The most interesting thing that I learned in this class concerns the origin of the principle of self-improvement. Self-help books, do-it-yourself guides, and self-improvement manuals all have become a ubiquitous part of Modern American culture since the founding of the United States. It entails a sense of human agency, a freedom to shape ourselves into the people we want to be.
In class, we saw the beginning of this phenomenon with Benjamin Franklin and his autobiography. In it, he describes the process by which he created success for himself. Two of his methods, in particular, stand out to me. One is the list of virtues, which he actively shapes his behavior around to best meet the ideals. And the other is the schedule he makes for himself. Both of these he uses in his quest for perfection and both have been heavily utilized since then.
Echoes of Franklin’s work can be seen in several of the readings we have done since, as well as in sources outside those we looked at in class. While Frederick Douglass certainly never had a chance to read Franklin’s autobiography before escaping slavery, the methods he employed to escape are similar to those Franklin utilized in his success. Douglass realized he was a person capable of being and doing much more than the life of slave allowed. In realizing this potential he actively worked towards improving his situation, which in his case meant freedom. Arguably, the most important step in accomplishing this was teaching himself to read and write, which is by all means a huge self-improvement project. Success in this allowed him to hold onto his dream of freedom, which eventually led to his escape.
Another dreamer that shared the vision of self-improvement was James Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As Nick relates Gatsby’s story in Chapter 6 he notes that Gatsby’s imagination could not accept the unsuccessful farm people that his parents were. They did not match up with his own dreams of success. After Gatsby’s death, his dad shows Nick the “schedule” he had made for himself when he was a young man, which gives an outline of days filled with a series of self-improving activities very similar to that of Franklin’s own. Whereas in the case of Franklin and Douglass the improvement leads to real good, we see that in Gatsby’s case the outcome is much more morbid. His fantasy world shatters, and all his bootlegger wealth and success cannot stand up to the force of Tom Buchanan’s violent world. Is this an example of self-improvement as a sort of a fantasy?
Beyond the literature we read in class, two works that follow the principle of self-improvement and have also been hugely popular are Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Both of these books are presented as ways to improve a person to have better success in the business world and in their personal world, and each discusses strategies and guidelines in accomplishing these goals. How To Win Friends and Influence People gives a series of maxims to hold to in a number or different circumstances, offering the best chance at obtaining the results you want. As the name implies, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offers the same sort of improvement list, although presented in a much more methodical way, as Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues. The idea here is that by following the methodology presented in these books, one can find the same level, or imagined level, of satisfaction that successful or effective people have. The fact that these texts, printed 148 and 201 years (respectively) after Franklin’s death, still hold to many of the same principles is a testament to the lasting influence of Franklin and his Autobiography in American culture.
But to what extent are people able to actually improve their lives with self-improvement? As we saw with Gatsby, self-improvement does not always have a happy ending. Sure he had a nice house, car, lots of really cool shirts, and threw big fancy parties, but would we really say Gatsby’s life was improved by his ambition and success? In the end he dies alone, having lost the love of his life, and nobody comes to his funeral. The only person who actually cares is his father, and that’s the thing he tried to “improve” from in the first place. Obviously the cases of Franklin and Douglass are different, but those two are among the most exceptional people in American history, both having a certain natural advantage over their fellow man. Something we might call genetic gifts nowadays.
In my philosophy class a few weeks ago we read an article by Galen Strawson entitled The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility. His premise is that we act based on how we are but how we are is necessarily traced back to factors and conditions outside of our control. He argues from this that no one can truly be held morally responsible for any action they commit. However, I think it can also apply to how we view the effectiveness of self-improvement. If ultimately our actions are determined by something outside our control, then how could self-improvement help? Or what if those who seek self-improvement do so because they naturally are the type of person who seeks to make themselves excel? To what extent does the nurturing of self-improvement counteract the natural tendencies we all have? Are our innate predispositions in some case too much for it to overcome?
– Christian K.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Great Gatsby.” The University of Adelaide (Library). 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.