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.
“The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”—
J. S. Mill.
“We put too much faith in systems, and look too little to men.”—
“HEAVEN helps those who help themselves,” is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigor and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done
for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.
Even the best institutions can give a man no active aid. Perhaps the utmost they can do is, to leave him
free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by
means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has always been greatly over-estimated. To constitute the millionth part of a legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man’s life and character. Moreover, it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection,—protection of life, liberty, and property. Hence the chief “reforms” of the last fifty years have consisted mainly in abolitions and disenactments. But there is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober; though every individual can be each and all of these if he will, by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial. Indeed, all 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.
National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be only the outgrowth of our own perverted life; and though we may endeavor to cut them down and extirpate them by means of law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of human life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows
that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent action.
The government of a nation itself is usually found to be but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The government that is ahead 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. In the order of nature, the collective character of a nation will as surely find its befitting results in its law and government, as water finds its own level. The noble people will be nobly ruled, and the ignorant and corrupt ignobly. Indeed, liberty is quite as much a moral as a political growth,—the result of free individual action, energy, and independence. It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without, whilst everything depends upon how he governs himself from within. The greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil be, but he who is the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice. There have been, and perhaps there still are, so-called patriots abroad, who hold it to be the greatest stroke for liberty to kill a tyrant, forgetting that the tyrant usually represents only too faithfully the millions of people over whom he reigns. But nations who are enslaved at heart cannot be freed by any mere changes of masters or of institutions; and so long as the fatal delusion prevails, that liberty solely depends upon, and consists in government, so long will such changes, no matter at what cost they be effected, have as little practical and lasting result as the shifting of the figures in a phantasmagoria. The solid
foundations of liberty must rest upon individual character; which is also the only sure guarantee for social security and national progress. In this consists the real strength of English liberty. Englishmen feel that they are free, not merely because they live under those free institutions which they have so laboriously built up, but because each member of society has to a greater or less extent got the root of the matter within himself; and they continue to hold fast and enjoy their liberty, not by freedom of speech merely, but by their steadfast life and energetic action as free individual men.
Such as England is, she has been made by the thinking and working of many generations; the action of even the least significant person having contributed towards the production of the general result. Laborious and patient men of all ranks,—cultivators of the soil and explorers of the mine,—inventors and discoverers,—tradesmen, mechanics, and laborers,—poets, thinkers, and politicians,—all have worked together, one generation carrying forward the labors of another, building up the character of the country, and establishing its prosperity on solid foundations. This succession of noble workers,—the artisans of civilization,—has created order out of chaos, in industry, science, and art; and as our forefathers labored for us, and we have succeeded to the inheritance which they have bequeathed to us, so is it our duty to hand it down, not only unimpaired, but improved, to our successors.
This spirit of self-help, as exhibited in the energetic action of individuals, has in all times been a marked feature in the English character, and furnishes the true measure of our power as a nation. Rising above the heads of the mass, there have always been a series of
individuals distinguished beyond others, who have commanded the public homage. But our progress has been owing also to multitudes of smaller and unknown men. Though only the generals’ names may be remembered in the history of any great campaign, it has been mainly through the individual valor and heroism of the privates that victories have been won. And life, too, is “a soldier’s battle,” men in the ranks having in all times been amongst the greatest of workers. Many are the lives of men unwritten, which have nevertheless as powerfully influenced civilization and progress as the more fortunate great whose names are recorded in biography. Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety, and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come.
Biographies of great, but especially of good men, are, nevertheless, 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. British biography is studded over, as “with patines of bright gold,” with illustrious examples of the power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute-working, and stead-fast integrity, issuing in the formation of truly noble and manly character; exhibiting in language not to be mis-understood, what it is in the power of each to accomplish for himself; and illustrating the efficacy of self-respect and self-reliance in enabling men of even the humblest rank to work out for themselves an honorable competency and a solid reputation.
