PhD by Kevin Murray

Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, 1990

Narrative Psych


1. Introduction; 2. Narrative making sense; 3. Life manuals; 4. Life construction groups; 5. Travel space; 6. Travel and personal change; 7. Travel talk in context; 8. Narrative partitioning; References; A. Appendix

3 Life manuals

In this chapter, an inquiry is set up which attempts to flesh out the framework so far established for understanding the making sense of personal change. The materials consist of texts which are designed to provide advice about how one should live one’s life. As such, they counsel forms of personal change that are desirable in one’s life.

3.1        Method

The basic methodological principle adopted in this study concerns the authorship of research materials. Laboratory practices extract information from subjects for the purpose of constructing a mathematical picture which has little to do with the way actions are accounted for in everyday life. The specific reflexive practices by means of which pictures are established of individuals are considered irrelevant in the laboratory. The argument I presented in Chapter One puts forward the negotiation of responsibility as the ground of personal change; this places the activity of making sense in the exterior public realm. The methodological implication of this is to concentrate on the identification of material collective practices, rather than the elicitation of inner cognitive structures. In these terms, the idea of a laboratory as a neutral space for exposing abstract mental structures is not just misguided, but also irrelevant.

For this reason, a method is proposed which draws from reflexive practices that are already established. In this chapter, the materials I will examine consist of texts which inform one about how to construct a life. These life manuals offer advice, counsel, and illustrations for making decisions that concern one’s biography.

The sources used in this chapter include three life manuals: St.Augustine’s Confessions, Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, and Gail Sheehy’s Passages. Reasons for their choice are given in each of their analyses. Before examining these texts, the two principles governing the method will be briefly outlined.

‘Conversation’ was presented in Chapter One as the legitimate context of the present study. In applying this principle to making sense of change one is limited to real-life episodes in which personal change is revealed. This class of phenomena includes rites of passage, initiation rites, conversion rituals, religious testimonies, gossip, etc. The specific sub-class chosen from this group consists of texts whose official goal is to guide readers in constructing their lives. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, which provides such a function. However, in this chapter I will adopt a more limited focus and concentrate on specific life manuals in the Medieval, Victorian and Modern periods.

The approach I take to these texts is drawn largely from Foucault’s (1986b, 1988) study of ancient Greek and early Christian life manuals. Foucault’s work fits broadly within a recent school of neohistoricist criticism (e.g., Greenblatt, 1986) whose concern is with the methods of ‘self-fashioning’ revealed in literary texts. The purpose of Foucault’s study is to uncover a set of practices by which individuals could reveal who they were. Foucault looks for evidence of these practices in the prescriptive texts of the period that deal with the issues of physical health and personal morality. The nature of these texts is to assist readers in moulding their existence into a ‘good’ life. As Foucault (1986b, p.13) writes:

These texts thus served as functional devices that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and to shape themselves as ethical subjects...

Foucault’s particular analysis leads him to draw relations between the practices of personal habit and the practices of power, particularly in the process of ‘ascesis’. The Greek notion of ‘ascesis’ represents the relation to self which involves the subordination of one’s lesser nature. He contrasts this with the Christian practice of engaging in war with the ‘other’ as a means of achieving the ‘good life’. Foucault points to the Christian ‘truth obligation’ to bear witness against oneself to another, particularly in the practice of confession.

Foucault’s analysis points out historical differences both in the way personal change is represented as a process and the ends towards which it is seen as directed. As a device for attending to these differences, Aristotle’s scheme of four causes will be used to relate the three texts together.

3.2        Change through religious conversion: Saint Augustine’s Confessions

As a phenomenon of personal change, religious conversion presents two related problems. The first problem concerns how the agency of change is represented: the degree to which an individual is seen to be responsible for moral transformation. Conversion seems to entail a recognition of the truth of religious doctrine. The question is: How is this recognition gained? Is it a change in belief due to the discovery of information which was lacking previously? Or is it a transformation in the way in which one looks on that information? The answer to these questions has important implications for the status of the conversion. If it is a product of life’s experience then by implication the conversion is reversible. However, if the agency of change is represented by an exterior force which alters one’s point of view, then the status of the conversion is more likely to be fixed, regardless of what happens in life. It is within this problematic that Saint Augustine’s Confessions will be examined. To give these questions more structure, an outline of the range of academic approaches to conversion will be given before analysing the text.

Within the discipline of psychology, conversion has been presented as a response to the recognition of lack of agency. James (1978/1902) examines the pivotal role of self-surrender in the experience of conversion. For James, the psychological dependence on an unconscious physiological response can evoke an awareness of forces greater than the individual. The experience of conversion makes sense of this feeling by interpreting it within the doctrine of divine powers. Thus, ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’ (James, 1978, p.215). This picture is reinforced in the ethnographic study of Harding (1987). Harding examines the roots of the conversion experience in the ‘apertures of the ordinary’, where it is difficult for a person to know how to ‘go on’. Harding finds that it is these moments where a person vulnerable to a conversion experience is likely to engage in a dialogue with what seems to be the voice of God; it is possible for a religious movement to engineer such experiences in order to convert others. She differs from James, therefore, for whom greater powers are always present, and never ‘stage managed’.

These ethnographic and psychological approaches agree that recognition is a necessary element in conversion. This leaves open the question of how this recognition is instantiated. One answer is in the quality of ‘datability’ characteristic of conversion narratives. In a ‘philosophical anthropology’ of historical texts, Blumenberg (1985) claims that myth, similar to James’ conversion, originates in an anxiety of the unknown. The structure of the conversion experience—the division of life into time before and after a critical event—is seen to subject the uncertain forces governing consciousness to strict time-coding: a semblance of order is presented.[1] Thus one picture of conversion presents a progression from recognition of powerlessness to attempts to recover a sense of agency.

