“Wealth, my son, should never be your goal in life…True wealth is of the heart, not of the purse” (19).
We have all heard the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. No book better exemplifies this message than Og Mandino’s perenniel classic The Greatest Salesman in the World. The fact that this work can be found in the self-help section of your local bookstore, leads one to believe that this is simply a book about useful financial insights (i.e. how to become the greatest salesman in the world). Nevertheless, Mandino’s work is so much more than the typical financial advice book you might see on the same shelf with the likes of Dave Ramsey or Suzy Orman. Rather, it is a timeless masterpiece that should be sharing shelf space with other great literary classics like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For you see, by the time you reach the end of this novella, you come to realize that this book is less about your typical financial insights and more about profound spiritual wisdom.
The story is that there are these ten ancient scrolls that hold within them the secrets of how to become the greatest saleman in the world. The one who posseses these scrolls is a man named Hafid, who (as you might guess) is incredibly wealthy. Although, never explicitly stated in the text, Hafid’s story centers around events that take place somewhere around 30-40 AD. The book begins, however, toward the end of Hafid’s life. It is here that Hafid tells his loyal servant Erasmus that he wants to disassemble his trade empire and give away all of possessions that he has come to acquire. Hafid instructs Erasmus that all of his riches, except for one exception, are to be given to the poor. His most prized possession: his ten scrolls of secret wisdom are to be given to the one who is worthy. How will Hafid know who is worthy? A divine sign will present itself.
The sign that presented itself to the scrolls’ previous owner, Hafid’s master Pathros, was the brightest star that the old man had ever seen. Hafid’s story really begins when he asks his master if he can help him become a great salesman just like him.
Hafid had fallen in love with the daughter of Calneh, but he knew that Calneh would never approve of a camel boy for his daughter, so Hafid wanted to rise from his lowly position and become a great merchant. Pathros, who had a soft spot for Hafid the camel boy, gave him an opportunity. He gave him a fancy red robe to sell, and told him he was to return with 90 denarii, and whatever extra he could sell it for would be Hafid’s profit. Hafid was excited by the opportunity he was given, but he was also daunted by the task at hand. For you see, he was sent to sell the cloak in a small middle eastern town that wasn’t exactly known for its wealth.
Full of angst and self-doubt, Hafid takes a break from his vain attempts at selling the cloak and gets a room at the inn one night. It is that same night when the brightest star in the sky appears overhead. The star was directly above a nearby cave. Hafid sees that within the cave a baby is being born. Not knowing what else to do, Hafid decides to give his cloak to the cold and poor newborn.
Hafid returns from his seemingly fruitless journey very fearful of how he will be recieved by his master. Hafid is surprised that Pathros has directed all his attention toward something else. That is, the old man was much less concerned about Hafid’s selling ability, and more concerned about the bright star that seemed to be following Hafid during his journey. Hafid later realizes that his master took this as a sign that he had found the one to whom to leave his scrolls of secret wisdom. The content of these scrolls will turn Hafid from the lowly camel boy he was into the greatest salesman in the world.
Pathros had given him one rule to follow when he gave him the scrolls and that was to not share the secrets within them with anyone else so long as they were his. However, once he is given a sign from above, as it were, then he can give them away, and the next possessor can share the secrets of the scroll with the entire world.
At this point in the story we are finally given access to the contents of these scrolls and their secret financial wisdom. These timeless insights include such pearls of wisdom as: “I will greet this day with love in my heart” (58), “I will persist until I succeed” (63), “I am nature’s greatest miracle” (68), “Today I will be master of my emotions” (78), just to name a few. Each scroll elaborates on a single insight using repetition and prudent judgment, the effect of which works on the reader to drive the point home with authority. It is chapters 8 through 17 (which consist of the contents of the scrolls) that lead one to mistakenly put Mandino’s book in the “self-help” section of your local bookstore or library. Nevertheless, it is the frame story around which the contents of these scrolls is centered — how Hafid came to receive the scrolls and then subsequently give them away— that tells the more sophisticated reader that this story is much more spiritual in nature than financial. I will explain exactly what I mean as I finish up.
