A History of Self Help

It is a common misconception that self help is a relatively modern invention. Certainly as a popular phenomenon it is relatively new, but as a concept it has been around for a great deal longer.

‘Proverbs’, ‘Ecclesiastes’, ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’ and ‘The Book of Job’ (which itself is thought by many scholars to have its origins in ancient Sumerian culture) can all be seen as examples of Wisdom Literature, books which seek to guide the reader and provide them with a how-to of goodness and virtue. In Classical Antiquity, Hesiod’s advice poetry, such as ‘Works and Days’ can also be categorised as a form of Wisdom Literature.

What is considered by many to be the first self help book, Samuel Smiles ‘Self Help’, was published in 1859. The essential message of the book is that God helps those who help themselves and, like the Wisdom Literature before it, the emphasis is very much on virtue, sobriety and honest labour.

The Law of Attraction, one of the more controversial and unusual sub-genres of the current self-help marketplace has its origins in Victorian spirituality, being first mentioned explicitly in Madame Blavatsky’s ‘Isis Unveiled’. Many Victorian spiritualists took their inspiration from Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions.

In 1902, James Allen’s classic self help book, ‘As a Man Thinketh’, was published, with its central notion that we can control our thoughts and thus are circumstances. Thereafter, there is a steady stream of books that blend self help with radical spirituality from such authors as William Walker Atkinson, Bruce MacLelland and Annie Besant.

What we now think of as the modern self help movement begins to coalesce, with the publication of a number of fundamental self help books: Wallace D. Wattles’ ‘The Science of Getting Rich’ (1910), Florence Scovel Shinn’s ‘The Game of Life and How to Play It’ (1925), Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’ (1936) and Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Grow Rich’ (1937).

The concept of self-help is an enduring one. It’s also more than a little prone to overblown claims, especially in these times of excessive marketing campaigns, but if you look hard enough and persevere, you can pick your way through the twenty-first century hyperbole and find something fascinating, something that has appealed to humankind for centuries, something that might actually… well, might actually help.

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