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In As a Man Thinketh, universally acknowledged as a classic of self-help, James Allen argues that we are what we think. We are never simply victims of circumstance. Positive thinking changes our circumstances in constructive ways, as surely as negative thinking brings us down; and it has a real impact on health, well-being, and achievement. Readers in search of practical advice on how to make a better life have found inspiration in this little book for more than a hundred years. We choose our thoughts, Allen says, and our decisions make a difference. This is a message that has changed people's lives, and it still rings true.
Little is known of James Allen's life apart from the often-repeated outline preserved by his publisher. He was born in Leicester, England, in 1864. His father left for America in 1879, intending to settle and send for his family. But before he could do that, he was robbed and murdered, leaving fifteen-year-old James to be the breadwinner back home. James became a private secretary and continued this work until 1902, when, at the age of thirty-eight, he decided to devote his life to writing. After publishing his first book (As a Man Thinketh was his second), he retired with his wife, Lily, to Ilfracombe, a coastal town in Devonshire, to write and live in Tolstoyan simplicity. Allen died in 1912.
This bare outline of Allen's life, quite apart from the content of his work, is a source of interest, since it offers concrete evidence of a child of the late nineteenth-century English middle class leaving formal education at fifteen with literacy and other skills sufficient to make his mark on the world. More than just securing employment as a private secretary, he acquired enough knowledge of Tolstoy before he was thirty-eight to inspire him to "go and do likewise" and read with sufficient breadth to quote from the Dhammapada as well as Christian Scripture and to be familiar with at least one popular poet in the United States and contemporary inspirational writers (such as the attorney Stanton Kirkham Davis, who he cites by name) in England. Though Allen may not be typical, this is nevertheless indicative of the availability of education beyond the boundaries of the elite in Victorian England. It is furthermore suggestive of the mix of influences that helped shape popular notions of progress in England and the United States on the leading edge of the twentieth century.
As a Man Thinketh begins with an aphorism taken from the Authorized (King James) translation of Proverbs 23:7: "for as he thinketh in his heart, so is he." That the line is slightly paraphrased, taken from a context in which it is part of a warning against dining with misers, and applied universally is partly a product of the "Protestant" revolution that put interpretation of Scripture in the hands of individuals and partly a reflection of the use of "wise sayings" that was already in play when Proverbs was compiled. Popular interpreters (including contemporary motivational speakers) often collect fragments of text to illustrate and reinforce points that they wish to make. In Allen's hands, this particular fragment becomes comprehensive. It "not only embraces the whole of a man's being, but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life. A man is literally what he thinks...." This becomes the basis for Allen's insistence that the way to change your life is to change your thought. The eclectic base on which he makes his case is clear when he turns almost immediately from familiar Judeo-Christian territory to quote Edwin Arnold's verse version of the Buddha's teaching: "Thought in the mind hath made us. What we are / By thought was wrought and built. If a man's mind / Hath evil thoughts, pain comes on him as comes / The wheel the ox behind... / If one endure in purity of thought, joy follows him / As his own shadowsure."
But it is worth noting that Allen does not present this as some sort of effortless or magical wish fulfillment. He wraps it securely in the Enlightenment tradition of reason. "Man," he says, "is a growth by law, and not a creation by artifice, and cause and effect is as absolute and undeviating in the hidden realm of thought as in the world of visible and material things." As a popular writer, Allen seeks to do some of the things that academic writers are doing at just about the same timeextending the rule of law to every corner of the universe, including the human mind, making every corner of the universe, including the human mind, susceptible to rational investigation. Allen is confident that the universe is governed by reason, that this means every effect may be traced to a cause, and that rational reflection on effects will enable individuals to cause the effects they desire. He is not unusual in extending this lawful field to the mind, nor is he particularly unusual in insisting that mind and matter are part of a single, lawful field in which whatever happens, happens for a reason that is discoverable. That is an interesting twist on the philosophy of optimism articulated by Pope and immortalized satirically by Voltaire. The line Allen describes is not whatever is, is good, but whatever is has a cause we can identify. He is also not unusual in maintaining the primacy of thought, insisting that thought is not simply a passive product of circumstances. In this, he has much in common with formal philosophical and psychological schools associated with William James and pragmatism. Allen is perhaps at the extreme when he says simply that a man is what he thinks. But a more moderate version, insisting that thought may transform conditions rather than simply being formed by them, is part of the bedrock of empirical investigation and scientific inquiry that is a legacy of Enlightenment thinking.
