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The ancient roots of self-help

Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius (AF archive / Alamy)

Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius (AF archive / Alamy)

The self-help industry is reportedly worth $13bn in the US alone. Robin Ince looks at the roots of a literary tradition that goes from strength to strength.

Once life became more than chasing beasts, running away from bigger beasts, occasional mating and surviving ice ages, things got complicated. Once your life became a little more secure, you had to work out how to live your life.  And so, philosophers. 

Socrates was facing execution when he laid down the challenge to succeeding generations and urged his fellow Athenians to pay more attention to the upkeep of their own souls (it’s where we get the word psychotherapy). Since then, as knowledge has vastly expanded, living ‘the good life’ has become an idea scrutinised by sects, cults, gurus and self-proclaimed self-help messiahs. 

Do the right thing

One group, named after the street on which they hung around preaching, came to be known as the Stoics.  Their founder, Zeno, suggested that our emotions are shaped by our thoughts, our feelings by our opinions, that we had free will, that we can change and that the key to a good life was to be virtuous and to think in harmony with nature. What chimes with a lot of modern self-help is that attaining happiness is an active endeavour. Happiness can only come through thinking about what the right thing to do is and then acting on that.  And don’t get hung up on the bad things that happen to you. 

One of the last great Stoic thinkers was Marcus Aurelius – to some a great orator, to others Richard Harris in Gladiator – who wrote in his Meditations: “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.”

Consolations in philosophy – even on death row

It is well-known that imminent death can really help focus the mind, though that doesn’t always lead to great works of philosophy. Boethius had been the head of King Theodoric’s government in Rome, when he catastrophically fell out of favour and was in prison awaiting a brutal execution sometime around AD524. 

He had spent much of his life translating the great Greek works into Latin, and this last work, Consolations of Philosophy, was written in his desperate hour. It is an account of a conversation with a splendid lady visitor, who personifies Philosophy. Now, a person in Boethius’ situation would probably find it hard to work out why fortune has treated him this way, why bad things can possibly happen, why bad men prosper while good men fall into ruin, and what, in short, it is all about. Like a patient psychotherapist, she drags it out of him: “If thou lookest for the physician's help, thou must needs disclose thy wound.”

And then in some detail, she explains to him that the wheel of fortune rotates up as well as down, and how he should basically buck up. Despite Boethius’ brutal eventual execution, for most of the Middle Ages, this was the self-help bestseller, a life guide written near point of death. It was read and translated by many of the great and good across Europe including King Alfred, Geoffrey Chaucer and even Queen Elizabeth I.

Seven habits of highly successful dictators

Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had been a fan of another form of early self-help: the genre we now call Mirrors for Princes. They were written as advice for leaders and people in power. Niccolo Macchiavelli, wrote the most famous – The Prince – around 1513. His somewhat unsavoury recommendations include the famous ‘ends justifies the means’, and continues to influence businessmen and scurrilous politicians now, even if they occasionally have to purposefully misunderstand it in order to reach their ends. "He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation."

But other examples of mirrors for princes were far more deliberately collections of historical examples and biographies of real people, edited and collected together to illustrate good and bad ways of being. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People, for example, is a history of England from the time of Julius Caesar in AD 55 until the time Bede was writing in 731. But as he advises his readers, the stories are there for imitation or avoidance. “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good; if it records evil of wicked men, the devout reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse.” Presented in less overly religious ways, we see this sort of styling in a lot of the self-help that has come since.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton was born in 1576, went to Oxford University, and eventually became a fellow of Christ Church College. His Anatomy came not from training as a medical man, but from the experience of his own melancholy. He wrote and published a vast book looking at just about the whole of the human condition, with an eye to what medical science then called melancholy. Indeed, according to the slightly tongue-in-cheek preface he wrote: “ … of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

The book he wrote to keep his mind off of things is immense. It ran to several editions in his lifetime, and provided the reader with an encyclopaedia of all that was known about unhappiness. But crucially, unlike other medical texts of the time, which were written by physicians for physicians and tended to focus on theory, Burton’s Anatomy was written in English, and in a witty, almost satirical, readable style. Anybody who could read and was interested in what we now call psychology could buy it and dip in and out as they wished. Even Samuel Johnson called it one of his favourites, complaining it was “… the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than [he] wished to rise.” And despite the fact that its predisposition with surfeits of black bile owed more to the Roman medicine than modern mental health, it’s still very readable today.

'Heaven helps those who help themselves'

Samuel Smiles was a Scottish Victorian parliamentary reformer and writer, who while working as editor of the Leeds Times in 1845 was invited to give a series of lectures on the subject of “The Education of the Working Classes”. He eventually self-published the talks under the title Self Help, in 1859. Though Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species may now be seen as the great book of that year, it was Smiles who was the big bestseller; only The Bible sold more. It chronicled the lives of men who succeeded against all odds. He wrote that the purpose of his stories was to “illustrate and enforce the power of perseverance”. 

Smiles not only coined the name of the genre, Self Help, he also set the tone for what it might do to the publishing industry. The book was an international bestseller, and chimed perfectly with the social changes that had been and continued to be wrought by the industrial revolution. It fitted rather well too with the industrialisation of the world outside Britain, particularly in the US, where social mobility and opportunity were moving in synchrony with a sense of duty and Protestant self-reliance. 

Robin Ince presents Heal Thyself: A History of Self-Help on BBC Radio 4. 

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