Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct
By Samuel Smiles
It is an interesting question to ask oneself how the ideas of academic economists, like Adam
Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say for example, were made available to the ordinary person who does not normally read multi-volume academic tracts. In the first half of the 19th century we see this role of popularizer of economic ideas being taken up by a number of people who wrote what we would now call economic journalism or who gave popular lectures to working class audiences or who wrote what might be called “economic stories or tales” which were sold in a cheap and popular book format. In France, Frédéric Bastiat was a good example of the economic journalist who took complex economic theory and rendered it down for a more popular audience. In Britain there was Thomas Hodgskin who gave lectures on free trade to “mechanics institutes” (what we might now call adult education groups) and who wrote articles for the recently founded “Economist” magazine (the forefather of the “Economist” which continues to this day). In the United States, we see William Leggett defending free market ideas in a number of newspapers in the Jacksonian era. Women too were involved in this important task. Harriet Martineau and Jane Marcet wrote semi-fictional “moral tales” with a strong economic component which were aimed at convincing working class audiences of the benefits of free trade, industrialization, and the free market in general. One of the best selling authors in this vein was Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). A Scot who originally trained as a doctor before turning to journalism fulltime, Smiles wrote for a popular audience to show people how best to take advantage of the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution which was sweeping Britain and other parts of the world in the first half of the 19th century. In his best known work, “Self-Help” (published in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and John Stuart Mill’s“On Liberty”) he combines Victorian morality with sound free market ideas into moral tales showing the benefits of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance, and a sound moral character. He drew upon the personal success stories of the emerging self-made millionaires in the pottery industry (Josiah Wedgwood), the railway industry (Watt and Stephenson), and the weaving industry (Jacquard) to make his point that the benefits of the market were open to anyone.
Dr. David M. Hart
First Pub. Date
Boston: Ticknor and Fields
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Samuel Smiles: frontispiece, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
“Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself.”—
“These two things, contradictory as they may seem, must go together,—manly dependence and manly independence, manly reliance and manly self-reliance.”—
SELF-CULTURE includes the education or training of all parts of a man’s nature; the physical and moral, as well as the intellectual. Each must be developed, and yet each must yield something to satisfy the claims of the others. Cultivate the physical powers exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster. It is only by wisely training all three together that the complete man can be formed.
The ancients laid great stress on physical training, and a sound mind in a sound body was the end which they professed to aim at in their highest schools of culture. The Greek teachers were peripatetic, holding that young men should only learn what they could learn standing. The old English entertained a similar idea, embodied in the maxim, “The field in summer, the study in winter.” Milton described himself as up and stirring early in the morning,—”in winter, often ere the sound of any bell wakes man to labor or devotion; in summer, as oft with
the bird that first rouses, or not much tardier, to read good authors, or to cause them to be read till the attention be ready, or memory have its full fraught; then, with clear and generous labor, preserving the body’s health and hardiness, to render lightsome, clear, and not lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause of religion, and our country’s liberty.” In his “Tractate on Education” he recommends the physical exercise of fencing to young men, as calculated to “keep them healthy, nimble, strong, and well in breath, and also as the likeliest means to make them grow large and tall, and inspire them with a gallant and fearless courage,” and he further urges that they should “be practised in all the locks and grips of wrestling, wherein Englishmen were wont to excel.”
In our day, such exercises have somewhat fallen into disrepute, and education has become more exclusively mental; very much to the detriment of the bodily health. The brain is cultivated at the expense of the members, and the physical is usually found in an inverse ratio to the intellectual appetite. Hence, in this age of progress, we find so many stomachs weak as blotting-paper,—hearts indicating “fatty degeneration,”—unused, pithless hands, calveless legs and limp bodies, without any elastic spring in them. But it is not merely health that suffers by neglect and disuse of the bodily organs. The mind itself grows sickly and distempered, the pursuit of knowledge itself is impeded, and manhood becomes withered, twisted, and stunted. It is, perhaps, to this neglect of physical exercise that we find amongst students so frequent a tendency towards discontent, unhappiness, inaction, and reverie,—displaying itself in a premature contempt for real life, and disgust at the beaten tracks of men,—a tendency which in England has been called Byronism,
and in Germany Wertherism. Dr. Channing noted the same growth in America, which led him to make the remark, that “too many of our young men grow up in a school of despair.” The only remedy for this greensickness in youth is abundant physical exercise,—action, work, and bodily occupation of any sort.