It is also, broadly speaking, a legacy of Socratic inquiry, particularly as embodied in the familiar slogan "know yourself" that has been often repeated as a summary of Socrates. In Allen's hands, this is a corrective to the leap so often made from claiming that thought influences material circumstances to claiming that we can have whatever we desire if we only desire it strongly enough. Allen sees it differently: "Men do not attract that which they want, but that which they are." Like Gautama Buddha, Allen directs attention inward as a way to see outward. As we come to know what we are, we come to be at home in the world. That is a reasonable conclusion if we are what the world isand that is the claim Allen makes in this little book: "Law, not confusion, is the dominating principle in the universe; justice, not injustice, is the soul and substance of life; and righteousness, not corruption, is the moulding and moving force in the spiritual government of the world. This being so, man has but to right himself to find that the universe is right; and during the process of putting himself right he will find that as he alters his thoughts towards things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him." Like a scientist who carefully lays out his or her methods and conclusions so they can be replicated, Allen does not ask readers to take his word for it. He asks us to try it.
And trying it means changing our minds, which, not surprisingly, is precisely what is meant by the word "repent." Allen is a popular voice among the many voices, popular and scholarly, who came out of the nineteenth century convinced that there is a close connection between our consciousness and our material condition. In philosophical terms, Allen may be said to side with Hegel against Marx. But it is more accurate to say that he joins both in pointing to the connection. And that is nowhere more striking than in his version of what academics call "internalized oppression":
It has been usual for men to think and to say, “Many men are slaves because one is an oppressor; let us hate the oppressor.” Now, however, there is amongst an increasing few a tendency to reverse this judgment, and to say, “One man is an oppressor because many are slaves; let us despise the slaves.” The truth is that oppressor and slave are co-operators in ignorance, and, while seeming to afflict each other, are in reality afflicting themselves. A perfect Knowledge perceives the action of law in the weakness of the oppressed and the misapplied power of the oppressor; a perfect Love, seeing the suffering, which both states entail, condemns neither; a perfect Compassion embraces both oppressor and oppressed. He who has conquered weakness, and has put away all selfish thoughts, belongs neither to oppressor not oppressed. He is free.
As a Man Thinketh is often named as a foundation document of the New Thought movement that William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience as "the religion of healthy mindedness." It has influenced everything in American popular religion from Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity, through the transdenominational gospel of positive thinking associated with Norman Vincent Peale, to contemporary preachers (and economists) whose mantra is "God wants you to be rich." But it begins as "the result of meditation and experience" by a man who achieved little economic success and lived with his wife in relative obscurity (despite publishing nineteen books in ten years), pursuing a life of voluntary simplicity inspired by the Russian novelist and mystic Leo Tolstoy. This little book bears the marks of meditation on Tolstoy but also shows the influence of Arnold's version of the Dhammapada (the teachings of the Buddha), the inspirational verse of the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, theosophy, and (as the title makes explicit) the wisdom literature of Judeo-Christian Scripture. The breadth of influence on which Allen drew and the sometimes surprising places where his influence has subsequently been acknowledged makes this work an interesting window on the eclectic late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century roots of a popular self-help movement in England and the United States that ran side by side with more institutionalized versions of the gospel of progressand, to some extent, appears to have outlasted those institutionalized versions. Apart from its value as a window on the pivotal time and place in which it was written, it continues to be a source of inspiration to many readers in search of practical advice on how to make a better lifea search more than common enough to insure the book's continued popularity as long as people dream.
"The dreamers," Allen writes, "are the saviours of the world." And so, he says, dreamand "Say unto your heart, 'Peace, be still!'"
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who lives and writes in Chicago.