Foreign observers have noted, as one of the most marked characteristics of the Englishman, his strong individuality and distinctive personal energy,—refusing to merge himself in institutions, but retaining throughout his perfect freedom of thought, and speech, and action. “Que j’aime la hardiesse Anglaise! que j’aime les gens qui disent ce qu’ils pensent!” was the expressive exclamation of Voltaire. It is this strong individualism which makes and keeps the Englishman really free, and brings out fully the action of the social body. The energies of the strong form so many living centres of action, round which other individual energies group and cluster themselves; thus the life of all is quickened, and, on great occasions, a powerful energetic action of the nation is secured.
It is this energy of individual life and example acting throughout society, which constitutes the best practical education of Englishmen. Schools, academies, and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it. Far higher and more practical 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 all the busy haunts of men. This is the education that fits Englishmen for doing the work and acting the part of free men. This is that final instruction as members of society, which Schiller designated “the education of the human race,” consisting in action, conduct, self-culture, self-control,—all that tends to discipline a man truly, and fit him for the proper performance of the duties and business of life,—a kind of education not to be learned from books, or acquired by any amount of mere literary training. With his usual weight of words, Bacon observes, that “Studies
teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation;” a remark that holds true of actual life, as well as of the cultivation of the intellect itself. For all observation serves to illustrate and enforce the lesson, that a man perfects himself by work much more than by reading,—that it is life rather than literature, action rather than study, and character rather than biography, which tend perpetually to renovate mankind.
Goethe, in one of his conversations with Eckermann at Weimar, once observed, “It is very strange, and I know not whether it lies in mere race, in climate and soil, or in their healthy education, but certainly Englishmen seem to have a great advantage over most other men. We see here in Weimar only a minimum of them, and those, probably, by no means the best specimens, and yet what splendid fellows they are! And although they come here as seventeen-year-old youths, yet they by no means feel strange in this strange land; on the contrary, their entrance and bearing in society is so confident and quiet that one would think they were everywhere the masters, and the whole world belonged to them.” “I should not like to affirm, for all that,” replied Eckermann, “that the English gentlemen in Weimar are cleverer, better educated, and better hearted than our young men.” “That is not the point,” said Goethe; “their superiority does not lie in such things; neither does it lie in their birth and fortune; it lies precisely in their having the courage to
be what nature made them. There is no
halfness about them. They are
complete men. Sometimes complete fools, also, that I heartily admit; but even that is something, and
has its weight.” Thus, in Goethe’s eyes, the English-man fulfilled, to a great extent, the injunction given by Lessing to those who would be men: “Think wrongly if you please, but think for
Another foreigner, a German, Herr Wiese,
*1 in contrasting the English and German systems of education,—the one aiming chiefly at the culture of character, the other of intellect,—has observed, that in the lives of celebrated men, English biographers lay far more stress upon energy of purpose, patience, courage, perseverance, and self-control, than upon their scientific ardor or studiousness in youth; that, in short, the English give the chief prominence to the individual element, and attach far more value to character than to intellect,—a remark not less true than tending to important conclusions; as pointing, indeed, to the fundamental characteristics of our national strength,—the product, as it is, of individual thinking, individual action, and individual character.
Take, again, the opinion of a well-known French writer, M. Rendu,
*2 as to what constitutes the essential value of the English system. He holds that it best forms the social being, and builds up the life of the individual, whilst at the same time it perpetuates the traditional life of the nation; and that thus we come to exhibit what has so long been the marvel of foreigners,—a healthy activity of individual freedom, and yet a collective obedience to established authority,—the unfettered energetic action of persons, together with the uniform subjection of
all to the national code of Duty. Whilst French institutions educate the soldier and the functionary, English institutions, which give free action to every man and woman, and recognize an educator in each, cultivate the citizen, ready alike for the business of practical life and for the responsible duties of the home and the family. And although our schools and colleges may, like those of France and Germany, turn out occasional forced specimens of over-cultured minds, what we may call the national system does on the whole turn out the largest number of men, who, to use Rendu’s words, “reveal to the world those two virtues of a lordly race,—perseverance in purpose, and a spirit of conduct which never fails.”
