Although applying Smiles’ ideas certainly helped many people, his views on poverty were simplistic. Life was so precarious for many Victorians that working harder was no panacea. Poverty and disease remained rife, so there was a great need for both state and charitable intervention to help the most vulnerable, as well as those who temporarily fell on hard times. Indeed, there was a huge amount of personal philanthropy that made a great difference to society but, even then, it should not be forgotten that there were many tragedies, most notably hundreds of thousands of Irish dying during the potato famine. — Simon Wenham

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amuel Smiles’ remarkable, unexpected best-seller Self-Help (1859) epitomizes some of the lofty ideals of the era. By the time of his death in 1904, about a quarter of a million copies had been sold, and the work had been translated into numerous other languages (Harrison 269). One enthusiastic supporter was the socialist campaigner, Robert Blatchford, who described it as ‘one of the most delightful and invigorating books’ he had ever had the happy fortune to come across (Rose 68). Smiles’ veneration of hard work and character resonated with the prevailing values of many in the burgeoning middle class. By drawing a line between the grafters and the feckless, his arguments influenced views on whether or not the poor deserved State assistance. In fact, Smiles claimed that those in poverty were ‘true gentlemen’ by virtue of the qualities they possessed, rather than their wealth or status.

Smiles’ life-defining work was inspired around 15 years earlier by a group of young men ‘of the humblest rank’ who had formed a mutual improvement society in Leeds. The club, which eventually numbered around 100 people, met to exchange knowledge through a wide-ranging curriculum that included modern languages, mathematics, geography and English skills (iii-vi). The club invited Smiles to address the group, and these talks formed the basis of his book, which he published privately at his own expense. Self-Help was an eclectic presentation of wisdom derived from modern, classical, and religious texts, as well as biographical information from the lives of prominent figures past and present.

His extensive use of biographies stemmed from his view that they were ‘almost equivalent to Gospels’, because they taught noble living, high thinking, and energetic action (5). He firmly believed in their ability to inspire others, because he saw that good role models not only had an infectious quality but also proved far more important than rules (300). Indeed, he argued that the ‘practical school of mankind’ was ‘always more forcible than words’ because of the potent instructive quality of example (Smiles, 293). Smiles therefore showed that the many luminaries had emerged from every station in life, from barbers (e.g. Sir Richard Arkright) and labourers (Robert Burns), to bricklayers (Ben Jonson) and bookbinders (Michael Faraday) (1-22).

The Victorian Need for Self-Help

It might surprise some modern readers that an era associated with so many towering achievements had such a ready market for Self-Help. Although Britain was the superpower of the nineteenth century, many people experienced considerable challenges in their daily lives. The predominantly working-class population led precarious continually threatened by disease, poverty, and injuries and diseases contracted at work . Moreover, this highly hierarchical age made climbing the social ladder difficult. Those who had benefitted from an expensive educations dominated the top echelons of society at a time without universal compulsory schooling. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles many extraordinary individuals overcame inauspicious starts in life to achieve considerable personal success. People like the Scottish congregationalist James Murray (1837-1915), an auto-didact whose linguistic talent eventually led him to oversee the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most important scholarly achievements in the history of the English language, or the East End labourer Will Thorne (1846-1946), who overcame an impoverished upbringing in which he was forced to work from the age of six-years-old, to become a leading trade unionist and Member of Parliament.

Despite the many trials of Victorian life, Smiles refused accept that people were — to use modern terminology — victims. Instead, he believed that all men and women were personally responsible for their own success or failure. He argued that ‘Those who fail in life, are very apt to assume the tone of injured innocence, and conclude too hastily that everybody excepting themselves has had a hand in their personal misfortunes’ (194). He agreed with the Russian proverb that misfortune was ‘next door to stupidity’, since men of merit were never neglected (194). Dismissing the notion that the world was unjust, he maintained that those ‘constantly lamenting their ill luck, are only reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, improvidence, or want of application’ (194). ‘Fortune’, he stressed, ‘is invariably on the side of the industrious’ (46). Even when chance appeared to play a part in someone’s success, he believed that person had been astute enough to turn an accident into an opportunity (71).

