BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Being great again?

A few months back, I was over at Barnes & Noble and found a couple of things on a 75%-off clearance table, this being one of them. It's a pity that I have so far not found a platform (that I've been able/willing to afford) for reading e-books, as this, due to its vintage, is available free in various digital formats (heck, there are collections of all nine of the author's books in Kindle editions on Amazon for their minimum 99¢ charge), but I have yet to encounter an e-book that wasn't an uncomfortable slog to get through, generally taking 10x the time of reading a “dead tree” book … so it was nice to pick up this slim volume for under two bucks.

Wallace D. Wattles is one of the “sources” for the whole “The Secret” / “Law of Attraction” genre. He lived from 1860-1911, and wrote his most influential books in his last years. This one, The Science of Being Great, says it was originally published in 1911, although Wikipedia has it coming out (with the other books in the “Science of” trilogy … one of which I reviewed a number of years ago) in 1910.

To be honest, my number one take-away from this book was what a remarkably different world Wattles lived in to what we do more than a century later. The basic assumptions of the author's world view are almost as alien as those of Marcus Aurelius, writing nearly two millennia previously. The America that Wattles writes about (and bases a lot of his philosophy on) is nearly unrecognizable today … this was a country that had yet to churn through two world wars, a time when automobiles were still a novelty (largely due to there being very few paved roads until the 1920's) and where the airplane had only recently been shown as a possibility by the Wright brothers … and an America that was vastly more homogeneous, with the Black migration from the slave states just beginning (in 1910, Blacks only made up 2% of the population of Chicago, only a third of the current Asian population of the city!).

Now, I'll admit that much of my resistance to what Wattles has in here could be based on my general curmudgeonly bitter cynicism (and the whole “God thing” he's pitching), but I really feel that he's writing for a world that is lamentably dead and gone. However, there are quite a lot of things here which are less context-dependent than the rest, and I'll be focusing on these. This is from the first (short – most are only a few pages, given that the book's brief 73 pages are broken into 22 chapters) chapter:
      Nothing was ever in any man that is not in you; no man ever had more spiritual or mental power than you can attain, or did greater things than you can accomplish. You can become what you want to be.
As bad as I feel about resorting to this, I think the current book might be one of those where my readers would benefit from my typing up the chapter listings … since the material here is not in a particular “narrative arc” this would serve as at least a matrix for me to introduce cherry-picked quotations (there being quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in here). So …

            Any Person May Become Great
            Heredity and Opportunity
            The Source of Power
            The Mind of God
            The Social Point of View
            The Individual Point of View
            Hurry and Habit
            Action at Home
            Action Abroad
            Some Further Explanations
            More About Thought
            Jesus' Idea of Greatness
            A View of Evolution
            Serving God
            A Mental Exercise
            A Summary of the Science of Being Great

One of the downsides of a book being over a century old when I get my hands on it (as noted in other reviews) is that people mentioned in the text – which the author evidently assumes are known to his readers – are only understandable at the end of a Google search … in the “Heredity and Opportunity” chapter Wattles has a long paragraph naming folks who rose from disadvantaged beginnings to achieve great things, but the only one described there that was immediately recognizable was Abraham Lincoln … in any event he notes:“In each of these cases we see a Principle of Power in the man that lifts him above all opposition and adversity.”. Although not mentioned in this context, I found it interesting that Napoleon Bonaparte is frequently cited both here and similar books of the era, despite having died nearly a century before. Obviously, the cultural memory of Napoleon has not faded, but the influence of the man as a “type” seems to have drained away.