It is this individual freedom and energy of action, so cordially recognized by these observant foreigners, that really constitutes the prolific source of our national growth. For it is not to one rank or class alone that this spirit of free action is confined, but it pervades all ranks and classes; perhaps its most vigorous outgrowths being observable in the commonest orders of the people.
Men great in science, literature, and art,—apostles of great thoughts and lords of the great heart,—have sprung indiscriminately from the English farm and the Scotch hill-side, from the workshop and the mine, from the blacksmith’s stithy and the cobbler’s stool. The illustrations which present themselves are indeed so numerous, that the difficulty consists in making a selection from them, such as should fall within the compass of a reasonable book. Take for instance, the remarkable fact, that from the barber’s shop rose Sir Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning-jenny, and the founder of the cotton manufacture of Great Britain; Lord Tenterden,
one of the most distinguished of English Lord Chief Justices; and Turner, the very greatest among landscape-painters.
No one knows to a certainty what Shakspeare was; but it is unquestionable that he sprang from a very humble rank. His father was a butcher and grazier; and Shakspeare himself is supposed to have been in early life a wool-comber; whilst others aver that he was an usher in a school, and afterwards a scrivener’s clerk. He truly seems to have been “not one, but all mankind’s epitome.” For such is the accuracy of his sea-phrases that a naval writer alleges that he must have been a sailor; whilst a clergyman infers from internal evidence in his writings, that he was probably a parson’s clerk; and a distinguished judge of horseflesh insists that he must have been a horse-dealer. Shakspeare was certainly an actor, and in the course of his life “played many parts,” gathering his wonderful stores of knowledge from a wide field of experience and observation. In any event, he must have been a close student, and a hard worker; and to this day his writings continue to exercise a powerful influence upon the formation of English character.
The common class of day-laborers has given us Brindley the engineer, Cook the navigator, and Burns the poet. Masons and bricklayers can boast of Ben Jonson, who worked at the building of Lincoln’s Inn, with a trowel in his hand and a book in his pocket, Edwards and Telford the engineers, Hugh Miller the geologist, and Allan Cunningham the writer and sculptor; whilst among distinguished carpenters we find the names of Inigo Jones the architect, Harrison the chronometer-maker, John Hunter the physiologist, Romney and Opie
the painters, Professor Lee the Orientalist, and John Gibson the sculptor.
From the weaver class have sprung Simpson the mathematician, Bacon the sculptor, the two Milners, Adam Walker, John Foster, Wilson the ornithologist, Dr. Livingstone the missionary traveller, and Tannahill the poet. Shoemakers have given us Sir Cloudesley Shovel the great Admiral, Sturgeon the electrician, Samuel Drew the essayist, Gifford the editor of the “Quarterly Review,” Bloomfield the poet, and William Carey the missionary; whilst Morrison, another laborious missionary, was a maker of shoe-lasts. Within the last year, a profound naturalist has been discovered in the person of a shoemaker at Banff, named Thomas Edwards, who, while maintaining himself by his trade, has devoted his leisure to the study of natural science in all its branches, his researches in connection with the smaller crustaceæ having been rewarded by the discovery of a new species, to which the name of “Praniza Edwardsii” has been given by naturalists.
Nor have tailors been altogether undistinguished, Jackson the painter having worked at that trade until he reached manhood. But, what is perhaps more remarkable, one of the gallantest of British seamen, Admiral Hobson, who broke the boom at Vigo, in 1702, originally belonged to this calling. He was working as a tailor’s apprentice near Bonchurch, in the Isle of Wight, when the news flew through the village, that a squadron of men-of-war were sailing off the island. He sprang from the shopboard, and ran down with his comrades to the beach, to gaze upon the glorious sight. The tailor-boy was suddenly inflamed with the ambition to be a sailor; and springing into a boat, he rowed off to the squadron, gained the admiral’s ship, and was accepted as a volunteer.
