Self-Help: The Classics

Self-Help: The Classics

October 1, 1999


In The Great Gatsby, in order to traduce the bourgeois tradition of boot-strapping, F. Scott Fitzgerald parodied the self-help program of Franklin's Autobiography. That alone would secure this work an honorable place in the pantheon of success literature.

Ironically, though, three facts mitigate against considering Franklin's Autobiography a self-help guide. First, it is in fact an autobiography. Memoirs of Dr. Franklin, written by Himself was the title under which the work was long known. Secondly, the work was never intended to offer the public either advice on personal success or examples of it. Rather, the work was intended as a family memoir, having been composed for Franklin's son. Lastly, as a consequent of the second point, the "self-help" section of the Autobiography is less than 10 percent of the whole. Nevertheless, Americans have long looked upon Franklin's book as their first and greatest work on self-help, and that is how it is considered here.

Now, advice on how to get ahead in the world has been offered at least since the time of the Sophists. What makes Franklin's Autobiography original is that it offers self-help instruction for the Enlightenment world. Written in 1771, it illustrates through Franklin's life the new ways in which Enlightenment society had opened up for people who were not well-born. Unlike earlier self-help works, that is, the Autobiography does not envision success being achieved through politics, war, or patronage, but rather through the bourgeois virtues, especially industriousness.

The Enlightenment spirit also informs that brief section in which Franklin sets down his precepts for success. For example, he notes that his scheme of virtue lacks "any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect." With even greater naturalism, he says:

It was my design to explain and enforce this doctrine, that vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful; that it was, therefore, every one's interest to be virtuous who wished to be happy, even in this world.

Lastly, of the virtues Franklin sets down, only Humility is overtly Christian. And, he tells us, this was added to an original twelve at the suggestion of a Quaker friend. One suspects Franklin was not quite serious about the addition, for he elaborates the goal as "Imitate Jesus and Socrates." A less humble guide to humility can hardly be imagined. Franklin then goes on to note: "I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it." Given the connection Franklin sees between virtue and happiness, the remark suggests he considered humility a sham virtue.


When we pass from the Enlightenment era to the Industrial Revolution, the ideal of the self-made man becomes much stronger, and this work by Samuel Smiles is the greatest nineteenth-century exposition of the ideal.

In the mid-1840s, it seems, a few young men "of humblest rank" sought to better themselves through mutual self-education; quickly, their numbers reached 100, and, at that point, a delegation from the group waited upon the railway executive Samuel Smiles, to see if he would address them. "Touched by the admirable self-helping spirit which they had displayed," Smiles writes, "[I] felt that a few words of encouragement, honestly and sincerely uttered, might not be without some good effect." In the years that followed, Smiles kept adding to the inspiring anecdotes he had related to the young men, and by 1859 he had a collection worth publishing. By 1900, Self-Help had sold a quarter of a million copies. And it had been translated not only into the West European languages but into Arabic, Turkish, and Japanese. Smiles (1812–1904) had become the troubadour for the get-ahead generations of the Victorian Age.

Unfortunately, Self-Help is an ungainly book, not structured to make a coherent argument. The second chapter, for example, takes up "Leaders of Industry." That is a fine start. But the third chapter then seems almost ludicrous: "Three Great Potters." (To be sure, one of them is Josiah Wedgwood.) With the fourth chapter, Smiles takes two virtues as his topic: "Application and Perseverance." But chapter 7, "Industry and the Peerage," is devoted to the unbourgeois sentiment that, in the end, there is nothing quite like having one's children join the landed gentry.

Too, it must be admitted that many of Smiles's examples are dated. What may well have been an admirable degree of achievement in the eyes of contemporaries does not guarantee 150 years of popular fame. Thus, when rattling off lists of people who have risen by their own efforts, Smiles writes:

From the weaver class have sprung Simson the mathematician, Bacon the sculptor, the two Milners, Adam Walker, John Foster, Wilson the ornithologist, Dr. Livingstone the missionary traveller, and Tannahill the poet.

Of these, I dare say, only Livingstone is popularly known, though several of the others would still be known to specialists. As a general technique, however, the book's profusion of such lists is impressive. It demonstrates that rising by self-help is not a rare event but a common one. Smiles then juxtaposes these lists with two- to three-page accounts of a successful individual's life. The combination is stirring.

Another virtue of Self-Help is the emphasis it puts on outstanding, publicly known achievements. These are not stories about someone who turned a struggling smithy into a successful one. Still less are they abstractly described victories of some anonymous Mr. X and how he became wealthy. I said above that the book's examples are dated, and they are, but most of the people I cited have entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But if Smiles is concrete when it comes to the achievements of his exemplars, he is vague when it comes to precise techniques. Again and again, Smiles lauds perseverance, but this raises two questions: (1) Are there techniques for persevering? Or is it a matter of sheer will? And (2) What distinguishes successful perseverance from beating one's head against a wall? Smiles does not say.

On the other hand, Smiles does make it clear the necessary role of character—a word not much employed by the self-help movement these days.

That character is power, is true in a much higher sense than that knowledge is power. Mind without heart, intelligence without conduct, cleverness without goodness, are powers in their way, but they may be powers only for mischief. . . . Truthfulness, integrity, and goodness—qualities that hang not on any man's breath—form the essence of manly character. . . . He who possesses these qualities, united with strength of purposes, carries with him a power that is irresistible.


Contrasting Dale Carnegie's book with Self-Help, one notices immediately the gulf that separates them. For better or worse, for better and worse, Carnegie does not urge people to make a difference in the world. He simply urges people to improve their life in all its aspects: "handling a child, winning a spouse to your way of thinking, or satisfying an irritated customer." The only perseverance Carnegie emphasizes is perseverance in mastering his techniques. And as for character: His ideal man seems to have only the virtue of admitting his mistakes.

Yet Carnegie does stir the reader with two tactics Smiles lacks. First, he offers extremely concrete advice, set down in precise rules. Indeed, when he began teaching his method, he handed out his rules on a card no longer than a postcard; in the current edition, the rules still number only thirty. Secondly, along with examples illustrating the efficacy of his rules, Carnegie offers testimony that these rules work. It is one thing to say, "Here is why the Duke of Wellington won." It is another to say, "Here is personal testimony to the success of my course from a businessman."

But what of morality? In a book on classical philosophy, W. T. Jones says the Sophists taught people "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Is that fair? Does Carnegie go to unethical lengths when helping us improve our interpersonal skills? Giving him the benefit of every doubt, I see two troublesome precepts, and one is the very first: "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain." Why?

When dealing with people, let us remember that we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures, bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.

Carnegie seems not to notice that, just by writing that paragraph, he has criticized and condemned his reader.

Later in his work, Carnegie sets down the rule: "Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, 'You're wrong.'" Those are two different principles. In an anecdote, Carnegie tells how he once insisted to a man that a quotation he was attributing to the Bible was from Shakespeare. In fact, it was from Hamlet, but when Carnegie and his opponent appealed to a literary authority who was present he said it was from the Bible. Afterward, Carnegie said: "You knew that quotation was from Shakespeare." To which the literary authority replied, "Yes, of course. . . . But why tell a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you?"

Yet he did tell a man he was wrong. He told Carnegie—and he lied to do it.