“Doing it for your self” is a deeply engrained human instinct, something built up in the human genome over millions of years that increases our ability to survive. It’s about resilience, the determination that the more you can do for yourself, the more in control of your future you believe yourself to be.
As a species humans are a bundle of contradictions. The dismissive comment, “Work fascinates me; I can watch it all day”, is a joke but life is a struggle between seeking to achieve, and sitting back enjoying one’s achievement. Resilience, the ability to stick at something and delay instant gratification needs first to be practiced when young. The three-year-old determined to tie his or her own shoe laces pushes the helpful fingers of its parent out of the way with the rebuff, “Let me do it!” It’s important to recognise that learning to persevere is time well spent. Adults and children alike, we are most proud of those achievements into which we put most of ourselves; something achieved too easily means little to us. People who lack worthwhile work lack pride and self esteem. It was always thus. The statue of Caesar, originally set up in the Forum to overawe the Senate was found by archaeologists two thousand years later to have scratched on its base the proud inscription “Leo me Fecit”… Leo made me. Leo, whoever he was, had a relationship with that statue which Caesar never had, and he knew it.
The Industrial Revolution, which created the wealth that gave mid-Victorian society so much of its social mobility, as a consequence denied factory workers any sense of that personal pride in their daily labour ─ no one had the energy, or the inclination, to scribble “Lizzie made me” on the end of a bolt of cotton cloth being exported to India. This struggle to fulfil yourself against the odds was at its greatest amongst those ranks of society which could most easily relapse into the meaningless life of a factory ‘hand’. There were hundreds of thousands of such men and women who were determined to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and it was Samuel Smiles1, an enigmatic figure ─ one time doctor, sometime journalist, and always a moralist ─ who gave them their confidence.
Happiness and well-being in life, Smiles explained, must necessarily depend on your own character, diligence, self-discipline, self-control, honesty and individual duty. “A man’s character is seen in small matters, and from ever so slight a test as the mode in which a man wields a hammer, his energy may be inferred. A man can achieve almost anything by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial. The spirit of self-help is the root of all economic growth”2. His phrases stick in the mind with the tenacity of a scriptural text. “You are what you make yourself to be (for) help from without is often enfeebling, but help from within invariably invigorates”3.
It was in 1859 that Smiles, having lectured widely to working people, finally turned all these talks into a book entitled, not surprisingly, “Self Help”4. It was an immediate publishing success, selling twenty thousand copies in its first year, and a quarter of a million copies by the end of the century. In its way it was as influential as had been Pilgrim’s Progress two hundred years before. It’s not an easy book to summarise, but it is eminently quotable; “Daily experience shows that it is energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and action of others, and really constitutes the best practical education. Schools, academies and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it. Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men”5.
So, while the ‘comfortable’ classes left the Crystal Palace reflecting on how their new-formed wealth would enable them to fit gracefully into the outer fringes of the establishment, the so called ‘lower middle classes’ were on the march. Just as society in general relies on the energy of adolescence to drive human development by doing those things adults are too “reasonable” to attempt any longer for themselves, so Samuel Smiles gave those youngsters in Victorian society an energy, vision and a belief in themselves that was soon to drive the expansion of the British Empire. Together they gave English society a depth, a solidity and an integrity that went beyond anything that could carry a price tag.
“Self Help” retained its influence well into the early years of the twentieth century6. Even in the years after the second world war there were many people in working-class communities with personal experience of leadership ─ foremen, shop stewards and small business people ─ who respected the hard-working values that Smiles so well described, and which gave their community a vitality and an energy that now seems in short supply fifty years later. A measure of how such cohesion has collapsed is best illustrated by the proportion of the population who generally believe that other people can be trusted; in the late 1950’s it was sixty percent, in the 1980’s it was forty-four percent and in the early twenty-first century it was twenty-nine percent. It is still falling.7
Thesis 45: 24th August 2006