Years after, he returned to his native village full of honors, and dined off bacon and eggs in the cottage where he had worked as a tailor’s apprentice.
Cardinal Wolsey, Defoe, Akenside, and Kirke White, were the sons of butchers; Bunyan was a tinker, and Joseph Lancaster a basket-maker. Among the great names identified with the invention of the steam-engine are those of Newcomen, Watt, and Stephenson; the first a blacksmith, the second a maker of mathematical instruments, and the third an engine-fireman. Huntingdon the preacher was originally a coal-heaver, and Bewick, the father of wood-engraving, a coal-miner. Dodsley was a footman, and Holcroft a groom. Baffin the navigator began his seafaring career as a man before the mast, and Sir Cloudesley Shovel as a cabin-boy. Herschel played the oboe in a military band. Chantrey was a journeyman carver, Etty a journeyman printer, and Sir Thomas Lawrence the son of a tavern-keeper. Michael Faraday, the son of a poor blacksmith, was in early life apprenticed to a book-binder, and worked at that trade until he reached his twenty-second year; he now occupies the very first rank as a philosopher, excelling even his master, Sir Humphry Davy, in the art of lucidly expounding the most difficult and abstruse points in natural science.
Not long ago, Sir Roderick Murchison discovered at Thurso, in the far north of Scotland, a profound geologist, in the person of a baker there, named Robert Dick. When Sir Roderick called upon him at the bakehouse in which he baked and earned his bread, Robert Dick delineated to him, by means of flour upon a board, the geographical features and geological phenomena of his native county, pointing out the imperfections in the existing maps, which he had ascertained by travelling over
the country in his leisure hours. On further inquiry, Sir Roderick ascertained that the humble individual before him was not only a capital baker and geologist, but a first-rate botanist. “I found,” said the Director-General of the Geographical Society, “to my great humiliation, that this baker knew infinitely more of botanical science, ay, ten times more, than I did; and that there were only some twenty or thirty specimens of flowers which he had not collected. Some he had obtained as presents, some he had purchased, but the greater portion had been accumulated by his industry, in his native county of Caithness; and the specimens were all arranged in the most beautiful order, with their scientific names affixed.”
It is the glory of our country that men such as these should so abound; not all equally distinguished, it is true, but penetrated alike by the noble spirit of self-help. They furnish proofs of cheerful, honest working, and energetic effort to make the most of small means and common opportunities. For opportunities, as we shall afterwards find, fall in the way of every man who is resolved to take advantage of them. The facts of nature are open to the peasant and mechanic, as well as to the philosopher, and by nature they are alike capable of making a moral use of those facts to the best of their power. Thus, even in the lowliest calling, the true worker may win the very loftiest results.
The instances of men in this country who, by dint of persevering application and energy, have raised themselves from the humblest ranks of industry to eminent positions of usefulness and influence in society, are indeed so numerous that they have long ceased to be regarded as exceptional. Looking at some of the more
remarkable instances, it might almost be said that early encounter with difficulty and adverse circumstances was the necessary and indispensable condition of success. The House of Commons has always contained a considerable number of such self-raised men,—fitting representatives of the industrial character of the British people; and it is to the credit of our legislature that such men have received due honor there. When the late Joseph Brotherton, member for Salford, in the course of the discussion on the Ten Hours’ Bill, detailed with true pathos the hardships and fatigues to which he had been subjected when working as a factory boy in a cotton-mill, and described the resolution which he had then formed, that if ever it was in his power he would endeavor to ameliorate the condition of that class, Sir James Graham rose immediately after him, and declared, amidst the cheers of the House, that he did not before know that Mr. Brotherton’s origin had been so humble, but that it rendered him more proud than he had ever before been of the House of Commons, to think that a person risen from that condition should be able to sit side by side, on equal terms, with the hereditary gentry of the land.