External assistance was not, therefore, the answer for those who were in need. He saw it as ‘enfeebling in its effects’, because it not only rendered the recipient of aid ‘comparatively helpless’, but it also took away any stimulus or necessity of doing work for themselves (1). The highest philanthropy took the form, not government assistance, which he considered to be largely negative and restrictive, but in helping people help themselves (2). He noted that ‘there is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober’ (2). The change needed to come from within.

Therefore, Smiles’s central point permeating his entire book is that people must necessarily depend ‘mainly upon themselves’ for their well-being. The idea, which he claimed was as ‘old as the Proverbs of Solomon’ involved ‘diligent self-culture, self-discipline, and self-control — and, above all, on that honest and upright performance of individual duty, which is the glory of manly character’ (v). Just as ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’, he saw the invigorating spirit of self-help as the root of genuine growth (1). After all, he noted, the very definition of employment, was ‘something required to be done’ (195). Whatever someone’s station was in life, they needed to aim for the highest results, because even if they fell short of them, they still reached a point far in advance of where they started (318). Indeed, he stressed that ‘practical industry, wisely and vigorously applied, never fails of success. It carries a man onward and upward’ (132).

Greatness came not was not from extraordinary abilities but from ‘common sense and perseverance’ (46). Hard work was absolutely key, which in turn required the vital ingredient of energy, as well as close observation, diligence, and accuracy (72-74, 101-131, 151-189, 196-199). An ‘invincible determination’ was also needed not least to cope with the drudgery that was often needed to succeed (83, 189). He dismissed the idea that there could be any quick fixes – or fast labour-saving approaches to knowledge – for self-culture was a mental attitude towards growth and learning that created a life-long pursuit (252-3).

Forming Good Habits

He believed that ‘the first start on the road of life determines the direction and the destination’ and much of his work was about cultivating virtuous habits that could grow and widen with age ‘like letters cut on the bark of a tree’ (321-22). Time deployed constructively, even if only a small amount was available, produced dividends over the long term. Indeed, he argued human life was ‘made up of comparative trifles’ and failure was often the result of neglecting the little things (195). He maintained that those who were ‘habitually behind time’, for example, were ‘habitually behind success’ (200). A person’s education had to involve active concentration of the mind, as he believed that learning by rote – and even reading in some circumstances – was too passive (250-57). A clear vision for education was also required, as he likened purposes to eggs that unless ‘hatched into action, will run into rottenness’ (279). Nevertheless, he stressed that both over-work and under-work were dangers to the intellectual development of young men, as they involved too much guidance or restraint respectively (245).

Smiles did not believe that education was simply limited to the moral or intellectual subjects, however. Like the ancients, he saw the benefits of physical training and urged his readers engage in English sports, such as such as cricket and boating (240-41). He supported ‘rational recreation’, as historians have termed it, as a way of producing the solid foundation for youthful strength and vitality (246-47). Indeed, avoiding idleness kept the devil away by removing a void in which lust might creep in (199, 242). He summed up his tripartite holistic approach by saying ‘Cultivate the physical powers exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster’ (240).

Moral discipline, he stressed, was often forged in the ‘school of difficulty’ (278). He claimed that ‘The very greatest things – great thoughts, discoveries, inventions – have generally been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty’ (275). Facing such challenges as well as failures required personal courage. He agreed with Burns’ notion that it was through ‘losses and crosses’ that the right-minded and true-hearted could find strength, confidence, and triumph (276). Smiles went so far as to say that poverty could be a blessing in disguise, as it provided a fertile training ground that could awaken a ‘consciousness of power’ that was so ‘necessary for energetic and effective action in life’ (16). By contrast, he believed that too much facility, ease, and prosperity could have a damaging effect, as it removed any incentive for hard work (276). He maintained that precocious peers who found education easy, for example, were often overtaken by the formerly ‘dull boys’ (or ‘illustrious dunces’), who in putting in the greater effort became ‘late learners’ (288-89).

Smiles warned against the many potential pitfalls along the way to success. Although he believed that knowledge was a form of power, he argued that, like ‘Mind without heart, intelligence without conduct, [and] cleverness without goodness’ (316) it could be dangerous if it wasn’t wisely directed (256). readily admitted that there were many well-informed intellects around, who lacked practical wisdom and were utterly deformed in character (256). Indeed, he stressed that knowledge had to be ‘allied to goodness and wisdom, and embodied in upright character, else it is naught’ (256).

