David Brooks and the moral purpose of self-help
What if you're the problem?
David Brooks’ new book How to Know a Person is an interesting evolution of the self-help genre. Far from the modern obsession with productivity and efficiency, Brooks is drawing on an older tradition of moral improvement. To see this, let’s look at three seminal examples.
The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts is a dense, readable book of practical advice about how to learn. Watts’ book combines syllabus, learning methods, and exhortation to take education seriously. Written in 1741, the Improvement has the marks of its time. Watts was a religious minister, hymn writer, and the author of a book about logic. The Improvement became a textbook of moral instruction. Samuel Johnson was a fan, and Johnson’s own essays are often forms of self-help based on classical and Christian wisdom. It also inspired Michael Faraday, who credited some of his abilities as a scientist to Watts’ advice. Above all, what stands out is Watts’ moral seriousness. Good learning is a question of good religion.
Next is Samuel Smiles, who wrote Self-Help. Published in 1859, the same year as On The Origin of Species and On Liberty, Smiles’s book was as quintessentially Victorian as Watts’s had been so thoroughly of the eighteenth century. Sitting in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benjamin Franklin (who said that God helps those who help themselves), Self-Help was aimed at the growing mass audience. Far less austere than Watts, it is full of biographical examples and inspirations. Smiles had previously given a lecture, published as The Education of the Working Classes, where he said, “Adverse circumstances… cannot repress the human intellect and character, if it be determined to rise.” This lecture grew into Self-Help, which sold a quarter of a million copies by the end of the century.