There is a member of the present House of Commons, whom we have heard introducing his recollections of past times with the words, “When I was working as a weaver boy at Norwich;” and there are many more who have sprung from conditions equally humble. But perhaps the most interesting story of difficulties encountered and overcome by manful struggle, is that of the present member for Sunderland, Mr. W. S. Lindsay, the well-known shipowner. It was told by himself, in his own simple words, to the electors of Weymouth some years ago, in
answer to an attack which had been made upon him by his political opponents. At the age of fourteen, he said, he had been left, an orphan boy, to push his way in the world. He left Glasgow for Liverpool with only four shillings and sixpence in his pocket; and so poor was he that the captain of a steamer had pity on him, and had told him that he would give him his passage if he would trim the coals in the coal-hole. He did so, and thus worked his passage. He remembered that the fireman gave him a part of his homely dinner, and never did he eat a dinner with such relish, for he felt that he had worked for it and earned it; and he wished the young to listen to his statement, for he himself had derived a lesson from that voyage which he had never forgotten. At Liverpool, he remained for seven weeks before he could get employment; he abode in sheds, and his four and sixpence maintained him, until at last he found shelter in a West Indiaman. He entered as a boy, and before he was nineteen he had risen to the command of an Indiaman. At twenty-three he retired from the sea; his friends, who when he wanted assistance had given him none, having left him that which they could no longer keep. He settled on shore; his career had been rapid; he had acquired prosperity by close industry, by constant work, and by keeping ever in view the great principle of doing to others as you would be done by.
But the same characteristic feature of energetic industry happily has its counterpart amongst the other ranks of the community. The middle and well-to-do classes are constantly throwing out vigorous offshoots in all directions,—in science, commerce, and art,—thus adding effectively to the working power of the country. Probably the very greatest name in English philosophy is that of Sir
Isaac Newton, who was the son of a yeoman, the owner and farmer of a little property at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, worth only about thirty pounds a year. The distinguished astronomer Adams, the discoverer of Neptune, was born in the same condition of life; his father being a small farmer on one of the bleakest spots on Dartmoor, a region in which, however sterile the soil may be, it is clear that nature is capable of growing the manliest of men.
The sons of clergymen, and ministers of religion generally, have particularly distinguished themselves in our country’s history. Amongst them we find the names of Drake and Nelson, celebrated in naval heroism; of Wollaston, Young, Playfair, and Bell, in science; of Wren, Reynolds, Wilson, and Wilkie, in art; of Thurlow and Campbell, in law; and of Addison, Thomson, Goldsmith, Coleridge, and Tennyson, in literature. Lord Hardinge, Colonel Edwardes, and Major Hodson, so honorably known in Indian warfare, were also the sons of clergymen. Indeed, the empire of England in India was won and held chiefly by men of the middle class,—such as Clive, Warren Hastings, and their successors,—men, for the most part, bred in factories, and trained to habits of practical business.
Among the sons of attorneys we find Edmund Burke, Smeaton the engineer, Scott and Wordsworth, and Lords Somers, Hardwick, and Dunning. Sir William Blackstone was the posthumous son of a silk-mercer. Lord Gifford’s father was a grocer at Dover; Lord Denman’s a physician; Judge Talfourd’s a country brewer; and Lord Chief Baron Pollock’s was a rather celebrated saddler at Charing Cross. Layard, the discoverer of the monuments of Nineveh, was an articled clerk in a London solicitor’s office; and Sir William Armstrong, the inventor
of hydraulic machinery and of the Armstrong ordnance, was also trained to the law, and even practised for some time as an attorney. Milton was the son of a London scrivener, and Pope and Southey were the sons of linen-drapers. Professor Wilson was the son of a Paisley manufacturer, and Lord Macaulay of an African merchant. Keats was a druggist, and Sir Humphry Davy a country apothecary’s apprentice. Speaking of himself, Davy once said, “What I am I have made myself; I say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of heart.” Richard Owen, the Newton of natural history, began life as a midshipman, and did not enter upon the line of scientific research in which he has since become so distinguished, until comparatively late in life. He laid the foundations of his knowledge while engaged in cataloguing the magnificent museum of specimens accumulated by the industry of John Hunter, a work which occupied him at the College of Surgeons during a period of not less than ten years.
