Review of ‘The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths’ by Anna K. Schaffner

Self-help is a tricky subject. Depending on the audience, it can provoke intense sympathy and intense skepticism. A dismissive attitude toward the current self-help culture can point to the lack of substance and depth in the popular material, the deceitful and self-serving “gurus,” the hyper-optimism of followers, the fixation with “positive thinking,” the unrealistic promises, the individualistic bias, and the social-political blindspots. But should the self-help culture–with all its associated ideas and aspirations–be completely dismissed? Can we treat self-help, the desire for it, as a symptom of something else, as an expression of something that is itself innocent, noble, honest, and worthy of attention? Here is a passage that could serve as an introduction:

"Self-Help [by Samuel Smiles] was published in 1859--the same year as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Many have come to think of Self-Help as one of the defining documents of the era, no less important in its way than Darwin's work. It clearly hit a nerve, and gave voice to some of the Victorians' most pressing aspirations and anxieties." (from Chapter Eight)

Anna Katharina Schaffner’s book shows us a way of engaging with self-help culture, a way of detecting and evaluating its weaknesses, false claims and assumptions, and identifying its promises, while also recognizing the underlying truths in it that are worth uncovering and preserving. Thus, perhaps the primary strength of the book comes from Schaffner’s refusal to completely dismiss (or completely endorse) this part of our contemporary culture.

To refer to the redeemable core of self-help, she uses the term self-improvement, showing that self-improvement has been a part of much older philosophical and religious traditions. By comparing newer self-help movements with older ideas, Schaffner helps us develop an historical sensibility regarding the core concepts of self-improvement. The historical sensibility is a great strength of the book, and demonstrates a method (a way of approaching the subject-matter) that can be applied to other topics. The ideas central to self-improvement (e.g., perseverance, simplicity, humility) have undergone profound transformations and have been influenced by, and interpreted through, the overarching culture of the time and their dominant ideologies. The book highlights the tension between, on one hand, the aim of knowing yourself (which includes knowing your desires) and, on the other hand, taking your desires for granted and naïvely going after what you want. By naïvely going after what we want, what we are supposed to want, we are prone to serving, not our own best interests, but the prevailing ideologies of our time.

Each chapter in the book is organized around a central idea, and Schaffner does a fine job of renewing our thinking about each idea, tracing it across history, while also refreshing our view of familiar thinkers who were preoccupied with these ideas. We read about H. D. Thoreau, for instance, in relation to the concept of simplicity; we read about Emerson and Nietzsche in relation to imagination; many, including Buddha and Jesus, show up in multiple chapters. It does, of course, seem strange to see Emerson on the same scale as Tony Robbins or Alan de Botton, or to see on a single page a reference to Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. Perhaps that is Schaffner’s intention–to let contrasts emerge on their own, as we include various thinkers within a single discussion, and when we treat them all as a cultural material. When you put a passage from Jordan B. Peterson’s writing next to a passage from Seneca, you really don’t need to do much work in creating a sharp contrast.

Understanding types of self-help writers is particularly useful when we approach them critically with reference to common errors, e.g., over-estimating the role of willpower. In this regard, Schaffner’s treatment of Jordan B. Peterson and M. Scott Peck is quite effective. She highlights the social-political implications of a type self-help, tacitly expressed in their claims, the degree to which they emphasize individual responsibility and neglect the role collective action and organization.

"Both Peterson and Peck, then, believe firmly in willpower and discipline as our path to salvation. If we struggle, nothing but our own laziness and weakness are to blame. In this respect, their work resembles nothing so much as a moral treatise from the Middle Ages." (from Chapter Eight)

Schaffner’s style throughout the book is scholarly, patient, and charitable. The book could’ve been more energetic and engaging had the author’s voice been more personal. There is a personal element in the writing, which at some points becomes more visible (e.g., when she describes an overzealous minimalist movement as “snobbish” and “irksome”), but for the most part the scholarly and detached style is dominant. Furthermore, many of the references (e.g., self-help books and authors), are named without much reflection or evaluation. This was probably necessary given the author’s ambition to include representative samples of both contemporary and historical contributions. Nevertheless, to the extent that Schaffner engages with the material, the book is illuminating and helpful. You can even treat the book as a self-improvement resource, but that would require taking a personal, non-formulaic, and “inefficient” path, one that involves understanding what we desire, one that involves reflecting on who we are personally and collectively, and not a quick method of getting to what we (are supposed to) want.