Daniel Malthus urged his son when at college to be most diligent in the cultivation of knowledge, but he also enjoined him to pursue manly sports as the best means of keeping up the full working-power of his mind, as well as of enjoying the pleasures of intellect. “Every kind of knowledge,” said he, “every acquaintance with nature and art, will amuse and strengthen your mind, and I am perfectly pleased that cricket should do the same by your arms and legs; I love to see you excel in exercises of the body, and I think myself that the better half, and much the most agreeable part, of the pleasures of the mind, is best enjoyed while one is upon one’s legs.” But a still more important use of active employment is that enforced by the great divine, Jeremy Taylor. “Avoid idleness,” he says, “and fill up all the spaces of thy time with severe and useful employment; for lust easily creeps in at those emptinesses where the soul is unemployed, and the body is at ease; for no easy, healthful, idle person was ever chaste if he could be tempted; but of all employments, bodily labor is the most useful, and of the greatest benefit for driving away the devil.”
Practical success in life depends much more upon physical health than is generally imagined. Hodson, of Hodson’s Horse, writing home to a friend in England, said, “I believe, if I get on well in India, it will be owing, physically speaking, to a sound digestion.” The capacity for continuous working in any calling must necessarily
mainly depend upon this; and hence the necessity for attending to health, even as a means of intellectual labor itself. It is in no slight degree to the boating and cricketing sports, still cultivated at our best public schools and universities, that they produce so many specimens of healthy, manly, and vigorous men, of the true Hodson stamp. It is said that the Duke of Wellington, when once looking on at the boys engaged in their sports in the play-ground at Eton, where he had spent his own juvenile days, made the pregnant remark, “It was there that the battle of Waterloo was won!”
The cultivation of muscularity may doubtless be overestimated; yet it is unquestionably important that every young man should be early trained to the free use of his body and limbs. This, however, is one of the “common things” in modern education which is apt to be neglected. There are many youths who leave school and college full of the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who, as regards the use of their own hands, are almost helpless. In gerunds and participles the mere student may be profound, but in the use of his eyes,—in the faculty of common observation,—he may be inferior to a ploughman. Though he may have taken the highest honors, he will sometimes, in common matters, be found beneath the level of the smith, the carpenter, or the navvy. “At sea he is a landlubber, in the country a cockney, in town a greenhorn, in science an ignoramus, in business a simpleton, in pleasure a milksop,—everywhere out of his element, everywhere at sea, in the clouds, adrift, or by whatever words utter ignorance and incapacity are to be described.”
Perhaps, as educators grow wiser, they may become
more practical, and recognize as among the chief objects of education, to fit men for actual life, and enable them to understand and take part in the daily business of common men. Nor would the education of youths in common things be found incompatible with the very highest intellectual culture, but the reverse. Even some training in the use of tools in a workshop, for instance, would be found a good adjunct to education,—for it would teach young men the use of their hands and arms, familiarize them with healthy work, exercise their faculties upon things tangible and actual, give them some practical acquaintance with mechanics, impart to them the ability of being useful, and implant in them the habit of persevering physical effort. This is an advantage which the working classes, strictly so called, certainly possess over the leisure classes,—that they are in early life under the necessity of applying themselves laboriously to some mechanical pursuit or other,—thus acquiring manual dexterity and the use of their physical powers. The chief disadvantage attached to the calling of the laborious classes is, not that they are employed in physical work, but that they are too exclusively so employed, often to the neglect of their moral and intellectual faculties. While the youths of the leisure classes, having been taught to associate labor with servility, have shunned it, and been allowed to grow up practically ignorant, the poorer classes, confining themselves within the circle of their laborious callings, have been allowed to grow up in a large proportion of cases absolutely illiterate. It seems possible, however, to avoid both these evils by combining physical training or physical work with intellectual culture; and there are various signs abroad which seem to mark the gradual adoption of this healthier system of education.
The use of early labor in self-imposed mechanical employments is curiously illustrated by the boyhood of Sir Isaac Newton. Though a comparatively dull scholar, he was most assiduous in the use of his saw, hammer, and hatchet,—”knocking and hammering in his lodging-room,”—making models of windmills, carriages, and machines of all sorts; and as he grew older, he took delight in making little tables and cupboards for his friends. Smeaton, Watt, and Stephenson, were equally handy with tools when mere boys; and but for such kind of self-culture in their youth, it is doubtful whether they would have accomplished so much in their manhood. Such was also the early training of the great inventors and mechanics described in the preceding pages, whose contrivance and intelligence were practically trained by the constant use of their hands in early life. Even where men belonging to the manual labor class have risen above it, and become more purely intellectual laborers, they have found the advantages of their early training in their later pursuits. Elihu Burritt even found hard labor
necessary to enable him to study with effect; and more than once he gave up school-keeping and study, and taking to his leather apron again, went back to his blacksmith’s forge and anvil, for his health of body and mind’s sake.
