The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can alter his life simply by altering his attitude of mind.
– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
If there is a central religious doctrine for the New Age, surely it is this – the belief that positive thoughts can bend reality to their own shape. It is an alluring concept. If it’s true, we don’t need to act or work or perform in the world. All we need to do is change our thinking. But is there anything to this idea?
To understand something about the doctrine of thought power, it’s helpful to look at its history. The father of the religion of positive thinking was an obscure New Englander named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66).
Quimby, like many men of his time, was a jack of all trades. He started as a clockmaker, but eventually became fascinated with alternative methods of healing and learned the art of mesmerism or animal magnetism, a forerunner of hypnosis. Quimby found that if he put an assistant into a trance, the assistant could diagnose and prescribe a remedy for a patient’s disease (much like Edgar Cayce, the celebrated “sleeping prophet” who lived a couple of generations later).
Quimby built up a successful practice this way, but soon he came to a startling conclusion: it didn’t matter what remedy was prescribed; it was the faith of the patient that made the difference. So Quimby dismissed his assistant and began to practice his own radical method of healing, in which he would simply convince the patient that he or she was already well. Quimby’s warm and gentle nature aroused a sense of confidence. His office filled with patients, and many came away from his treatments feeling great relief or even fully cured. He often treated people for free when they could not pay.
A self-taught man, Quimby was not a systematic thinker. But around 1859, he began to formulate his teachings in writing. He believed he had discovered the secret of the miracles performed by Jesus Christ, and he wished to make this knowledge available to all.
“My philosophy,” he said, “will make man free and independent of all creeds and laws of man, and subject him to his own agreement, he being free from the laws of sin, sickness, and death.”
The teaching was simple. In each human being resides Truth, Wisdom, and Goodness. This is our natural birthright. But there is also another aspect: the mortal, material mind that is subject to error. And the chief error to which this material mind is subject is disease.
“Disease,” Quimby wrote, “is false reasoning. True scientific wisdom is health and happiness. False reasoning is sickness and death.” Quimby never really gave a name to his teaching, though he usually called it the “Science of Health.” Once or twice in his writings he referred to it as “Christian Science.”
Quimby attracted a number of disciples. One of them, Warren Felt Evans, was also a follower of the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). It was in fact Evans who introduced the term “New Age” in his influential 1864 book, The New Age and Its Messenger. The “messenger” of the title was Swedenborg, who in his voluminous writings proclaimed 1757 as the year of the Last Judgment. But this event, he said, did not and was not supposed to take place on earth. It was enacted in the realm of the spirits, an intermediate zone between heaven and hell. The Lord purged this realm of evil, making it possible for heaven to transmit its influences to earth in a less impeded fashion.
Swedenborg did not espouse the doctrine of thought power as it would later emerge: he held that the human mind was continually subject to influences from both heaven and hell and that the function of the human being on earth was to choose the good and renounce the evil impulses. Even so, Swedenborg’s thought, which reached the zenith of its influence in the early nineteenth century, prepared the ground for the New Age movement.
After Quimby’s death in 1866, his ideas lived on in the teachings of his most famous pupil, Mary Baker Eddy, who popularised the name “Christian Science” and created a religion around it, as well as in subsequent movements such as New Thought, Unity, and Religious Science.
New Thought is something of a blanket term used to cover these other movements in contradistinction to Eddy’s Christian Science. The American scholar of religions Charles Braden characterised the chief differences between these two strains as follows:
1) Christian Scientists tend to be more authoritarian in their thinking, regarding Mrs. Eddy’s writings as definitive revelations, whereas adherents of New Thought stress that spiritual truths are being revealed every day;
2) Christian Scientists have tended toward denial – disease, matter, and “mortal mind” do not exist – whereas the New Thought movement has inclined more toward affirmations (“I am well”; “I am perfect”);
3) Christian Scientists are generally opposed to working with traditional physicians or allowing their patients to do so, whereas proponents of New Thought have been more flexible and pragmatic on this count.1
Ernest Holmes’ Religious Science
One of the more vibrant strains of New Thought in the twentieth century was Religious Science, founded by Ernest Holmes (1887-1960). Born in Maine, Holmes moved to Boston as a teenager where he took a two-year course in public speaking. At this time he was drawn to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (another major influence on the New Thought movement), as well as to Eddy’s textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Later he would study other major figures in the New Thought movement, such as William Walker Atkinson and Thomas Troward.
In 1914, Holmes moved to Venice, California. In 1919, he published his first book, Creative Mind. His magnum opus, Science of Mind, was first published in 1926. Though most of Holmes’s ideas can be found in his nineteenth-century precursors, he offered a slicker version of New Thought in his thoroughly twentieth-century salesmanship. He liked to tell stories of persuading homely girls to smile; when their lips parted, he claimed, they were surrounded by rich men eager to pay the bills for orthodontia. Gail Thain Parker, a scholar of New Thought, writes, “Holmes’s smugness is very different from the more exploratory (and sometimes evasive) tone of the first- and second-generation mind curists…. He knew that nothing he would say would shock or surprise; his prose was full of lifetime warranties and unbeatable bargains.”2
Holmes, a powerful speaker but an ambivalent guru, nevertheless suffered his disciples to set up an organisation to promote his ideas. The Institute of Religious Science and the School of Philosophy was incorporated in 1927. In the same year Holmes also founded Science of Mind magazine, which is still published today. His influence was enormous, not only through his own writings but through those who were inspired by him. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a best-seller of the mid-twentieth century, drew much of his message from Religious Science.
