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Self Help - Examples

( Originally Published 1884 )

Distinguished Astronomers.—Eminent Sons of Clergymen.—Of Attorneys. -Illustrious Foreigners of Humble rigin.—Promotions from the Ranks in the French Army.—Instances of Persevering Application and Energy. —W. J. Fox.—Diligence Indispensable to Usefulness and Distinction.—The Wealthier Ranks not all Idlers.—Examples.—Military Men.—Philosophers.—Men of Science.—Politicians.—Literary Men.—Wadsworth on Self-reliance.—Men their Own best Helpers.

"We put too much faith in sytems, and look too little to men."—B. DISRAELI.

AMONG those who have given the greatest impulse to the sublime science of astronomy, we find Copernicus, the son of a Polish baker; Kepler, the son of a German public-house keeper, and himself the " gar-con de cabaret;" d'Alembert, a foundling picked up one winter's night on the steps of the church of St. Jean le Rond at Paris, and brought up by the wife of a glazier; and Newton and Laplace, the one the son of a poor peasant of Beaumont-en-Auge, near Honfleur. Notwithstanding their comparatively adverse circumstances in early life, these distinguished men achieved a solid and enduring reputation by the exercise of their genius, which all the wealth in the world could not have purchased. The very possession of wealth might indeed have proved an obstacle greater even than the humble means to which they were born. The father of Lagrange, the astronomer and mathematician, held the office of Treasurer of War at Turin; but having ruined himself by speculations, his family were reduced to comparative poverty. To this circumstance Lagrange was in after-life accustomed partly to attribute his own fame and happiness. " Had I been rich," said he, " I should probably not have become a mathematician.

The sons of clergymen and ministers of religion generally have particularly distinguished themselves in our country's history. Amongst them we find the names of Drake and Nelson, celebrated in naval heroism; of Wren, Reynolds, Wilson, and Wilkie, in art; of Thur-low and Campbell, in law; and of Addison, Thompson, Goldsmith, Coleridge, and Tennyson, in literature. Lord Hardinge, Colonel Edwardes, and Major Hodson, so honorably known in Indian warfare, were also the sons of clergymen. Indeed. the empire of England in India was won and held chiefly by men of the middle class-such as Clive, Warren Hastings, and their successors men for the most part bred in factories and trained to habits of business.

Among the sons of attorneys we find Edmund Burke, Smeaton the engineer, Scott and Wordsworth, and Lords Somers, Hardwick, and Dunning. Sir William Blackstone was the posthumous son of a silk-mercer. Lord Gifford's father was a grocer at Dover; Lord Denham's a physician; Judge Talfourd's a country brewer; and Lord Chief Baron Pollock's a celebrated saddler at Charing Cross. Layard, the discoverer of the monuments of Nineveh; was an articled clerk in a London solicitor's office; and Sir William Armstrong, the inventor of hydraulic machinery and of the Arm-strong ordinance, was also trained to the law and practiced for some time as an attorney. Milton was the son of a London scrivener, and Pope and Southey were the sons of linen-drapers. Professor Wilson was the son of a Paisley manufacturer, and Lord Macaulay of an African merchant. Keats was a druggist, and Sir Humphry Davy a country apothecary's apprentice. Speaking of himself, Davy once said, " What I am I have made myself: I say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of heart." Richard Owen, the Newton of Natural History, began life as a midshipman, and did not enter upon the line of scientific research in which he has since become so distinguished, until comparatively late in life. He laid the foundations of his great knowledge while occupied in cataloguing the magnificent museum accumulated by the industry of John Hunter, a work which occupied him at the college of Surgeons during a period of about ten years.

