Before the self-help book

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The opening page of the Enseignement de vraie noblesse ((The Instruction of True Nobility) in a manuscript from 1464. The Enseignement was a mirror for princes for the Burgundian court, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 166

I’ll be honest and say it straight: I don’t like self-help books, I think they are the opioid crisis of the book world. Everywhere I look, someone is reading or buying or thinking of buying, or talking about some book that promises to solve a problem in 10 steps, to provide 10 valuable lessons, to offer the truth on a plate or to give the lie to something which would take a library full of books to expound. But most fundamentally, self-help books sin through their anti-gravity claims. You can sort yourself out by picking yourself up by your bootstraps – when in fact you’re just lying down, craving to find someone to help you out.

That said, the truth is that this genre is not new. Critics of this type of books usually point to a crisis of the individual in Western societies who, having lost the traditional support networks, turns to herself in a desperate need for self-healing or self-improvement. That is partly true, but self-help literature goes deeper and farther than that. It was Plato who introduced the notion that knowledge is recollection, that discovery is the re-discovery of truth we’ve always known before we received our bodies and joined the visible world at birth. Knowledge doesn’t come from outside, it isn’t transcendental, it is within us, it is immanent. Philosophy is an activity turned towards the self.

Not everything in Western culture may be a gloss on Plato. An earlier type of self-help literature were the medieval instruction manuals to princes known as ‘mirrors for princes’ (specula principum). Textbooks are essentially self-help-ful, but the mirrors are particularly interesting as they offer wisdom for rulers: how a ruler should behave,  what they should do, what they shouldn’t. The mirror genre was extremely popular during the Middle Ages and included a huge number of works in which political leaders could find models of behaviour and answers to various problems and concerns laid out in a compendious and, often, sententious way. These leaders didn’t deprive themselves of masters and teachers, but consulted the mirrors in much the same way as 21st-century readers may approach a books like ‘How to be a better husband’ or manager.

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