Holmes lived long enough to see his organisation subject to schisms and infighting. Shortly before Holmes’s death, his protégé Obadiah Harris (who went on to become head of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles) confided to him that he was leaving the movement to find his own path. “I wish I could go with you,” Holmes replied.3
Even so, Holmes’s organisation survives to this day, and his teachings continue to inspire many. One of his central – and perhaps his most influential – ideas is the Law of Attraction. The term was originally coined in the nineteenth century to refer to the soul’s affinity for different spheres of the afterlife, but Holmes gave it its current meaning: “What we shall attract will depend on that on which our thoughts dwell.”4
If you think of prosperity, prosperity will come your way; if your thoughts dwell on disease, suffering, and misfortune, you are laying the ground for your own future unhappiness. These thoughts are not necessarily conscious ones, Holmes contended:
“While most disease must first have a subjective cause, this subjective cause (nine times out of ten) is not conscious in the thought of the person who suffers from it, but is perhaps largely the result of certain combinations of thinking. So while it is true that disease has its prototype in subjective mind, it is also true that the individual who suffers from the disease, frequently has never thought he was going to have that particular kind of trouble. But this does not alter the fact that every disease which comes up through subjectivity, and appears in the body, must come through mind.”5
Healing, by contrast, comes from right thinking, as Quimby had taught decades before. Holmes taught his followers to heal in this way: “First recognise your own perfection, then build up the same recognition for your patient. You are then read to directly attack the thought that binds him, recognising that your word destroys it, and stating that it does. You may then take into account and specifically mention everything that needs to be changed, every so-called broken law or false thought. Then finish your treatment with a realisation of peace, remaining for a few moments in silent recognition that your work is done, complete and perfect.”6
Holmes said that the human mind was composed of two aspects: the “subjective” or “subconscious” mind on the one hand and the “objective” or “conscious” mind on the other. The subjective mind is not conscious but is creative; it is “that part of the mind which is set in motion as a creative thing in the conscious state.” The subjective “sets power in motion in accordance with the thought.”7 The conscious mind must, however, direct the subconscious toward positive goals.
A similar view can be found in the writings of Max Freedom Long, who, in such books as The Secret Science behind Miracles, taught an almost identical system that he traced back to the kahunas, the shamans of Hawaii. According to Long, the Hawaiians used the word unihipili to describe what Holmes called the “subjective mind” and the word uhane as more or less equivalent to Holmes’s “conscious” or “objective mind.” Although both authors use the word “science” in a metaphysical context, it is unlikely that Holmes or Long influenced each other; rather these similarities show how thoroughly these ideas pervaded the alternative spirituality of early twentieth-century America.
The Universe is “Mental”
By contrast, a work called The Kybalion, first published in 1908, was a likely influence on Holmes (see accompanying article). The title page of this anonymous work lists its authors merely as “Three Initiates.” The Chicago occultist William Walker Atkinson is generally acknowledged to have been one of these; Paul Foster Case, founder of the occult order known as Builders of the Adytum, is also sometimes suggested as one of the others.8
In any event, The Kybalion – its name allegedly going back to the Egyptian mysteries, although its meaning was supposedly lost – set forth seven principles of metaphysical truth, the first being “the principle of mentalism” – “The Universe is mental – held in the Mind of the all….the Universe and all It contains, is a mental creation of The all.”9 Compare this to Holmes’s statement “There is one mental law in the universe, and where we use it, it becomes our law because we have individualised it.”10 (The similarities extend to the printing of both sentences in all capital letters.)
Since the universe was “mental” in its essence, Holmes prescribed what today is called “creative visualisation” as a means of attaining well-being. Here is his advice to someone who is seeking success in business: “Every day he should see his place filled with people. See them looking at and finding pleasure in his merchandise; see them comparing prices and realising that he is offering good values; see them delighted with the service he is giving…. Make a mental picture of it all. We are dealing with Intelligence, and we should recognise the Power we are working with – realising our Oneness with it – and then we should ask for what we wish and take it.”11
A related approach is affirmation. Like the ancient Semites, who believed in a mystical unity between a word and the thing it represented, Holmes believed that the spoken word held the power to transform reality, and he included affirmations as part of his prescribed practice.
He recommended making this statement, for example, as part of a “treatment” for “supply”: “I always have an abundance of money and an abundance of whatever it takes to make life happy and opulent. There is a continuous movement toward me of supply, of money, of all that I need to express the fullest life, happiness and action.”12
Science of Mind and Magic
Anthropologists have classically distinguished between magic and religion. Magic uses certain techniques such as incantation, sacrifice, and ritual as a way of manipulating unseen powers. Religion often uses the same methods but it does so as a way of supplicating God or the gods through prayer and meditation. Magic is a kind of sacred technology, while religion usually involves a relationship to a personal deity. Science of Mind – and the religion of positive thinking as a whole – is much closer to magic than to religion. While it does not prescribe arcane rituals or weird spells, it does attempt to manipulate the primordial force of the universe – mind – on the practitioner’s behalf.
