WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions
Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.
It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.
The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.
The pessimism of the ancient Greeks had long fallen out of fashion by Dec. 31, 1661, when the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “I have for this last half year been a very great spend thrift…I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep.” But just as Sophocles predicted, Pepys’s sincere pledge simply turned him into a well-intentioned liar. Three weeks later, Pepys went carousing with friends and purchased “the first great quantity of wine that I ever bought.”
Even more determined souls could have trouble sticking to their promises. In 1722, the Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards decided that annual resolutions were for lightweights. At age 19, he started to compile an eye-watering list of 70 resolutions that he swore to read once a week. The first one resolved “to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with.” Edwards soon discovered that the difficulties were great indeed. He often confessed to second thoughts, writing in his diary, “I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions.”
In 1726, another young man tried his hand at creating a list of existential precepts. Benjamin Franklin was 20 when he devised his list of 13 virtues. In contrast to Edwards, Franklin resolved to concentrate on one virtue a week. In this way, he could repeat the sequence exactly four times a year. Franklin’s rather more modest goals didn’t save him from feeling beaten down by the process. “I was so surprised to find myself so much fuller of Faults than I had imagined,” Franklin wrote in his 1791 autobiography. But as time passed, the list became easier to follow, and he “had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
Franklin’s 13 virtues proved to be far more popular with the American public than Edwards’s 70 resolutions. By the mid-19th century, Franklin’s autobiography had been reprinted more than 120 times. Thousands of people tried to model their careers according to Franklin’s virtues, including Orion Clemens, the publisher of a weekly Missouri newspaper.
Clemens’s habit of quoting Franklin to his brother Samuel at every opportunity neither helped the business nor inspired any great improvement in the younger sibling. Samuel Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—later summed up his attitude to virtuous resolutions by urging his readers to use New Year’s Day “to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”