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Tyrone Schiff

English 319

Lucy Hartley

5 February 2007

To Progress a Nation

Any and all nations are comprised of a hodge-podge of individuals with different

talents and abilities. In order to further the nation, each individual has to be devoted to

furthering themselves; their character and self. When this occurs, the whole nation

becomes greater than the sum of its parts, meaning that the contributions of the many

yield an overall national identity. In the novel, Self-Help, by Samuel Smiles, the theme of

the nation is explored throughout. Smiles develops the idea of the nation over the entire

course of the novel, continually adding to the list of desirable traits and characteristics

that each individual should seek to attain. He sees a great deal of merit in being

determined, industrious, energetic, and charitable. These qualities all contribute to an

English identity that Smiles applauds. Furthermore, Smiles recognizes that all of these

efforts, if done on an individual level, will lead to great success on a national level.

Therefore, the concept of the nation plays an integral part in the progress of any given

individual’s character and identity because of the core English ideals that Smiles


Smiles, in his understanding of the nation, is cognizant of the deep-rooted

connection that exists between the individual and the overall nation, “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” (19). This statement
occurs in one of the very first passages that Smiles conveys. He makes it clear to the

reader from this point that an individual’s growth and that of a nation are not mutually

exclusive of one another. However, part of understanding what a nation is in Smiles

perspective is understanding what it is to be English.

Smiles, although not an English man himself, has a great deal of respect for the

English and he pronounces it here by saying, “One of the most strongly-marked features

of the English people is their spirit of industry, standing out prominent and distinct in

their past history, and as strikingly characteristic of them now as at any former period”

(39). Smiles calls English people industrious, which is an aspect of individual progression

that he champions throughout the novel. Industry is the ability to figure out problems and

find solutions no matter what the task at hand may be. It encompasses persistence and

determination as well. Additionally, this excerpt is significant because Smiles admits that

this quality of industry has long lived in English genes and is more prominent now than

ever. At the same time however, being English limits some of Smiles scope as to the

different routes one may want to take in their own personal progress. Being successful

and being a good English man is composed of a beginning, middle, and end for Smiles,

which is somewhat of a narrow view on individual progress. However, Smiles feels very

adamantly about the fact that this English ideal ought to be intertwined with an

individual’s progress in order to further the nation as a whole.

Smiles understood national progress as the following, “National progress is the

sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual

idleness, selfishness, and vice” (20). These good qualities, namely industry, energy, and

uprightness are all components of one’s character. Smiles wanted people to reform their
character and their outlook on life in order to accomplish great feats that would benefit

many and thus contribute to the overall glory of England. Smiles provides the reader with

this analysis:

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. (22)

This is at the core of what Smiles is hoping to gain from an individual’s contribution to

the nation. Smiles believes that in order to contribute successfully to one’s nation, an

individual’s own progress must be a shared benefit that society can prosper from.

Sir Richard Arkwright is a good example to exemplify this very concept of a

singular goal that an individual works and strives towards, but at the same time has far

reaching effects on the nation as a whole. He is credited with inventing the spinning

frame and opening the first cotton-mill. These things took him a great deal of time to

achieve and he had to work very hard to reach these milestones that brought him much

fame and fortune. However, what makes Arkwright’s story a significant one to Smiles is

the fact that this one individual had a huge impact on the nation, “[…] Arkwright was the

founder in England of the modern factory system, a branch of industry which has

unquestionably proved a source of immense wealth to individuals and to the nation” (45).

As a consequence of Arkwright’s industry and fortitude to never give up along his quest,

he was able to contribute something greater than himself to the nation.

A further example of this is seen in the example of William Phipps. Phipps found

himself, as a result of his adventurous nature, raising a sunken ship that had a large

treasure buried within it. Although he received a great portion of the bounty and was

knighted by the King of England, he still contributed back to the betterment of the nation.

Smiles explains that Phipps was, “[…] also made High Sheriff of New England; and

during the time he held the office, he did valiant service for the mother country […]”

(144). Here Phipps is shown to have continued to provide duties towards the nation, even

after he had found success. Thus, Smiles reveals that one of the key components of

individual progress is giving back to the nation in some shape or form. Whether it is

providing them with service as Phipps does or establishing a movement like Arkwright,

part of helping oneself is helping the nation too. These two examples additionally

espoused certain characteristics of what it meant to be English as well. Smiles considered

industry and a daring nature to be two central components of the English individual,

which he believed and hoped would diffuse through the nation.

These examples of immense success coupled with the importance of helping to

develop the nation must have been very empowering for Smiles’ readership that were

mainly composed of the working-class. Smiles presents a very interesting picture of class

throughout the course of Self-Help, implying that the process of going from one class to

another was quite fluid. This is a very bold assertion to make. England was heavily

stratified between its bourgeois and working-class, yet Smiles communicates to his

readership that this need not be the case.

Smiles believes that so long as you work hard to improve yourself, it doesn’t

matter what your particular standing is in society, for, “Great men of science, literature,
and art—apostles of great thoughts and lords of the great heart—have belonged to no

exclusive class nor rank in life. They have come alike from colleges, workshops, and

farmhouses,—from the huts of poor men and the mansions of the rich” (23). Smiles never

considers that one’s class could have any bearing on what one wished to achieve. This

very mentality that Smiles was proliferating throughout England started a fervent

movement towards establishing a middle class. As a result of this book, individuals who

read it gained a great deal of confidence in their capabilities, believing they could

accomplish whatever they set their mind to. Smiles was a huge believer in the maxim,

“where there is a will there is a way,” which implies that with enough energy and

determination anything can be realized (151).

At the same time, however, these individuals in search of personal progress had

extreme ramifications on the makeup of the class system in England. This point illustrates

just how important the individual was to the rest of the nation. Essentially, this book

helped mold the individual in an English way, as Smiles described it, which in turn lead

to a great social change in the nation and perhaps the impetus to establish a middle class.

The class system is an excellent example of how Smiles depicts an individuals

worth to the overall progress of the nation. As the individual improves, the nation will

follow suit. Thus, Smiles establishes that an individual and his nation are irreconcilably


This concept has changed dramatically since Smiles published the first copy of his

book. Today, the American class system, although sometimes referred to as a meritocracy,

is much more static than the class system that Smiles described. Granted there are a few

examples of individuals rising from destitution and into wealth, but there is still a very
limited amount of examples. Furthermore, the progress of a single individual in the

context of the nation certainly does not seem to hold the same amount of weight that

Smiles argued individuals had when Self-Help was first published. However, similar to

Smiles, in today’s society there are a couple individuals who have become iconic in

status. In 1859 England, they had Arkwright and Phipps, today American society looks to

individuals like Steve Jobs and Donald Trump for their industriousness and innovative

methods. Unfortunately, however, while there are individuals from who to take good

tactics and characteristics, the process of moving class is a far more technical and almost

unattainable endeavor today. Even more so, one person’s success no longer has as great

impact on the nation as a whole.

Smiles wrote a book about individuals, but collectively, he attempted to create a

guideline of how to further and progress a nation that he admired dearly. Smiles took into

account the type of person who was going to read this book, and rather than discussing

the grandiose concept of the nation, he talked about ways to improve oneself. The process

of improving oneself seemed to be a precursor to improving the nation as a whole, as

Smiles saw it. Furthermore, the way in which Smiles framed his examples, expressing

ideals that he saw as English had a great effect on how an individual would formulate and

gauge his own personal progress. Therefore, it can be concluded from Smiles that the

progress of the nation is contingent on an individual’s development, and that individual

development is framed by the national concept of what it means to be a good English


Works Cited

Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help. USA: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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