He also spoke out about having the wrong attitude to money, as he was keenly aware that many people associated success with wealth. acknowledged the allure of financial gain, but believed its power to be ‘over-estimated’, as he suggested some of the greatest worldly achievements were done by men of small pecuniary means, such as the propagation of Christianity over ‘half the world’ (236-37). He maintained that money had to be honestly earned, but that the love of it was the ‘root of evil’ that not only narrowed and contracted the soul, but also made people less generous in life and action (235-36). Thriftlessness, extravagance, improvidence, and even hoarding were to be avoided, while self-denial and sacrifices were important for future gain (215-20). He also warned against ‘self-imposed taxation’ (217), such as drinking alcohol, which he believed to be ‘incompatible with economy, decency, health, and honest living’ (229). Indeed, although he maintained that amusement in moderation was wholesome, a person could ‘vitiate’ their whole nature by taking it to excess (270). This, he believed, was a particular problem for the young, as it could lead them to fritter away the best qualities of the mind (270). He warned against the pressure of keeping up appearances and being in the ‘front seats at the social amphitheatre’, because acquiring ‘a taste for dress, style, luxuries, and amusements’ was never a ‘foundation for manly or gentlemanly character’ (226). Instead, he joked that it produced a ‘vast number of gingerbread young gentry… who remind one of the abandoned hulls sometimes picked up at sea, with only a monkey on board’ (225-26). Yet he also acknowledged that acquiring wealth also provided the opportunity to show ‘generosity, honesty, justice, and self-sacrifice; as well as the practical virtues of economy and providence’ (215).

Social Stature and happiness

According to Smiles, what he termed a successful life did not consist of amusement or money, honour or fame but was a matter of a person’s character, which had to combine moral integrity and a public spirit. Indeed, perhaps Smiles’ most controversial idea (for the time) was that even the poorest person could therefore be considered a ‘true gentleman’, if he were ‘honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping’ (328). A person of ‘little culture, slender abilities, and but small wealth’, who could command an influence by virtue of their noble thoughts, was superior to a rich man of poor spirit (315).

Developing character therefore wasn’t just a way of becoming a gentleman or gaining power and success. Smiles argued that it was no less than ‘the highest object of life’ that produced ‘the best development possible, of body and spirit – of mind, conscience, heart and soul’ (238). He saw seemingly small traits like ‘attention, application, accuracy, method, punctuality, and despatch’, as being of ‘essential importance to human happiness, well-being, and usefulness’ (195). Moreover, he added that cheerfulness was not only infectious, but it made people more robust, while nurturing a healthy and happy spirit that conferred dignity on even the ‘most ordinary occupations’ (306). Hope, which he described as the ‘companion of power, and the mother of success’ (260), was also a vital ingredient for mental well-being, because it was ‘like the sun, which, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us’ (53). It also nurtured self-respect, which he claimed was not only ‘the noblest garment’ to clothe yourself in, but also ‘the most elevating feeling with which the mind can be inspired’ (260).

A lasting legacy

Although Smiles’ prescriptions were aimed at the individual, he considered them to be of national importance. His first chapter began with none other than John Stuart Mill’s declaration, taken from the contemporaneous On Liberty, that ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it’ (1). Indeed, Smiles believed that the ‘spirit of self-help’, as shown by a ‘strong individuality and distinctive personal energy’, was a time-honoured and ‘marked feature in the English character’ that was the ‘glory’ of the country that had upheld freedom of thought, speech and action (4-11). The ‘indomitable spirit of industry’, which he maintained was lacking in other nations, had ‘laid the foundations and built up the industrial greatness of the empire, at home and in the colonies’ (23). He saw the actions of those driving the economy as being no less heroic than the soldiers and sailors who served their country with bravery and devotion (45, 210). Indeed, he claimed that ‘the industrious stamp their character upon their age, and influence not only their own, but all succeeding generations’ (24).

Suggestions for further reading:

Harrison, R. ‘Afterword’ in S. Smiles, Self-Help. Sphere Books, 1968.

Hunter, J. The Spirit of Self-Help: A Biography of Samuel Smiles. Shepheard-Walwyn, 2006.

Rose, J. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Yale University Press, 2002.

Smiles, S. Self-Help. John Murray, 1859.

Article on Self-Help. British Library. 10 November 2020.

Last modified 26 November 2020