In all these cases strenuous individual application was the price paid for distinction; excellence of any sort being invariably placed beyond the reach of indolence. It is the diligent hand and head alone that maketh rich—in self-culture, growth in wisdom, and in business. Even when men are born to wealth and high social position, any solid reputation which they may individually achieve is only attained by energetic application; for 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. Indeed, the doctrine that excellence in any pursuit is to be achieved by
laborious application only, holds as true in the case of the man of wealth as in that of Drew and Gifford, whose only school was a cobbler’s stall, or Hugh Miller, whose only college was a Cromarty stonequarry.
The knowledge and experience which produce wisdom, can only become a man’s individual possession and property by his own free action; and it is as futile to expect these without laborious, painstaking effort, as it is to hope to gather a harvest where the seed has not been sown. It is related of Grosteste, an old bishop of Lincoln, possessing great power in his day, that he was once asked by his stupid and idle brother to make a great man of him. “Brother,” replied the bishop, “if your plough is broken, I’ll pay for the mending of it; or, if your ox should die, I’ll buy you another; but I cannot make a great man of you; a ploughman I found you, and I fear a ploughman I must leave you.”
Riches and ease, it is perfectly clear, are not necessary for man’s highest culture, else had not the world been so largely indebted in all times to those who have sprung from the humbler ranks. An easy and luxurious existence does not train men to effort or encounter with difficulty; nor does it awaken that consciousness of power which is so necessary for energetic and effective action in life. Indeed, so far from poverty being a misfortune, it may, by vigorous self-help, be converted even into a blessing; rousing a man to that struggle with the world in which, though some may purchase ease by degradation, the right-minded and true-hearted will find strength, confidence, and triumph. Bacon says, “Men seem neither to understand their riches nor their strength; of the former they believe greater things than they should; of the latter much less. Self-reliance and self-denial will teach
a man to drink out of his own cistern, and eat his own sweet bread, and to learn and labor truly to get his living, and carefully to expend the good things committed to his trust.”
Riches are so great a temptation to ease and self-indulgence, to which men are by nature prone, that the glory is all the greater of those who, born to ample fortune, nevertheless take an active part in the work of their generation,—who “scorn delights and live laborious days.” It is to the honor of the wealthier ranks in this country that they are not idlers; for they do their fair share of the work of the state, and usually take more than their fair share of its dangers. It was a fine thing said of a subaltern officer in the Peninsular campaigns, observed trudging along through mud and mire by the side of his regiment, “There goes 15,000
l. a year!” and in our own day, the bleak slopes of Sebastopol and the burning soil of India have borne witness to the like noble self-denial and devotion on the part of our gentler classes; many a gallant and noble fellow, of rank and estate, having risked his life, or lost it, in one or other of those fields of action, in the public service of his country.
Nor have the wealthier classes been undistinguished in the more peaceful pursuits of philosophy and science. Take, for instance, the great names of Bacon, the father of modern philosophy, and of Worcester, Boyle, Cavendish, Talbot, and Rosse, in science. The last named may be regarded as the great mechanic of the peerage, a man who, if he had not been born a peer, would probably have taken the highest rank as an inventor. So thorough is his knowledge of smith-work that he is said to have been pressed on one occasion to accept the foremanship of a
large workshop, by a manufacturer to whom his rank was unknown. The great Rosse telescope, of his own fabrication, is certainly the most extraordinary instrument of the kind that has yet been constructed.
