"The Secret": New Agey Mind Cure Still Pretending "Positive Thinking" Will Solve Everything
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He focused particularly on how the mental judgements we make in response to the things that happen to us can overwhelm us. For example, a day might be ruined by a trivial disappointment. The good Stoic, though, learns not to let that get him down and, in general, to react well to any eventuality. (Not getting a good deal on your cabbages at the market is one situation discussed; Zeno’s philosophy came to be called Stoicism because he taught in the Stoa, an everyday place of shops, and therefore an excellent place to practice this attitudinal philosophy.)
The Stoics backed up their practical concerns with a complete metaphysics. The cosmos, they believed, was run through and through with a benign force called the logos. Life goes well when we align our thoughts with this all-pervasive current. It sounds like the law of attraction.
However, there are critical differences between Stoicism and The Power, for the ancients were wise to life’s tragedies too. Some things do, apparently, go badly. (They could hardly think otherwise, living during that long period of history in which death was associated with the young, not the old.) So, their instruction was to ‘go with the flow’ even when that is hard to stomach. Theirs is not a relentless optimism, expecting everything, like Byrne’s. Rather, the Stoics advocated expecting nothing, but working at everything. Be lightened by life’s absurdities too, they recommended. That way you won’t be disappointed when you don’t, apparently, make progress. You’ll be able to maintain your trust in the logos.
But isn’t there a bigger charge to make against these “mind-cures,” as William James called them more than a century ago? (Books like The Power were bestsellers in Victorian times too.) He reasoned that they succeed ‘in ignoring evil’s very existence.’ Evil is a big thing to ignore, so I have to say that I agree with him. It points to something flawed in the human condition. We have what James called ‘sick souls.’ Do we not do what we wouldn’t do, and don’t do what we would do, as Saint Paul observed?
James opposed mind-cures to what he called ‘twice-born’ religions and philosophies, which teach that life in all its fullness only comes when we’re somehow born again into a state more perfect than this one. In ancient Greek tragedy, only a hero who dies well is reborn in the stars. In Indian philosophy, the karmic echoes of this life are worked out in the next and the next and the next. And in Christianity, it is only those who lose their life who will find it: die daily to yourself, and redemption will come.
The Power, though, and The Secret, need no such savior or sacrifice. It’s certainly an easier sell.
Mark Vernon is a writer and journalist whose books include After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living (Oneworld, 2010).