3.2.1       The intervention of text

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a personal document, written in the late fourth century A.D., twelve years after the incident of his conversion, when he was thirty two years of age. According to Blumenberg (1985), Confessions is partly offered as a polemic against Gnosticism: it locates the human condition in the act of original sin rather than as a passive element in the cosmic order of good and evil. Its later influence has been seen in the development of self-narratives in Western literature.[2]

Placing the historical context of Confessions to one side, what does the text have to say about the forms of change to which a life is subject, and the forces at play in that process? Saint Augustine’s conversion is told in Book VIII of Confessions. The story prior to this event entails childhood sins, such as stealing from a pear tree, and a mistaken belief in the dualism of good and evil. With the help of Platonist texts, Saint Augustine realises that evil is a product of will rather than substance. Saint Augustine learns of two officers who converted while reading the story of Anthony, who himself was converted while reading the Bible. Despite his conscious recognition of the need to change his ways, at this point in the narrative Saint Augustine appears incapable of doing so. His condition prior to conversion is represented as a self divided against itself—‘on the brink of resolution’ (viii.11). The division is a struggle between present and possible self: the attachment to temporal pleasures in indulgent habits is opposed to the recognition of transcendent values. The scene immediately before the event of his conversion has Saint Augustine in distress: ‘a great storm broke within me’ (viii.12). Distraught, he leaves the company of a friend and goes to lie under a fig tree. The narrative presents Saint Augustine locked in a further struggle of will. To demonstrate the power of will over his body he pulls his hair out and knocks his head, but he claims he cannot will his will to surrender its past habits. In a moment of extreme crisis Saint Augustine thinks he hears a voice saying, ‘Take it and read’. He remembers the story of Anthony, who was issued a similar command, and mirroring the actions of the past figure he takes up the Bible and opens it. By chance the passage he finds is the command to forgo ‘nature’s appetites’. The effect of this is immediate:

For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. [viii.12]

Confessions continues with expressions of gratitude to God for the act of conversion, and meditations on the nature of time and memory. Despite Saint Augustine’s stated realisation that evil is a product of human agency, the assumption of goodness is presented as quite beyond his control. What are the conditions of possibility of change presented by Saint Augustine?

At the most obvious level of material practice, Saint Augustine’s conversion belongs to a tradition of change which is engineered through the intervention of a text, the Bible.[3] Earlier in Confessions, the accuracy of astrological predictions is explained by the power of chance, when a person opening a book of poetry would find ‘a verse which had a remarkable bearing on his problem’ [iv.3]. Such a practice serves the function of fixing a decision to a source that is independent of the potentially fickle wishes of an individual. The conversion incident of the Bible reinforces this practice with the authority of a canonical text.

3.2.2       The divided self

Much of the description of change in Confessions oscillates between a self divided and a self made whole. The past self contained ‘two wills within me’, whereas on reading the Bible ‘all the darkness of doubt was dispelled’. This division of self is homologous to the split implicit in the autobiographical form between a present self which does the telling and a past self to which events have occurred. The temporal separation of self is also reproduced in the spatial conflict presented prior to conversion.

Saint Augustine uses an architectural metaphor to represent this state of inner conflict: ‘My inner self is a house divided against itself...’ (viii.7). The goal of salvation involves battle between the force of material desire and spiritual hope.

The enemy held my will in his power and from it he had made a chain and shackled me. For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity...But the new will which had come to life in me and made me wish to serve you freely and enjoy you, my God, who are our only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overcome the old, hardened as it was by the passage of time. So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart. [viii.5]

Saint Augustine’s narrative involves a swing from recognition of weakness to spiritual salvation. Auerbach (1957) uses the term pendulation to describe this narrative feature (the paradigmatic narrative of ‘pendulation’ is the story of Peter’s redemption after his betrayal of Jesus). Saint Augustine’s narrative swings from domination by bodily lusts to faith in the highest spiritual force. The inner life in this narrative form becomes the engine of events, providing the alternating experiences of humiliation and elevation. Saint Augustine describes his state before conversion as a ‘madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life’ [viii.8]. This crisis not only engenders recognition by the hero of a sacred presence, but also serves to transform the hero through the power of God’s message. In Confessions, this logic is illustrated by sailors whose terror of shipwreck during a storm is replaced by the elation of rescue: ‘their fear gives place to a joy no less profound’ [viii.3].

It is possible to use the term ‘pendulation’ as a narrative structure that oscillates between danger and safety; it fits James’ psychological understanding of conversion as a recognition of greater powers whose material reference is physiological impulses beyond one’s control. While this structure provides the scheme for representing the process of conversion in Saint Augustine, how is it set in motion? Given Saint Augustine’s supposed willingness to be converted, what force is necessary to carry out the process?

3.2.3       The power of grace

Saint Augustine’s text presents a complex hierarchy of forces at play in the process of conversion. At one level there is the moral dimension of asceticism, within which the individual can exercise agency in restoring order within the self. Saint Augustine’s story identifies the value of continence as the force which unites the house and restores order within the self.

Truly it is by continence that we are made as one and regain that unity of self which we lost by falling apart in the search for a variety of pleasures. For a man loves you so much the less if, besides you, he also loves something else which he does not love for your sake. O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! [x.28]

‘Continence’ thus represents the dedication of earthly activity to a higher order. While as an ascetic value, continence relies on self discipline, this passage by Saint Augustine reveals that it is the product itself not of individual will, but of divine grace. It is grace which is seen to open up the individual to carry out the wishes of a higher agent, and grace is ‘given’ by god. Here is a paradox. Although the point of Saint Augustine’s argument is to affirm the existence of an irreducible human agency involved in the evil condition of existence—evil is will divided against itself—the power to change oneself depends on complete surrender of will to another force. It is this surrender of agency which is termed ‘grace’.