The same view was well urged by Mr. R. M. Milnes, M. P., at a recent meeting of a mechanics’ institute. “He believed,” he said, “that the habit of mechanical work,—precise, earnest, industrious, good, mechanical work,—would best lead men on to good mental and intellectual work. A good workman in the materials of life would, if he had the talent, be a good workman in the materials of the mind; and thus it was that they found that the most
remarkable men who had risen from the lower ranks of society, had not risen from those who had abstained from work, but from those who had been the most industrious, the most active, and the most intelligent in their own mechanical occupations. There were two things which operated against young men advancing in intellectual progress,—over-work and under-work. He thought it no disadvantage whatever to a man’s intellectual progress to have something else to do; and if they looked at the upper classes of society they would find it was equally true in their case as it was in their own,—namely, that the man who had the most active occupation was the man who in public life the most distinguished himself, and became the most useful to his country.”
The success even of professional men depends in no slight degree on their organic stamina and cultivated physical strength. Thus a well-developed thorax is considered almost as indispensable to the successful lawyer or politician as a well-cultured intellect. The thorough aeration of the blood, by free exposure to a large breathing surface in the lungs, is necessary to maintain that full vital power on which the vigorous working of the brain in so large a measure depends. The lawyer has to climb the heights of his profession through close and heated courts, and the political leader has to bear the fatigue and excitement of long and anxious debates in a crowded House. Hence the lawyer in full practice, and the parliamentary leader in full work, are called upon to display powers of physical endurance and activity even more extraordinary than those of the intellect,—such powers as have been exhibited in so remarkable a degree by Brougham, Lyndhurst, and Campbell; by Peel, Graham, and Palmerston,—all full-chested men.
The marvellous and still juvenile vitality of Lord Palmerston has long been matter of surprise. But it was his pride and pleasure as a youth, to be the best rower, jumper, and runner; to be first in the sports of the field as he has since been first in the senate; and to this day his horse and gun are invariably resorted to in his hours of relaxation. As for Lord Brougham, legends of his enormous powers of labor and triumphs over the frail physique of humanity, have gathered round him like a Hercules; and with reference to him and others of his class, the observation of a public writer
*17 is doubtless in a great measure true,—that “the greatness of our great men is quite as much a bodily affair as a mental one.” It is in the physical man that the moral as well as the intellectual man lies hid; and it is through the bodily organs that the soul itself works. The body, as old Burton says, “is
domicilium animœ, her home, abode, and stay; and, as a torch gives a better light, a sweeter smell, according to the matter it is made of, so doth our soul perform all her actions better or worse, as her organs are disposed; or, as wine savors of the cask wherein it is kept, the soul receives a tincture from the body, through which it works.”
Sir Walter Scott, when attending the University at Edinburgh, though he went by the name of “The Great Blockhead,” was, notwithstanding his lameness, a remarkably healthy youth, and could spear a salmon with the best fisher on the Tweed, or ride a wild horse with any hunter in Yarrow. When devoting himself in after-life to literary pursuits, Sir Walter never lost his taste for field-sports; but while writing “Waverley” in the morning, he would in the afternoon course hares. Professor
Wilson was a very athlete, as great at throwing the hammer as in his flights of eloquence and poetry; and Burns, when a youth, was remarkable chiefly for his leaping, putting, and wrestling. Some of our greatest divines were distinguished in their youth for their physical energies. Isaac Barrow, when at the Charterhouse School, was notorious for his pugilistic encounters, in which he got many a bloody nose; Andrew Fuller, when working as a farmer’s lad at Soham, was chiefly famous for his skill in boxing; and Adam Clarke, when a boy, was only remarkable for the strength displayed by him in “rolling large stones about;” the secret, possibly, of some of the power which he subsequently displayed in rolling forth large thoughts in his manhood.
While it is necessary, then, in the first place to secure this solid foundation of physical health, it must also be observed that sustained application is the inevitable price which must be paid for mental acquisitions of all sorts; and it is as futile to expect them without it, as to look for a harvest where the seed has not been sown. The road into knowledge is free to all who will give the labor and the study requisite to gather it; nor are there any difficulties so great that the student of resolute purpose may not effectually surmount and overcome them. It was one of the characteristic expressions of Chatterton, that God had sent his creatures into the world with arms long enough to reach anything, if they chose to be at the trouble. In study, as in business, energy is the great thing. There must be the “fervet opus,”—we must not only strike the iron while it is hot, but strike it till it is made hot. The proverb says, “He who has heart has everything;” and
Che non arde non incende, Who doth not burn doth not inflame. It is astonishing how much
may be accomplished in self-culture by the energetic and the persevering, who are careful to avail themselves of opportunities, and use up the fragments of spare time which the idle permit to run to waste. Thus Ferguson learned astronomy from the heavens, while wrapped in a sheepskin on the highland hills. Thus Stone learned mathematics while working as a journeyman gardener; thus Drew studied the highest philosophy in the intervals of cobbling shoes; thus Miller taught himself geology while working as a day-laborer in a quarry. By bringing their mind to bear upon knowledge in its various aspects, and carefully using up the very odds and ends of their time,—men such as these, in the very humblest circumstances, reached the highest culture, and acquired honorable distinction amongst their fellow-men.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, as we have already observed, was so earnest a believer in the power of industry, that he held that all men might achieve excellence if they would but exercise the power of assiduous and patient working. He held that drudgery was on the road of genius, and that there were no limits to the proficiency of an artist except the limits of his own painstaking. He would not believe in what is called inspiration, but only in study and labor. “Excellence,” he said, “is never granted to man but as the reward of labor.” If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labor; nothing is to be obtained without it.” Sir Fowell Buxton, who labored in a very different field, was an equal believer in the power of study; and he entertained the modest idea that he could do as well as other men if he devoted to the pursuit double the time and labor that they
did. He placed his great confidence only in ordinary means, and extraordinary application. 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.
