Advice to Young Men is one of the less well known of Cobbett’s books. It was published in paperback in the eighties when there was a bit of a Cobbett revival, but aside from that it has rarely troubled the shelves of bookshops. It would be a stretch to say it is a forgotten classic, and other works by Cobbett deserve the greater attention that they receive. But Advice to Young Men does have the distinction of being maybe the first self help book, beating the better known examples by Samuel Smiles and Napoleon Hill into print by many decades. It was also originally published by Cobbett himself who was the very definition of a self made man. So maybe there is some undeserved credit available there.
But it is above all a book about Cobbett himself, as most of his writing is. But I think this is the one where self indulgence becomes the dominating factor and what we find ourselves reading is basically an autobiography of Cobbett himself. In the event this is just as well because the advice on offer hasn’t stood the test of time. Getting up at the crack of dawn is still good if you want to get some work done and you are that way inclined. But not everybody is a morning person and early rising isn’t anywhere near as virtuous now that we don’t have to get out and gather a field of corn by hand. Marrying a woman because she is attractive is still popular, but few people do it because attractive women are more likely to be faithful.
But one thing that Cobbett was very consistent about – indeed one of the few things – was that the rich and the powerful were not in need of our help. He advises the young man to make the defence of the poor and downtrodden his mission. There will always be people who will toady to authority. This is inevitable, but that does not make it right. Cobbett was always a radical, albeit not always a radical about the same thing. But he realised that being radical was about who you were and how you lived.
In the video I do my best to live up to Cobbett’s spirit by following his advice and taking the Daily Mail to task over a fairly typically mean spirited bit of journalism.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the portrait of William Cobbett