The theory that personal change is realised through an act of divine grace is reflected in the doctrines of the medieval church, particularly in the writings of Aquinas. In Summa Theologica Aquinas identifies grace as the necessary condition for spiritual salvation:

By grace we are born again sons of God. But generation terminates at the essence prior to the powers. Therefore grace is in the soul’s essence prior to being in the powers...And thus grace is compared to the will as the mover to the moved, which is the same comparison as that of a horseman to the horse. [Q110.4]

Aquinas’ theory of grace reflects an Aristotelian understanding of formal causes, in which divine powers are reflected in the initial conditions by which things take their shape.

Grace, as a quality, is said to act upon the soul, not after the manner of an efficient cause, but after the manner of a formal cause, as whiteness makes a thing white, and justice, just. [Q110.2]

Table 3.i Four Causes of Personal Change in Saint Augustine’s Confessions

Trait      Form             Event              End                  CHANGE


Intellect              Grace Voice               God                 Continence


This interpretation of the dynamics of personal change points to the presence of a force that comes from outside the individual: it is identified with the logical ground of phenomena. The individual contribution to conversion owes to the gift of grace the ‘teachable frame’ (Calvin, 1975/1557, p.26) that is necessary to accept religious doctrine.

The understanding of personal change presented in Saint Augustine’s Confessions thus reveals individual release from inner conflict as due to the surrender of self to a higher agency. 1 contains an analysis of this picture in terms of Aristotle’s four causes. The four terms chosen to represent the four causes are not intended to be exclusive, but merely to designate the dominant agents at play in the narrative. Saint Augustine’s narrative presents the trait of ‘intellect’ as the driving force; it takes the hero away from his familiar environment into the world of books, in which he gathers signs of his spiritual errors. ‘Grace’ is the form by which his change corresponds: coming closer to grace brings one nearer to salvation. The event which triggers this change is the ‘voice’; though found in a nearby child this is identified as a divine message. And the end towards which this change is represented in the glory of ‘God’. These four causes contribute to the acquisition by Saint Augustine of continence, by which his divided self is made one.

It is worth noting that the theory of four causes does not encompass the presence of ‘pendulation’. This is perhaps because pendulation serves the demonstration of agency, and Aristotle does not deal as much with how change is identified. For current purposes, ‘pendulation’ answers the earlier question about the recognition entailed in conversion. By bringing circumstances to the nadir point of crisis, in which the individual risks annihilation, divine power can be presented as an agency of rescue. Thus pendulation serves to demonstrate the failing of individual agency and the power of god’s will.

3.3        Change through work: Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help

The performative context of Saint Augustine’s text is reduced to the soliloquy of a writer whose overt audience is a divine power. Such a text affirms the action of moving away from worldly pursuits to a contemplation of self. In the case of Samuel Smiles, this context is radically altered: deeds are far more important than thoughts. To bridge the difference between these two writers, I will briefly outline the emergence of self-help literature.

A critical difference between the fourth century and the nineteenth is the presence of the printing press. The milieu of Confessions was confined to an intellectual group who copied out books by hand. The printing press had a major role in popularising the life manual beyond the purely religious domain. As a study of its development shows (Eisenstein, 1980), the first printing presses of the sixteenth century found their business mostly in coping with the large demand for self-help books. Naturally, the spread of literacy facilitated by the printing press was accompanied by movements within the social structure of society. The first self-help books were courtesy manuals to be used by those whose newly elevated status demanded knowledge of a new set of social manners.

It is natural, therefore, to expect that a large number of books would be sold as a tool for acquiring upward social mobility. Perhaps the peak of this trend is seen in the works of Horatio Alger. His ‘rags to riches’ stories tell of country boys who go to the city to make good, and after initial hardship are assisted by a kind benefactor to achieve startling success. Wohl (1954) estimates that the readership for Horatio Alger novels at one stage reached fifty million. While the readership for Samuel Smiles is a little more modest than Horatio Alger’s, his books are more suitable for analysis because they directly address the reader with suggestions about how to live a life. By contrast with the drive towards spiritual redemption present in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the literature of self-help is more likely to concern itself with material and social success.

3.3.1       The case of Dr.Lee

Samuel Smiles was a nineteenth century English author who wrote for the man of humble origins wishing to rise in the world. According to Briggs (1963), his books outsold all the great nineteenth century novelists such as Dickens and Thackeray, and are translated into popular editions in at least nine languages. His most popular work, Self-Help, was originally published in 1859 and had sold a quarter of a million copies by 1905.

In contrast to the ‘inward turn’ of the Augustinian narrative, commentators have found Smiles’ work to be characterised by an absence of personal reflection.[4] For example, in his autobiography Smiles describes his marriage in one paragraph, and does not even mention his wife’s name. This is particularly noticeable when one examines one of his many cases of individuals who have achieved great deeds despite their underprivileged origins.

