Tuesday, 23 December 2014


I spent a whole year of my expensive education studying 19th Century British history and politics. One of the great themes of Victorian politics was the rise and education of the working class and their more and more vociferous calls for a wider franchise, parliamentary constituencies that were at least approximately equal in size and voting by secret ballot. The real radicals even (shock) wanted to let women vote.  There were fortunes to be made by making stuff (cotton shirts, railway engines, steel spoons, shoes) in enormous quantities.  Nowadays the real fortunes are made producing nonsense (X-Factor, soccer, Dumber and Dumberer).

Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington, Scotland on 23 December 1812 >!today!< into a family of Calvinist religious fundamentalists.  His father died when Samuel Jr was just 20, leaving his widowed mother to look after 8 or 9 minor children. She was able to keep them all clean and fed as well as supporting the whole circus by running a general store. Her faith, thrift and make-do made a life-long impression on Smiles and he came to believe that anyone could do likewise if they worked hard, saved money and spent any spare pennies on applied education.  Smiles qualified as a medical doctor but worked initially as editor of a newspaper in Leeds and later as an administrator for the railways. He met all the great 19th Century engineers who built the roads, railways, bridges and lighthouses that still provide the infrastructure of these islands.  He worked these encounters up into a multi-volume series of biographical sketches The Lives of the Engineers.  I read several of these when I was a teenager and they may have started my feeling of awe in presence of (even dead) engineers.

But Smiles is most famous for starting the genre of self-help books with a volume called Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) which became known/notorious as the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism. It outsold Charles Darwin's Origin of Species which was published late in the same year and also (annus mirabilis!) On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. It's a book that brought out very strongly expressed opinions both positive and negative. Self-help cites a string of cases where chaps from humble beginnings had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to the top of their profession - indeed, in case the case of George Stephenson and other engineers and industrialists, inventing a new profession to succeed in. The problem with this focus on success is that it makes readers feel double crappy if they don't succeed themselves: for having their aspirations dashed and for it all being their fault [tsk! not enough application]. But it made sense to me when I read it the year after John Seymour's Self-Sufficiency was published in the 1970s. I didn't come from the straitened circumstances out of which Smiles and his exemplars struggled 100+ years before: I was launched from much further up the ladder and indeed the ladder itself was far higher from the bottom in 1970 than in 1870.  I wanted to make my own way and I knew from Self-help that this was a possible aspiration.

Regular socialists get really riled up by this aspirational liberalism, which doesn't address the real iniquities of Western capitalism or really acknowledge the fact that the fortunes of the barons of the industrial revolution were built on the backs of laborers working long hours for little money in brutal, noisy, dirty, unsafe conditions. But I suspect that part of this is because the ideas in the book jangled the socialist chain, if individual workers could improve themselves off the shop-floor, then solidarity with less thrifty, less competent or less lucky brother workers might evaporate. On the other hand, full-on socialism has a tendency to encourage people to sit in their nest with their gobs open singing the Internationale and waiting to be fed by The Gum'ment. In his 1875 book Thrift, Smiles recognised that poverty wasn't black and white: he loathed the complacency of inherited wealth and laissez-faire capitalism which denied all responsibility for disease, adulterated food, slums, foul water and dead children. But . . . it doesn't help if you drink half your wages and gamble the rest.

Samuel Smiles wrote a final book, "Conduct", in his declining years [he lived to the age of 91 after more-or-less recovering from a debilitating strike at the age of 60].  He submitted it twice to John Murray for publication but it was twice refused.  When the manuscript was found on Smiles' desk after he died in 1904, Murray advised that it be destroyed - and it was so.  That makes a rather grim antidote to the discovery and preservation of Ramanujan's last notebook on another post-mortem desk.  On the other hand, we might invite comparison to the far great tragedy of the loss of 116/123 of the plays of Sophocles.

One of Smiles' key ideas was that education was a virtue in itself even if it didn't lead vocationally to better prospects at work. Education furnished the inner resources to make life more interesting, more challenging and more supportive in adversity. He believed that you could get an education if you worked harder, lived thriftier and with less dissipation. I wish this belief on so many of my students, who seem to believe that putting in 2, 3, 4 years at The Institute will/should/must secure them a job, a car, foreign holidays and a smart-phone. Education should at least partly be about asking why and whether all these things are desirable. As Smiles had it: "I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments."

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