One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life

One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life

Mitch Horowitz
New York: Random House, 2014. 338 pp., hardcover, $24.

Mitch Horowitz is the author of the excellent and informative historical work Occult America, and in his latest book he expands upon some of its themes, specifically the origins and ongoing influence of the positive thinking movement, also known as New Thought. What I find most compelling about One Simple Idea is how it unveils the hidden influences behind past and current New Thought. For example, Horowitz carefully explains the profound effect of Mary Baker Eddy's upscale, female-led Christian Science movement upon medical licensing, pastoral counseling, and the role of women in the clergy, as well as the influence of the New England healer Phineas P. Quimby upon her philosophy. Quimby, in turn, was influenced by the teachings of Franz Anton Mesmer, who  himself operated in the milieus of Freemasonry and the French Revolution.

Through this book march a panoply of unlikely characters and eminences, whose often surprising influences from New Thought are herein revealed. Many Elvis fans already know that Presley was a devotee of New Thought. But who would have suspected as much from Sherman Helmsley (TV's George Jefferson), who doted upon The Kybalion? Or of Michael Jackson, who was very fond of James Allen's book As a Man Thinketh? It is in these pages that we learn that black activist Marcus Garvey was an aficionado both of James Allen and of Robert Collier's The Secret of the Ages, as well as of Emile Coue, one of the pioneers of positive thinking. Here we learn that the self-proclaimed deity Father Divine was influenced by both Elbert Hubbard and the poet Edna Wheeler Wilcox. And who knew that a Wall Street Journal self-help favorite such as The Science of Getting Rich had its roots in the Christian Socialist movement, or that Norman Vincent Peale was profoundly informed by Ernest Holmes, author of Science of Mind, who was himself influenced by the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Horowitz explores such esoteric ideas as quantum mechanics and the placebo effect, but he also traces how, for instance, Protestant ministries progressed from distrusting New Thought medical cures to actively embracing them in the form of Pentecostalism— giving us the now-familiar figure of the "faith healer," who, Horowitz affirms, began fading from the scene in the late 1960s, concurrent with the triumph of "the prosperity gospel." Indeed, how New Thought eventually shifted from an emphasis upon the blessings of God for health to the blessings of God for wealth is the central story of this enlightening and, in many measures, entertaining work.

Horowitz goes on to describe how, slipped from its occult moorings, the  mind-power teachings through Scrip- tenets of the New Thought movement became part of mainstream thought— and even politics—in the years following World War II. Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie are shown to be the two men who, as much as anyone, effected this change, beginning in the 1930s with their books Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Napoleon Hill was influenced by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose own thought was shaped by the "mysterious doctrines" of Emanuel Swedenborg. As for Dale Carnegie, his mantra that "agreeable people win" had a profound influence upon the career of Ronald Reagan, who was also influenced by occult thinker Manly P. Hall.

Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking was itself based upon Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman's 1946 bestseller Peace of Mind, now largely forgotten. By removing the punitive aspects of Protestantism and thereby further mainstreaming the positive thinking movement, Peale was as responsible as anyone for the present spate of motivational best sellers. It was with Peale that psychospirituality—the melding of psychoanalysis and religion—first gained great prominence with "a system that reprocessed  tural language and lessons." Not widely known until recently was Peale's anti– New Deal and anti–Roman Catholic leanings, as well as the influence of Ernest Holmes upon his thought.

The author has a knack for poking into hornet's nests: he is not shy, for instance, in exposing the ties of Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, not only to William James and C.G. Jung but also to the Swedenborgians and Frank Buchman's controversial Oxford Group—a group from which Wilson later disassociated himself, though not before adapting many of its key tenets to serve the cause of AA.

Moreover, Horowitz is far from gullible in his history of the New Thought movement; in fact, he is unable to overlook its internal contradictions and logical inconsistencies. He points out that popular and influential (and sometimes scandal-ridden) ministries such as those of Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Robert H. Schuller all borrowed from New Thought for their prosperity gospels, and that not all believers are completely on board with such belief, some going so far as to label it a "quasi-Christian heresy."

Horowitz lands perhaps a more telling critique: "To call suffering an illusion, yet also demand that it bend to desired change, signals a core inconsistency in the mind-power perspective . . . New Thought and the mind-power philosophies seek to rise above the world and consume its bounty at the same time." As for New Thought's attempts to explain present-day sorrows by referring to past-life sins, Horowitz dismisses this explanation: "The person who justifies someone else's suffering, in this case through collective fault, only casts a stone" (emphasis in the original). In that way, "a narrowly conceived New Thought can slam closed the doors of perception that it was once envisioned to open." Horowitz thinks that the "Meaning Based School," which teaches that "a higher\ perspective can rescue a person from an existence of aimlessness and undefined anxiety," is the "most morally and spiritually convincing" approach to the use of the power of the imagination to alter reality.

One salutary effect of One Simple Idea is that, in tracing the history of the positive thinking movement in America, a great many of its tenets are also explicated. Horowitz's understandably guarded enthusiasm for some of these techniques is nonetheless infectious. You'll probably feel better just by reading this book—that is, if you wish it.

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist.