February 02, 2011

Self-Help; Or, Getting by on Smiles

happiness and well-being as individuals… must necessarily depend mainly upon [one’s] own diligent self-culture, self-discipline, and self-control – and, above all, on that honest and upright performance of individual duty, which is the glory of manly character (Samuel Smiles, Self-help, 1860).
I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned Smiles before. Seems to me that his most famous tome, now firmly out of fashion and looked upon in some ways as a quaint relic, ought really to have a force of relevance for today. Smiles lived by what he preached in many ways, transcending and uniting social class through an adherence to hard work and application. Smiles’ figure of the gentleman acquired his status not through birth or through wealth, but through character. We live in a time when certain forces might deny that to us, but Smiles would have exhorted us to persist. I shall return to Smiles in the near future, but for now I shall let his words stand by themselves. They require little immediate commentary from this humble historian.

The crown and glory of life is character. It is the noblest possession of a man, constituting a rank in itself, and an estate in the general good-will; dignifying every station, and exalting every position in society. It exercises a greater power than wealth, and secures all the honour without the jealousies of fame. It carries with it an influence which always tells; for it is the result of proved honour, rectitude, and consistency – qualities which, perhaps more than any other, command the general confidence and respect of mankind.

Character is human nature in its best form. It is moral order embodied in the individual. Men of character are not only the conscience of society, but in every well-governed State they are its best motive power; for it is moral qualities in the main which rule the world… The strength, the industry, and the civilisation of nations – all depend upon individual character; and the very foundations of civil security rest upon it. Laws and institutions are but its outgrowth…

Though a man have comparatively little culture, slender abilities, and but small wealth, yet, if his character be of sterling worth, he will always command an influence, whether it be in the workshop, the counting-house, the mart, or the senate… You may admire men of intellect; but something more is necessary before you will trust them… Character creates confidence in men in high station as well as in humble life…

Truthfulness, integrity, and goodness – qualities that hang not on any man’s breath – form the essence of manly character, or, as one of our old writers has it, ‘that inbred loyalty unto Virtue which can serve her without a livery.’ He who possesses these qualities, united with strength of purpose, carries with him a power which is irresistible. He is strong to do good, strong to resist evil, and strong to bear up under difficulty and misfortune.

…Every man is bound to aim at the possession of a good character, as one of the highest objects of life. The very effort to secure it by worthy means will furnish him with a motive for exertion; and his idea of manhood, in proportion as it is elevated, will steady and animate his motives. It is well to have a high standard of life, even though we may not be able altogether to realize it.


  1. I read that Mr. Smiles is an ancestor of Bear Grylls.

    There is excellent advice here, sir. Thanks again for the effort that you put into the blog, Mr. VB. I do recommend it quite often.

    "When one has not had a good father, one must create one."

  2. Doctor, this reminds me of a Jewish saying, that the fulfillment of the command is the reward itself of the command. Or was it that the command is the reward of the fulfillment of the command? How very odd... - Regardless, this is enough to make one nostalgic for the aristocracy - indeed, men of character... the motive force... always carrying influence... indeed...

  3. Thank you as ever Hilton, for the appreciation and for the promotion. I could talk about the media as surrogate father, but Mrs. VB will accuse me of stealing her ideas.

  4. Well done, I couldn't have said it better. Words to live by, indeed!
    Thanks, Reggie


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