John Blundell writes in The Scotsman
As far as I can detect, this best seller was the first English- language book to be translated into Albanian. Dutch, French, German and even Danish editions followed. Many people kept the volume next to their Bible. The author was an international superstar.
Fame is transient. Who now reads Self Help? Who has heard of Samuel Smiles? In his home town of Edinburgh and his childhood home, Haddington, I know of no bronze plaques or noble statues. Smiles has almost been obliterated. Is it peculiar to Scotland that it can be indifferent to a son who created riots in Belgrade and carnivals in Milan? The Austrian emperor declared himself to be honoured to meet such a famous man. Yet in Edinburgh, his life and work go unpraised.
He is not entirely forgotten. A new Indian edition rolls off the presses this spring, and a US foundation is hosting a major conference on the centenary of Smiles’ death on 16 April. The conference, however, will be in Tunbridge Wells.
When he died in 1904, Smiles’ funeral cortege was said to be shorter than only Queen Victoria’s. The mourning for Smiles seems to have been tearful rather than merely respectful. He was loved.
Self Help was perhaps a dud title. Smiles himself realised too late it could be portrayed as “a eulogy to selfishness”. Self Help is an extraordinary manifesto for capitalism. It is not an essay in favour of joint stock companies or of particular tax regimes. Smiles is an advocate of entrepreneurship. His book is a truly remarkable inventory of heroism and virtue.
Dipping into its pages – a solid read is too intoxicating – is a curious experience. In part, you travel back in time to his mid-19th century perceptions. In another sense his raw material – human nature – is both timeless and locationless. It is as good for a Japanese man of commerce to exhibit the plain virtues of honesty, punctuality, diligence and energy as it is for a Swede or a Canadian.
Smiles was born in Haddington, East Lothian, in 1812. The son of a farm labourer, he was orphaned by the age of ten. His life story has that awesome streak of porridge-powered integrity which we can barely copy. The penniless Smiles read medicine at Edinburgh University, then the best clinical school in the world. Yet he chose an entirely new profession … evangelism without religion. America is strewn with self-improvement cults, but Smiles seems to be far more than a Victorian Dale Carnegie. The wisdom of Smiles is worth absorbing still.
One reason his star has been so eclipsed may be the simple nature of his words. He avoided all jargon. He ducked all subterfuges of sophistication. Self Help was only beaten by the Bible in sales to our whiskered ancestors. Mr WH Smith, Gladstone’s Cabinet colleague and founder of the railway newspaper stalls, described Smiles’ text as “more uplifting than all the Church of England’s sermons”. That ought to have been enough to kill sales. The National Provident Institution serialised another of his famed books, Thrift, to its members.
Self Help had the most humble of origins. It began as a series of evening lectures to apprentice engineers in Leeds. Could an audience be less propitious for a publication sensation? In one sense, Smiles is no more than exhortation. Yet he thumps his message home in such a way that nobody seems to have been unmoved. Live and trade with integrity and you lift all you meet, not just yourself.
Smiles offers far more than a series of nostrums on how to get rich – though they strike me as probably better than most MBA degree courses. The strength of Self Help is in the ethical dimension, which has too often been bleached out of most discussion of business. He called it “character”. This is very different from the mere obedience to regulations which business schools trot out as ethics.
His best-seller offers exhausting lists of illustrious Scotsmen of the 18th and 19th centuries. Robert Dick, a failed Thurso baker, became a pre-eminent geologist. John Sinclair of Caithness was a model of enterprise of whom I had no earlier appreciation. Hugh Miller, later editor of The Scotsman, was destined to be a quarryman but taught himself to go further. Self Help is cluttered with uplifting examples. He drew them from around the world but Edinburgh was their epicentre.
I know of no reference to Karl Marx in the work of Smiles or to Smiles in Marx’s oeuvre. It is a pity. They were almost perfect opposites. Marx saw all salvation in the anonymity of the state. Smiles saw it in the quiet specifics of daily business. Marx was irascible and bilious. Smiles was gentle and wry.
There is not a hint, even a corpuscle, of favouring the wealthy or the noble. Smiles may have been a leading exponent of capitalism but saw that affluence and a life of comfort can be enervating. He knew the rich could live useless lives. He described how opulence can corrupt.
Smiles wrote other hits. He thought there were too many biographies of people paid for from the public purse such as politicians and generals. His Lives of the Engineers is a series of essays on Stephenson, Watt, Bolton and other pioneer makers of metal miracles. I doubt if a single Victorian engineer omitted to buy a book that explained they were a profession of heroes.
His Character (1871), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880) give you a flavour of his remorseless advocacy of virtue. He was not a prig or a humbug. Smiles was part of the extraordinary bustle that seems to have opened up in Scotland after 1707.
The nearest contemporary author I can suggest who is extolling the virtues of entrepreneurship is Professor Israel Kirzner of New York University. He is more subtle and analytic, but the insights are parallel. Entrepreneurs see opportunities and take risks. They have to be alert and quick to read price signals. Honesty is always good business practice, as is philanthropy. Entre-preneurs really trade knowledge or, more mysteriously, knowledge of the future. They do much more than trade tangible goods. Capitalists are the neurons of the market; without them the system is inert. Politicians and their taste for expensive blunders are to be avoided or at least minimised.
In the time of Smiles, political controls were shrinking and taxes receding. We inhabit a different landscape, where control and regulation are the dominant commercial reality. Smiles lived at Holyrood while he studied medicine. I can almost hear his anguish at the absurd mismanagement there.
His horror would have lingered on the evasion of responsibility. Every entrepreneur has to be responsible for his assets, one of which is his reputation.
If the centenary of his death this April goes unremarked by a nation ignorant of his name, is there time to ensure the bi- centenary of his birth in 2012 is celebrated? At its most venal, Haddington needs a peg for some tourist publicity. East Lothian Council should make 16 April Samuel Smiles Day and declare a holiday.
John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Self Help is available from Civitas at www.civil-society.org.uk for £4.60.