A typical case offered by Smiles in Self-Help is that of Dr. Samuel Lee. Smile emphasises Lee’s inauspicious childhood: Lee ‘so little distinguished himself’ at a charity school ‘that his master pronounced him one of the dullest boys that even passed through his hands’ (Smiles, 1883, p.352). While apprenticed as a carpenter he began reading books ‘to occupy his leisure hours’. Lee then studied a Latin grammar to ascertain the meaning of some of the quotations he had come across while reading. After mastering Latin, he found by chance a copy of the Greek Testament, and ‘he was immediately filled with the desire to learn that language’; and ‘Taking pleasure in learning, he soon mastered the language’. Lee pursued languages ‘without any hope of fame or reward, but simply following the bend of his genius’. After having expanded his languages to include Chaldee, Syriac and Samaritan dialects, Smiles relates that with the physical toll of reading on his eyesight, Lee ‘laid aside’ his studies and continued his carpentry work. Business improved and Lee married at twenty-eight years of age. However, events disrupted his intentions:

He determined now to devote himself to the maintenance of his family, and to renounce the luxury of literature; accordingly he sold all his books. He might have continued a working carpenter all his life, had not the chest of tools upon which he depended for subsistence been destroyed by fire, and destitution stared him in the face. He was too poor to buy new tools, so he bethought him of teaching children their letters, -- a profession requiring the least possible capital. (Smiles, 1883, p.353)

‘Resolute of purpose’ Lee set out to master the branches of knowledge needed to teach children. Lee’s ‘unaffected, simple, and beautiful character’ made him well liked. At this point Lee attracted a patron, Dr.Scott, who provided him with the books and positions necessary to continue his study of languages. Eventually he enabled Lee to enter Queen’s College Cambridge, where he was elected as professor of Arabic and Hebrew. Lee filled his time there actively writing grammars for native languages in the colonies. Smiles concludes:

Such, in brief, is the remarkable history of Dr.Samuel Lee; and it is but the counterpart of numerous similarly instructive examples of the power of perseverance in self-culture, as displayed in the lives of many of the most distinguished of our literary and scientific men. (Smiles, 1883, p.354)

The brevity of Dr. Lee’s narrative is typical of Smiles’ cases. In the preface to Self-Help Smiles describes his biographies as ‘busts’ rather than ‘portraits’. What is immediately striking about this condensation of detail is the relative absence of an inner life at work in determining events. While in Confessions personal change presented the paradox of ‘willing not to will’, in Self-Help the changes that occur appear largely due to accidents of fate. There are few decisions in Dr.Lee’s life: the elements that determine his pursuit of languages include aptitude, pleasure, economic necessity and patronage. Because of this difference, it is interesting to pursue an analysis of Self-Help.

3.3.2       The narrative of humble origins

Dr.Lee’s case occurs in a chapter titled ‘Self-Culture—Facilities and Difficulties’. Other chapters deal with similar examples of enterprise in industry, the arts, sciences, military history, business. The particular point of this chapter according to Smiles is to demonstrate that the moral quality of perseverance is more important than qualities of birth. The basic narrative used to make this point is success from humble origins. As Smiles writes at the end of the chapter:

Provided the dunce has persistency and application he will inevitably head the cleverer fellow without these qualities. Slow but sure wins the race. It is perseverance that explains how the positions of boys at school is so often reversed in real life... (Smiles, 1883, p.358)

Later in Self-Help, Smiles brackets together the moral quality of perseverance with other virtues, such as energy, honesty, courage and thrift. The frame for these values is character. Smiles final chapter begins with the claim that character surpasses social rank in biographical importance:

The crown and glory of life is Character. It is the noblest possession of a man, constituting a rank in itself, and an estate in the general good-will; dignifying every station, and exalting every position in society. It exercises a greater power than wealth, and secures all the honour without the jealousies of fame. It carries with it an influence which always tells; for it is the result of proved honour, rectitude, and consistency—qualities which, perhaps more than any other, command the general confidence and respect of mankind. (Smiles, 1883, p.382)

‘Character’ appears here to contain the promise that ordinary people may be granted a sense of agency normally allocated by birth: ‘character’ is the ‘noblest possession’, it constitutes a ‘rank’ and an ‘estate’. The importance of birth in determining agency is clearly settled in terms of lineage. The manifestation of character is not so clear: In what form is character revealed?

What Smiles looks for as evidence of character is very specific. He writes in a later book of that name:

Although the force of example will always exercise great influence upon the formation of character, the self-originating and sustaining force of one’s own spirit must be the mainstay. [1879, p.12]

Though initially created by outside forces, it is the capacity to survive unassisted which defines character. Character is thus what endures through hardship; its demonstration requires a setting of conflict between goals and obstacles in their path. A person, such as Dr.Lee, who is born humbly, is likely to encounter more difficulty in achieving success, and is therefore more likely to demonstrate the qualities of character.

Smiles’ lives are often revealed according to this contrast between a poor start and successful end. In structure, there are similarities between the narrative of humble origins and the pendulation narrative in Confessions: it is in crisis that forces of worth emerge. In both authors, the nadir and zenith structure may be seen to accentuate the power of the agency which intervenes to grant rescue. However, while the crisis in Saint Augustine brings an individual to the point of surrendering to divine powers, in Smiles no such act of will is involved. Self-Help is a narrative of deeds rather than consciousness.[5] It is more difficult for the reader to take the point of view of his biographical subjects; it is easier to stand back, measure up their civic achievements and judge the power of character to overcome obstacles.

There is an important question arising from this difference between Saint Augustine and Smiles. Saint Augustine encourages the reader to accept the gift of grace and forgo temporal desires. Given the absence of decisions in Smiles’ lives, what use can his biographies be? Smiles advice is to look for the setting of difficulty that will reveal the worth of one’s character. In the Popular edition of Self-Help, Smiles (1925, p.221) instructs his readers to go in search of difficulty so that they might reveal the worth of their character. is the defeat that tries the general more than adversity... Though the ordeal of adversity is one from which we naturally shrink, yet when it comes, we must bravely and manfully encounter it. They reveal to us our powers, and call forth our energies...

