Remembering a Classic, and the Man Who Wrote It

Samuel Smiles
Samuel Smiles

In 1870, the Sultan of Turkey gave a book by a Scotsman to his entire entourage of top ranking officials. The Khedive of Egypt had the same work inscribed and painted on the wall of the Royal harem. Two years later, the Meiji dynasty ordered the book to be issued throughout Tokyo’s school system. Eventually, every prefecture in Japan followed suit. General George Custer described the volume as his favorite text. Many people kept it next to their Bible.

What was this book, and who was its author? It was called, simply, “Self Help,” and its author was a man named Samuel Smiles.

To Smiles, the road to riches was not paved with over-reaching ambition, disregard for others, or cutting corners when it came to matters of truth. It didn’t mean securing favors from government at the expense of the competition.

When he died at the age of 86, exactly 100 years ago this month, in 1904, only Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege three years earlier was said to have surpassed that of Samuel Smiles. He was loved not only for his book, but also for a wealth of other works that celebrated the virtues of independence, thrift, civility, character and hard work.

The cover of the 2002 Oxford University Press edition of “Self-Help” declares that the book “is the precursor of today’s motivational and self-help literature” and that it “awakens readers to their own potential and instills the desire to succeed.” In his lifetime, the author inspired riots in Belgrade, carnivals in Milan, and plaudits from leaders the world over. But sadly, just a century since Smiles died, he is largely unremembered in his native Scotland. Needless to say, decades of the British welfare state have not been kind to a man who preached personal independence and entrepreneurial capitalism.

Dipping into its pages is a curious experience. In part, you travel back in time to his mid-19th century perceptions. To Smiles, the son of a poor farmer, human nature was both timeless and locationless. It is as good for a Japanese man of commerce to exhibit the plain virtues of honesty, punctuality, diligence and energy as it is for a Swede or an American. Today, his message is especially needed in our major cities, where far too many of our citizens have been conned into expecting a handout from the government.

“Self-Help,” which appeared in 1859, had the most humble of origins. It began as a series of evening lectures to apprentice engineers in Leeds. A kind of Victorian Dale Carnegie, Smiles thumped his message home in a way that moved and inspired almost everybody of his time. Live and trade with integrity and you lift all you meet, not just yourself, he argued. Character, the sum of one’s choices and actions, is of paramount importance; indeed, Smiles called it “the crown and glory of life” and the very thing upon which “the strength, the industry, and the civilization of nations,” depend. Being a man of faith, Smiles would agree with Rick Warren, author of the current bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” that one’s time on earth is meant to be a time of “character building for eternity.”

To Smiles, the road to riches was not paved with over-reaching ambition, disregard for others, or cutting corners when it came to matters of truth. It didn’t mean securing favors from government at the expense of the competition. He celebrated honest enterprise, applauded personal responsibility, and defined the proper source of wealth as what we do for ourselves, not what government might forcibly redistribute in our direction.

The books of Samuel Smiles are full of inspiring stories of 19th century entrepreneurs who often rejected the easy path of unprincipled compromise and the fast buck, and instead treated others according to the Golden Rule and went to their graves with their character and integrity intact.

In painstaking detail, he explained why keeping high our standards of speech and conduct was not just worthwhile, but was an indispensable ingredient of freedom and progress. Life to him was not an ego trip. It was not about calling attention to oneself, but rather, about being the best one can be in all endeavors. The fame and fortune that might follow was secondary, and imposed additional responsibilities to use that fame and fortune to foster virtue in others.

Does Smiles’ message bear relevance for society today? Scandalous headlines and television spectacles that depict degraded standards suggest we would all benefit by dusting off the work of Samuel Smiles and learning again what we should never have forgotten.

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John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, England. Lawrence Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. More information is available at Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.


“Self Help,” by Samuel Smiles, published in 1859, was the precursor of today’s motivational self-help literature. It inspired a generation to the virtues of honesty, integrity and personal excellence.

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