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 »

The justification of Idling

by Emrys Westacott

The work ethic is deeply ingrained in much of modern society, both Eastern and Western, and there are many forces making sure that this remains the case. Parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, employers, and many other shapers of souls or makers of opinion constantly repeat the idea that hard work is the key to success–in any particular endeavour, or in life itself. It would be a brave graduation speaker who seriously urged their young listeners to embrace idleness. (I did once hear Ariana Huffington advise Smith College graduates to “sleep their way to the top,” but she essentially meant that they should avoid burn out by ensuring that they get sufficient rest.)

There are, to be sure, some distinguished critics of the work ethic. In a 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote that “immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” In his view, “the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

But Russell doesn’t really praise idleness as that word is normally understood. True, what he advocates is less work and more free time so that people can spend most of their days doing as they please. But he clearly thinks that some ways of spending one’s time are better than others. He hopes, for instance, that, better education will reduce the chances that a person’s leisure time will be “spent in pure frivolity.” He prefers active recreation, like dancing, to passive recreation, like watching sport. And he strongly prefers cerebral to manual activity. He writes, for instance, that

moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were we would have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.

(For a brilliant logician, this is an extraordinarily bad piece of reasoning. An activity could be one of the possible ends of human life without being the only end or the “highest” end. Equally remarkable, though, is the intellectual snobbery the statement betrays, suggesting as it does that writing a play is self-evidently a “superior” goal to any kind of skilled feat of craftsmanship or engineering.) Read more »