Post an article by Michelle Boorstein, about a growing movement of atheists toward socialized spiritual practices. At first I recoiled, but then realized that I was certainly among the kind of people whom Boorstein identifies, attendant to spiritual ideas, in search of a reason for goodness and a venue to share similar ideas.

And I don’t think I’d be wrong to suggest that Ben Franklin was one of those people too. This was the man who ‘discovered’ electricity! Did you think he never wondered where electricity came from? And if you’re thinking about where electricity comes from, then you’re in the atheistic spirituality zone.
Franklin was raised a Quaker and took his own moral strength seriously enough to systematize his attention to virtue, when he was 20-years old, so he could improve himself. This is just one of the reasons that Max Weber used Franklin to demonstrate the powerful unity of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (I love the use of the word spirit in there, by the way. We talk of ‘school spirit,’ ‘spirits,’ and ‘the spirit of the times,’ so I think most honest people would say there is a spirit to human life. It may be ignored or denied or rejected or paved over, but it’s still there.) Ben disciplined himself to work on each of 13 virtues for a period of time until he felt facility and comfort with it, then moved on to the next. Later in his practices, he kept a scorecard of his applications of each virtue throughout the week. In terms of practical ways of controlling behavior, I think this list of Thirteen Virtues is just as useful as Siddhartha’s Eight-Fold Noble Path. The first seven are Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry and Sincerity. I’ll talk about the last six in the next essay.

Temperance means don’t get drunk, but also, no wild swings of emotion. Silence means no idle talk, only positive expression. I see these two together as meaning, nothing careless, never give up your self-control, always have some restraint. Hard to do, but necessary to finding the middle path, and staying to it. Order means no clutter or waste. Resolution in Franklin’s own words: “Resolve to perform what you ought, perform without fail what you resolve.” These speak to me of intention, the need to know what you are going to do, and then to do it. Frugality means waste nothing. Industry means always be productive and Sincerity means being trustworthy.

Each and every one of these applies to baseball, especially when one considers the culture of a clubhouse. These are young men with plenty of money and few strings attached. They spend nearly all their time together and they travel extensively. They know each other intimately and they know that they need to get along to be a successful team. Each man has to find the way to socialize with the others productively, and then they have to perform on the field.

baseball clubhouse
The culture of the MLB clubhouse requires virtue to succeed.

With Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry and Sincerity between them, they can trust each other and become a single striving unit toward the goal of improvement for the team. Last year’s Nationals won the Division and lost in the first playoff Series. So they want to improve on that this year. But the pressure is heavier, the strains have been showing in inconsistent play. The three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers is emblematic of the whole year.

It’s difficult to maintain conscientious adherence to a variety of abstract virtues, but the only way to get better at it is to continue to maintain that adherence, slowly and steadily, over time. That is how discipline makes itself felt. That is how monumental tasks get done, and that’s where the Nats are now, facing a monumental task.

It’s not exactly natural to come up with a program to improve your own moral development. But with Ben Franklin and Siddhartha, and others previously considered, there is an overflowing cornucopia of ideas from which to choose.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.

One thought on “RtO: Thirteen Virtues: The First Seven

  1. I think Franklin would’ve liked baseball even more if the games were only seven innings long. He was a big fan of brevity. (I believe he’s responsible for that wonderful word “self-evident” in the Decl. of Ind.) He’d likely use the 7th inning stretch as a convenient time to head for the parking lot.

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