Frugality, Virtue, and Benjamin Franklin’s Hair

‘Frugal’ is not an attractive word. I googled ‘frugal’ and found nice synonyms like careful and thrifty, but I also saw not-so-nice words like penny-pinching, tight, miserly, stingy, and scrimping. I am working through Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and the word ‘frugal’- along with ‘industry’- gets regular use with no apologies. In fact, Franklin attributed much of his rags-to-riches success to industry and frugality. So how has frugality shifted from virtue to near-vice?

Benjamin

It must be the hair

Why was frugality a commonplace, pleasant, sort of word in the 18th century? I think that people like Franklin- we should remember that they had broke people then, too- lived with a perspective (and a hairstyle) that’s absent today. This perspective could be voiced: what will be important twenty, thirty years from now?  The wisest of that culture understood that the ‘right now’ moments in life must be governed by principles previously decided upon.

So, frugality can be a stepping stone to the encompassing virtues of patience and self-control. We convince ourselves of what we must believe beforehand (I can’t afford it) in order that we will be able to make the right decision when we no longer possess our reason (but I must have it).

The fact that there is an overlap between the virtues of frugality, patience, and self-control suggests a principle about the acquisition of virtue worth dwelling on. Isn’t it odd that we won’t seem to get very far by focusing on the virtues one at a time? It seems to me that the overlap causes us to practically strive for them all at once. You don’t aim at all the bowling pins at the same time. N.T. Wright suggested that this is probably why Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit, not fruits. 

Discipline begets discipline ~ Jon Acuff