The story begins with Hafid at the end of his life realizing that it is time for him to give away all of his possessions, which means above all else, that it is time to give away his ten scrolls of secret wisdom. As he thinks of what he has to do next he reflects back on how he acquired the scrolls in the first place. Pathros gave Hafid the scrolls simply because a bright star followed him along his journey through Bethlehem as he failed to sell the cloak. Decades had now passed since that fateful night when Hafid gave the cloak away to some infant in a manger and now here he was being presented with a sign of his own as to who to give the scrolls to next — the one who Pathros said would be allowed to share their contents with the world.
A man came to Erasmus looking to speak with Hafid. The text describes what the visitor looked like in less-than-flattering terms: “The stranger’s appearance was not one to inspire confidence. His sandals were ripped and mended with rope, his brown legs were cut and scratched and had sores in many places, and above them hung a loose and tattered camel’s hair loincloth. The man’s hair was snarled and long and his eyes, red from the sun, seemed to burn within” (104).
This pathetic looking stranger goes on to explain his story to Pathros. We can find the same story that the stranger tells Hafid in the Bible (in the Book of Acts). This disheveled visitor explains who he is. His name is Saul. He is a Roman citizen from Tarsus and he is also a Pharisee. He was highly respected and came to be known for his strict devotion to Jewish Law. This “strict devotion” entailed persecuting blasphemers every chance he got. Saul was even a witness to the stoning death of a man named Stephen who had blasphemed against the Lord by claiming that the Messiah (as prophesied in the scriptures) had come. Saul continued his persecution until he had a vision, and Jesus appeared to him. From that day forward, Saul was a completely different person. He went from persecuting followers of Christ to becoming one of his most devout. The problem, however, was that Saul’s attempts to convert people to the way of Christ were at first to no avail. People were having a lot of trouble believing that Saul had genuinely changed.
It is at this point, of failing repeatedly to spread the word effectively to others, that the voice of God came to Saul again. This part is Mandino’s creation. This is where financial savvy and spiritual progress overlap. Jesus tells Saul how to be effective at his mission of converting others:
“Even the word of God must be sold to the people or they will hear it not. Did not I speak in parables so that all might understand? Thou wilt catch few flies with vinegar. Return to Damascus and seek out him who is acclaimed as the greatest salesman in the world” (109)
Hafid inquires more about Jesus from Paul (as Saul is otherwise known). At which point, Paul pulls out one of the only possessions that belonged to Jesus. It was a red robe. The same red robe that Hafid had given to an infant nearly four decades earlier in Bethlehem. This was the sign for which Hafid had been waiting. Paul was clearly the one to whom Hafid was to entrust his scrolls. These scrolls, we infer, turn Paul into the greatest salesman in the world. One would be hard pressed to argue against this description of Paul. All one needs to do is look at the results that followed in the wake of Paul’s missionary journeys and letters to realize just how true this designation —the greatest salesman in the world — really is. It is believed by most scholars today that Paul’s letters are the earliest writings of the New Testament. As such, he, more than anyone else, can be credited with selling Jesus (i.e. Christianity) to the world.
Using the story of Christ as the frame story within which to place an instructional manual of financial advice makes Og Mandino’s book much different than one might first suspect. What is more, this expectation of a possible misinterpretation is metaphorically captured in the book when Hafid looks at the red-eyed, sore-covered Paul and tries to figure out exactly what to make of the man. For we too, just like Hafid, come to realize that we cannot judge a book by its cover, because if we do we might make a shallow financial assumption, and as a result, miss out on seeing the great depth of the amazing spirit within. One shouldn't read The Greatest Salesman in the World to become financially savvy, one should read Og Mandino's "self-help" book for its profound spiritual insight.
1. Mandino, Og. The Greatest Saleman in the World. Bantam Books. 1968.