Thoroughness and accuracy are two principal points to be aimed at in study. Francis Horner, in laying down rules for the cultivation of his mind and character, placed great stress upon the habit of continuous application to one subject for the sake of mastering it thoroughly; confining himself, with this object, to but a few books, and resisting with the greatest firmness “every approach to a habit of desultory reading.” The value of knowledge to any man certainly consists not in its quantity, but mainly in the good uses to which he may apply it. Hence a little knowledge, of an exact and perfect character, is always found more valuable for practical purposes than any extent of superficial learning. The phrase in common use, as to “the
spread of knowledge” at this day, is no doubt correct, but it is spread so widely, and in such thin layers, that it only serves to reveal the mass of ignorance lying beneath. Never perhaps were books more extensively read, or less studied; and the number is rapidly increasing of those who know a little of everything, but nothing well. Such readers have not inaptly been likened to a certain sort of pocket-knife which some people carry about with them, which, in addition to a common knife, contains a file, a chisel, a saw, a gimlet, a screw-driver, and a pair of scissors, but all so diminutive, that the moment they are needed for use, they are found useless.
One of Ignatius Loyola’s maxims was, “He who does well one work at a time, does more than all.” By spreading our efforts over too large a surface we inevitably weaken our force, hinder our progress, and acquire a habit of fitfulness and ineffective working. Whatever a youth undertakes to learn, he should not be suffered to leave it until he can reach his arms round it and clench his hands on the other side. Thus he will learn the habit of thoroughness. Lord St. Leonards once communicated to Sir Fowell Buxton the mode in which he had conducted his studies, and thus explained the secret of his success. “I resolved,” said he, “when beginning to read law, to make everything I acquired perfectly my own, and never to go to a second thing till I had entirely accomplished the first. Many of my competitors read as much in a day as I read in a week; but, at the end of twelve months, my knowledge was as fresh as the day it was acquired, while theirs had glided away from recollection.” Sir E. B. Lytton, once explaining how it was that, whilst so fully engaged in active life, he had written so many books, observed, “I contrive to do so much by never doing too much at a time. As a general rule, I have devoted to study not more than three hours a day; and, when Parliament is sitting, not always that. But then, during those hours, I have given my whole attention to what I was about.”
It is not the quantity of study that one gets through, or the amount of reading, that makes a wise man; but the appositeness of the study to the purpose for which it is pursued; the concentration of the mind for the time being, upon the subject under consideration; and the habitual discipline by which the whole system of mental application is regulated. Abernethy was even of opinion
that there was a point of saturation in his own mind, and that if he took into it something more than it could hold, it only had the effect of pushing something else out. Speaking of the study of medicine, he said, “If a man has a clear idea of what he desires to do, he will seldom fail in selecting the proper means of accomplishing it.” The most profitable study is that which is conducted with a definite and specific object,—all observation, reflection, and reading, being directed upon it for the time being. By thoroughly mastering any given branch of knowledge, we render it much more available for use at any moment. Hence it is not enough merely to have books, or to know where to read up for information as we want it. Practical wisdom, for the purposes of life, must be carried about with us, and be ready for use at call. It is not sufficient that we have a fund laid up at home, but not a farthing in the pocket; we must carry about with us a store of the current coin of knowledge ready for exchange on all occasions, else we are comparatively helpless when the opportunity for action occurs.
Decision and promptitude are as requisite in self-culture as in business. The growth of these qualities may be encouraged by accustoming young people to rely upon their own resources, leaving them to enjoy as much freedom of action in early life as is practicable. Too much guidance and restraint hinder the formation of habits of self-help. They are like bladders tied under the arms of one who has not taught himself to swim. Want of confidence is perhaps a greater obstacle to improvement than is generally imagined. True modesty is quite compatible with a due estimate of one’s own merits, and does not demand the abnegation of all merit. Though there are no doubt many conceited persons who deceive themselves
by putting a false figure before their ciphers, the want of confidence, the want of faith in one’s self, and consequently the want of promptitude in action, is a defect of character which is found to stand very much in the way of individual advancement. It has been said that half the failures in life arise from pulling in one’s horse while he is leaping. Dr. Johnson was accustomed to attribute all his success to confidence in his own powers. It is indeed very often the case that the reason why so little is done, is because so little is attempted,—that we do not succeed, simply because we persist in standing in our own light. One step out of the way might help us, but that one step we do not take.
