Victimhood and the Victorians: Samuel Smiles and Self-Help

Samuel Smiles’ remarkable and unexpected best-seller Self-Help (1859) was not only a hugely successful book, but it is seen as epitomising some of the lofty ideals of the era. By the time of his death in 1904, over a quarter of a million copies had been sold and the work had been translated into numerous other languages. 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. Smiles’ veneration of hard work and ‘character’ resonated with the prevailing values of many in the burgeoning middle class and, by drawing a line between the grafters and the feckless, his arguments even influenced views on whether the poor were ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ of State assistance. Yet one of his most striking claims was that those in poverty could be considered ‘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. Smiles himself was asked to address the group and it was his subsequent talks that 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 high living, high thinking and energetic action. He firmly believed in their ability to inspire others, as he saw good role models as having an infectious quality that was far more important than providing helpful rules. Indeed, he argued that the ‘practical school of mankind’ was ‘always more forcible than words’ because of the potent instructive quality of example. Smiles even systematically went through the different trades to show the many luminaries who 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).

Victorian challenges

It might surprise some modern readers that there was such a ready market for Self-Help in an era associated with so many towering achievements, but although Britain was the superpower of the nineteenth century, many people experienced considerable challenges in their daily lives. It was a precarious existence for many of the predominantly working-class population, as disease, poverty and a variety of occupational hazards were commonplace. Moreover, rising up the ‘social ladder’ was far from straightforward in what was a highly hierarchical age. The top echelons of society were unsurprisingly dominated by those who had benefitted from an expensive education, at a time when there was no universal or compulsory schooling. Nevertheless, there were many extraordinary individuals who 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 pieces of literature 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.

Victimhood and vitality

Despite the trials and tribulations of Victorian life, Smiles would not accept any notion that someone was, to use modern terminology, a ‘victim’. Instead, he believed that everyone was 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.’ He agreed with the Russian proverb that misfortune was ‘next door to stupidity’, as a man of merit was never neglected. 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.’ ‘Fortune’ he stressed ‘is invariably on the side of the industrious’. Even when chance appeared to play a part in someone’s success, he believed that it was usually because the person had been astute enough to turn an ‘accident’ into an opportunity.

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. The highest philanthropy was not government assistance, which he considered to be largely negative and restrictive, but was in helping people help themselves. He noted that ‘there is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober’. The change needed to come from within.  


His central point reverberating around the whole 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.’ Just as ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’, he saw the invigorating spirit of self-help as the root of genuine growth. After all, he noted, the very definition of employment, was ‘something required to be done’. Whatever someone’s station was in life, they needed to aim for the highest results, because even if they fell short of the target, they could not fail in reaching a point far in advance of where they started. Indeed, he stressed that ‘practical industry, wisely and vigorously applied, never failed, but to carry someone onward and upward’.

The recipe for greatness was not extraordinary, but could be summed up as relating to common sense and perseverance. Hard work was absolutely key, which in turn required the vital ingredient of energy, as well as close observation, diligence and accuracy. An invincible determination was also needed not least to cope with the drudgery that was often needed to succeed. He dismissed the idea that there could be any quick fixes – or fast labour-saving approaches to knowledge – as self-culture was a mental attitude towards growth and learning was therefore a life-long pursuit.

Habit forming

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’. If someone’s time was deployed constructively, even if only a small amount was available, over the long term it would produce dividends. Indeed, he argued human life was ‘made up of comparative trifles’ and failure was often the result of neglecting the little things. He maintained that those who were ‘habitually behind time’, for example, were ‘habitually behind success’. 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. A clear vision for education was also required, as he likened purposes to eggs that unless ‘hatched into action’ would ‘run into rottenness.’ 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.

Smiles did not believe that education was simply limited to the moral or intellectual, however. Like the ancients, he saw the benefits of physical training, such as cricket and boating, even though he acknowledged the idea had ‘somewhat fallen into disrepute’. He supported ‘rational recreation’, as historians have termed it, as a way of producing the solid foundation for youthful strength and vitality. Indeed, avoiding idleness kept the devil away by removing a void in which lust might creep in. 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.’ 

Triumph over adversity

Character, Smiles stressed, was often forged in the ‘school of difficulty’. Facing challenges and failures not only provided a moral education, but also required personal courage. Indeed, 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.‘ 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. Smiles even 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’. By contrast, he believed that too much facility, ease and prosperity could have a damaging effect, as it removed any incentive for hard work. He maintained that precocious peers who found education easy, for example, were often overtaken by the late learners and formerly ‘dull boys’ who put in the greater effort.

Avoiding Vices

There were inevitably many potential pitfalls along the way that Smiles warned against. Although he believed that knowledge was power, he argued that, like ambition, it could also be dangerous if it wasn’t wisely directed. Smiles readily admitted that there were many well-informed intellects around, who lacked practical wisdom and were utterly deformed in character. Indeed, he stressed that knowledge had to be embodied by an upright character, which combined goodness and wisdom.

He also spoke out about having the wrong attitude to money, as he was keenly aware that many people associated success with wealth. Smiles acknowledged the allure of financial gain, but believed its power to be overrated, 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. 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. Thriftlessness, extravagance, improvidence and even hoarding were to be avoided, while self-denial and sacrifices were important for future gain. He also warned against ‘self-imposed taxation’, such as from drinking, which he believed to be contrary to economy, decency, health, and honest living. Indeed, a person could vitiate their whole nature by living ‘too high’ and desiring the ‘front seats at the social amphitheatre’. This, he believed, was a particular problem for the young, as a soul sodden with pleasure could easily fritter away the best qualities of the mind. Yet he 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.’

Stature and happiness

A successful life was not about amusement or money, honour or fame, but was defined by 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 they were ‘honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping’. A person of ‘little culture, slender abilities, and but small wealth’ could command an influence by virtue of their noble thoughts and be considered superior to a rich man of poor spirit.

Developing one’s character wasn’t just a way of becoming a gentleman or gaining power and success, but Smiles argued that it produced no less than ‘the best development possible, of body and spirit – of mind, conscience, heart and soul’. 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.’ 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’. Hope, which he described as the ‘companion of power’ and ‘mother of success’, 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’. It also nurtured self-respect, which he claimed was ‘the most elevating feeling with which the mind can be inspired’.

Industrious influence

Although Smiles’ prescriptions were aimed at the individual, he considered them to be of national importance, as he shared John Stuart Mill’s notion that ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.’ He 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, because it upheld freedom of thought, speech and action. Indeed, 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.’ 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. Indeed, he claimed that ‘the industrious stamp their character upon their age, and influence not only their own, but all succeeding generations.’

Image by Tim Green: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Smiles_(8116935276).jpg

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