The grandfather of modern self-help

by Emrys Westacott

1859 was not a bad year for publishing in Britain. Books that came out that year included Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The first installments of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White also made their appearance. And Samuel Smiles published Self-Help.

The fiction in this list remains fairly popular. Mill’s essay is generally considered a foundational text of modern liberalism and is widely used in political science undergraduate courses. Few people other than serious historians of science read On the Origin of Species in its entirety, but its standing as one of the most important and influential works ever penned is unassailable. Self-Help, by contrast, is rarely read or referred to these day except by literary and cultural historians of the Victorian era. Yet in its day it was an immediate bestseller, was quickly translated into several languages, and established Smiles’ reputation, thereby enabling him to settle into the ranks of those who, by dint of their own efforts, had achieved success and security.

Self-help books have been around for a long time, of course. One of the purposes of Plato’s dialogues was to direct people towards living the good life for a human being. Epictetus’ Handbook offered the same promise from a Stoic perspective. Plutarch’s Lives, at least some of them, have long been taken to provide inspirational models. But in the modern era, few texts in this category have been as influential, at least in their day, as Self-Help. Perhaps its most important precursor was Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, which tells how its author rose from an impoverished nobody to a highly respected somebody, and was explicitly written to illustrate the process. Read more »

The work ethic and transferable virtues

by Emrys Westacott

The view that everyone who is capable has a basic duty to work and not be idle is the main tenet of what we call the work ethic. Closely related to this are two other ideas:

  1.  A person’s approach to work reveals something of their moral character.
  2.  The activity of working itself fosters certain important moral virtues.

The first idea, that moral character is expressed through work, itself contains two distinct claims.

First, workers are seen as morally superior to shirkers. Being willing to work hard, to take on difficult or unrewarding tasks, to do one’s fair share, to go “above and beyond” one’s basic obligations, are almost universally viewed as admirable qualities. To be sure, a couple of caveats are in order. The old saw that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, ” while not exactly a moral remonstrance, is a reminder of the need for balance in life, both for an individual’s wellbeing and for that of those closest to them. In addition, one can easily imagine some situations where a person’s zeal at work may be viewed by their peers unfavorably. “Swots” in school are often unpopular. Employees who look to impress their supervisors with how hard they work may be resented by their workmates for raising what is expected of everyone else, and for having embraced the values of capital (standing out and getting on) rather than of labour (solidarity). In general, though, and especially in any social setting–school, workplace, household, playing field, or voluntary institution–a willingness to work hard is typically applauded.

Second, how a person works is also widely viewed as revealing something about their moral character. Most obviously, diligence, conscientiousness, and the careful exercise of skills acquired laboriously are often taken to be morally significant. Just as such things as literacy, problem solving, or personnel management are considered “transferable skills” that can be deployed in many different contexts, so the qualities just mentioned are often viewed as what might be called “transferable virtues”: traits that will render someone valuable to have around and worthy of moral esteem. (By contrast, “transferable vices” would include sloppiness, lack of attention to detail, not being bothered to learn what is necessary for a task, and willingness to settle for second or third rate outcomes.)

How much validity is there to such inferences about transferable virtues? Read more »