Foreign not less than English biography abounds in illustrations of men who have glorified the lot of poverty by their labors and their genius. In Art we find Claude, the son of a pastry-cook; Geefs, of a baker; Leopold Robert, of a watchmaker; and Haydn, of a wheelwright; whilst Daguerre was a scene-painter at the opera. The father of Gregory VII. was a carpenter; of Sextus V., a shepherd; and of Adrian VI., a poor bargeman. When a boy, Adrian, unable to pay for a light by which to study, was accustomed to prepare his lessons by the light of the lamps in the streets and the church porches, exhibiting a degree of patience and industry which were the certain forerunners of his future distinction. Of like humble origin were Hauy, the mineralogist, who was the son of a weaver -of Saint-Just; Hautefeuille, the mechanician, of a baker at Or-leans; Joseph Fourier, the mathematician, of a tailor at Auxerre; Durand, the architect, of a Paris shoemaker; and Gesner, the naturalist, of a skinner or worker in hides, at Zurich. This last began his career under all the disadvantages attendant on poverty, sickness, and domestic calamity; none of which, however, were sufficient to damp his courage or hinder his progress. His life was indeed an eminent illustration of the truth of the saying, that those who have most to do and are willing to work, will find the most time. Pierre Ramus was another man of like character. He was the son of poor parents in Picardy, and when a boy was employed to tend sheep. But not liking the occupation he ran away to Paris. After encountering much misery, he succeeded in entering the College of Navarre as a ser vant. The situation however, opened for him the road to learning, and he shortly became one of the most distinguished men of his time.

The chemist Vauquelin was the son of a peasant of St. Andre-d'Herbetot, in the Calvados. When a boy at school, though poorly clad, he was full of bright intelligence; and the master, who taught him to read and write, when praising him for his diligence, used to say, " Go on, my boy; work, study, Colin, and one day you will go as well dressed as the parish church-warden!" A country apothecary who visited the school admired the robust boy's arms, and offered to take him into his laboratory to pound his drugs, to which Vauquelin assented in the hope of being able to continue his lessons. But the apothecary would not permit him to spend any part of his time in learning; and on ascertaining this, the youth immediately determined to quit his service. He therefore left St. Andre and took the road for Paris with his haversack on his back. Arrived there, he searched for a place as apothecary's boy, but could not find one. Worn out by fatigue and destitution, Vauquelin fell ill, and in that state was taken to the hospital, where he thought he should die. But better things were in store for the poor boy. He recovered, and again proceeded in his search for employment, which he at length found with an apothecary. Shortly after, he became known to Fourcroy the eminent chemist, who was so pleased with the youth that he made him his private secretary; and many years after, on the death of that great philosopher, Vauquelin succeeded him as Professor of Chemistry. Finally in 1829, the electors of the district of Calvados appointed him their representative in the Chamber of Deputies, and he re-entered in triumph the village which he had left so many years before, so poor and so obscure.

England has no parallel instance to show, of promotions from the ranks of the army to the highest military offices, which have been so common in France since the first Revolution. " La carriere ouverte aux talents " has there received many striking illustrations, which would doubtless be matched among ourselves were the road to promotion as open. Hoche, Humbert, and Pichegru, began their respective careers as private soldiers. Hoche, while in the King's army, was accustomed to embroider waistcoats to enable him to earn money wherewith to purchase books on military science. Humbert was a scapegrace when a youth; at sixteen he ran away from home, and was by turns servant to a tradesman at Nancy, a workman at Lyons, and a hawker of rabbit-skins. In 1792, he enlisted as a volunteer; and in a year he was General of Brigade. Kleber, Lefevre, Suchet, Victor, Lannes, Soult, Massena, St. Cyr, D'Erlon, Murat, Augereau, Bessieres, and Ney, all rose from the ranks. In some cases promotion was rapid, in others it was slow. St. Cyr, the son of a tanner of Toul, began life as an actor, after which he en-listed in the Chasseurs, and was promoted to a captaincy within a year. Victor, Duc de Belluno, enlisted in the Artillery in 1781: during the events preceding the Revolution he was discharged; but immediately on the outbreak of war he re-enlisted, and in the course of a few months his intrepidity and ability secured his promotion as Adjutant-Major and chief of battalion Murat, " le beau sabreur," was the son of a village innkeeper in Perigord, where he looked after the horses. He first enlisted in a regiment of Chasseurs, from which he was dismissed for insubordination; but again enlisting he shortly rose to the rank of Colonel. Ney enlisted at eighteen in a hussar regiment, and gradually advanced step by step: Kleber soon discovered his merits, surnaming him " The Indefatigable," and promoted him to be Adjutant-General when only twenty-five. On the other hand, Soult was six years from the date of his enlistment before he reached the rank of sergeant. But Soult's advancement was rapid compared with that of Massena, who served for fourteen years before he was made sergeant; and though he afterwards rose successively, step by step, to the grades of Colonel,. General of Division, and Marshal, he declared that the post of sergeant was the step which of all others had. cost him the most labor to win. Similar promotions from the ranks in the French army, have continued down to our own day. Changarnier entered the King's bodyguard as a private in 1815. Marshal Bugeaud served four years in the ranks, after which he was made an officer. Marshal Randon, the present French Minister of War, began his military career as a drummer-boy; and in the portrait of him in the gallery at Versailles, his hand rests upon a drum-head, the picture being thus painted at his own request. Instances such as these inspire French soldiers with enthusiasm for their service, as each private feels that he may possibly carry the baton of a marshal in his knapsack.

