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May 12, 2006

The Primacy of the Will - Samuel Smiles' Self-Help

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Self-Help, with illustrations of conduct and perseverance
by Samuel Smiles
first published 1859
Pp. 386. Centenary Edition, John Murray, 1958

Available in Oxford World's Classics, Self-Help, (2002), £7.99

Though it has remained in print since 1859 I suspect that Self-Help is a book much more known of than known. It had a pretty bad press in the twentieth century, usually being assumed to be the bible of "Victorian values" which were in turn assumed to be narrow and selfish. The author lived (a further 45 years, in fact) to regret his title which, he accepted, gave the wrong impression of a book defending or advocating selfishness. When you actually read it Self-Help turns out to be two things. It is a celebration of human achievement and progress and it is a set of practical precepts by which to lead your life. Samuel Smiles was a Scottish doctor and radical journalist, born in 1812, who had, by his forties, come to the conclusion that political radicalism was not so much incorrect – he remained an egalitarian in principle and a reformer in most matters – as trivial. What is important is the knowledge that our fate lies within ourselves (p. 35):

Even the best institutions can give a man no active help. Perhaps the best they can do is to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation in human advancement has usually been much over-estimated.
In one of the few philosophical passages in the book Smiles insists that free will is an immediate and unavoidable reality (p. 231):
Whatever theoretical conclusions logicians may have formed as to the freedom of the will, each individual feels that practically he is free to choose between good and evil – that he is not as a mere straw thrown upon the water to mark the direction of the current, but that he has within him the power of a strong swimmer, and is capable of striking out for himself, of buffeting with the waves, and directing to a great extent his own independent course. There is no absolute constraint upon our volitions, and we feel and know that we are not bound, as by a spell, with reference to our actions.
Thus the twentieth century sociologist he most resembles is Edward Banfield who turned the concept of social class on its head by saying that people are only in any significant sense members of a social class insofar as they have the typical attitudes of that class (with attitudes to time being particularly important). And anyone can change their attitudes and thus can be said to have chosen their social class.

How, according to Smiles, should we live our lives? We should work hard because work is more interesting and satisfying than idleness. We should spend a clear margin less than our income. We should strive for the best, the most significant thing we could achieve. We must know that achievement must be altruistic: there is no satisfaction in solipsism. We must tell the truth and treat people as we find them because there are gentlemen in all classes and snobs and cads too. We must (pp. 353-4):

always look at the bright side of things.
(We know a song about that, don't we?)

By what criterion are these precepts to be justified? By the criterion of happiness, but not the trivial, pushpin-happiness of Jeremy Bentham. Smiles' view is an extended version of John Stuart Mill's; happiness is to be found close to earnestness, in knowledge and achievement. Religion seems of little importance to Smiles; he mentions it only infrequently and his significant arguments rarely seem dependent on religious propositions. Social mobility is important, though, and we are constantly assured of the humble trades in which the great achievers began life. For example (p. 42):
Among the great names associated with the invention of the steam-engine are those of Newcomen, Watt and Stephenson; the first a blacksmith, the second a maker of mathematical instruments and the third an engine-fireman.
A family will not last long in high estate if it does not have the will and character to do so; nor will it stay lowly if it does have such qualities.

Art is important to Smiles. Not only does he love art, but artists furnish particularly good examples of social mobility stemming from endeavour. Chapter 6, "Workers in Art", is one of the best in the book and if he does not actually say "Genius is 99% perspiration" he gets very close. Even better is Chapter 3, "Three Great Potters". On reflection on these short biographies one realises that pottery is a peculiarly even combination of art and science. The stories of two of his potters, the Frenchman Bernard Palissy and the German Johan Friedrich Bottgher, have more than enough drama for a major movie each, though the tale of Josiah Wedgwood is less exciting. The single most powerful image of the book to my mind is of Palissy, who is trying to re-invent Etruscan enamel, heaving his household furniture into the furnace while his family and neighbours try to have him certified or restrained.

