Reading Smiles

As I am interested in the idea of living (more or less) self-sufficiently as well as in learning and trying to better oneself through thinking and contemplation, Aristotle’s path to eudaimonia in the Nicomachean Ethics, I’m half-drawn to self-help books. Half-drawn because there are so many terrible self-help books out there: books which, having persuaded the hapless to part with their money, serve them a diet of trite observations, ‘easy steps’ to self-fulfilment/winning friends and influencing people/eternal happiness [insert your own personal life goal here] and, lo and behold, a list of yet more self-help books by the same author on the last pages. I’m fascinated by this genre, which has been around for as long as book-selling has been a business. Some of these books aren’t so bad. Arnold Bennett, the author whom Virginia Woolf so despised because of his arriviste bourgeois attitudes and often mercantile attitudes towards writing and publishing, wrote a few very good self-help books. Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909) is a good example of its kind because the author does not patronise the reader who earnestly tries to better him/herself but does not know where to start.

self helpBeing thus ambivalent about self-help books but not totally averse to them – after all I believe quite strongly in adult education – I have always wanted to read the classic of self-help literature, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859). It was a book that sold in its thousands in its first year of publication and went on to sell millions. It elevated its author to instant guru status. And it neatly summarises why the most important social breakthroughs of the middle classes into positions of power and wealth came in the Victorian period.

Some elements of the book are just like any other self-help book: the relentlessly upbeat tone (‘you can do it, too’), the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make xyz happen’-rhetoric – all that is there. And yet in other respects it is unlike other self-help books. It is far longer for one. It takes considerable perseverance to actually finish it (I didn’t). And it does not offer the obligatory ‘10 (or was it 12) easy steps to complete happiness/job promotion/friends and influence’ of so many other self-help books.

What Smiles offers are arguments for the importance of the self-help attitude for individual success and examples. Lots of examples. He narrates the life stories of those whom he regards to have been successful in life. The reader is meant to be impressed and to want to follow those examples, which are chosen from a wide variety of backgrounds – but mostly humble, even poor backgrounds – so that the reader can identify. Contrary to other self-help books, the author does not disguise but seems to emphasise that the path to glory is stony and hard. But what results await!

Central to the book are notions of individualism and Liberalism. Smiles does not think that societies can be helped or, indeed, that help should come from outside:

Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity for doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.

The function of governments is to create laws that enable individuals to flourish – nothing else:

Laws, wisely administered, will secure men in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, whether of mind or of body, at a comparatively small personal sacrifice; but no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.

Politically, Smiles is thus anti-socialist (because he focuses on the individual) and anti-egalitarian (people are not equal, some have more talent, persevere, have more gumption than others and thus deserve to succeed). Yet, at first the book also seems to be anti-conservative as it takes great pains to stress how many people, who have ‘made it’, came from humble beginnings. Class, according to Smiles, is no excuse. “Great men of science, literature, and art – apostles of great thoughts and lords of the great heart – have belonged to no exclusive class nor rank in life. They have come alike from colleges, workshops, and farmhouses, – from the huts of poor men and the mansions of the rich.”

smilesWhat is interesting, of course, is the story he doesn’t tell. He has collected many, many stories of people who have succeeded – but never is there a mention of the countless people who have not. Or those who, for whatever reason, have not tried. Jude remains Obscure in this text. The sheer number of success stories thus successfully draws a veil over the fact that they are not the norm. In fact, only the exceptional succeed against the odds, particularly in a state in which little public services exist to provide a starting point. But that’s partly the point: one feels that Smiles has little sympathy for the thousands and perhaps millions who fall by the wayside. Just like Thatcher, he did not think that there was such a thing as society – only individuals.

When it comes to dishing out sage advice, Smiles can cook up trite messages with the best of them:

The greatest results in life are usually attained by simple means, and the exercise of ordinary qualities. The common life of every day, with its cares, necessities, and duties, affords ample opportunity for acquiring experience of the best kind; and its most beaten paths provide the true worker with abundant scope for effort and room for self-improvement. The road to human welfare lies along the old highway of stead-fast well-doing; and they who are the most persistent, and work in the truest spirit, will usually be the most successful.

If this reads like a profound statement to you, read it again. Robert Tressell was not far wrong when, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, he says that Self-Help was a book “suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties”. Of course, the ideas contained in this nugget of wisdom (everyone can improve him/herself, one must seize the day to do so, don’t give up immediately) are good as far as they go – but that’s all there is to it. At least Smiles doesn’t promise (like many of the latter-day Smileites) that reading the book is itself a step on the path to self-fulfilment.

What makes the book interesting is how clearly the ideology of Victorian Liberalism comes through and how we are still influenced by it. While he is resolutely focused on the individual, one can’t quite call him a Tory. Well, not then, perhaps he’d be a Tory now. What is deeply frustrating is that to him success is 100% due to the individual. There is no criticism of the social system that wastes the potential of the many in order to allow the few to succeed by dint of their own enormous effort – and that draws a veil over the fact that a lot of people don’t have to try because of an accident of birth that placed them socially above others. It thus shares its conservatism with today’s self-help books, which also suggest that it’s clearly your fault if you remain unhappy/unpromoted/stuck in low-paid employment. There is no hint that sometimes, just sometimes circumstances may be beyond your control. That lives are complex, intertwined and sometimes you have no influence over decisions that affect you. There is also no real examination of what precisely those people who ‘made it’ had to do to be successful, how many other people they trampled over in their scramble to the top, how many people they harmed along the way. And how many successful people then have smoothed the path of members of their own family, particularly their offspring.

So, will ‘self-help’ be the solution of all your problems? Well, it can’t hurt to examine your life and see where you can make a difference. Simply putting your hands in your lap and waiting for the good things in life to come to you clearly isn’t going to work. But buying self-help books also won’t enable change in itself.

Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help is available from Project Gutenberg.

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About alycevr

Academic, translator & maker of things
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