The instances of men, in this and other countries, who, by dint of persevering application and energy, have raised themselves from the humblest ranks of industry to eminent position of usefulness and influence in society, are indeed so numerous that they have long ceased to be regarded as exceptional. Looking at some of the more remarkable, it might almost be said that early encounter with difficulty and adverse circumstances was, the necessary and indispensable condition of success. The British House of Commons has always contained a considerable number of such self-raised men fitting representatives of the industrial character of the people; and it is to the credit of our Legislature that they have been welcomed and honored there. When the late Joseph Brotherton, member for Salford, in the course of the discussion on the Ten Hour's Bill, detailed with true pathos the hardships and fatigues to which he had been subjected when working as a factory-boy in a cotton-mill, and de-scribed the resolution which he had then formed, that if ever it was in his power he would endeavor to ameliorate the condition of that class, Sir James Graham rose immediately after him, and declared, amidst the cheers of the House, that he did not before know that Mr. Brotherton's origin had been so. humble, but that it rendered him more proud than he had ever before been of the House of Commons. to think that a person risen from that condition should be able to sit side by side on equal terms with the hereditary gentry of the land.

The late Mr. Fox member for Oldham, was accus tomed to introduce his recollections of past times with the words, " when I was working as a weaver-boy at Norwich," and there are other members of parliament, still living, whose origin has been equally humble. Mr. Lindsay, the well-known ship-owner, until recently member for Sunderland, once told the simple story of his life to the electors of Weymouth, in answer to an attack made upon him by his political opponents. He had been left an orphan at fourteen, and when he left Glasgow for Liverpool to push his way in the world, not being able to pay the usual fare, the captain of the steamer agreed to take his labor in exchange, and the boy worked his passage by trimming the coals in the coal-hole. At Liverpool he remained for seven weeks before he could obtain employment, during which time he lived in sheds and fared hardly; until at last he found shelter on board a West Indiaman. He entered as a boy, and before he was nineteen, by steady good conduct he had risen to the command of a ship. At twenty-three he retired from the sea, and settled on shore, after which his progress was rapid : " he had prospered," he said, "by steady industry, by constant word, and by ever keeping in view the great principle of doing to others as you would be done by."

The career of Mr. William Jackson, of Birkenhead, the present member for North Derbyshire, bears considerable resemblance to that of Mr. Lindsay. His father, a surgeon at Lancaster, died, leaving a family of eleven children, of whom William Jackson was the seventh son. The elder boys had been well-educated while the father lived, but at his death the younger members had to shift for themselves. William, when under twelve years old, was taken from school, and put to hard work at a ship's side from six in the morning till nine at night. His master falling ill, the boy was taken into the counting-house, where he had more leisure. This gave him an opportunity of reading, and having obtained access to a set of the " Encyclopaedia Britan-` nica," he read the volumes through from A to Z, partly by day, but chiefly at night. He afterwards put himself to a trade, was diligent, and succeeded in it. Now he has ships sailing on' almost every sea, and holds. commercial relations with nearly every country on the globe.

