Samuel Smiles

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Mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society. There requires a social reform, a domestic reform, an individual reform.

Samuel Smiles (23 December 181216 April 1904) was a Scottish author and reformer.


"Heaven helps those who help themselves" is a well tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of a vast human experience.
  • England was nothing, compared to continental nations until she had become commercial…until about the middle of the last century, when a number of ingenious and inventive men, without apparent relation to each other, arose in various parts of the kingdom, succeeded in giving an immense impulse to all the branches of the national industry; the result of which has been a harvest of wealth and prosperity, perhaps without a parallel in the history of the world.
    • Lives of the Engineers (1862)
  • A place for everything, and everything in its place.
    • Thrift (1875)
  • Good actions give strength to ourselves, and inspire good actions in others.
    • Duty: With Illustrations of Courage, Patience, and Endurance (1880), Ch. 2, p. 49
  • Mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society. There requires a social reform, a domestic reform, an individual reform.
    • As quoted in Samuel Smiles and the Victorian Work Ethic (1987) by Timothy Travers, p. 162
We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
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  • "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 vigour 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.
    • Ch. I : Self-Help — National and Individual; earlier variant of the proverb quoted: God helps them who help themselves; recorded in Jacula Prudentum (1651) by George Herbert
  • Laws, wisely administered, will secure men in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, whether of mind or body, at a comparatively small personal sacrifice; but no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.
    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 inevitably be 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 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 an aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of the personal improvement of the men, women, and children of whom society is composed.
    • Ch. I : Self-Help — National and Individual
  • The greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil be, but he who is in the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice.
    • Ch. I : Self-Help — National and Individual
  • Nothing is more common than energy in money-making, quite independent of any higher object than its accumulation. A man who devotes himself to this pursuit, body and soul, can scarcely fail to become rich. Very little brains will do; spend less than you earn; add guinea to guinea; scrape and save; and the pile of gold will gradually rise.
    • Ch. X : Money — Its Use and Abuse
  • We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
    • Ch. XI : Self-Culture — Facilities and Difficulties
  • The crown and glory of life is Character. It is the noblest possession of a man, constituting a rank in itself, and an estate in the general goodwill; dignifying every station, and exalting every position in society. It exercises a greater power than wealth, and secures all the honour without the jealousies of fame. It carries with it an influence which always tells; for it is the result of proved honour, rectitude, and consistency — qualities which, perhaps more than any other, command the general confidence and respect of mankind.
    • Ch. XIII : Character — The True Gentleman
  • Even happiness itself may become habitual. There is a habit of looking at the bright side of things, and also of looking at the dark side. Dr. Johnson has said that the habit of looking at the best side of a thing is worth more to a man than a thousand pounds a year. And we possess the power, to a great extent, of so exercising the will as to direct the thoughts upon objects calculated to yield happiness and improvement rather than their opposites.
    • Ch. XIII : Character — The True Gentleman


  • Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
    Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
    Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
    Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
    • Saying published anonymously in The Dayspring, Vol. 10 (1881) by the Unitarian Sunday-School Society, and quoted in Life and Labor (1887) by Smiles; this is most often attributed to George Dana Boardman, at least as early as 1884, and to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also sometimes attributed to William Makepeace Thackeray as early as 1891, probably because in in Life and Labor Smiles adds a quote by Thackeray right after this one, to Charles Reade in 1903, and to William James as early as 1906, because it appears in his Principles of Psychology (1890)

Quotes about Smiles

  • Self-Help is one of the most delightful and invigorating books it has been my happy fortune to meet with. It has done me nothing but good, nor can I conceive how it should do harm to any. … The object of the book briefly is, to reinculcate these old-fashioned but wholesome lessons — which perhaps cannot be too often urged — that youth must work in order to enjoy; that nothing creditable can be accomplished without application and diligence; that the student must not be daunted by difficulties, but conquer them by patience and perseverance ; and that, after all, he must seek elevation of character, without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is naught.
  • Utilitarianism had found [in Smiles’ Self-Help] its portrait gallery of heroes, inscribed with a vigorous exhortation to all men to strive in their image; this philistine romanticism established the bourgeois hero-prototype—the penniless office-boy who works his way to economic fortune and this wins his way into the mercantile plutocracy.
    • John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace (1974), p. 12
  • Every now and then they were awarded prizes — Self-Help by Smiles, and other books suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties.
  • It's a brutal book; it ought to be burnt by the common hangman. Smiles was the arch-Philistine, and his book the apotheosis of respectability, gigmanity, and selfish grab.
    • An unnamed English labor leader quoted by Robert Blatchford, in A Book about Books (1903); also quoted in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2002) by Jonathan Rose, p. 68
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