The agency granted the reader is the capacity to search out situations of test, where the virtue of perseverance might be demonstrated. However, the ability of the reader to acquire the strength of character necessary to succeed in these tests is more limited.[6]Smiles (1879, p.39) writes that, ‘As the character is biased in early life, so it generally remains, gradually assuming its permanent form as manhood is reached’. This developmental reading of self directs Smiles to the presence of good examples, especially the influence of a devout family, as an omen of later achievements. So whereas Saint Augustine’s narrative of personal change allows for the possibility of transformation in adulthood, Samuel Smiles appears to favour a destining of self in early experience that is more closely related to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

It is a natural consequence of the logic Smiles employs to demonstrate character that the humbler the origins of the hero, the greater the obstacles he must face. It is the poorer heroes who have least assistance in achieving their goals. Smiles’ cases thus tend to consist largely of men of common beginnings. It is not surprising, thus, that the physical prowess of working class man is valued above the sophisticated tastes of the leisured aristocrat. What Smiles looks for in his characterisations of heroes is the presence of enduring habits that keep them in good stead through hardship.

Associated with humble origins, Smiles’ manifestations of character take the form of deeds, rather than reflections. As such character is made independent of education. In Confessions, Saint Augustine’s path to divine grace is laid by texts: the Platonist works of Saint Paul correct his Manichean beliefs, and the Bible provides direct advice on self-discipline. His conversion is part of an intellectual quest for truth. By contrast, Smiles stresses the significance of unlearned achievements. Character is presented by Smiles in universal scenes: Self-Help is interspersed with cameos which are designed to prove that an educated background is not necessary for significant achievements. Smiles points out that the Magna Carta was signed by illiterates who could appreciate ‘the things themselves’. He also uses the case of the illiterate physiologist, John Hunter, who pointed to the body on the surgery table during a lecture and said: ‘”I never read this—this is the work that you must study if you wish to become eminent in your profession.”’ Smiles goes on to reflect on the nature of true learning:

The object of knowledge should be to mature wisdom and improve character, to render us better, happier, and more useful; more benevolent, more energetic, and more efficient in the pursuit of every high purpose in life. Our best light must be made life, and our best thought action. (1925, p.222)

Smiles does not direct the reader inward to discover truth, but outward to achievements. Even a person of sophisticated intellect like Newton is shown to be ‘good with tools’ (p.205) and therefore able to relate his ideas to a visible order.

Through education, an individual inherits the experience of others. A truly self-made person must therefore begin without academic learning as well as social rank. What one gathers in experience and resources may then be seen to be truly a result of character. As Smiles writes (1925, p.204): ‘Knowledge conquered by labour becomes a possession—a property entirely our own’. Success from humble origins without book learning thus becomes the narrative form in which character is given presence. Having established the presence of character, the next question to ascertain how it is formed.

3.3.3       The power of energy

As noted above, the success of Dr.Lee is attributed to the ‘power of perseverance’, rather than a freakish aptitude for languages. Smiles generalises this power to a common measure by which all individuals may be evaluated: energy. The critical element of character is thus identified by Smiles:

It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit, so much as purpose, -- not merely the power to achieve, but the will to labour energetically and perseveringly. Hence energy of will may be defined to be the very central power of character in a man—in a word, it is the Man himself. (Smiles, 1883, p.224)

This reduction of individuality to ergonomics is not surprising given the context of the industrial revolution in which Self-Help was written. By contrast with ‘continence’, ‘energy’ requires no interrogation of desire—there is no question of the end to which this energy should be directed: to increase energy is the essence. How is energy increased?

The closest one finds in Self-Help to the intellectual influences of Saint Augustine is the role given to the example of others. It is the example of others which is particularly encountered in the good books, such as written by Smiles. The best books according to him (1879, p.275) are:

...purifying, elevating, and sustaining; they enlarge and liberalise the mind; they preserve it against vulgar worldliness; they tend to produce highminded cheerfulness and equanimity of character; they fashion, shape, and humanise the mind.

The information these books contain are the biographies of great men. Their example performs the same function as a supportive social milieu in encouraging acts of moral courage. Without this, the hero is lost.

Place even the highest-minded philosopher in the midst of daily discomfort, immorality, and vileness, and he will insensibly gravitate towards brutality. [1879, p.34]

Table 3.ii Four Causes of Personal Change in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help

Trait    Form                 Event            End                  CHANGE


Talent   Character           Patron            Society            Energy

Inspirational biographies serve as devices that are useful in storing up character. This is their essential difference from texts in Confessions: they do not offer truthfulness, rather they promise encouragement. And while for Saint Augustine truth is granted through the grace of god, for Smiles moral strength is a product of the social environment in which an individual is found. For Smiles, individual agency exists at the point of finding oneself in a setting favourable for strengthening oneself.

2 presents an analysis of the Dr.Lee case in terms of four causes. The basic trait which persisted throughout Dr.Lee’s life was his ‘talent’ for languages; his life can be partly read as a development of this inherent skill. The form of this development was expressed in ‘character’; it was particularly the value of perseverance which enabled him to persist with his talent. His transformation from destitution to success was enabled by the intercession of a ‘patron’; this was the event which made the difference at the time. Finally, his life was presented as a contribution to ‘society’; the particular expression of the end of his actions was contribution to life in the colonies.

As with Saint Augustine, personal change is represented as movement from a low to high point. While in Confessions such pendulation occurs in the consciousness of Saint Augustine, in Smiles it is expressed in social position. Both grant a role to environment in determining destiny: for Smiles one’s milieu is more generally a sign of the strength of a society, whereas for Saint Augustine it is attributed to a divine plan. Most importantly, Saint Augustine casts change as a victory over self, as ‘continence’, whereas for Smiles change is seen as an increase of one’s powers, an acquisition of ‘energy’.