Among like men of the same class may be ranked the late Richard Cobden, whose start in life was equally humble. The son of a small farmer at Midhurst in Sus-sex, he was sent at an early age to London and employed as a boy in a warehouse in the City. He was diligent, well conducted, and eager for information. His master, a man of the old school, warned him against too much reading; but the boy went on in his own course, storing his mind with the wealth found in books.. He was promoted from one position of trust to another. —became a traveller for his house secured a large con nection, and eventually started in business as a calico-printer at Manchester. Taking an interest in public questions, more especially in popular education, his attention was gradually drawn to the subject of the Corn Laws, to the repeal of which he may be said to have devoted his fortune and his life. It may be mentioned as a curious fact, that the first speech he delivered in public was a total failure. But he had great perseverance, application, and energy; and with persistency and practice, he became at length one of the most persuasive and effective of public speakers, extorting the disinterested eulogy of even Sir Robert Peel himself. M. Drouyn de Lhuys, the French Ambassador, has eloquently said of Mr. Cobden, that he was " a living proof of what merit, perseverance, and labor can accomplish; one of the most complete examples of those men who, sprung from the humblest ranks of society, raise themselves to the highest rank in public estimation by the effect of their own worth and of their personal services; finally, one of the rarest examples of the solid qualities inherent in the English character."

In all these cases, strenuous individual application was the price paid for distinction; excellence of any sort being invariably placed beyond the reach of indolence. It is the diligent hand and head alone that maketh rich in self culture, growth in wisdom, and in business. Even when men are born to wealth and high social position, any solid reputation which they may individually achieve can only be attained by energetic application; for though an inheritance of acres may be bequeathed, an inheritance of knowledge and wisdom can not. The wealthy man may pay others for doing his work for him, but it is impossible to get his thinking done for him by another, or to purchase any kind of self culture. Indeed, the doctrine that excellence in any pursuit is only to be achieved by laborious application, holds as true in the case of the man of wealth as in that of Drew and Gifford, whose only school was a, cobbler's stall, or Hugh Miller, whose only college was a Cromarty stone quarry.

Riches and ease, it is perfectly clear, are not necessary for man's highest culture, else had not the world been so largely indebted in all times to those who have sprung from the humbler ranks. An easy and luxurious existence does not train men to effort or encounter with difficulty; nor does it awaken that consciousness of power which is so necessary for energetic and effective action in life. Indeed, so far from poverty being a misfortune, it may, by vigorous self help, be converted even into a blessing; rousing a man to that struggle with the world in which, though some may purchase ease by degradation, the right minded and true-hearted find strength, confidence, and triumph. Bacon says, " Men seem neither to understand their riches nor their strength: of the former they believe greater things than they should; of the latter much less. Self-reliance and self-denial will teach a man to drink out of his own cistern, and eat his own sweet bread, and to learn and labor truly to get his living, and carefully to expend the good things committed to his trust."

Riches are so great a temptation to ease and self-indulgence, to which men are by nature prone, that the glory is all the greater of those who, born to ample for-tunes, nevertheless take an active part in the work of their generation who " scorn delights and live laborious days." It is to the honor of the wealthier ranks in this country that they are not idlers; for they do their fair share of the work of the state, and usually take more than their fair share of its dangers. It was a fine thing said of a subaltern officer in the Peninsular campaigns, observed trudging alone through mud and mire by the side of his regiment, " There goes £ 15,000 a year!" and in our own day, the bleak slopes of Sebastopol and the burning soil of India have borne witness to the like noble self denial and devotion on the part of our gentler classes; many a gallant and noble fellow, of rank and estate, having risked his life, or lost it, in one or other of those fields of action, in the service of his country.

Nor have the wealthier classes been undistinguished in the more peaceful pursuits of philosophy and science. Take, for instance, the great names of Bacon, the father of modern philosophy, and of Worcester, Boyle, Cavendish, Talbot, and Rosse, in science. The last named may be regarded as the great mechanic of the peerage; a man who, if he had not been born a peer, would probably have taken the highest rank as an inventor. So thorough is his knowledge of smith-work that he is said to have been pressed on one occasion to accept the foremanship of a large workshop, by a manufacturer to whom his rank was unknown. The great Rosse telescope, of his own fabrication, is certainly the most extraordinary instrument of the kind that has yet been constructed.

