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Self-help isn’t what it used to be

By Peter W. Sinnema

Self-help isn’t what it used to be. At least, its early renditions were cast in a style alien to the contemporary ear.

The concept was first named (and voluminously expounded) by Samuel Smiles in his 1859 best-seller, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. Erstwhile apothecary, railway secretary, newspaper editor, and biographer, Smiles’ birth in Haddington, Scotland marks its bicentennial on December 23. If this populist Victorian sage is worth remembering for anything, it must be for his original self-help book, translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Danish, Japanese, Croatian, Czech, Arabic, Turkish, and various native languages of India within his own lifespan, and purchased by more than a quarter-million readers by the time of the author’s death in 1904.

Smiles Samuel black white

Smiles’ own moral and professional diligence embodied the cardinal virtue of his homespun philosophy: perseverance. He outlined his gospel of “energetic individualism” in refreshingly simple terms, encouraging humble mechanics and beleaguered artisans to own and cultivate the “power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute working, and steadfast integrity” as they struggled to improve their lot in the new age of mass industry. Smiles promoted self-help as practiced or habitual independence, a disciplined husbandry of the inner man “effected by means of … action, economy, and self-denial.”

Given that Smiles published his aphoristic opus at a time when the nascent welfare state was represented by the grim apparatus of the workhouse—that infamously unpleasant asylum for the destitute reorganized under the oppressive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834—present-day readers may be taken aback by the animosity with which Smiles condemned all “help from without”: states and statutes could do nothing to “make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober.” Smiles denied the power of institutions to ameliorate individual vice and ignorance, and in anticipation of Margaret Thatcher’s notorious declaration that “there is no such thing as society,” he regarded nations as nothing more than aggregates of individual conditions. The remedy for social evil and decay thus resided “not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.”

Smiles ran with his self-help idea for some forty years, enjoying social and commercial success with books on related themes such as Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880). Dying only three years after the state funeral of Queen Victoria, Smiles was quickly typecast as a spokesman for the worst hypocrisies of his era. In his socialist masterpiece The Ragged-Torusered Philanthropists (1906), Robert Tressell lambasted Self-Help as bourgeois propaganda “suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties,” while more recently E. J. Hobsbawm added Smiles to his list of “self-made journalist-publishers who hymned the virtues of capitalism” (The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848: 1961). Surely these are justifiable indictments of a man whose best-known work opens with the parsimonious bromide, “Heaven helps those who help themselves”!

Before we relegate Smiles’ invocation of self-mastery and laborious endurance to the dustbin of history, however, we’d do well to recall the singular contribution made by his account of “indefatigable industry” to our contemporary culture of self-help. True, Smiles’ highly repetitive and at-times cumbrous tribute to the “spirit of self-help” can read like a naïve, even perverse plumping of mere doggedness in the face of a hostile world. But then, repetition is of decisive rhetorical importance for Smiles, just as it is for any effective self-help author of the twenty-first century.

Smiles’ secular hagiography of “labourers in all ranks and conditions of life, cultivators of the soil and explorers of the mine, inventors and discoverers, manufacturers, mechanics and artisans, poets, philosophers, and politicians” derives its affective grit, its capacity to inspire and reform, from iterative structure. Self-Help’s biographical exemplars (there are literally hundreds of them, from Charles Abbott and Peter Abelard to John Ziska and Francesco Zuccarelli) are invariably martyred—to unsympathetic wives, malicious priests, ruthless state functionaries, failed technologies—but ultimately to the requisites of gripping narrative and readerly pleasure. In the end we want to emulate these suffering stalwarts because, as Smiles himself pointed out in his revised 1866 preface to Self-Help, the redundant plotline of affliction-perseverance-success “proved attractive … by reason of the variety and anecdotal illustrations of life and character which it contains, and the interest which all more or less feel in the labours, the trials, the struggles, and the achievements of others.”

Even the most erudite self-help guru must embrace the compositional obligations of repetition and (auto)biographical exemplarity that originated with Smiles. Kathleen Norris’s moving exploration, at once recondite and unsentimental, of the acedia that grips our Western culture, the spiritual torpor that is self-help’s universal, symptomological object, is a case in point. Her study of the “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today,” driving millions to the bottle or the therapist’s office, acquires its poignancy from her insistence that the pressing question, “Why care?” can only be answered “by relating [her] personal history with acedia, telling stories from … infancy, childhood, and adolescence” (Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life: 2008). Norris’ self, exposed, diagnosed, and at least partly healed through the telling of personal history, is the modern-day version of Smiles’ paradigmatic, self-motivated individual in expectant pursuit of “elevation of character, without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is naught.”

Peter W. Sinnema is Professor of English at the University of Alberta. His teaching and research focuses on Victorian literature and culture. He is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. A bestseller immediately after its publication in 1859, Self-Help propelled its author to fame and rapidly became one of Victorian Britain’s most important statements on the allied virtues of hard work, thrift, and perseverance.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Image credit: By Samuel Smiles (d. 1904) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Allen James

    After practicing psychotherapy for the past 22 years I can certainly see the relavance of a discussion on self-help. The premise has definately changed…help, though, does come from within.

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