There is no want of desire on the part of most persons at this day to arrive at the results of self-culture, but there is a great aversion to pay the inevitable price for it, of hard work. 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. In education, we invent labor-saving processes, seek short cuts to science, learn French and Latin “in twelve lessons,” or “without a master.” We resemble the lady of fashion, who engaged a master to teach her on condition that he did not plague her with verbs and participles. We get our smattering of science in the same way: we learn chemistry by listening to a short course of lectures enlivened by experiments, and when we have inhaled laughing gas, seen green water turned to red, and phosphorus burnt in oxygen, we have got our smattering, of which the most that can be said is, that though it may be better than nothing, it is yet good for nothing. Thus we often
imagine we are being educated while we are only being amused.
But it will not do: all such labor-saving processes,—indeed, all pretended methods of insinuating knowledge into the mind without study and labor,—are calculated to prove delusive, and end only in mortification and disappointment. To be wise we must diligently apply ourselves, and confront the same continuous application which our forefathers did; for labor is still, and ever will be, the inevitable price set upon everything which is valuable. We must be satisfied to work energetically with a purpose, and wait the results with patience. Buffon has even said of Patience, that it is Genius,—the power of great men, in his opinion, consisting mainly in their power of continuous working and waiting. All progress, of the best kind, is slow; but to him who works faithfully and in a right spirit, be sure that the reward will be vouchsafed in its own good time. “Courage and industry,” says Sharpe, “must have sunk in despair, and the world must have remained unimproved and unornamented, if men had merely compared the effect of a single stroke of the chisel with the pyramid to be raised, or of a single impression of the spade with the mountain to be levelled.” We must continuously apply ourselves to right pursuits, and we cannot fail to advance steadily, though it may be unconsciously. By degrees, the spirit of industry, exercised in the common forms of education, will be transferred to objects of greater dignity and more extensive usefulness. And still we must work on; for the work of self-culture is never finished. “To be employed,” said the poet Gray, “is to be happy.” “It is better to wear out than rust out,” said Bishop Cumberland. “Have we not all eternity to rest in?” exclaimed Arnauld.
It is a mark of the short-sighted laborer to be impatient of growth. It must show itself in a sensible form, and almost at once, to satisfy him. Like little children, eager to see their seeds growing, he will pull his plants up to see what progress they are making, and so kill them. But man who plants and sows, must wait in patience and in faith,—faith in the bountiful spring, and summer, and autumn, which will follow. He must sometimes even content himself with the thought that his children shall enjoy the fruits. Some young men, in one of Lafontaine’s fables, ridicule an old patriarch of fourscore, engaged in planting an avenue of young trees. The youths told him he would not live to see them as high as his head. “Well,” replied the aged worker, “what of that? If their shade afford me no pleasure, it may afford pleasure to my children, and even to you; and therefore, the planting of them affords me pleasure.” Not long ago, a poor workman, who had been working for the future, lay dying, his wife and children sobbing around his bed; the sufferer was agonized by the thought of their struggle with the world without him; and the certainty of that struggle embittered his last moments. “My poor Willy! my poor Mary!” he cried in despair, “what will become of them!” Consolation was tried, but for some time in vain. At last one thoughtful friend said to him, hopefully, “Fear not! you leave to them a rich legacy; rest assured your teachings will not be forgotten; the seed you have sown will not be lost; and your books, which to you have been such household gods, will be the same to them, and open their minds, and through them minister lovingly to the great God of all!” “Oh! peace, consolation,” said the dying man, and spake no more.
The highest and most effective culture of all, resolves
itself into Self-Culture. The education received at school and college is but a beginning, and is mainly valuable in so far as it trains us in the habit of continuous application, and facilitates self-education, after a definite plan and system. To enable the mind freely to exercise its powers, it is necessary, even under the most thorough system of culture, that there should be occasional gaps for its free operation. Thus left in some measure to find out what it can do and what it cannot do, it will gain in strength and activity, and the evils arising from a too entire dependence on the teaching of others will be in a great degree avoided. Often the best education of a man is that which he gives himself, while engaged in the active pursuits of practical life. Putting ideas into one’s head will do the head no good, no more than putting things into a bag, unless it react upon them, make them its own, and turn them to account. “It is not enough,” said John Locke, “to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment.” That which is put into us by others is always far less ours than that which we acquire by our own diligent and persevering effort. Knowledge conquered by labor, becomes a possession,—a property entirely our own. A greater vividness and permanency of impression is secured; and facts thus acquired become registered in the mind in a way that mere imparted information can never produce. This kind of self-culture also calls forth power and cultivates strength. The self-solution of one problem helps the mastery of another; and thus knowledge is carried into faculty. Our own active effort is the essential thing; and no facilities, no books, no teachers. no amount of lessons learned by rote,
will enable us to dispense with it. Such a spirit infused into self-culture gives birth to a living teaching, which inspires with purpose the whole man,—impressing a distinct stamp upon the mind, and actively promoting the formation of principles and habitudes of conduct.