But it is principally in the departments of politics and literature that we find the most energetic laborers amongst our higher classes. Success in these lines of action, as in all others, can only be achieved through industry, practice, and study; and the great minister or parliamentary leader, must necessarily be amongst the very hardest of workers. Such are Palmerston and Derby, Russell and Disraeli, Gladstone and Bulwer. These men have had the benefit of no Ten Hours’ Bill, but have often, during the busy season of Parliament, worked “double shift,” almost day and night. One of the most illustrious of such workers in modern times was unquestionably the late Sir Robert Peel. He possessed in an extraordinary degree the power of continuous intellectual labor, nor did he spare himself. His career, indeed, presented a remarkable example of how much a man of comparatively moderate powers can accomplish by means of assiduous application and indefatigable industry. During the forty years that he held a seat in Parliament, his labors were prodigious. He was a most conscientious man, and whatever he undertook to do, he did thoroughly. All his speeches bear evidence of his careful study of everything that had been spoken or written on the subject under consideration. He was elaborate almost to excess; and spared no pains to adapt himself to the various capacities of his audience. Withal, he possessed much practical sagacity, great strength of purpose, and power to direct the issues of action with steady hand and eye. In one respect he surpassed most men: his principles broadened and enlarged with time; and age,
instead of contracting, only served to mellow and ripen his nature. To the last he continued open to the reception of new views, and, though many thought him cautious to excess, he did not allow himself to fall into that indiscriminating admiration of the past, which is the palsy of many minds similarly educated, and renders the old age of many nothing but a pity.
The indefatigable industry of Lord Brougham has become almost proverbial. His public labors have extended over a period of upwards of sixty years, during which he has ranged over many fields,—of law, literature, politics, and science,—and achieved distinction in them all. How he contrived it, has been to many a mystery. Once, when Sir Samuel Romilly was requested to undertake some new work, he excused himself by saying that he had no time, “but,” he added, “go with it to that fellow Brougham, he seems to have time for everything.” The secret of it was, that he never left a minute unemployed; withal he possessed a constitution of iron. When arrived at an age at which most men would have retired from the world to enjoy their hard-earned leisure, perhaps to doze away their time in an easy chair, Lord Brougham commenced and prosecuted a series of elaborate investigations as to the laws of light, and he submitted the results to the most scientific audiences that Paris and London could muster. About the same time, he was passing through the press his admirable sketches of the “Men of Science and Literature of the Reign of George III.,” and taking his full share of the law business and political discussions in the House of Lords. Sydney Smith once recommended him to confine himself to only the transaction of so much business as three strong men could get through. But such was Brougham’s love of work,—long become
a habit,—that no amount of application seems to have been too great for him; and such was his love of excellence, that it has been said of him, that if his station in life had been only that of a shoeblack, he would never have rested satisfied until he had become the best shoeblack in England.
Another hard-working man of the same class is Sir E. Bulwer Lytton. Few writers have done more, or achieved higher distinction in various walks,—as a novelist, poet, dramatist, historian, essayist, orator, and politician. He has worked his way step by step, disdainful of ease, and animated throughout only by the ardent desire to excel. On the score of mere industry, there are few living English writers who have written so much, and none that have produced so much of high quality. The industry of Bulwer is entitled to all the greater praise that it has been entirely self-imposed. To hunt, and shoot, and live at ease,—to frequent operas, and clubs, and Almack’s, enjoying the variety of London sight-seeing, morning calls, and parliamentary small-talk during the “season,” and then off to the country mansion, with its well-stocked preserves, and its thousand delightful out-door pleasures,—to travel abroad, to Paris, Vienna, or Rome,—all this is excessively attractive to a lover of pleasure and a man of fortune, and by no means calculated to make him buckle to steady, continuous labor of any kind. Yet these pleasures, all within his reach, Bulwer must, as compared with men born to similar estate, have denied himself in assuming the position and pursuing the career of a literary man. Like Byron, his first effort was poetical (“Weeds and Wild Flowers”), and a failure. His second was a novel (“Falkland”), and it proved a failure too. A man of weaker stuff would
have dropped authorship; but Bulwer had pluck and perseverance; and he worked on, determined to succeed. He was incessantly industrious, read prodigiously, and from failure went courageously onwards to success. “Pelham” followed “Falkland” within a year, and the remainder of Bulwer’s literary life, now extending over a period of thirty years, has been a succession of triumphs.