But the very best chapter is 10 on "Money: its Use and Abuse". Contrary to left-wing caricature of Victorian values, Smiles wants to put money in its place. Having solved the monetary problem (by having 6d left over at the end of the day) we should not worship the stuff, nor do anything purely for it, nor admire the possessors of it. But we must solve the original problem ourselves and if that means going to bed early, supperless, but with a book and a candle, then we should be grateful for the book and the candle and be resolved to look for work in the morning. He castigates his middle-class contemporaries for losing sight of the basic virtues (p. 290):

Middle-class people are apt to live up to their incomes if not beyond them; affecting a degree of "style" which is most unhealthy in its effects upon society at large. There is an ambition to bring up boys as gentlemen, or rather "genteel" men . . . . There is a dreadful ambition abroad for being "genteel". We keep up appearances, too often at the expense of honesty; and, though we may not be rich, yet we must seem to be so. We must be "respectable", though only in the meanest sense – in mere outward show. We have not the courage to go patiently onward in the condition of life which it has pleased God to call us . . . .
I find this passage quite timeless. Think of the 21st century, of the salesman who calls himself a “marketing executive”, who has a four-wheel drive car and a detached house, who takes his children out of school for skiing, but who has a six-figure mortgage and a five-figure credit card debt and who will be in the deepest of stuff when trade and house prices turn down. Smiles also condemns fake education with its easy methods and bogus qualifications; which also rings a few bells a century and a half down the line.

This raises the question of what are genuine Victorian values. If Smiles represents them – and he has a very strong claim – then credit cards, mortgages, greed-is-good and degree inflation certainly do not. Unfortunately they are the condition of life in contemporary English-speaking countries and part of the legacy of "Thatcherism", which was supposed to espouse "Victorian values".

Self-Help has two related weaknesses. The first is that there are just too many stories of the will triumphing over impossible odds; there are only so many retellings of the myth of the spider and the Bruce that the reader can take – the 21st century reader at any rate. The second is that Smiles tells us nothing about a condition which affects the vast majority of us, the condition of failure. He is so besotted by success in any form – generals, Jesuits, writers, potters, cotton magnates, artists, Napoleon, Wellington – if the world thinks they have succeeded then Smiles admires their will and character. Which is a pity because I think he has the philosophical wherewithal to account for the worth of gallant failure, limited success and mixed pictures and of honest and decent lives which create or invent nothing in particular. It is a weakness he admitted in the preface to the 1866 edition.

Even so, Self-Help is a very good book: it is intelligent, informed and based on a tenable philosophy. It gives a plausible account of how life should be lived and if anybody is actually serious about teaching adolescents about money then they should start with Smiles' chapter on the subject. There is an obvious comparison with Smiles contemporary, Karl Marx. About the politest thing I can think of to say about Marx is that he doesn't offer much in the way of practical advice (and he clearly wouldn't have understood our times, whereas Smiles would). Yet how many thousands of essays are written about Marx in universities for every one that is written about Smiles?

Something wrong, I think.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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Thank you for a most interesting and informative review.

"Self-Help" is one of these books more talked about (and sneeringly dismissed) than read - it's good to know that it is more complex and tough-minded than popularly believed. Another example of the lazy misuse of the word "Victorian" - Strachey's introduction of superior sneering into discussion of the era has had a lasting ill effect.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at May 14, 2006 09:24 PM
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It's a bit silly to reproach the author of a book on how to help yourself be happy because he didn't acknowledge that it is perfectly fine to fail at achieving your goals. The chief goal of any rational man is happiness. And failure to achieve that goal is not acceptable, nor desirable. The modern attitude of "Oh, at least I tried, it's OK to be miserable, I can't help it", is despicable.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at May 15, 2006 04:24 PM
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That was a great review. I very much agree with what you have to say at the end. I see papers all the time about Karl Marx, but never have i seen one about Samuel Smiles. I enjoyed reading "Self-Help". I much rather voice my opinion on the matter of life and being your own road to greatness, rather than workers uniting against the machine. (Still, I did enjoy reading "The Communist Manifesto".)

Posted by: lucas at February 28, 2012 10:18 PM
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