The best teachers have been prompt to recognize the importance of self-culture, and of stimulating the student early to accustom himself to acquire knowledge by the active exertion of his own faculties. They have relied more upon
training than upon
telling; and sought to make their pupils themselves active parties to the work in which they were engaged; thus making teaching something far higher than the mere passive reception of the scraps and details of knowledge. This was the spirit in which the great Dr. Arnold worked; he strove to teach his pupils to rely upon themselves, and to develop their own powers, himself merely guiding, directing, stimulating, and encouraging them. “I would far rather,” he said, “send a boy to Van Diemen’s Land, where he must work for his bread, than send him to Oxford to live in luxury, without any desire in his mind to avail himself of his advantages.” “If there be one thing on earth,” he observed on another occasion, “which is truly admirable, it is to see God’s wisdom blessing an inferiority of natural powers, when they have been honestly, truly, and zealously cultivated.” Speaking of a pupil of this character, he said, “I would stand to that man hat in hand.” Once at Laleham, when teaching a rather dull boy, he spoke somewhat sharply to him, on which the pupil looked up in his face and said, “Why do you speak angrily, sir?
indeed, I am doing the best I can.” Years afterwards, Arnold used to tell the story to his children, and added, “I never felt so much in my life,—that look and that speech I have never forgotten.”
There is no more personal merit attaching to the possession of naturally superior intellectual powers than in the succession to a large estate. It is the use which is made of the one as of the other, which constitutes the only just claim to respect. A great fund of knowledge may be accumulated without any purpose; and though a source of pleasure to the possessor, it may be of little use to any one else. It is not mere literary culture that makes a man. For it is possible to have read many books and waded through many sciences, and yet to possess no sound intellectual discipline; whilst others, without any regular scholastic culture, may, by the diligent exercise of their judgment and observation, have acquired eminent mental vigor.
An often quoted expression at this day is that “Knowledge is power;” but so also are fanaticism, despotism, and ambition. Knowledge of itself, unless wisely directed, might merely make bad men more dangerous, and the society in which it was regarded as the highest good, little better than a pandemonium. Knowledge must be allied to goodness and wisdom, and embodied in upright character, else it is naught. Pestalozzi even held intellectual training by itself to be pernicious; insisting that the roots of all knowledge must strike and feed in the soil of the religious rightly-governed will. The acquisition of knowledge may, it is true, protect a man against the meaner felonies of life; but not in any degree against its selfish vices, unless fortified by sound principles and habits. Hence do we find in daily life, so many instances of men who are well-informed in intellect, but utterly deformed in character; filled with the learning of the schools, yet possessing little practical wisdom, and offering examples rather for warning than imitation.
It is possible that at this day we may even exaggerate the importance of literary culture. We are apt to imagine that because we possess many libraries, institutes, and museums, we are making great progress. But it is not improbable that such facilities may as often be a hindrance as a help to individual self-culture of the highest kind. The possession of a library, or the free use of it, no more constitutes learning, than the possession of wealth constitutes generosity. Though we undoubtedly possess great facilities, it is nevertheless true, as of old, that wisdom and understanding can only become the possession of individual men by travelling the old road of observation, attention, perseverance, and industry. The possession of the mere materials of knowledge is something very different from wisdom and understanding, which are reached through a higher kind of discipline than that of reading.
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smoothed and squared, and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber, whom it seems t’ enrich.”
The multitude of books which modern readers wade through, may produce distraction as much as culture; the process leaving no more definite impression upon the mind than gazing through the shifting forms in a kaleido-scope does upon the eye. Reading is often but a mere passive reception of other men’s thoughts; there being little or no active effort of the mind in the transaction. Then how much of our reading is but the indulgence of a sort of literary epicurism, or intellectual dram-drinking,
imparting a grateful excitement for the moment, without the slightest effect in improving and enriching the mind or building up the character. Thus many indulge themselves in the conceit that they are cultivating their minds, when they are only employed in the humbler occupation of killing time; of which perhaps the best that can be said is, that it merely keeps them from doing worse things.
Mr. Carlyle, when applied to by a young friend for advice as to the books he was to read, wrote him as follows: “It is not by books alone, nor by books chiefly, that a man becomes in all parts a man. Study to do faithfully whatsoever thing in your actual situation, there and now, you find either expressly or tacitly laid to your charge; that is your post; stand to it like a true soldier. A man perfects himself by work much more than by reading. They are a growing kind of men that can wisely combine the two things,—wisely, valiantly can do what is laid to their hand in their present sphere, and prepare themselves withal for doing other wider things, if such lie before them.”
