April 5th, 2014


This may BE your grandfather's freaky ...

MHOSI1This is another book from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, and the second time that I've received multiples of a particular author's books (I reviewed Occult America back in 2009). This new one by Mitch Horowitz, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life is just a few degrees off from his previous, but this time looking at the development of the “positive thinking” (/ “The Secret”/ “law of attraction”) stuff that has been such a cultural feature over the past decade.

Now, given that I have at least two ancestors who came over on the Mayflower (my late Aunt, who was very active in the Mayflower Society, somehow managed to have one more than the rest of us), I can say this … but is it really a surprise that in a country initiated by religious whackjobs there has been a whole chain of “out of the box” thinking in that wookie-wookie zone? If you look at it from that perspective, no … but being the sort who might otherwise out-of-hand dismiss a lot of the “newage” as being rooted in people who damaged their brains in the 1960's, it's amazing how long a lot of this stuff has been around.

Like in his previous book, Horowitz takes a historical approach to this, backgrounding it with early aspects as far back as Greek-Egyptian Hermeticism, through the Idealists, Kant and Hegel, the Modernists, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and into Swedenborg and Emerson, as counterparts to America's dour Calvinist Protestantism. The story picks up in the 1830's with a fellow by the name of Quimby who encounters traveling students of Mesmer, first Poyen, and then Collyer. Quimby began healing, writing, and building a following, including, in the mid-1860's a young lady who would become Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement.

Frankly, this is the point where it starts to be difficult to give a running commentary, as the players, publications, and groups start weaving their paths through the culture, and there are (as one can get a sense of in the previous paragraph) a lot of names which may or may not strike the reader with particular significance. Horowitz does an admirable job of keeping this moving forward without too much confusion, blocking out the book into thematic, albeit still reasonably chronological, chapters, looking at how these groups cross-pollinated through the decades.

Familiar names keep popping up, if in not particularly familiar contexts, and there seems to be always a mystical/occult extreme that many of these groups were informed by, but avoided in an effort to maintain a “Christian” facade. While many drew on Swedenborg, more than a few were at least conversant with Blavatsky and the Theosophists. I was surprised to read that things like “New Thought” and “Prosperity Gospel” were not just hippie-era spins, but dated back to the 1920's. The rise of psychotherapy also has its influence, with Freud, Jung, and others either being inspirations for insights or trends to be countered.

Each chapter is subdivided in sections dealing with individuals and their circles, showing how they were inter-related (some being outright schismatic, some having paths that crossed, melded, split, etc.) with other figures in the general thematic flow of the chapter. In the course of this, whole constellations of related (if not involved) figures, from Susan B. Anthony to J.B. Rhine and even Carlos Castaneda and Ronald Reagan (some fascinating stuff about him!) appear. Of course, all the “big names” are here, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, etc., etc., etc., with looks at where their concepts arose, and how they influenced others.

Again, the names just keep coming … somebody better read in this particular niche would no doubt recognize dozens (possibly hundreds), but as the book progresses, they become more and more familiar, with people either still around in the “inspirational” fields or deceased only in the past few decades. Of course, Horowitz works his way up to The Secret but doesn't try to survey the wide expanse of “practitioners” that spawned. The story, however, continues, even up to difficulties that the Tony Robbins organization was having as recently as 2012.

The final chapter of One Simple Idea is called (tellingly) “Does It Work?” where he pulls together the historical bits and tries to define “the lay of the land”, in which he posits that there are four basic “schools” into which most of these people and movements can be sorted:
  1. The Magical Thinking or Divine Thought School
  2. The Conditioning or Reprogramming School
  3. The Conversion School
  4. The Meaning-Based School
These are interesting, but not pressed too hard; he discusses these as tendencies of various groups, but avoids being overly specific as to which practitioners are in which “school”. He follows this with a look at the “scientific” side of things, from the no doubt very applicable “placebo effect” to the far less concrete, albeit very popular, attempts to bend quantum physics to mystical ends. In closing, Horowitz notes:
The pioneers of the positive-thinking movement, acting with deep practical intent, probed the possibilities and capacities of our psyches earlier than any scientists, theologians, or psychologists of the modern industrial age. The founders of New Thought and affirmative thinking created a fresh means of viewing life, one that was rough and incomplete, rife with mistakes and dead ends, but also filled with possibility and practical application.
While I'm not sure if a hard-core “The Secret” believer would particularly appreciate One Simple Idea (as it's pretty well-grounded in reality), it certainly has a lot to recommend it to those who have encountered that sort of belief and wondered where the heck it came from. Horowitz has succeeded in wrapping a reasonably coherent story arc across a vast lot of individual story lines, which makes this much more than a string of Wikipedia pages on the persons and groups involved. If you have an interest in things in this realm, you will likely find a lot of useful info (if nothing else, a vast number of books to check out!) here. This is brand new, just out in January, so you're likely to be able to find it in your local real-world book vendor, but you could save a few bucks with the on-line guys if you're in one of those “bereft of bookstores” zones.

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