How to Live Virtuously in 2015

Guided by Benjamin Franklin’s list of 13 virtues, the author launched a year-long exploration into how to live a moral life.


The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2015

Teresa Jordan is a writer who aims to stick to resolutions. But like many of us, she has noted more than an occasional disparity between the ideals and values she aspired to in youth and some much less appealing habits of thought and being that have encroached upon her over the years. She has become “often anxious about the smallest things,” she writes. “In my particular dance with ineptitude, I find that sloth, grumpiness, and procrastination often figure as the biggest clowns.”

As a refresher course in living a more moral life, Ms. Jordan launched a year-long exploration of how virtue and vice play out in ordinary life, which she documented on her blog. The stimulating results are gathered in the engaging and moving collection “The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off).”

The author, 59 years old, began with a list of 13 virtues compiled for study by Benjamin Franklin when he was in his early 20s: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. “Benjamin Franklin is my favorite Founding Father,” writes Ms. Jordan, who was raised on a Wyoming ranch by non-churchgoing parents who followed the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. “Driven by honesty, integrity, curiosity, and hard work, [Franklin] had a hearty sense of humor and an almost childlike appetite for play. He had an earnest desire not only to do good but also to be good, coupled with a bemused acceptance of human frailty . . . These are values I grew up believing were quintessentially American, values I miss as the country I love grows more divided each day.”

Ms. Jordan also draws on the views and insights of a range of other philosophers, ethicists, poets and authors, from Thoreau to Nietzsche to E.B. White, in nearly 50 chapters with titles such as “Greed,” “Empathy,” “Justice,” “Wrath” and “Love.” The author supplemented Franklin’s list of virtues with an array of other positive attributes, like gratitude and courage, and went beyond “the Big Seven” deadly sins to consider lesser faults, including fear and stubbornness. She was more interested in achieving greater awareness than in a rigorous weeding-out of shortcomings such as Franklin attempted (and admitted to failing at): “What do we mean when we call someone a good person? What does it take to live wholeheartedly?”

Typical of her congenial, discursive approach is her piece on “Sloth,” which starts out with a description of her cat Mr. Big (“the largest living paperweight”), moves to a paragraph on Pope Gregory I’s categorization of human sloth (in effect, “a paralyzing despondency that comes from the failure to use one’s . . . gifts”), then mentions Dante’s placing of sloth in the precise middle of the deadly sins, because sloth alone “came from an absence of love.” Ms. Jordan judges, “The pit of self-doubt at the core of sloth makes it more of an affliction than a sin.”

In her chapter on “Punctuality” she places the tyranny of time in historical perspective (“‘The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours!’ cursed the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus two hundred years before the birth of Christ”), then cuts to modern-day scientific research by explaining “the Good Samaritan experiment,” a 1973 study of how tardiness affected the willingness of Princeton Theological Seminary students to stop and give aid to a person in distress. The results led the researchers to conclude that “Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”

We tag along with the author as she visits a Trappist monastery in Utah, attends an MIT conference on the mind convened by the Dalai Lama, and goes to a Christmas concert given by Tibetan monks in a Nevada town. But invariably she returns, if only in memory, to the ranch she grew up on and the lessons instilled there: “The barn was the heart of it all, the cathedral, the place where the day truly began, a hall you entered with a sacred tone—‘whoa’—to avoid startling the horses.” Just as meaningful to her as the teachings of any philosopher is the example of her own late mother: a caring wife, parent and ranching business-partner with “a strong sense of right and wrong, [who] took responsibility for her transgressions, and had a generous and forgiving nature. Her husband and friends adored her, and so did I.”

The way of life that helped shape Ms. Jordan’s character, though, is almost a thing of the past. A few years ago, she writes, “The Census Bureau [stopped] counting people who lived on farms and ranches in a separate category . . . They were deemed ‘statistically insignificant.’”

And not all her ranch memories are happy ones. There came a time, we learn, when she could no longer share her parents’ devotion to the creed of Ayn Rand: “People tend to drift away from Objectivism as they mature. . . . [The] logical application of her philosophy makes it immoral to maintain relationships with those who hold views even slightly different than one’s own. This tends to cause problems for anyone with a spouse, a child, or a job.”

Much more to the author’s frame of mind and way of heart, still, is the conciliatory example of Franklin, who loved consensus and whose nearly 300-year-old prayer she quotes with admiration: “Help me, O Father That I may have Tenderness for the Weak, and a reverent Respect for the Ancient; That I may be kind to my Neighbours, good-natured to my Companions, and hospitable to Strangers . . . gentle, merciful and Good, chearful in Spirit, [and] rejoicing in the Good of Others.”

As we start a new year, let us hope that those willing to utter such a plea have not yet become statistically insignificant. Mr. Nolan is the author of “Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times.”

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Used on by permission of the author, Tom Nolan.