It is also to be borne in mind that the experience gathered from books, though often valuable, is but of the nature of
learning; whereas the experience gained from actual life is of the nature of
wisdom; and a small store of the latter is worth vastly more than any stock of the former. Lord Bolingbroke truly said that “Whatever study tends neither directly nor indirectly to make us better men and citizens, is at best but a specious and ingenious sort of idleness, and the knowledge we acquire by it, only a creditable kind of ignorance,—nothing more.”
Useful and instructive though good reading may be,
it is yet only one mode of cultivating the mind; and is much less influential than practical experience and good example in the formation of character. There were wise, valiant, and true-hearted men bred in England, long before the existence of a reading public. Magna Charta was secured by men who signed the deed with their marks. Though altogether unskilled in the art of deciphering the literary signs by which principles were denominated upon paper, they yet understood and appreciated, and boldly contended for, the things themselves. Thus the foundations of English liberty were laid by men, who, though illiterate, were nevertheless of the very highest stamp of character. And it must be admitted that the chief object of culture is, not merely to fill the mind with other men’s thoughts,—and to be the passive recipients of their impressions of things,—but to enlarge our individual intelligence, and render us more useful and efficient workers in the sphere of life to which we may be called. Many of our most energetic and useful workers have been but sparing readers. Brindley and Stephenson did not learn to read and write until they reached manhood, and yet they did great works and lived manly lives; John Hunter could barely read or write when he was twenty years old, though he could make tables and chairs with any carpenter in the trade. “I never read,” said the great physiologist when lecturing before his class; “this,” (pointing to some part of the subject before him,) “this is the work that you must study if you wish to become eminent in your profession.” When told that one of his contemporaries had charged him with being ignorant of the dead languages, he said, “I would undertake to teach him that on the dead body which he never knew in any language, dead or living.”
It is not how much a man may know, that is of so much importance, as the end and purpose for which he knows it. The object of knowledge should be, to mature wisdom and improve character, to render us better, happier, and more useful; more benevolent, more energetic, and more efficient in the pursuit of every high purpose in life. We must ourselves
do, and not rest satisfied merely with reading and meditating over what other men have written and done. Our best light must be made life, and our best thought action. The humblest and least literate must train his sense of duty, and accustom himself to an orderly and diligent life. Though talents are the gift of nature, the highest virtue may be acquired by men of the humblest abilities, through careful self-discipline. At least we ought to be able to say, as Richter did, “I have made as much out of myself as could be made of the stuff, and no man should require more.” It is every man’s duty to discipline and guide himself, with God’s help, according to his responsibilities and the faculties he is endowed with. Guided by the good example and good works of others, we must yet rely mainly upon our own inward efforts, and build upon our own foundations.
Self-discipline and self-control are the beginnings of practical wisdom; and these must have their root in self-respect. Hope springs from it,—hope, which is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for whoso hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles. The humblest may say, “To respect myself, to develop myself,—this is my true duty in life. An integral and responsible part of the great system of society, I owe it to society and to its Author not to degrade, nor destroy, my body, mind, nor instincts. On the contrary, I am
bound to the best of my power to give to those parts of my nature the highest degree of perfection possible. I am not only to suppress the evil, but to evoke the good elements in my nature. And as I respect my own nature, so am I equally bound to respect others, as they on their part are bound to respect me.” Hence mutual respect, justice, and order, of which law becomes the written record and guarantee.
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’s wisest maxims, in his Golden Verses, is that in which he enjoins the pupil to “reverence himself.” Borne up by this high idea, he will not defile his body by sensuality, nor his mind by servile thoughts. This sentiment, carried into daily life, will be found at the root of all the virtues,—cleanliness, sobriety, chastity, morality, and religion. “The pious and just honoring of ourselves,” said Milton, “may be thought the radical moisture and fountain-head from whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth.” To think meanly of one’s self, is to sink in one’s own estimation as well as in the estimation of others. And as the thoughts are, so will the acts be. A man cannot live a high life who grovels in a moral sewer of his own thoughts. He cannot aspire if he look down; if he will rise, he must look up. The very humblest may be sustained by the proper indulgence of this feeling; and poverty itself may be lifted and lighted up by self-respect. It is truly a noble sight to see a poor man hold himself upright amidst all his temptations, and refuse to demean himself by low actions.