3.4        Change through midlife crisis: Gail Sheehy’s Passages

There were a number of life manuals in the twentieth century which paralleled the success of Smiles’ Self-Help. Two of the most popular were Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (sold five million copies between 1938 and 1977) and Norman Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (sold two million copies between 1953 and 1971). While Carnegie offers a ‘short cut to distinction’, Peale demonstrates the ‘magic of believing’ in overcoming self-doubt and achieving a happy life. These two books have in common with Self-Help a practical orientation to worldly success, though neither work is bound by a notion of the social good. (Rather there is an emphasis on individual competition similar to the control orientation of social cognition discussed earlier; see Section Error! Reference source not found.) In this chapter I will focus on a later book which belongs to the movement of popular psychology. This will provide an opportunity for examining the character­isation of ‘inner’ personal change in a modern setting.

In America during the late 1970s, a number of popular psychology texts were published which dealt with the historically novel problem of the midlife crisis. These books offer to address the imbalance in attention granted to childhood as the source of change in life and also partly to help readers deal with an important point of transition in their lives. Over a span of two years three books were published which took the changes that occur in adulthood as their explicit theme: Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, by Gail Sheehy (1976); Seasons of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson (1978); and Transformations: Growth and Change in Adult Life, by Roger Gould (1978). In an analysis of these texts elsewhere (Murray, 1986, 1989), I have argued that these life manuals share a common scheme of human development. This scheme involves the presence of a ‘dream’ established in youth which is lost in later life. For Sheehy this ‘dream’ is the symbol of hope, despite the seeming loss of possibility in life. The internal battles of midlife promise its recovery. Such a recovery is denied by Levinson for whom the loss of the ‘dream’ is to be felt as a tragic flaw in character; the midlife crisis is interpreted as a survey of the self in which this loss is discovered. And in Gould’s scheme, the ‘dream’ is a wayward force that needs to be mastered, as a wild horse must be tamed. Midlife is a period for subjecting the naive ‘dream’ to adult scepticism.  The metaphors they employ are thus battle, survey, and horsemanship. These metaphors advise different relations to what is seen as the ‘dream’. Despite these differences, the authors share two common elements in their biographical schemes: the presence of a dream that is forged during adolescence in fantasies of adult success, and lost in adulthood; and the importance of the midlife passage as a period for confronting this loss.

Of the three, Sheehy’s book is most appropriate for my purposes. Passages is one of the most popular books of its kind in recent years. Her book is richer in case material and most resembles Smiles in its mix of individual biography and moral advice. By contrast Gould’s work claims an autobiographical reference and Levinsons’s restricts itself to clinical material.

3.4.1       The case of Priscilla Blum

Passages is divided into seven parts: an introduction to the ‘mysteries of the life cycle’ and an outline of six stages of adulthood (‘Pulling up roots’, ‘The trying twenties’, ‘Passage to the thirties’, ‘But I’m unique’, ‘Deadline decade’, and ‘Renewal’). Sheehy justifies the book as an attempt to redress the disproportionate attention usually given outward deeds, rather than ‘inner’ achievements. Passages is based on 115 life stories from ‘America’s “pacesetter group”’. Despite the variety of people involved, Sheehy asserts that there is a common pattern underlying most lives. One element of this pattern is the midlife passage, called the ‘Deadline Decade’, a time of ‘disassembling and renewal’. Her paradigm case for this is Priscilla Blum.

Priscilla Blum is the wife of a Washington diplomat, who appeared to have fulfilled ‘all her girlhood wishes’. Her life was spent organising a social life to fit with her husband’s career ambitions. Sheehy presents Priscilla Blum as the product of a ‘Wasp tradition’ that prohibits self-aggrandizement. This resulted in many problems for her. Her ‘wish “to make it”’ was projected onto her husband, while she was left finding only superficial relationships among the diplomats in Washington. Priscilla Blum appeared perfectly content until she became subject to inexplicable weeping fits. She says later: ‘”Why was I crying? It seemed to be almost a physiological thing. I couldn’t go into it very deeply; that came much later.”’ Sheehy (1976, p.388) provides an interpretation of this:

The answer that might have come up from below, from her inner custodian, would probably have been: You have no right to want something for yourself. You are supposed to be your husband’s support system. [original emphasis]

In ‘”a desperate moment”’, Priscilla Blum finally demanded more attention from her husband, who responded very supportively. She rearranged her life and took up painting. However, her husband suffered a heart attack and they shared a period of depression, filled with a fear of death. In the end, she found her way out of this depression by becoming more involved in painting: she was absorbed in ‘developing a gift that enlivened her senses’. ‘The inner change continued to evolve’ and Priscilla Blum goes to a country retreat to work on her painting shows. Sheehy (1976, pp.392-93) sums up her life as follows:

What we have seen here is a woman signalled by a symptom, at 35, that she could not dare to interpret. She was changing but afraid to change, wanting more than her role allowed her but not allowing this new aspect. And it was new. There was nothing dishonest about her earlier choices. She was a caregiver who piggybacked her dream and happily followed the dictates of that pattern. She had simply arrived at another turning point. All she knew was that the container she had chosen and found satisfying up to that time didn’t quite fit any more... It took the event of her husband’s heart attack to force them both to a complete reassessment. Letting go of the other-directed activities that were now life-wasting, each became more selective of purpose and more tolerant of the other’s separateness...If it flies in the face of Washington’s codes or causes people to gossip, they say to hell with all that. [my emphasis]

At a general level, Sheehy’s case of Priscilla Blum represents change in terms of gaining agency. The power of self is defined against exterior demands of roles and expectations. What has remained constant throughout Priscilla Blum’s life is her ambition. In her early marriage she had ‘piggybacked her dream’ in devoting herself to her husband’s career. Holding her back was the ‘inner custodian’: the inherited voice of self-doubt. The recognition of a more ‘authentic’ lifestyle is prompted by a sign, in this case a physiological response. In confronting her fear of death, Priscilla Blum adopts the creative enterprise of painting, within which she is able to become ‘more individual’.

