New Years is the moment for resolutions. From losing weight (attaining health of the body) to taking up yoga (achieving serenity of the soul), we aspire to be better than we are--reminding us that America’s real religion is the cult of self-improvement. Being good (or failing that, looking good) is our national religion.
This obsession with perfecting both the inner and outer self goes back at least to the nation’s founders. As a youngster, George Washington studied 110 Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior that became a guide to his future conduct. The Rules included such practical advice as “Spit not in the Fire,” and “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet,” essential tips for social decorum and worldly success. Biographer Willard Randall suggests that these homely proverbs, designed to create a gentleman, became more important to the future president that any official creed.
Think dieting is a recent fad? Thomas Jefferson reminded a granddaughter that “We never repent of having eaten too little.” That nostrum was included in “A dozen Canons of conduct in Life” that included other tips like “Never spend your money before you have it” and “Take things always by their smooth handle.” When angry, count to ten, the sage of
But Ben Franklin virtually invented the genre of self-improvement. In his autobiography, he relates how “I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.” He created a list of virtues he wished to acquire, from frugality and cleanliness to honesty and industry. Each week, he evaluated his own performance. Achieving perfection was a little more difficult than young Ben first imagined, however. He experienced particular shortcomings in the area of “Order.” Most objective historians would add that “Chastity” was never one of his personal strengths, either.
Our founders practiced a faith that focused on improving one’s own character, getting along with others, and enjoying the good things of life—not unworthy aspirations, if not strictly Christian, either.
What virtues do you want to cultivate in the New Year? What is your definition of success? Whatever resolutions you decide on, “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth” remains a wise rule for ladies and gentlemen of the twenty-first century as it was for George Washington in the eighteenth.