It is not necessary that we should insist on the uses of knowledge as a means of “getting on” in life. This is
already sufficiently taught by obvious self-interest; and it is beginning to be pretty generally understood, that self-culture is one of the best possible investments of time and labor. In any line of life, intelligence will enable a man to adapt himself more readily to circumstances, suggest to him improved methods of work, and render him more apt, skilled, and effective in all respects. He who works with his head as well as his hands, will come to look at his business with a clearer eye; and he will become conscious of increasing power,—perhaps the most cheering consciousness the human mind can cherish. The power of self-help will gradually grow; and in proportion to a man’s self-respect, will he be armed against the temptation of low indulgences. Society and its action will be regarded with quite a new interest, his sympathies will widen and enlarge, and he will be attracted to work for others as well as for himself.
Self-culture may not, however, end in eminence, such as we have briefly described in the numerous illustrious instances of self-raised individuals above cited. The great majority of men, in all times, however enlightened, must necessarily be engaged in the ordinary avocations of industry; and no degree of culture which can be conferred upon the community will ever enable them—even were it desirable, which it is not—to get rid of the daily work of society, which must be done. But this, we think, may also be accomplished. We can elevate the condition of labor by allying it to noble thoughts, which confer a grace upon the lowliest as well as the highest rank. For no matter how poor or humble a man may be, the great thinker of this and other days may come in and sit down with him, and be his companion for the time, though his
dwelling be the meanest hut. It is thus that the habit of well-directed reading may become a source of the greatest pleasure and self-improvement, and exercise a gentle coercion, with the most beneficent results, over the whole tenor of a man’s character and conduct. And even though self-culture may not bring wealth, it will at all events give us the good company of elevated thoughts. A nobleman once contemptuously asked of a sage, “What have you got by all your philosophy?” “At least I have got society in myself,” was the wise man’s reply.
But many are apt to feel despondency, and to become discouraged in the work of self-culture, because they do not “get on” in the world so fast as they think they deserve to do. Having planted their acorn, they expect to see it grow into an oak at once. They have perhaps looked upon knowledge in the light of a marketable commodity, and are consequently mortified because it does not sell as they expected it would do. Mr. Tremenheere, in one of his “Education Reports” (for 1840-1), states that a schoolmaster in Norfolk, finding his school rapidly falling off, made inquiry into the cause, and ascertained that the reason given by the majority of the parents for withdrawing their children was, that they had expected “education was to make them better off than they were before,” but that having found it had “done them no good,” they had therefore taken their children from school, and would give themselves no further trouble about education. The same low idea of self-culture is but too prevalent in other classes, and is encouraged by the false views of life which are always more or less current in society. But to regard self-culture either as a means of getting past others in the world, or of intellectual dissipation and amusement, rather than as a power to elevate
the character and expand the spiritual nature, is to place it on a very low level. It is doubtless most honorable for a man to labor to elevate himself, and to better his condition in society, but this is not to be done at the sacrifice of himself. To make the mind the mere drudge of the body, is putting it to a very servile use; and to go about whining and bemoaning our pitiful lot because we fail in achieving that success in life, which after all depends rather upon habits of industry and attention to business details than upon knowledge, is the mark of a small, and often of a sour mind. Such a temper cannot better be dealt with than in the words of Robert Southey, who thus wrote to a friend who sought his counsel: “I would give you advice if it could be of use; but there is no curing those who choose to be diseased. A good man and a wise man may at times be angry with the world, at times grieved for it; but be sure no man was ever discontented with the world if he did his duty in it. If a man of education, who has health, eyes, hands, and leisure, wants an object, it is only because God Almighty has bestowed all those blessings upon a man who does not deserve them.”
It is not improbable that the prominence, recently given to literary examinations for small government offices, of which we have heard so much, may tend to swell the ranks of the discontented, without any corresponding gain to the public service. The plan recently established may be described as a kind of government lottery, in which the prizes are drawn by those who are the best crammed. Not long since, when eight youths were wanted to do copying work in a public office, not fewer than seven hundred offered themselves for examination; eight prizes to 692 blanks! A most pitiable sight truly, to see so
many educated young men eager for the poorly-paid, and routine, though “genteel” occupation of a government office, when there are so many other paths, though requiring labor and self-denial, open for the energies of young men of activity and spirit. Sir James Clarke has not inaptly described the preliminary system of cramming for examination, of the kind to which these youths are required to submit, as thoroughly demoralizing, and calculated to develop prigs rather than men. The mind is so overlaid with a heap of undigested knowledge, that there is little room left for its free action; and though a functionarism as complete as that already established in China may thereby be secured, it will probably be at the expense of that constitutional energy and vigor, which are so indispensable for attaining a robust manhood. Moreover, the tendency of this new movement seems to be, to draw the educated youth of the country aside from the paths of ordinary industry, and direct their eyes toward the public treasure as the highest object of their exertions; whilst beyond all, there is that danger to be apprehended, against which Montalembert has so eloquently warned us, of stimulating and propagating the passion for salaries and government employment, which saps all national spirit of independence, and in some countries makes a whole people a mere crowd of servile solicitors for place.