Little Things By Samuel Smiles Essay

Samuel Smiles

Self-Help was published the same year as Darwin's Origin of the Species and John Stuart Mill's On LibertyWhile Darwin drew a picture of how closer adaptation to environment refines life, and Mill sketched a society based on liberal values, Smiles gave the world a work that still inspires in its scenes of individuals who have fashioned a life from pure will. Self-Help may not have the scholarly or philosophical depth of the other two, but is seminal to the self-help genre and its ethos of personal responsibility.

In many Victorian homes Self-Help had a status second only to the Bible, and though now considered a classic display of 'Victorian values' (industry, thrift, progress etc.), the old-fashioned turns of phrase and unquestioning morality represent the cover by which we should not judge the book. It is a work within a broader literary tradition that includes Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the novels of Horatio Alger, one in which human beings advance despite the odds.

The self-help ethic comes alive through biography. Smiles knew this, and he packed his book with remarkable people, many now forgotten. He mentions:

  • Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), who while working as an oboist in a travelling orchestra became curious about astronomy. He built his own reflecting telescope, discovered Uranus and other celestial bodies, and became astronomer to the King of England.
  • Bernard Palissy (c.1510-1589), the poor potter who threw his own furniture and fence pailings into a furnace in order to create his famous enamel ware, such tenacity eventually being rewarded by the position as potter to the French throne.
  • Granville Sharp (1735-1813), a clerk who in his spare time began the anti-slavery movement in Britain, eventually getting the law changed to ensure any slave setting foot in Britain would be freed.

Yet these lives are paraded before us not just so that we can marvel, but to give some idea of the vast range of possible models for our own life. Smiles sorts these lives according to how they illuminate the great qualities like tenacity, industry and endurance; they form the chapters of the book.

Hard work and genius

Smiles believed that, since it was about human nature, Self-Help would remain valid. Yet to accept that, you would have to believe that perseverance and unremitting work are still primary elements to success - are they?

The myth of the artist is a person of wild genius who produces masterpieces in creative bursts, yet the common denominator in Smiles 'lives of the artists' is their singular industry and never-say-die application to the task, almost equal to their artistic talent. In showing that many of the methods they pioneered were the result of years of trial and error, he explodes the belief that the most famous artists have the most 'talent'. In fact, talent is not thinly spread, but what is rare is the willingness to put in the back-breaking labour to fulfil an artistic vision. Michelangelo would not have done the Sistine Chapel ceiling if he had not been willing to lie on his back on boards for months on end. It took Titian seven years to produce his Last Supper for Charles V, yet the viewer might assume it was created in a 'burst of genius'.

Smiles notes the motto of both the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and sculptor David Wilkie: 'Work! Work! Work!'. Bach reflected: 'I was industrious; whoever is equally sedulous, will be equally successful.' History has the tendency to turn unwavering commitment and hard graft into grand words like genius, when its subjects knew otherwise.

Smiles wrote:

It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit, so much as purpose - not merely the power to achieve, but the will to labour energetically and perseveringly.

Smiles tells us about George-Louis Buffon (1707-88), who wrote the famous 44-volume Histoire Naturelle, which took stock of all that was known of natural history in his era, and which foreshadowed the theory of evolution. The massive self-discipline needed to complete such a project led Buffon to conclude that 'genius is patience'. Smiles goes on to quote De Maistre who said: 'To know how to wait is the great secret of success', and notes Isaac Newton's understanding of what produced genius: constant thought about the solution of a problem.

Patience, ordering of the mind, and absorption in the task at hand, are the key elements he cites in all our great advances, and government funding or education cannot supply them. They are created talents.