Mr. Disraeli affords a similar instance of the power of industry and application in working out an eminent public career. His first achievements were, like Bulwer’s, in literature; and he reached success only through a succession of failures. His “Wondrous Tale of Alroy” and “Revolutionary Epic” were laughed at, and regarded as indications of literary lunacy. But he worked on in other directions, and his “Coningsby,” “Sybil,” and “Tancred,” proved the sterling stuff of which he was made. As an orator, too, his first appearance in the House of Commons was a failure. It was spoken of as “more screaming than an Adelphi farce.” Though composed in a grand and ambitious strain, every sentence was hailed with “loud laughter.” “Hamlet” played as a comedy were nothing to it. But he concluded with a sentence which embodied a prophecy. Writhing under the laughter with which his studied eloquence had been received, he exclaimed, “I have begun several times many things, and have succeeded in them at last. I shall sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.” The time did come; and how Disraeli succeeded in at length commanding the rapt attention of the first assembly of gentlemen in the world, affords a striking illustration of what energy and determination will do; for Disraeli earned his position by dint of patient industry. He did not, as many young men do, having once failed, retire
dejected, to mope and whine in a corner, but pluckily set himself to work. He carefully unlearned his faults, studied the character of his audience, practised sedulously the art of speech, and industriously filled his mind with the elements of parliamentary knowledge. He worked patiently for success; and it came, but slowly; then the House laughed with him, instead of at him. The recollection of his early failure was effaced, and by general consent he was at length admitted to be one of the most finished and effective of parliamentary speakers.
Illustrious as are the instances of strong individuality which we have thus rapidly cited, the number might be largely increased even from the list of living men. One of our most distinguished writers has, it is true, lamented the decay of that strength of individual character which has been the glory of the English nation; yet, if we mistake not, no age in our history so little justifies such a lament as the present. Never did sudden calamity more severely test the individual pluck, endurance, and energy of a people, than did the recent outbreak of the rebellion in India; but it only served to bring out the unflinching self-reliance and dormant heroism of the English race. In that terrible trial all proved almost equally great,—women, civilians, and soldiers,—from the general down through all grades to the private and bugleman. The men were not picked,—they belonged to the same every-day people whom we daily meet at home,—in the streets, in workshops, in the fields, at clubs; yet when sudden disaster fell upon them, each and all displayed a wealth of personal resources and energy, and became as it were individually heroic. Indeed in no age of England have the finest qualities of men been so brilliantly displayed; and there are perhaps no
names in our history which outshine those of the modern heroes of India. Montalembert avows that they “do honor to the human race.” Citing the great names of Havelock, Nicholson, Peel, Wilson, and Neill,—to which might be added that of Outram, “the Bayard of India,”—he goes on to say, “it is not only such names, great beyond comparison, it is the bearing in every respect of this handful of Englishmen, surprised in the midst of peace and prosperity by the most frightful and most unforeseen of catastrophes. Not one of them shrank or trembled,—all, military and civilians, young and old, generals and soldiers, resisted, fought and perished with a coolness and intrepidity which never faltered. It is in this circumstance that shines out the immense value of public education, which invites the Englishman from his youth to make use of his strength and his liberty, to associate, resist, fear nothing, be astonished at nothing, and to save himself, by his own sole exertions, from every sore strait in life.”
Equally brilliant instances of individual force of character are also to be found in more peaceful and scientific walks. Is there not Livingstone, with a heroism greater than that of Xavier, penetrating the wilds of South Africa on his mission of Christian civilization; Layard laboring for years to disinter the remains of the buried city of Babylon; Rawlinson, the decipherer of their cuneiform inscriptions; Brooke, establishing a nucleus of European enterprise and colonization amongst the piratical tribes of the Indian Ocean; Franklin, Maclure, Collinson, M’Clintock, and others, cleaving their way through storms, and ice, and darkness, to solve the problem of the northwest passage;—enterprises which, for individual daring, self-denial, energy, and heroism, are insurpassed by those of any age or country.