Being with Others

Connecting to your past, to your history, to your language, to your family, should not be done only for its own sake, or–even worse–for the sake of acquiring the comfort for being with the in-group. Connecting to your history shapes your presence, sharpens it, makes it truthful. That is the justification for pursuing the connections, analogous to why we ought to read history–not for the sake of the past, but for the sake of the present.

We are probably talking about a positive sense of the word, “baggage,” uncommon compared to the negative sense of the word. What you bring into a dialogue with someone who does not share your history, cannot be a blank slate or an absolute openness. If there is an openness, it has to be enacted by an historical being, by a being that remembers, by a being who–in part–is a collection of memories found in the present moment. Being open to someone doesn’t mean forgetfulness or ahistoricity. Your openness is a pause, or better a moment of silence, in a temporal stream. That is what makes your silence, your openness, your act of clearing, meaningful and valuable. That is what makes it a human act.

Cultivating individuality, which requires connection to one’s history, one’s language, one’s “background” or the ground of being, is synonymous with cultivating difference, especially when regarded from the standpoint of relationships. But, then, difference becomes the starting point for dialogue. Connecting to your past becomes the background condition for, not an insistence on difference, but connecting in the present.

Since my arrival in Toronto, about half of my reading has been in Persian. In February, I savored the collection of essays by Dariush Ashoori, ‘Parse-ha va Porsesh-ha‘ (Questions & Wanderings). Ashoori is known to many as the main translator of Nietzsche in Iran. I still have my copy of Beyond Good & Evil (‘Farasooye Nik-o Bad‘), which I purchased in Tehran in the late 1990s as a remnant of my early days with Nietzsche and Ashoori’s translation. His contributions to translating has gifted our language with an increased capacity to be hospitable to Western philosophy and social sciences. His essays, Questions & Wanderings, include historical and autobiographical reflections, cultural criticism, homages to his intellectual predecessors, and reflections on language and philosophy.

Currently I am working my way through the Persian translation of Nahal Tajadod’s Sur les pas de Rumi (In the Footsteps of Rumi), reading a few pages each mornings and a few pages each nights before sleep. Tajadod’s book contains a retelling of thirty or so stories from Rumi’s Masnavi. The stories are told from the point of view of a character, who is the creation of Tajadod: A contemporary of Rumi and Shams; a bookbinder who, similar to Rumi, had to uproot his life and move from his city because of the invading Mongol armies. Each chapter is an episode where Tajadod’s character finds one of the Rumi stories and lives through it.

I am going taking a break from Tajadod’s book to spend some time with the philosopher, Gholamhossein Ebrahimi Dinani, and his book, The Question of Being or Being of the Question. The book contains a collection of 14 essays on Being, thought, concepts of absolute/relative, meaning, sense, and so on. I completed the first two essays. The most important idea for me has been captured in the phrase, در پرتو (in light of). For example, Dinani says, imperfection is meaningful in light of perfection; the relative is meaningful in light of the absolute; a part is meaningful in light of the whole. What is “under” the light, in focus, visible, depends on something else that isn’t itself in focus and might even be denied. What is expressed, made apparent, what is “under” the light, can appear more real to us, but Dinani insists that the apparent reality we experience is signaling something else that is given expression–something we could talk about as Being, One, etc.

My turn to my native language signifies something deeper in my return to Toronto, and the fact that my return to Toronto was more than a geographical relocation. Here, I am try to think more in Persian, read more in Persian, speak more in Persian. But I don’t do these things for their own sake. I am seeking a depth and a truthfulness of presence, which can only be achieved by a turn to the neglected parts of my mind. Engaging with this task, I feel moved by a sense of curiosity, hope, and responsibility to anyone with whom I come into contact. Connecting to the past becomes the background condition for–not insisting on differences–but connecting with others in the present.