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by William H. Benson

December 27, 2007

     Advice-givers, distributors of visions of truth, and general all-around merchants of wisdom collectively belong to what I call the “self-help industry.” They all work at a printing mill that produces a tidal wave of books each year that supposedly offers the keys to success: finding the better job or the best husband or wife, making the top grades, getting a promotion, solving marital problems, and achieving the successful life.

     Joel Osteen’s smiling face adorns the cover of his best-seller, the newest entry in this literary genre. For decades, Robert Schuller and Wayne Dyer have written their own remedies for what ails people, and before them, there was Norman Vincent Peale, the father of the self-help industry, who burst on the scene in 1952 with his The Power of Positive Thinking.

     Peale’s chapter titles, in a nutshell, underscores his advice: Believe in yourself, Create your own happiness, Expect the best and get it, Don’t believe in defeat, Break the worry habit, and Use faith in healing. Within his chapters Peale quoted repeatedly from the Bible, such as this from Psalms, “The Lord is the Strength of my life, . . . in this will I be confident.” On occasion Peale borrowed from Marcus Aurelius or from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.”

     The bulk of his material though Peale built around people (first names only) whom he had met and counseled in his duties as a pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He described how those men and women had struggled and then found success, mostly by believing in themselves.

     I have read any number of these self-help books, but I find the best advice not from the current self-help output to hit the best-seller list, but rather from those words from nearly three centuries ago, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. It was on December 28, 1732 in Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, that he first advertised his almanac, written by Richard Saunders, Franklin’s pseudonym.

     In the almanac, Ben offered his advice in carefully constructed sentences that were “both entertaining and useful.” In his Autobiography, he wrote, “I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurr’d between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences.”

     Franklin championed hard work: “There are no gains without pains.” “At the working man’s house hunger looks in but dares not enter.” “God gives all things to industry.” He detested fools: “It is ill manners to silence a fool and cruelty to let him go on.” “He that speaks much is much mistaken.” “Speak little, do much.”

     As for getting even when injured, he suggested, “If you would be revenged of your enemy, govern yourself.” “Write injuries in dust, benefits in marble.” “It is better to take many injuries than to give one.” To achieve marital bliss, he advised, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”

     Friends, he suggested, should be carefully picked: “The rotten apple spoils his companion.” “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” To the religious fanatic he said: “None preaches better than the ant, and she says nothing.” “How many observe Christ’s birthday; how few his passages! O! ‘tis easier to keep the holidays than the commandments.” “Many have quarreled about religion that never practiced it.”

     His diet would not attract many: “Eat few suppers, and you’ll need few medicines.” And neither would his child-rearing tactics: “Love well, whip well.” He promoted life-long learning: “If you think the price of education is high, try ignorance.” “There are lazy minds as well as lazy bodies.” He recognized the demon lurking inside the liquor bottle: “Drink does not drown care, but waters it, and makes it grow fast.” Happy New Year!

     Christmas is behind us, and the New Year 2008 lies before us. Time marches on, and it is the season to set some conclusions, record some resolutions, establish worthy goals. May 2008 reveal for you new and wonderful ideas, interesting friends, pleasant and comfortable surroundings. And my advice to you, good and faithful reader, is this: “Believe only half of what you see or read, and none of what you hear.”