But it is principally in the departments of politics and literature that we find the most energetic laborers amongst our higher classes. - Success in these lines of action, as in all others, can only be achieved through industry, practice, and study; and the great Minister, or parliamentary leader, must necessarily be amongst the very hardest of workers. Such was Palmerston; and such are Derby and Russell, Disraeli and Gladstone. These men have had the benefit of no Ten Hours' Bill, but have often, during the busy season of Parliament, worked " double shift," almost day and night. One of the most illustrious of such workers in modern times was unquestionably the late Sir Robert Peel. He possessed in an extraordinary degree the power of continuous intellectual labor, nor did he spare himself. His career indeed presented a remarkable example of how much a man of comparatively moderate powers can accomplish by means of assiduous application and indefatigable industry. During the forty years that he held a seat in Parliament, his labors were prodigious. He was a most conscientious man, and whatever he undertook to do, he did thoroughly. All his speeches bear evidence of his careful study of everything that had been spoken or written on the subject under consideration. He was elaborate almost to excess; and spared no pains to adapt himself to the various capacities of his audience. Withal, he possessed much practical sagacity, great strength of purpose, and power to direct the issues of action with steady hand and eye. In one respect he surpassed most men: his principles broadened and enlarged with time; and age, instead of contracting, only served to mellow and ripen his nature. To the last he continued open to the reception of new views, and, though many thought him cautious to excess, he did not allow himself to fall into that in-discriminating admiration of the past, which is the palsy of many minds similarly educated, and renders the old age of many nothing but a pity.

The indefatigable industry of Lord Brougham has become almost proverbial. His public labors have ex-tended over a period of upwards of sixty years, during. which he has ranged over many fields of law, literature, politics, and science and achieved distinction in them all. How he contrived it, has been to many a mystery. Once, when Sir Samuel Romilly was requested to undertake some new work, he excused himself by saying that he had no time; "but," he added, " go with it to that fellow Brougham; he seems to have time for everything." The secret of it was that he never left a minute unemployed; withal he possessed a constitution of iron. When arrived at an age at which most men would have retired from the world to enjoy their hard-earned leisure, perhaps to dose away their time in an easy-chair, Lord Brougham commenced and prosecuted a series of elaborate investigations as to the laws of tight, and he submitted the results to the most scientific audiences that Paris and London could muster. About the same time, he was passing through the press his admirable sketches of the " Men of Science and Literature of the Reign of George III.," and taking his full share of the law business and the political discussions in the House of Lords. Sidney Smith once re-commended him to confine himself to only the transaction of so much business as three strong men could get through. But such was Brougham's love of work —long become a habit that no amount of application seemed to have been too great for him; and such was his love of excellence, that it has been said of' him that if his station in life had only been that of a shoeblack, he would never have rested satisfied until he had become the best shoeblack in England.

Another hard-working man of the same class is Sir E. Bulwer Lytton. Few writers have done more, or achieved higher distinctions in various walks as a novelist, poet, dramatist, historian, essayist, orator, and politician. He has worked his way step by step, disdainful of ease, and animated throughout by the ardent desire to excel. On the score of mere industry, there are few living English writers who have written so much, and none that have produced so much of high quality. The industry of Bulwer is entitled to all the greater praise that it has been entirely self imposed. To hunt, and shoot, and live at ease to frequent the clubs and enjoy the opera, .with the variety of London visiting and sight-seeing during the " season," and then off to the country mansion, with its well-stocked preserves, and its thousand delightful out-door pleasures to travel abroad, to Paris, Vienna, or Rome all this is excessively attractive to a lover of pleasure and a man of fortune, and by no means calculated to make him voluntarily undertake continuous labor of any kind. Yet these pleasures, all within his reach, Bulwer must, as compared with men born to similar estate, have denied himself in assuming the position and pursuing the career of a literary man. Like Byron, his first effort was poetical (" Weeds and Wild Flowers,") and a failure. His second was a novel (" Falkland,") and it proved a failure too. A man of weaker nerve would have dropped authorship; but Bulwer had pluck and perseverance; and he worked on, determined to succeed. He was incessantly industrious, read extensively, and from failure went courageously onward to success. " Pelham " followed " Falkland " within a year, and the remainder of Bulwer's literary life, now extending over a period of thirty years, has been a succession of triumphs.