These days the phrase 'character-building' is usually uttered with a laugh to someone contemplating a cold shower or doing a 10-day trek across the Himalayas. As Smiles warned even back in the 1850s, education, wealth, or noble family do not come close to replacing character. Today we live in the so-called knowledge society in which the highest value is taken to be creative deployment of data and information, but he asserted that 'Character is power, more than knowledge is power.' Self-Help may be a simple book for a simpler time, but its dogged reiteration of the need to cultivate personal qualities which bring freedom of mind reveals a timeless truth: that character is something formed in spite of the great forces of instinct and cultural conditioning. Smiles includes a statement by Sir Humphry Davy: 'What I am I have made myself: I say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of heart.' Davy's admission speaks of courage - not as part of exciting tales of derring-do - but of small daily decisions which reaffirm independence. It is the primary ingredient of Stephen Covey's 'highly effective people'.

But where will character get me? How will it make my living? In the 19th century, business was not seen as it tends to be now, the arena for the brightest, most creative minds, yet Smiles was able to see that it would become so. He wasted no time in stripping business to its core element: integrity of word and deed. Since trust is the glue that holds free societies together, it follows that lasting success will be attracted to those who can be trusted. As Max Weber famously argued, this attribute had been so rare that early Protestant merchants, in their utter dependability, scooped up fortunes.

Nothing dulls the mind and destroys character as much as drugs, and Smiles did not miss a chance to praise that most esteemed quality, temperance. How we laugh in the old movies when the preacher rails against this 'road to ruin'. It is the fevered fear of alcohol that amuses, because we are 'sensible' about it. Yet who will admit its less dramatic consequences that add up over a lifetime: the things you don't get done the next day because of the night before, the drinking 'to be social' that does little more than cover an acceptance of mediocrity. Smiles thought of Sir Walter Scott, who said, 'of all vices, drinking is the most incompatible with greatness'.

Final comments

In Samuel Smiles' lifetime, the British Empire covered roughly a quarter of the planet. Like any empire, it spawned its fair share of misery amongst those forced into keeping the whole show going. Its good qualities - social reform, some enlightened political principles, sheer energy and inventiveness - were held together by a larger belief in 'progress'.

One effect of Mill's On Liberty was to make us see such values in relative terms. Yet Smiles reminds us possibly the most important single line that Mill penned, 'The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.' If the progress ideal makes a comeback in the 21st century, it is less likely to be the property of governments than the faith of individuals. While Mill's principle of political liberty is the basic condition for personal progress, it is the ethos of Self-Help that can actually make us do something with our freedom. Interestingly, Smiles was in his earlier life a rabid political reformer, but gave this up when he realised the more pressing type of reform was personal.

Self-Help is monumentally sexist, there being a total lack of women in the biographies. Its small defence is that it was worked up from talks given to working men, who at that time would probably not have stomached female role models. With some more stories of women in the book, it would be less obscure today perhaps, but any reader who can laugh off or forgive Smiles' oversight will be well rewarded. This Titanic of the self-help literature deserves to rise again.

"The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual."

"No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights".

Samuel Smiles 

The eldest of eleven children, Smiles was born in 1812 in Haddington, Scotland, the son of a papermaker. At 14 he left school and worked for three years before enrolling at Edinburgh University to study medicine. After some time as a doctor, his interests soon shifted to politics, and he had a series of articles published on the campaign for parliamentary reform.In 1838 Smiles moved to Leeds to become editor of the radical Leeds Times , where he stayed until 1842. His politics were influenced by the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (John Stuart's father), and among other things he called for freer trade, extension of the suffrage and better conditions for factory workers.

Smiles became disillusioned with political reform and increasingly advocated personal development. In the year he began a career as a railway administrator, he gave the course of lectures that would later be moulded into Self-Help. His biography of George Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive and the modern railways, was published in 1857, but it was Self-Help that brought fame.

It was translated into many languages, and was one of a handful of English titles circulating in Japan after the Meiji restoration, becoming a bible for Western-inspired businessmen. The millionaire industrialist Lord Leverhulme, and the American writer and founder of Success magazine, Orison Swett Marsden, were among many who said they owed their achievements to Self-Help .

Smiles' other works include the pioneering three-volume economic history text, Lives of the Engineers (1874), the books Character (1871), Thrift 
(1875) and Duty (1880), and a life of potter Josiah Wedgwood (1894). An autobiography was published after his death in 1904. 

