Society and Culture

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles – still relevant today

Though some of the language of Self-Help by Samuel Smiles can seem dated – a little archaic even – there is no doubt that its main lessons are as valuable and relevant today as they were at the time of first publication amid that great explosion of energy and creativity that characterised the Victorian era.

His first great insight is that people should look to themselves rather than to institutions or the state in order to prosper. “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” is possibly his best-known maxim. Memorably, he adds, “Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.” Could Hayek have put it any better?

His second great belief is that the key to real success or achievement in life is through the dint of sheer hard work. Indeed, Smiles appears to take an almost sensuous delight in recounting the efforts and privations of those intent on achieving some great goal. Casting a wide net over history and countries, he details the efforts of the sixteenth-century French potter Bernard Palissy who for six long days and nights sat by his furnace – “pale, haggard, unshorn, baffled yet not beaten” – waiting for enamel to melt on earthenware.

In a later attempt, the poverty-stricken Palissy was reduced to smashing up his household furniture and shelving to provide fuel for his furnace before his experiment finally succeeded.

In the highest traditions of popular journalism/communication, the text of Self-Help is larded with such specific examples. We thus hear of a nineteenth-century Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, the son of a Newcastle coat-fitter, who began his working life with such diligence that he would rise at four every morning and study till late at night, often “…binding a wet towel round his head to keep himself awake.”

Likewise, we hear of William Harvey who spent “…no less than eight long years of investigation and research…” before publishing his views on the circulation of the blood – and had to wait another 25 years before his findings gained some grudging acceptance.

Is there too much emphasis on success in Self-Help? Smiles deals with that one too. Happily acknowledging that so often failure is the parent of later achievement, he gives the example of Disraeli who ” …did not, as many young men do, having once failed, retire dejected, to mope and whine in a corner, but diligently set himself to work. He carefully unlearnt his faults, studied the character of his audience, practised sedulously the art of speech, and industriously filled his mind with the elements of parliamentary knowledge.”

In so many ways, the strictures of Samuel Smiles appear almost prophetic in forecasting the debilitating horrors of the modern welfare state. In a world scared rigid by the current turmoil of financial meltdown, there is plenty here to fortify the nerves of those who instinctively resist a tsunami of new rules, regulations, restrictions and directives.

Indeed, in today’s bewildered, faint-heart world, it is still inspiring to read the words of Samuel Smiles. Writing at a time when our nation was beset by so many greater problems – to do with transport, housing, hunger, education, crime, poverty and disease – and with few of our technological advantages, Smiles was happy to imbue every page of his book with spirit, vigour and optimism.

Click here to download the condensed version of Self-Help by Samuel Smiles.

7 thoughts on “Self-Help by Samuel Smiles – still relevant today”

  1. Posted 18/03/2009 at 10:52 | Permalink

    Much that is very interesting and relevant to our times. Did he invent the phrase, “we got up an hour before we went to bed and licked road clean wi’t’ tongue” that later appeared in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch?

  2. Posted 18/03/2009 at 10:59 | Permalink

    To me a more satisfactory, if perhaps more cynical, argument for personal responsibility is that of Herbert Spencer: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

    Most parents know that, to some extent, one has to let one’s children learn from their mistakes. That helps them to grow up. If the ‘Nanny State’ is always ‘protecting’ people, then indeed they are likely to remain State-dependent. John Stuart Mill had plenty to say about that.

  3. Posted 18/03/2009 at 16:41 | Permalink

    “His first great insight is that people should look to themselves rather than to institutions or the state in order to prosper.”

    That has to be the loosest definition of an insight that I’ve ever come across!


  4. Posted 18/03/2009 at 18:16 | Permalink

    Perhaps it is harder now for people to help themselves than it was in the 19th century. Those wanting to get on to the first rung of the employment ladder face very high marginal withdrawal rates in the tax and benefits systems, while start-up entrepreneurs face a barrage of red-tape. Many of Smiles’ heroes surely wouldn’t have succeeded in the context of today’s highly regulated business environment.

  5. Posted 19/03/2009 at 11:59 | Permalink

    I think you are being a bit harsh, John. It may not be a profound insight but it is an insight the application of which has profound importance, not just for public policy but also for the way in which persons think about themselves. The charities that really deal on the ground with people in very difficult situations are increasingly coming to the view that what Smiles said is true. However, those who are remote from the real suffering of people in need still tend to think that the key to dealing with the problems of the poor lies in giving them government money. This not only an alternative to them helping themselves it actively works against ethic of self help.

  6. Posted 29/03/2009 at 02:20 | Permalink


    It is just as easy for anyone to help him or herself today as ever. It is only that government constantly places artificial roadblocks in front of them. You are right that it is much harder to get started, but not because of people, but because of government meddlers. Smiles had incredible insight in much of what he wrote. The lessons are at least as important today as when he wrote them.

  7. Posted 29/03/2009 at 08:55 | Permalink

    There is also another well known Russian saying:
    “Resquing of the sinking one is the business of hands of the sinking one.” I knew this phrase for decades, but only recently I had the idea that it has also economic sense.

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