Personal change in this case appears involve an increase in agency, though the scene for this is an inner struggle rather than worldly success. I will elucidate the dynamics of this struggle and then discuss the agents at play in its outcome.

3.4.2       The dream narrative

Priscilla Blum’s narrative is typical of the way Sheehy presents her characters in terms of an internal struggle between two forces: the dream and inner custodian (Sheehy loosely relates these to the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘id’ and ‘superego’). Both have their origins in childhood experience. The dream is portrayed as an essentially good force, though it is sometimes cast in unrealistic terms, such as the ‘dream’ of becoming President of the United States. Out of adolescent fantasies develop adult ambitions for vocational success and a secure family. Opposed to the ‘dream’ is the ‘inner custodian’. The demands placed on the child by the familial environment are received as voices of self-doubt. This voice essentially demands that the child live up to certain unrealistic ideals or be nothing. Its negative role is expressed in the title ‘inner tyrant’. While it is in ascendence it engenders feelings of helplessness and submission to exterior expectations.

In Passages, Sheehy presents a normative biographical trajectory of the ‘dream’: during early adulthood, expectations of others are likely to dominate, but these become subject to questioning at first signs of decline in the ‘midlife passage’. A memento mori usually triggers a reexamination of one’s life—a bringing into account of one’s achievements. For Sheehy, this happens to everyone: ‘There is a moment—an immense and precarious moment—of stark terror...We stand alone’. During this period, the opposing forces of dream and inner custodian confront each other. The metaphor Sheehy employs here is one of battle. She writes (1976, p.436):

For whether we know it or not, and usually we don’t, it is this dictator guardian from whom we all are struggling at last to be free. In midlife, all the old wars with the inner custodian flare up again. And eventually, if we let it happen, they will culminate in a final, decisive battle. The object of that battle is to overtake the last of the ground held by the other and end up with the authority for ourselves in our own command.

For Priscilla Blum, the midlife passage entailed the initial denial of her dissatisfaction with life, and eventually a struggle with her fear of death. From this came a new life.

The midlife crisis thus has a pendulatory structure similar to Saint Augustine’s narrative. Sheehy (1976, p.356) sees new life emerging from fear of death: ‘In the very jaws of this danger is opportunity, the chance for no less than a second christening.’ As in Confessions, this crisis is triggered by a message, though in Sheehy’s case it is the body which signals the denied truth rather than a divine power. Both narratives share the contrast between a dependence on temporal rewards and allegiance to a more stable power. In Saint Augustine’s narrative, given the presence of divine ‘grace’, the value of continence serves to restore order within. What are the powers at work in Sheehy’s narrative?

3.4.3       The power of authenticity

The contrast which Sheehy sets up between an alienated and liberated self assumes a condition of authenticity whereby one’s surface life is aligned with one’s inner self. The midlife passage can be a period of realignment if one confronts this discrepancy.[7] The force which emerges victorious from this crisis is one’s ‘authentic self’. Sheehy (1976, p.364) writes of this as an increase in powers:

The inner custodian must be unseated from the controls. No foreign power can direct our journey from now on. It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning. And for each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. [emphasis in original]

True change is thus shown to occur after a confrontation with a foreign power that is inside the self. In the reemergence of dark forces during the midlife passage, the individual has the opportunity to be ‘reborn’ and recover the initial ‘dream’ laid down in youth. Given the identification of change with distance from external expectations, the force which survives the midlife crisis must be defined against others. In the closing lines of PassagesSheehy (1976, p.514) stresses this point: ‘The power to animate all of life’s seasons is a power that resides within us.’ Thus the mature self that emerges from the midlife crisis does not ‘slavishly’ follow ‘what the culture wants us to do...”Take back your silly rules!” we can shout at last’ (Sheehy, 1976, p.362). The midlife crisis in fact is defined as the advent of the true self in opposition to the forces from without. Sheehy (1976, p.364) directly opposes self against one’s position within society:

You are moving away. Away from institutional claims and other people’s agenda. Away from external valuations and accreditations, in search of an inner validation. You are moving out of roles and into the self.

It is the desire for approval in another’s eyes which is the debilitating force of the inner custodian. The force which takes one through crisis to the recovery of one’s dream must give one confidence independent of exterior expectations. This independence is the sign of an authentic self.

Table 3.iii Four Causes of Personal Change in Sheehy’s Passages

Trait    Form               Event               End                  CHANGE


Hope    Dream              Body                Self                  Authenticity

3 presents an analysis by the four causes. The basic trait which enables Sheehy’s characters to develop is ‘hope’; this moves them on to face new challenges. The form in which this trait is made manifest is the ‘dream’; it is towards the goals set in one’s dream that one should set one’s course. In the midlife crisis the event which triggers personal transformation is the sign from the ‘body’ that one has reached certain physical limits; this sign sets in train the battle within the self. Finally, personal change is seen as governed by the overall purpose of ‘self’; one exists in order to find one’s own destiny.

The presence of a pendulatory structure in Sheehy is evident in the midlife crisis, where one is plunged into the depths of uncertainty in order to emerge with renewed purpose. While like Smiles, this can result in greater powers for worldly activity, it is at the cost of expelling a part of oneself: doubt.

