Summary: The Society of the Free and Easy is a self-directed, peer-supported process for becoming a more flourishing and effective person while enriching the culture around you. You’re invited to join.
Benjamin Franklin is famed for his remarkable scientific and technological discoveries, his many diplomatic and political achievements, his publishing and journalism, his practical philosophical acumen, and his many contributions to the public good.
How did he do it? When he was young, he began a self-directed process of integrating a set of virtues into his character, deliberately and one-at-a-time. He was delighted at the effect of this process, and recommended it to others as one of the secrets of his success. He considered creating a sort of fraternal society devoted to such practice — The Society of the Free and Easy — but he got distracted by other things before he could bring it about.
What do you say we fix that for him?
A few months back, a group of my friends started trying to bring Franklin’s idea to life. Here’s the theory we’re operating under:
- There are many character traits that help people to live thriving, beneficial lives. Back in the day these were called “the virtues.” There are many sorts: intellectual virtues that help us understand the world around us and our place in it (like curiosity, imagination, rationality, or attention), social virtues that help us in interpersonal contexts (like honesty, hospitality, leadership, tact, or empathy), and other more internal virtues (for instance honor, courage, endurance, hope, or initiative).
- By and large, these virtues are skills. That is, they can be acquired by deliberate practice, in much the same way as you would learn to play an instrument or to speak another language.
- We can help each other design and practice exercises that strengthen these skills. By doing this together, we build accountability and camaraderie into our process. This prevents the common problem with self-help books or inspirational TED talks or whatever — where they sound really insightful and wonderful, but fail to take hold and actually change your usual habits.
- By doing such practice together, we will improve, we will help our peers to improve, and we will improve the culture around us.
If you would like to join the Society, this document explains how to form a virtue-building-team and begin the work: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CLm5-JRlWiK4osc1x5CzqD2m6gqBUjGy98o9v-77ZcQ.
To head off some possible concerns:
- The program is self-directed. We don’t tell you which virtues you must have and what a virtuous person is supposed to be like. Instead, you choose for yourself which virtues you think are important and which one(s) you want to work on next.
- We’re free and open-source (gratis y libre).
- We’re not associated with any other group, religion, cult, guru, fraternal lodge, ascended high master, professional self-actualization facilitator™, or anything of that sort. No hidden agendas.
- We’re nonpartisan and welcome people of all political persuasions to take part in our processes.
I think this is a great idea and hope it doesn’t turn out to be too hard a sell.
From my late teens, I used to do something like this (though without the peer input, which would have been helpful). I found that merely by listing traits I wanted to acquire I gradually developed most of them, even though I didn’t work steadily at my goals. I remember the first time I found some of my old October Resolutions (as I called them) and realized I’d achieved most of the aims listed there. I was pretty awestruck.
And yes, I was and am a lot lazier and less assertively self-directed than Benjamin Franklin ever was. But realizing the power of merely setting goals and writing down aspirations was a biggie for my young self.
It would go much faster to work on such “virtues” (though my younger self would have recoiled from calling them that) in a more focused way and with peer support. Being a peer supporter in itself could be a virtuous act, and certainly a means of developing several “virtues” related to communication, kindness, patience, and empathy.
We talk a lot about freedom communities and what they entail. It seems to me that David Gross and friends have come up with a very practical means of either forging or finding such communities — and helping grow and improve them.
I can also envision this as an excellent tool for young people (with or without an adult support component) who feel lost and directionless in the world. In fact, though it might be hard to get something like this started, I can see it having quite a few uses in building both strong individuals and self-reliant communities.
I’ve asked David to look in and either add his own comments or respond to yours.