Published online in The Intelligent Optimist, July 25, 2014
Mitch Horowitz's new book paints a rich tableau of Americana as seen through the lens of spiritual development.
By Cathleen McGuire
The power of positive thinking is a ubiquitous notion in the American mind, but that was not always so. While its antecedents date back to Hermeticism, an ancient Greco-Egyptian philosophy for achieving esoteric powers, in today’s parlance “The Secret” had to be rediscovered after centuries of oblivion.
Providing plentiful primary research, Mitch Horowitz excavates the modern history of positive thought dating back to the Transcendentalists and as early as the 1830s. Introducing a potpourri of colorful characters, One Simple Idea paints a rich tableau of Americana as seen through the lens of a growing alternative spiritual development.
Horowitz’ first book, Occult America, plumbed the history of the New Age movement. It is a wide-ranging, fascinating study brimming with original material. One Simple Idea, his follow-up effort, targets positive thought, the New Age belief that one could say has most penetrated the American psyche.
New Thought, as it is sometimes known, was not birthed from whole cloth. It was a gradual imbrication of points of view over time by a multitude of personalities, many of whom Horowitz saves from obscurity. A good number of the early proponents possessed a tenacious, idiosyncratic spirit which enabled them to go head-to-head with entrenched mainstream religions.
Among the more famous contributors the book profiles are Mary Baker Eddy, Marcus Garvey, Norman Vincent Peale, Ronald Reagan and Oral Roberts. With each of them, Horowitz examines their shadow side and set-backs as a means to understanding their fabled success.
In addition to numerous inspirational leaders, the positive movement likewise birthed renowned organizations (Twelve Step, Unity) and pithy concepts (“Yes, we can,” “Follow your bliss”). Regrettably, the altruistic underpinnings of one of its more influential principles—the Law of Attraction—was usurped by a zeal for prosperity and self-advancement. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is the granddaddy guide for exploiting positive thoughts for personal gain.
While each of us deserves to “be all we can be” (and not for the military, thank you), the extraordinary power of positive thinking to transform society has barely been tapped. Be it its solipsistic tendencies or the New Age-y stigma, faith in positive thinking is still quite marginal. The world is not yet convinced that “thoughts are things”—a core positivist tenet.
But the zeitgeist is changing. Horowitz explores the quantum physics of positive thinking to explain its formidable capabilities. As more people grasp the potential of neuroplasticity, for example, or that gratitude can be scientifically measured, we are presented with a profound opportunity to seize the power of our minds to shift the consciousness of our species—just as the Hermetacists and Transcendentalists envisioned.
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