Mr. Disraeli affords a similar instance of the power of industry and application in working out an eminent public career. His first achievements were, like Bulwer's, in literature; and he reached success only through a succession of failures. His " Wondrous Tale of Alroy " and " Revolutionary Epic " were laughed at, and regarded as indications of literary lunacy. But he worked on in other directions, and his Coningsby," " Sybil," and " Tancred," proved the sterling stuff of which he was made. As an orator, too, his first appearance in the House of Commons was a failure. It was spoken of as " more screaming than an Adelphi farce." Though composed in a grand and ambitious strain, every sentence was hailed with " loud laughter." "Hamlet " played as a comedy were nothing to it. But he concluded with a sentence which embodied a prophecy. Writhing under the laughter with which his studied eloquence had been received, he exclaimed, " I have begun several times many things, and have succeeded in them at last. I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me:" The time did come; and how Disraeli succeeded in at length commanding the attention of the first assembly of gentlemen in the world, affords , a striking illustration of what energy and determination will do; for Disraeli earned his position by dint of patient industry. He did not, as many young men do, having once failed, retire dejected, to mope and whine in a corner, but diligently set him-self to work. He carefully unlearnt his faults, studied the character of his audience, practiced sedulously the art of speech, and industriously filled his mind with the elements of parliamentary knowledge. He worked patiently for success, and it came but slowly; then the House laughed with him, instead of at him. The recollection of his early failure was effaced, and by general consent he was at length admitted to be one of the most finished and effective of parliamentary speakers.

Although much may be accomplished by means of individual industry and energy, as these and other instances set forth in the following pages served to illustrate, it must at the same time be acknowledged that the help which we derive from others in the journey of life is of very great importance. The poet Words-worth has well said that " these two things, contradictory though they may seem, must go together manly dependence and manly independence, manly reliance and manly self-reliance." From infancy to old age, all are more or less indebted to others for nurture and culture; and the best and strongest are usually found the readiest to acknowledge such help. Take, for example, the career of the late Alexis de Tocqueville, a man doubly well-born, for his father was a distinguished peer of France, and his mother a grand-daughter of Malesherbes. Through powerful family influence, he was appointed judge Auditor of Versailles when only twenty-one; but probably feeling that he had not fairly won the position by merit, he determined to give it up and owe his future advancement in life to himself alone. " A foolish resolution," some will say; but De Tocqueville bravely acted it out. He resigned his appointment, and made arrangements to leave France for the purpose of travelling through the United States, the results of which were published in his great book on " Democracy in America." His friend and travelling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, has described his indefatigable industry during this journey. "His nature," he says, " was ,wholly averse to idleness, and whether he was travelling or resting, his mind was always at work. . . . With Alexis, the most agreeable conversation was that which was the most useful. The worst day was the lost day, or the day ill spent; the least loss of time annoyed him." Tocqueville himself wrote to a friend—" There is no time of life at which one can wholly cease from action; for effort without one's self, and still more, effort within, is equally necesessary, if not more so, when we grow old, as it is in youth. I compare man in this world to a traveller journeying without ceasing towards a colder and colder region; the higher he goes, the faster he ought to walk. The great malady of the soul is cold. And in resisting this formidable evil, one needs not only to be sustained by the action of a mind employed, but also by contact with ones fellows in the business of life."

Human character is moulded by a thousand subtle influences; by example and precept; by life and literature; by friends and neighbors; by the world we live in as well as by the spirit of our forefathers, whose legacy of good words and deeds we inherit. But great, unquestionably, though these influences are acknowledged to be, it is nevertheless equally clear that men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing; and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.

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