One of the key concepts in this is that everything is perfect as it is, within the context of the stage of its development. I would like to use Wattles own words here, but the section that I'm considering would require block-quoting over a page, which in a 73-page book seems to be pushing the limits of “fair use”. He, however, preceding this section, has a point that is in all-caps as its own paragraph, which seems to be the only item so emphasized, so I'm guessing it's worth passing along (if without the full capitalization):
      This must be your point of view: That the world and all it contains is perfect, though not completed.
He goes on to explain the idea of things being a “partial expression”, thus incomplete, and in doing so compares J.P. Morgan to “strange animals of the age of reptiles”, and thereby “perfect after his kind” (Wattles was an early Socialist, so no doubt had opinions not kindly towards the “robber barons”). He then starts to address what he expects to be objections to this “perfection”, including child labor and “exploitation of men and women in filthy and unsanitary factories” … saying that those workers “only want more of the things that make for animal enjoyment, and so industry remains in the savage, brutal, animal stage” he seems to believe that the workers will eventually “desire more in the way of a higher, purer, more harmonious life” which will result in industry being raised above that plane …
But it is perfect now upon its plane; behold it is all very good.
He goes on to recommend how one needs to see the facts of reality from “the highest viewpoint” (although this might be the source of the “no soup for you” aspect of The Secret):
“All's right with the world. Nothing can possibly be wrong but my personal attitude, and I will make that right.”
For somebody who keeps getting into the Jesus stuff, he does have some fairly, uh, heretical statements cropping up at times, I especially liked this one: “Do not give your time and strength to the support of obsolete institutions, religious or otherwise; do not be bound by creeds in which you do not believe. Be free.” … which is nearly Crowley-esque in its sentiments (and I do hate the idea that A.C. might have been cribbing from Wattles, but the timings make that at least a possibility). While differing in attitude, the following, part of how the author is defining his concept of “consecration”, might also have come from Thelema:
You cannot be ruled from below if you are to be great; you must rule from above. Therefore you cannot be governed by physical impulses; you must bring your body into subjection to the mind; but your mind, without principle, may lead you into selfishness and immoral ways; you must put the mind into subjection to the soul, and your soul is limited by the boundaries of your knowledge; you must put it into subjection to that Oversoul which needs no searching of the understanding but before whose eyes all things are spread. That constitutes consecration.
This sort of seeds the “Realization” chapter, which has recommendations based on that last level of subjection, where one is “learning to read the thoughts of God”, frankly (and no doubt this is the cynical me reacting here), I found much in this section simply a recommendation to solipsism and credulity (he says if you “feel” something is going to be happening, follow that “with perfect faith” “no matter how unlikely it may seem” – which could be taken to be the full recipe for the “new age” movement!).

He gets into some, what seems to me to be “technical”, stuff regarding thought, at first going into (at the end of the “habit” chapter) how to use mental exercises to repeat certain thoughts until they are “the only way you think of yourself”. In the “thought” chapter he says:
      Thinking is the hardest and most exhausting of all labor: and hence many people shrink from it. God has so formed us that we are continuously impelled to thought; we must either think or engage in some activity to escape thought. The headlong, continuous chase for pleasure in which most people spend all their leisure time is only an effort to escape thought. If they are alone, or if they have nothing amusing to take their attention, as a novel to read or a show to see, they must think; and to escape from thinking they resort to novels, shows, and all the endless devices of the purveyors of amusement; Most people spend the greater part of their leisure time running away from thought, hence they are where they are. We never move forward until we begin to think.
And, mind you, this was written in the very early days of film, and well before commercial radio, TV, the Internet, or the smartphone – one can only imagine how little thinking gets done these days!

Needless to say, I'm skipping out on a lot of the details here, to at least be able to convey the conceptual broad strokes. The following are from a couple of paragraphs in the “Action Abroad” chapter, which I thought hung together well, so I'm skipping about a page between them:
Do not try to do great things until you are ready to go about them in a great way. If you undertake to deal with great matters in a small way – that is, from a low viewpoint or with incomplete consecration and wavering faith and courage – you will fail. Do not be in a hurry to get to the great things. Doing great things will not make you great, but becoming great will certainly lead you to the doing of great things.

Do not go hunting for big things to do. Live a great life where you are, and in the daily work you have to do, and greater works will surely find you out. Big things will come to you, asking to be done.
That is, of course, all well and good, but a few lines later Wattles is off into: “Every man and woman is perfect. Let your manner be that of a god addressing other gods.” … and even into some things deeper down that hole. He then offers a bit to reinforce the “perfect” idea, saying that “mistaken religious teachers” have promulgated a view that the world is bad, and getting worse, with discords and inharmoniousness intensifying towards an ending, while he insists that the world is good, and getting better, with those negative elements (in a comparison to a steamer ship) simply being “incidental to our own imperfect steering”. He closes out the book with a bit of “covering bases”, bringing in a half-dozen or so others' quotes on thinking, going into a thing on Jesus, and on evolution (I guess those camps were already in conflict back then), a program for doing mental exercises, and then closing up with reprinting an essay by Emerson on “the Oversoul”.

While there was enough stuff in The Science of Being Great to keep my attention, it was (as noted up top) full of things that had me muttering “yeah, maybe in your world”, but I'm crotchety like that, and somebody less cranky about positivity would likely not be bothered in the least by the stuff that I was finding irritating. Again, this is available in digital forms for nothing to very little, and new copies of this slim volume can be had for a penny plus $3.99 shipping. It's an interesting enough read, with material that is certainly echoed in later philosophies/fads, and might even stand on its own as a “process” … but this is definitely a “your mileage may vary” nod.

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Tags: book review
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