Self-Help (book)

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Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid.jpg
Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid
AuthorSamuel Smiles
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherJohn Murray
Publication date
Preceded byThe Life of George Stephenson 
Followed byBrief Biographies 

Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct was a book published in 1859 by Samuel Smiles. The second edition of 1866 added Perseverance to the subtitle. It has been called "the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism".[1]


Smiles was not very successful in his careers as a doctor and journalist. He joined several cooperative ventures, but they failed for lack of capital. Disillusioned, he turned away from middle-class utopianism. He finally found intellectual refuge and national fame in the isolation of self-help.[2] He extolled the virtues of self-help, industry, and perseverance. However, he rejected the application of 'laissez faire' to critical areas such as public health and education.[3] According to Asa Briggs:

Self-help was one of the favorite mid-Victorian virtues. Relying on yourself was preferred morally--and economically--to depending on others. It was an expression of character even when it did not endure....The progressive development of society ultimately depended, it was argued, not on collective action or on parliamentary legislation but on the prevalence of practices of self-help.[4]

Smiles built his argument using three concepts from the 18th-century Enlightenment. The concept of environmental determinism gave rise to the "passive" component in his thought. This allowed him to argue for the removal, by government intervention, of major hindrances that prevented the full development of the individual. A second theme was that a person's intellectual faculty matured last. This led him to emphasize the "active" role, stressing self-education and self-help. Finally he assumed there existed a beneficent natural order.[5]

Contents of the second edition[edit]

  1. Preface
  2. Introduction to the First Edition
  3. Descriptive Contents
  1. Self-Help—National and Individual
  2. Leaders of Industry—Inventors and Producers
  3. Three Great Potters—Palissy, Böttgher, Wedgwood
  4. Application and Perseverance
  5. Helps and Opportunities—Scientific Pursuit
  6. Workers in Art
  7. Industry and the Peerage
  8. Energy and Courage
  9. Men of Business
  10. Money—Its Use and Abuse
  11. Self-Culture—Facilities and Difficulties
  12. Example—Models
  13. Character—the True Gentleman


Samuel Smiles by "Spy" in Vanity Fair 1882.

Self-Help sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles' death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million.[6] Self-Help "elevated [Smiles] to celebrity status: almost overnight, he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru".[7] The book was translated and published in Dutch, French, Danish, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, Turkish, and in several Indian languages.[8]

The three didactic self-help juvenile novels published by English author G. A. Henty in the 1880s shows Smiles' influence. Each was an exposition of the philosophy of self-help as expressed by Smiles.[9]

When an English visitor to the Khedive's palace in Egypt asked where the mottoes on the palace's walls originated, he was given the reply: "They are principally from Smeelis, you ought to know Smeelis! They are from his Self-Help; they are much better than the texts from the Koran!"[10]

The socialist Robert Tressell, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, said Self-Help was a book "suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties".[11]

The founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda was significantly influenced by his reading of Self-Help. A copy of Self-Help is under a glass display at the museum that exists on Sakichi Toyoda's birth site.[12]

Robert Blatchford, a socialist activist, said it was "one of the most delightful and invigorating books it has been my happy fortune to meet with" and argued it should be taught in schools. However he also noted that socialists would not feel comfortable with Smiles' individualism but also noted that Smiles denounced "the worship of power, wealth, success, and keeping up appearances".[13]:68–9 A labour leader advised Blatchford to stay away from it: "It's a brutal book; it ought to be burnt by the common hangman. Smiles was the arch-Philistine, and his book the apotheosis of respectability, gigmanity, and selfish grab".[13]:68 However Jonathan Rose has argued that most pre-1914 labour leaders who commented on Self-Help praised it and it was not until after the First World War that criticisms of Smiles in worker's memoirs appeared.[13]:68–9 The Labour Party MPs William Johnson and Thomas Summerbell admired Smiles' work and the Communist miners leader A. J. Cook "started out with Self-Help".[13]:69 Alexander Tyrell, (1970) argues that there were multiple value systems among the middle class, and that Smiles approach was one of many.[14]


  1. ^ M. J. Cohen and John Major (eds.), History in Quotations (London: Cassell, 2004), p. 611.
  2. ^ Robert J. Morris, "Samuel Smiles and the genesis of Self-Help; the retreat to a petit bourgeois utopia." Historical Journal 24.1 (1981): 89-109.
  3. ^ Asa Briggs, "Samuel Smiles: The Gospel of Self-Help." History Today (May 1987) 37#5 pp 37–43.
  4. ^ Briggs, 1987, p. 37.
  5. ^ T.H.E. Travers, "Samuel Smiles and the origins of 'self-help': Reform and the new enlightenment." Albion 9.2 (1977): 161–187.
  6. ^ Peter W. Sinnema, 'Introduction', in Samuel Smiles, Self-Help (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. vii.
  7. ^ Sinnema, p. vii.
  8. ^ Briggs, Asa (2015). "Chapter 5 : Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work". Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-67. University of Chicago Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-226-21947-9 – via DE GRUYTER. closed access
  9. ^ *Jeffrey Richards, "Spreading the Gospel of Self-Help: G. A. Henty and Samuel Smiles", Journal of Popular Culture, 16 (1982), pp. 52–65.
  10. ^ Sinnema, p. xxiv.
  11. ^ Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Penguin, 2004), pp. 572–73.
  12. ^ Jeffrey K Liker, The Toyota Way (McGraw Hill, 2004), pp. 17.
  13. ^ a b c d Rose, J.; Yale University Press (2001). The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Yale Nota Bene. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-08886-1.
  14. ^ Alexander Tyrell, "Class Consciousness in Early Victorian Britain: Samuel Smiles, Leeds Politics, and the Self-Help Creed." Journal of British Studies 9.2 (1970): 102-125.

Further reading[edit]

  • Asa Briggs, "Samuel Smiles: The Gospel of Self-Help." History Today (May 1987) 37#5 pp 37–43.
  • Asa Briggs, "Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work" in Asa Briggs, Victorian People (1955) pp. 116–139, online
  • Asa Briggs, 'A Centenary Introduction' to Self-Help by Samuel Smiles (London: John Murray, 1958).
  • Tom Butler-Bowdon, Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, in 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2003).
  • Christopher Clausen, "How to Join the Middle Classes with the Help of Dr. Smiles and Mrs. Beeton", American Scholar, 62 (1993), pp. 403–18. online
  • Kenneth Fielden, 'Samuel Smiles and Self-Help', Victorian Studies, 12 (1968), pp. 155–76.
  • Lord Harris of High Cross, 'Foreword', Self-Help (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 1996).
  • Sir Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1975).
  • Sir Keith Joseph, 'Foreword', Self-Help (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986).
  • R. J. Morris, "Samuel Smiles and the Genesis of 'Self-Help'", Historical Journal, 24 (1981), pp. 89–109. online
  • Jeffrey Richards, "Spreading the Gospel of Self-Help: G. A. Henty and Samuel Smiles", Journal of Popular Culture, 16 (1982), pp. 52–65.
  • Tim Travers, "Samuel Smiles and the Origins of 'Self-Help': Reform and the New Enlightenment", Albion, 9 (1977), pp. 161–87. online
  • Tim Travers, "Samuel Smiles and the Pursuit of Success in Victorian Britain," Canadian Historical Association Historical Papers (1971) pp 154–168.
  • Alexander Tyrrell, "Class Consciousness in Early Victorian Britain: Samuel Smiles, Leeds Politics, and the Self-Help Creed." Journal of British Studies 9.2 (1970): 102-125. online

External links[edit]