3.5        Summary

Table 3.iv Agents of Change in Three Life Manuals

            TRAIT             FORM             EVENT            END                CHANGE




            Intellect            Grace               Voice               God                 Continence




            Talent               Character         Patron              Society Energy




            Hope                Dream              Body                Self                  Authenticity

The analysis of the three life manuals has brought out similarities and differences in the way sense is made of personal change. In terms of narrative form, all three share a pendulatory structure, which involves an oscillation of nadir and zenith points. Each of these nadir points is signified by a position of individual vulnerability: Saint Augustine is powerless against his desires, Dr.Lee cannot overcome his social position, and Priscilla Blum confronts her mortality. In each of these situations a force intercedes to rescue the person. The reverse swing of the narrative is represented in Confessions by complete surrender to divine will, in Self-Help by fulfilling a socially useful role, and in Passages by victory of self over others. While personal change is structured similarly in the three narratives, there are differences in the relation of the person to his or her transformation. While in the case of Saint Augustine and Sheehy, one exercises some control over the decision to enter into a period of crisis, for Smiles one is born with a lowly position in society and subject to the moral influences of one’s environment. But in all cases, personal change is not purely the result of a decision to change—it requires the intercession of another force.

It is worth considering how helpful the scheme of four causes has been in accounting for personal change. 4 presents the four levels of agency present in each of the three narratives. The extent of their usefulness is partly in dealing with the different modalities of change. The cause of ‘trait’ serves to specify why change occurs to a particular person. ‘Form’ presents the ideal structure that governs how change occurs. ‘Event’ explains why change happens at a particular time. And ‘end’ provides an overall purpose that reveals why change is necessary. It is clear that certain conditions of change have been overlooked in this analysis, particularly the process of change and its social uses.

The process of recognition that is bound to the process of pendulation has already been commented on. One way of accounting for this process is to interpret it as the necessary form in which powers are presented: the length of the return swing indicates the weight of the plumb. A force which rescues an individual from helplessness must be a significant power. This understanding of personal change advises an attitude that is conducive to the presence of this force. As rubbing sticks together sparks a fire, the actions of continence, energy, and authenticity facilitate self control, social mobility and positive attitude respectively.

There is also the question of the uses to which these demonstrations of change can be put. The analysis has not been able to draw on the particular context of life manuals. Therefore the immediate context of agency that is seen as a necessary factor in understanding making sense was not present: besides readership size, there is little independent information about the uses to which these life manuals have been put. As texts, however, these narratives plainly contain implicit claims about the powers at play in personal change. In Confessions, Saint Augustine’s life is shaken by the revelation of religious truth, healing his inner conflict and co-ordinating his life according to a divine plan. For Dr.Lee in Self-Help, social ascent from labourer to ruling class is attributed to the intervention of a strong moral order, in the specific form of a rich patron and the general manifestation of national character. And in Passages, Priscilla Blum’s escape from bondage to her husband’s career is made possible by a confrontation with her aloneness, and with optimism she can find a means of realising a dream that returns her to herself. To go further in this analysis, one might attempt to link these claims to certain modes of revealing that characterise these epochs.[8]

In conclusion, the examination of life manuals has elucidated a representation of personal change that takes the form of a pendulation narrative: driven to the depths to reach the heights. This pendulatory mechanism reveals at work agencies whose powers are demonstrated in their capacity to rescue an individual from danger. The next step in this question is to focus more closely on the everyday practices that represent personal change, and for this a useful procedure is to ask readers to construct a life themselves.

[1]. Further analysis of the devices which mark the conversion experience would include the metaphor of `re-birth' in `born again' conversions, and the ritual declaration of one's altered state -- Caldwell's (1983) study of the `judgement of charity' in Puritan conversion narratives gives an indication of the role an audience may be granted in the authentication of an individual's account of change.

[2]. See Hopkins (1981). Its specific influence is seen to be in the development of `selfhood' as the focus of moral drama. Taylor (1988) argues that Saint Augustine's text advises an `inward turn': the relocation of the place of the sacred, from the external Platonic realm to the narratives of private experience. It is clear that Confessions is not an isolated text. Its influences and effects on later writers represents an enduring theme in narratives of personal change.

[3]. The story of Anthony's conversion entails the interpretation of a personal interdiction from God to consult the Bible for a message. Freccero (1975) shows that other Renaissance writers follow Saint Augustine's example in enacting their own conversions. Though Freccero limits his analysis to Renaissance writers such as Petrarch, James' study of the contemporary accounts of conversion includes two cases that explicitly refer to this act of consultation in their testimonies.

[4].Cockshut (1974) compares Smiles to a military historian. He depicts a society of industrious individuals as if they were a long line of brave, dutiful and dedicated soldiers. Smiles' assumes that rugged individualism is naturally linked to selfless cooperation. Cockshut (1974, p.123) calls Smiles the `perfect poet of the industrial revolution'.

[5]. One aspect of character that further contrasts it with the inner soul of Augustine is the absence in Smiles' canon of lives of those whose courageous aspirations have ended in failure. The possibility of martyrdom or `noble failure' (Harré, 1979) is left uncelebrated in Smiles' books. This absence not only implies an emphasis on worldly goals, but also leaves silent the subjective consciousness of hope: goals are irrelevant unless realised successfully in action. By implication, great civic deeds cannot be rendered irrelevant by bad intentions.

[6]. The ontology that Smiles' calls on seems to contain an equivalent logic to Bakhtin's concept of the `adventure time of ordeal'. As noted by Murray (1986), Smiles' concept of person corresponds to what Potter, Stringer & Wetherell (1984) term the `honest soul' theory in which self is seen to consist of an unchanging bundle of traits.

[7].Sheehy's sequel Pathfinders (1982) provides an explicit test of the authenticity of a midlife passage. The three criteria are: confronting crossroads, taking responsibility for others, and finding a purpose beyond purely individual fulfilment. See Murray (1986) for a more detailed discussion of this.

[8]. A Heideggerian analysis (e.g., `The Age of the World Picture', 1977) would certainly find confirmation in the re-orientation of modes of revealing from a medieval notion of divinity to a modern conception of self.

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