C.N. Douglas, comp.  Forty Thousand Quotations: Prose and Poetical.  
  “A fig-tree looking on a fig-tree becometh fruitful,” says the Arabian proverb. And so it is with children; their first great instructor is example.
  A woman’s best qualities do not reside in her intellect, but in her affections. She gives refreshment by her sympathies, rather than by her knowledge.
  All that is great in man comes through work; and civilization is its product.
  Although genius always commands admiration, character most secures respect. The former is more the product of the brain, the latter of heart-power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life.
  Biographies of great, but especially of good men are most instructive and useful as helps, guides, and incentives to others. Some of the best are almost equivalent to gospels,—teaching high living, high thinking, and energetic action, for their own and the world’s good.
  Cheerfulness is also an excellent wearing quality. It has been called the bright weather of the heart.
  Childhood is like a mirror, which reflects in after life the images first presented to it.
  Commonplace though it may appear, this doing of one’s duty embodies the highest ideal of life and character. There may be nothing heroic about it; but the common lot of men is not heroic.
  Conscience is that peculiar faculty of the soul which may be called the religious instinct.
  Courage is by no means incompatible with tenderness. On the contrary, gentleness and tenderness have been found to characterize the men, no less than the women, who have done the most courageous deeds.
  Diligence, above all, is the mother of good luck.
  Dr. Johnson held that “impatience of study was the mental disease of the present generation;” and the remark is still applicable. We may not believe that there is a royal road to learning, but we seem to believe very firmly in a “popular” one.
  Experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a state depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men; for the nation is only the aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of personal improvement.
  Genius, without work, is certainly a dumb oracle; and it is unquestionably true that the men of the highest genius have invariably been found to be amongst the most plodding, hard-working, and intent men—their chief characteristic apparently consisting simply in their power of laboring more intensely and effectively than others.
  Good sense, disciplined by experience and inspired by goodness, issues in practical wisdom.
  Great men are always exceptional men; and greatness itself is but comparative. Indeed, the range of most men in life is so limited that very few have the opportunity of being great.
  He who recognizes no higher logic than that of the shilling may become a very rich man, and yet remain all the while an exceedingly poor creature; for riches are no proof whatever of moral worth, and their glitter often serves only to draw attention to the worthlessness of their possessor, as the glow-worm’s light reveals the grub.
  Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.
  His qualities depend, not upon fashion or manners, but upon moral worth; not on personal possessions, but on personal qualities. The Psalmist briefly describes him as one “that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.”
  Home makes the man.
  Honorable industry always travels the same road with enjoyment and duty, and progress is altogether impossible without it.
  Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.
  If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiencies.
  It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failure.
  It is not ease, but effort—not facility, but difficulty, that makes men. There is, perhaps, no station in life in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved.
  It is observed at sea that men are never so much disposed to grumble and mutiny as when least employed. Hence an old captain, when there was nothing else to do, would issue the order to “scour the anchor.”
  It is the close observation of little things which is the secret of success in business, in art, in science, and in every pursuit in life. Human knowledge is but an accumulation of small facts made by successive generations of men—the little bits of knowledge and experience carefully treasured up by them growing at length into a mighty pyramid.
  Liberty is quite as much a moral as a political growth,—the result of free individual action, energy, and independence.
  Life is of little value unless it be consecrated by duty.
  Like men, nations are purified and strengthened by trials.
  Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine; but lost time is gone forever.
  Manners are the ornament of action.
  Men often discover their affinity to each other by the mutual love they have for a book.
  Method is essential, and enables a larger amount of wort to be got with satisfaction. “Method,” said Cecil (afterward Lord Burleigh), “is like packing things in a box; a good packer will get in half as much again as a bad one.” Cecil’s despatch of business was extraordinary; his maxim being, “The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once.”
