In 1870 the sultan of Turkey gave a book by a Scotsman to his entire entourage of top-ranking officials. The Khedive of Egypt had the same work inscribed and painted on the wall of the Royal harem. Two years later the Meiji dynasty ordered the book to be issued throughout Tokyo’s school system. Eventually every prefecture in Japan followed suit. General George Custer described the volume as his favorite text. Many people kept it next to their Bibles.
What was this book, and who was its author? It was called, simply, Self-Help, and its author was a man named Samuel Smiles.
When he died at the age of 86 in 1904, only Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege three years earlier was said to have surpassed in recent memory that of Samuel Smiles. He was loved not only for his book but also for a wealth of other works that celebrated the virtues of independence, thrift, civility, character, and hard work.
Robert L. Bradley, in his 2009 book Capitalism at Work: Business, Government and Energy, calls Smiles “the father of the self-improvement movement.” Bradley notes:
Motivational self-help books were not new, but Smiles’ 400-page opus was systematic, combining age-tested wisdom with knowledge of the industrial present, and profusely illustrated with stories of individuals-made-good in industry, engineering, the arts, and music. Samuel Smiles, a medical doctor turned newspaper editor/political reformer turned businessman/moralist, would become the Adam Smith of applied commercial capitalism.
The cover of the 2002 Oxford University Press edition of Self-Help declares that the book “is the precursor of today’s motivational and self-help literature” and that it “awakens readers to their own potential and instills the desire to succeed.” In his lifetime the author inspired riots in Belgrade, carnivals in Milan, and plaudits from leaders the world over. But sadly, just a century since Smiles died, he is largely unremembered in his native Scotland. Needless to say, decades of the British welfare state have not been kind to a man who preached personal independence and entrepreneurial capitalism.
Dipping into the pages of Self-Help is a curious experience. You travel back in time to Smiles’s mid-nineteenth-century experiences and perceptions. To Smiles, the son of a poor farmer, human nature was both timeless and locationless. It is as good, he felt, for a Japanese man of commerce to exhibit the plain virtues of honesty, punctuality, diligence, and energy as it is for a Swede or an American.
Self-Help, which appeared in 1859, had the most humble of origins. It began as a series of evening lectures to apprentice engineers in Leeds. A kind of Victorian Dale Carnegie, Smiles thumped his message home in a way that moved and inspired almost everybody of his time. Live and trade with integrity and you lift all you meet, not just yourself, he argued. Character, the sum of one’s choices and actions, is of paramount importance; indeed Smiles called it “the crown and glory of life” and the very thing on which “the strength, the industry, and the civilization of nations” depend.
To Smiles the road to riches was not paved with overreaching ambition, disregard for others, or cutting corners when it came to matters of truth. It didn’t mean securing favors from government at the expense of the competition.
Welfare and Poverty
The welfare state was anathema to Smiles. He felt it was a woefully ineffective substitute for personal charity. “The value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has usually been much over-estimated,” he wrote. “No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober.” What he said about poverty legislation a century and a half ago would be a fitting description of the results of the welfare programs of today:
We have tried to grapple with the evils of [misery] by legislation, but it seems to mock us. Those who sink into poverty are fed, but they remain paupers. Those who feed them feel no compassion; and those who are fed return no gratitude. There is no bond of sympathy between the givers and the receivers.
The books of Samuel Smiles are full of inspiring stories of nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who often rejected the easy path of unprincipled compromise and the fast buck, and instead treated others according to the Golden Rule and went to their graves with their character and integrity intact.
In painstaking detail he explained why keeping high our standards of speech and conduct was not just worthwhile but also an indispensable ingredient of freedom and progress. Life to him was not an ego trip. It was not about calling attention to oneself but rather about being the best one can be in all endeavors. The fame and fortune that might follow were secondary and imposed additional responsibilities to foster virtue in others.
The final chapter of Self-Help is titled “Character—The True Gentleman.” It’s full of examples that illustrate Smiles’s belief that nothing is worth sacrificing one’s character. From proper manners to truthfulness to self-respect, Smiles laid forth the attributes that, if pursued widely and personally one individual at a time, would surely produce a far better world. Here’s a passage most readers will especially appreciate:
There are many tests by which a gentleman may be known, but there is one that never fails—How does he exercise power over those subordinate to him? How does he conduct himself toward women and children? How does the officer treat his men, the employer his servants, the master his pupils, and man in every station those who are weaker than himself? The discretion, forbearance and kindliness, with which power in such cases is used, may indeed be regarded as the crucial test of gentlemanly character.
Samuel Smiles—both the man and his message—epitomized the best of the capitalist spirit of the nineteenth century. This fact largely explains why he went from a well-known and respected figure by 1890 to a forgotten man by World War I. The rise of statist ideas at the turn of the century and the subsequent decline of individualism meant that a champion of such antiquated notions as self-help and responsibility had to be tossed into the closet.
Smiles’s message cries out for a new hearing in our times. Scandalous headlines and television spectacles that depict degraded standards suggest we would all benefit by dusting off the work of Samuel Smiles and learning again what we should never have forgotten.