There is no theological problem in this from a New Thought perspective, because God is all-good and all-loving and wants us to live in health and abundance; our failure to do so is simply the result of faulty thinking and a failure to claim our due. The constant use of the word “Science” by figures from Quimby to Holmes underlines the quasi-technological mindset that operates in these teachings, and suggests how much they owe to the industrial age that gave them birth: mind is an impersonal force that can be harnessed in much the same way as steam or electricity.
While New Thought and Religious Science insist that they are part of a tradition that has always been known to adepts – the healing miracles of Jesus are frequently cited as cases in point – there is comparatively little in traditional esotericism that resembles these teachings. Certainly it has long been taught, particularly by Plato and his philosophical descendants, that there is an ideal world of forms that can be perceived by the higher intellect and that serve as prototypes for the things of materiality. But the teaching that someone can not only perceive these archetypes but manipulate them to change physical reality is extremely rare. The traditional view was that a true philosopher did not care about the material world and occupied himself as little as possible with it.
Even the occultism of the Renaissance, with its cumbrous magical technology, did not lay any particular emphasis upon thought power. According to Renaissance savants such as Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, the magus can affect the higher dimensions, but does so by operating upon their corresponding objects in the physical world. To bring down beneficent solar or jovial influences, one wears stones or eats herbs that are associated with these benign influences. Magical formulae were also employed, but not as affirmations – many of these incantations consist of words in no known language – and the goal was often to subject spirits and demons to the magician’s will.
The world of traditional magic is thus very far removed from the streamlined positive thoughts and affirmations of Religious Science and its kin. To speculate wildly for a moment, perhaps this is one sign of the New Age proclaimed by Swedenborg and Evans – that what formerly required intricate spells and bizarre operations can now be accomplished by using the power of the mind and the spoken word.
This, of course, assumes that the methods of Religious Science actually work, and such claims are hard to assess. Certainly there are any number of people who have been willing to testify on behalf of these procedures, and their claims must be taken seriously enough. But we have no way of knowing how many of them there are as opposed to the numbers of those who have tried and failed. Most of the people I have known through New Thought circles appear no richer, happier, healthier, or more successful than much of the rest of humanity. And while I have known people who have gotten rich over the years – some of them staggeringly rich – their secret was probably not affirmations or thought power but the usual combination of talent, hard work, and sheer luck – and, indeed, enormous quantities of all three.
Nonetheless, the claims of the thought power gurus from Quimby to Holmes (not to mention latter-day figures such as the entity known as Abraham, channelled by Esther Hicks, and Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret) cannot be dismissed wholesale. Thought power, like so many aspects of the metaphysical realm, occupies a liminal space between truth and falsity. As soon as you have decided it is all nonsense, something pokes you on the shoulder and tells you it may not be nonsense after all. But if you become an enthusiastic believer, you may end up disappointed.
To speak personally, I would be willing to say this much. The basic idea behind positive thinking is true: there is a mental world that underlays the physical, and thoughts can influence events in ways that can seem bizarre or even paranormal. But the interplay of thought and actuality is not entirely explained by a few simplistic axioms and the usual lifetime warranties. Other factors operate as well – the obscure but overwhelming forces that are sometimes called fate and destiny; the actions of a mind that cannot always be understood, much less manipulated, by the conscious ego; and of course the “time and chance” that, the Bible reminds us, “happeneth to all” (Eccl. 9:11).
To the extent that positive thinking and mental science help us focus upon our goals and eliminate negative mental patterns, they can be useful. But they are usually not very effective substitutes for action. And if they foster a self-centred attitude that focuses on “my” prosperity and “my” health, or, still worse, dismisses the suffering of others on the grounds that somehow they brought it all upon themselves by wrong thinking, these ideas can cause serious trouble. We must never lose sight of the fact that the power of thought includes the power to enslave the mind. And the ultimate goal of liberation may not be to make our thoughts manifest in the world of desire, but to free ourselves from them as much as is possible in this world of entanglements.
1. Quoted in Gail Thain Parker, Mind Cure in New England from the Civil War to World War I (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1973), 4–5.
2. Parker, 16-17.
3. Horowitz, 97.
4. Ernest Holmes, The Science of Mind, rev. ed. (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 1998), 294.
5. Holmes, 201-02; emphasis and capitalisation here and in other quotes are from the original.
6. Ibid., 202.
7. Holmes, 30.
8. Mitch Horowitz, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (New York: Bantam, 2009), 210. Horowitz, however, believes that Atkinson was the sole author.
9. “Three Initiates,” The Kybalion (Clayton, Ga.: Tri-State Press, 1988 ), 53, 57.
10. Holmes, 30.
11. Holmes, 300.
12. Holmes, 263.
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