Self-Help was published the same year as Darwin's Origin of the Species and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. While Darwin drew a picture of how closer adaptation to environment refines life, and Mill sketched a society based on liberal values, Smiles gave the world a work that still inspires in its scenes of individuals who have fashioned a life from pure will. Self-Help may not have the scholarly or philosophical depth of the other two, but is seminal to the self-help genre and its ethos of personal responsibility.
In many Victorian homes Self-Help had a status second only to the Bible, and though now considered a classic display of 'Victorian values' (industry, thrift, progress etc.), the old-fashioned turns of phrase and unquestioning morality represent the cover by which we should not judge the book. It is a work within a broader literary tradition that includes Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the novels of Horatio Alger, one in which human beings advance despite the odds.
The self-help ethic comes alive through biography. Smiles knew this, and he packed his book with remarkable people, many now forgotten. He mentions:
Yet these lives are paraded before us not just so that we can marvel, but to give some idea of the vast range of possible models for our own life. Smiles sorts these lives according to how they illuminate the great qualities like tenacity, industry and endurance; they form the chapters of the book.
Hard work and genius
Smiles believed that, since it was about human nature, Self-Help would remain valid. Yet to accept that, you would have to believe that perseverance and unremitting work are still primary elements to success - are they?
The myth of the artist is a person of wild genius who produces masterpieces in creative bursts, yet the common denominator in Smiles 'lives of the artists' is their singular industry and never-say-die application to the task, almost equal to their artistic talent. In showing that many of the methods they pioneered were the result of years of trial and error, he explodes the belief that the most famous artists have the most 'talent'. In fact, talent is not thinly spread, but what is rare is the willingness to put in the back-breaking labour to fulfil an artistic vision. Michelangelo would not have done the Sistine Chapel ceiling if he had not been willing to lie on his back on boards for months on end. It took Titian seven years to produce his Last Supper for Charles V, yet the viewer might assume it was created in a 'burst of genius'.
Smiles notes the motto of both the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and sculptor David Wilkie: 'Work! Work! Work!'. Bach reflected: 'I was industrious; whoever is equally sedulous, will be equally successful.' History has the tendency to turn unwavering commitment and hard graft into grand words like genius, when its subjects knew otherwise.
It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit, so much as purpose - not merely the power to achieve, but the will to labour energetically and perseveringly.
Smiles tells us about George-Louis Buffon (1707-88), who wrote the famous 44-volume Histoire Naturelle, which took stock of all that was known of natural history in his era, and which foreshadowed the theory of evolution. The massive self-discipline needed to complete such a project led Buffon to conclude that 'genius is patience'. Smiles goes on to quote De Maistre who said: 'To know how to wait is the great secret of success', and notes Isaac Newton's understanding of what produced genius: constant thought about the solution of a problem.
Patience, ordering of the mind, and absorption in the task at hand, are the key elements he cites in all our great advances, and government funding or education cannot supply them. They are created talents.
These days the phrase 'character-building' is usually uttered with a laugh to someone contemplating a cold shower or doing a 10-day trek across the Himalayas. As Smiles warned even back in the 1850s, education, wealth, or noble family do not come close to replacing character. Today we live in the so-called knowledge society in which the highest value is taken to be creative deployment of data and information, but he asserted that 'Character is power, more than knowledge is power.' Self-Help may be a simple book for a simpler time, but its dogged reiteration of the need to cultivate personal qualities which bring freedom of mind reveals a timeless truth: that character is something formed in spite of the great forces of instinct and cultural conditioning. Smiles includes a statement by Sir Humphry Davy: 'What I am I have made myself: I say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of heart.' Davy's admission speaks of courage - not as part of exciting tales of derring-do - but of small daily decisions which reaffirm independence. It is the primary ingredient of Stephen Covey's 'highly effective people'.
But where will character get me? How will it make my living? In the 19th century, business was not seen as it tends to be now, the arena for the brightest, most creative minds, yet Smiles was able to see that it would become so. He wasted no time in stripping business to its core element: integrity of word and deed. Since trust is the glue that holds free societies together, it follows that lasting success will be attracted to those who can be trusted. As Max Weber famously argued, this attribute had been so rare that early Protestant merchants, in their utter dependability, scooped up fortunes.
Nothing dulls the mind and destroys character as much as drugs, and Smiles did not miss a chance to praise that most esteemed quality, temperance. How we laugh in the old movies when the preacher rails against this 'road to ruin'. It is the fevered fear of alcohol that amuses, because we are 'sensible' about it. Yet who will admit its less dramatic consequences that add up over a lifetime: the things you don't get done the next day because of the night before, the drinking 'to be social' that does little more than cover an acceptance of mediocrity. Smiles thought of Sir Walter Scott, who said, '�of all vices, drinking is the most incompatible with greatness'.
In Samuel Smiles' lifetime, the British Empire covered roughly a quarter of the planet. Like any empire, it spawned its fair share of misery amongst those forced into keeping the whole show going. Its good qualities - social reform, some enlightened political principles, sheer energy and inventiveness - were held together by a larger belief in 'progress'.
One effect of Mill's On Liberty was to make us see such values in relative terms. Yet Smiles reminds us possibly the most important single line that Mill penned, 'The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.' If the progress ideal makes a comeback in the 21st century, it is less likely to be the property of governments than the faith of individuals. While Mill's principle of political liberty is the basic condition for personal progress, it is the ethos of Self-Help that can actually make us do something with our freedom. Interestingly, Smiles was in his earlier life a rabid political reformer, but gave this up when he realised the more pressing type of reform was personal.
Self-Help is monumentally sexist, there being a total lack of women in the biographies. Its small defence is that it was worked up from talks given to working men, who at that time would probably not have stomached female role models. With some more stories of women in the book, it would be less obscure today perhaps, but any reader who can laugh off or forgive Smiles' oversight will be well rewarded. This Titanic of the self-help literature deserves to rise again.
|50 Self-Help Classics:
• Insightful commentaries on 50 key books.
• 300 pages of life-changing wisdom and advice.
• Expanded features and profiles not
on this site.
|"A tremendous resource for anyone seeking a 'bite-sized' look at the philosophies of many self-help legends, including sacred scriptures of different traditions. Because the range and depth of sources are so huge, the cumulative reading effect is amazing. Alternatively, it educates and edifies, affirms and inspires. Often both."|
|Stephen R Covey,
author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
"Butler-Bowdon has summarized some of the most remarkable thoughts - thoughts with wisdom I must add - that will enlighten and lead the reader to understand the very nature of human nature. It will soon become the 51st self-help classic!"
Warren Bennis, author of
On Becoming A Leader
LITERATURE OF POSSIBILITY NEWSLETTER
Reflections on the great teachings and lessons from self-development, psychology and philosophy. Free, please join!
Your details will not be shared with anyone.
In 1838 Smiles moved to Leeds to become editor of the radical Leeds Times , where he stayed until 1842. His politics were influenced by the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (John Stuart's father), and among other things he called for freer trade, extension of the suffrage and better conditions for factory workers.
Smiles became disillusioned with political reform and increasingly advocated personal development. In the year he began a career as a railway administrator, he gave the course of lectures that would later be moulded into Self-Help . His biography of George Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive and the modern railways, was published in 1857, but it was Self-Help that brought fame.
It was translated into many languages, and was one of a handful of English titles circulating in Japan after the Meiji restoration, becoming a bible for Western-inspired businessmen. The millionaire industrialist Lord Leverhume, and the American writer and founder of Success magazine, Orison Swett Marsden, were among many who said they owed their achievements to Self-Help .
Smiles' other works include the pioneering three-volume economic history text, Lives of the Engineers (1874), the books Character (1871), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880), and a life of potter Josiah Wedgwood (1894). An autobiography was published after his death in 1904.
--- parameterHolder: symfony/default: action: show edit: false module: sfSimpleCMS slug: selfhelp attributeHolder: symfony/default: culture: en
--- app_sfAssetsLibrary_upload_dir: media app_sf_guard_plugin_remember_key_expiration_age: 259200 mod_sfsimplecms_enabled: 1 mod_sfsimplecms_is_internal: mod_sfsimplecms_view_class: sfPHP propel_behavior_actasnestedset_sfSimpleCMSPage_columns: left: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_LEFT right: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_RIGHT parent: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_PARENT scope: sf_simple_cms_page.TOPIC_ID sf_admin_web_dir: /sf/sf_admin sf_app: frontend sf_app_config_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/config sf_app_config_dir_name: config sf_app_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend sf_app_i18n_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/i18n sf_app_i18n_dir_name: i18n sf_app_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/lib sf_app_lib_dir_name: lib sf_app_module_action_dir_name: actions sf_app_module_config_dir_name: config sf_app_module_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/modules sf_app_module_dir_name: modules sf_app_module_i18n_dir_name: i18n sf_app_module_lib_dir_name: lib sf_app_module_template_dir_name: templates sf_app_module_validate_dir_name: validate sf_app_module_view_dir_name: views sf_app_template_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/templates sf_app_template_dir_name: templates sf_apps_dir_name: apps sf_autoloading_functions: sf_available: 1 sf_base_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend sf_bin_dir: /var/www/cms/batch sf_bin_dir_name: batch sf_cache: sf_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod sf_cache_dir_name: cache sf_calendar_web_dir: /sf/calendar sf_charset: utf-8 sf_check_lock: sf_check_symfony_version: sf_compressed: sf_config_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/config sf_config_dir: /var/www/cms/config sf_config_dir_name: config sf_data_dir: /var/www/cms/data sf_data_dir_name: data sf_debug: sf_default_action: index sf_default_module: default sf_doc_dir: /var/www/cms/data/doc sf_doc_dir_name: doc sf_enabled_modules: - default - sfGuardAuth - sfSimpleCMS sf_environment: prod sf_error_404_action: error404 sf_error_404_module: default sf_error_reporting: 341 sf_escaping_method: ESC_ENTITIES sf_escaping_strategy: bc sf_etag: 1 sf_i18n: sf_i18n_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/i18n sf_in_bootstrap: 1 sf_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/lib sf_lib_dir_name: lib sf_log_dir: /var/www/cms/log sf_log_dir_name: log sf_logging_enabled: sf_logging_history: 10 sf_logging_level: err sf_logging_period: 7 sf_logging_purge: sf_logging_rotate: 1 sf_login_action: signin sf_login_module: sfGuardAuth sf_max_forwards: 5 sf_model_dir_name: model sf_model_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/lib/model sf_module_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/modules sf_module_disabled_action: disabled sf_module_disabled_module: default sf_no_script_name: 1 sf_orm: propel sf_path_info_array: SERVER sf_path_info_key: PATH_INFO sf_plugins_dir: /var/www/cms/plugins sf_plugins_dir_name: plugins sf_prototype_web_dir: /sf/prototype sf_rich_text_js_dir: js/tiny_mce sf_root_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache sf_root_dir: /var/www/cms sf_routing_defaults: sf_culture: en sf_secure_action: secure sf_secure_module: sfGuardAuth sf_standard_helpers: - Partial - Cache - Form sf_strip_comments: 1 sf_suffix: . sf_symfony_data_dir: /var/www/cms/config/../data/symfony sf_symfony_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/config/../lib/symfony sf_template_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/template sf_test: sf_test_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/test sf_test_dir: /var/www/cms/test sf_test_dir_name: test sf_timeout: 1800 sf_unavailable_action: unavailable sf_unavailable_module: default sf_upload_dir: /var/www/cms/web/uploads sf_upload_dir_name: uploads sf_url_format: PATH sf_use_database: 1 sf_use_flash: 1 sf_use_process_cache: 1 sf_use_security: 1 sf_validation_error_class: form_error sf_validation_error_id_prefix: error_for_ sf_validation_error_prefix: ↓ sf_validation_error_suffix: ↓ sf_web_debug: 1 sf_web_debug_web_dir: /sf/sf_web_debug sf_web_dir: /var/www/cms/web sf_web_dir_name: web
--- cookie: env: files: get: post: server: CONTEXT_DOCUMENT_ROOT: /var/www/cms/web CONTEXT_PREFIX: DOCUMENT_ROOT: /var/www/cms/web GATEWAY_INTERFACE: CGI/1.1 HTTP_ACCEPT: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8 HTTP_ACCEPT_ENCODING: x-gzip, gzip, deflate HTTP_ACCEPT_LANGUAGE: en-us,en-gb,en;q=0.7,*;q=0.3 HTTP_HOST: www.butler-bowdon.com HTTP_USER_AGENT: CCBot/2.0 (http://commoncrawl.org/faq/) PATH: /usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin PHP_SELF: /index.php QUERY_STRING: REDIRECT_STATUS: 200 REDIRECT_URL: /selfhelp REMOTE_ADDR: 220.127.116.11 REMOTE_PORT: 35501 REQUEST_METHOD: GET REQUEST_SCHEME: http REQUEST_TIME: 1433016812 REQUEST_TIME_FLOAT: 1433016812.78 REQUEST_URI: /selfhelp SCRIPT_FILENAME: /var/www/cms/web/index.php SCRIPT_NAME: /index.php SERVER_ADDR: 18.104.22.168 SERVER_ADMIN: [no address given] SERVER_NAME: www.butler-bowdon.com SERVER_PORT: 80 SERVER_PROTOCOL: HTTP/1.0 SERVER_SIGNATURE: | <address>Apache/2.4.7 (Ubuntu) Server at www.butler-bowdon.com Port 80</address> SERVER_SOFTWARE: Apache/2.4.7 (Ubuntu) session: lang: home
--- php: 5.5.9-1ubuntu4.5 os: Linux butler-bowdon 3.13.0-37-generic #64-Ubuntu SMP Mon Sep 22 21:28:38 UTC 2014 x86_64 extensions: - Core - date - ereg - libxml - openssl - pcre - zlib - bcmath - bz2 - calendar - ctype - dba - dom - hash - fileinfo - filter - ftp - gettext - SPL - iconv - mbstring - session - posix - Reflection - standard - shmop - SimpleXML - soap - sockets - Phar - exif - sysvmsg - sysvsem - sysvshm - tokenizer - wddx - xml - xmlreader - xmlwriter - zip - apache2handler - PDO - json - mysql - mysqli - pdo_mysql - readline - mhash - Zend OPcache