  Necessity is always the first stimulus to industry, and those who conduct it with prudence, perseverance and energy will rarely fail. Viewed in this light, the necessity of labor is not a chastisement, but a blessing,—the very root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals and civilisation in nations.
  Necessity, oftener than facility, has been the mother of invention; and the most prolific school of all has been the school of difficulty.
  No good thing is ever lost. Nothing dies, not even life which gives up one form only to resume another. No good action, no good example dies. It lives forever in our race. While the frame moulders and disappears, the deed leaves an indelible stamp, and molds the very thought and will of future generations.
  Obedience, submission, discipline, courage—these are among the characteristics which make a man.
  “One might almost fear,” writes a thoughtful woman, “seeing how the women of to-day are lightly stirred up to run after some new fashion or faith, that heaven is not so near to them as it was to their mothers and grandmothers.”
  Politeness goes far, yet costs nothing.
  Purposes, like eggs, unless they be hatched into action, will run into rottenness.
  Self-control is only courage under another form.
  Self-respect is the noblest garment with which a man may clothe himself,—the most elevating feeling with which the mind can be inspired. One of Pythagoras’ wisest maxims, in his Golden Verses, is that in which he enjoins the pupil to “reverence himself.”
  Stagnant satisfaction!
  Stothard learned the art of combining colors by closely studying butterflies’ wings; he would often say that no one knew what he owed to these tiny insects. A burnt stick and a barn-door served Wilkie in lieu of pencil and canvas.
  Sympathy is the golden key that unlocks the hearts of others.
  The best school of discipline is home. Family life is God’s awn method of training the young, and homes are very much as women make them.
  The career of a great man remains an enduring monument of human energy. The man dies and disappears, but his thoughts and acts survive, and leave an indelible stamp upon his race.
  The cheapest of all things is kindness, its exercise requiring the least possible trouble and self-sacrifice. “Win hearts,” said Burleigh to Queen Elizabeth, “and you have all men’s hearts and purses.”
  The egotist is next door to a fanatic.
  The government of a nation itself is usually found to be but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The government that is head of the people will be inevitably dragged down to their level, as the government that is behind them will in the long run be dragged up.
  The great highroad of human welfare lies along the old highway of steadfast well-doing; and they who are the most persistent, and the work in the truest spirit, will invariably be he most successful; success treads on the heels of every right effort.
  The great lesson of biography is to show what man can be and do at his best. A noble life put fairly on record acts like an inspiration to others.
  The path of success in business is invariably the path of common-sense. Notwithstanding all that is said about “lucky hits,” the best kind of success in every man’s life is not that which comes by accident. The only “good time coming” we are justified in hoping for is that which we are capable of making for ourselves.
  The Romans rightly employed the same word (virtus) to designate courage, which is, in a physical sense, what the other is in a moral; the highest virtue of all being victory over ourselves.
  The truest politeness comes of sincerity.
  The tyrant, it has been said, is but a slave turned inside out.
  The women of the poorer classes make sacrifices, and run risks, and bear privations, and exercise patience and kindness to a degree that the world never knows of, and would scarcely believe even if it did know.
  There are many persons of whom it may be said that they have no other possession in the world but their character, and yet they stand as firmly upon it as any crowned king.
  There is a Russian proverb which says that misfortune is next door to stupidity; and it will generally be found that men who are constantly lamenting their ill luck are only reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, improvidence, or want of application.
  Though an inheritance of acres may be bequeathed, an inheritance of knowledge and wisdom cannot. The wealthy man may pay others for doing his work for him; but it is impossible to get his thinking done for him by another, or to purchase any kind of self-culture.
  Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their author’s minds, ages ago.
  True politeness is consideration for the opinions of others. It has been said of dogmatism that it is only puppyism come to its full growth; and certainly the worst form this quality can assume is that of opinionativeness and arrogance.
  We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success; we often discover what will do by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery. Horne Tooke used to say of his studies in intellectual philosophy, that he had become all the better acquainted with the country through having had the good luck sometimes to lose his way.
  Woman, above all other educators, educates humanly. Man is the brain, but woman is the heart, of humanity.

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