Ronald Reagan is remembered as much for his style as his politics. With his sunny smile and pep, he was a happy warrior. He was also an avowed mystic. A hero to evangelical Christians, Reagan’s own spirituality was shaped by his time in Hollywood: He consulted psychics and said he’d seen UFOs. As Mitch Horowitz points out in One Simple Idea, an intellectual history of the positive-thinking movement, Reagan would retell a story borrowed from the occult scholar Manly Hall that went like this: On July 4, 1776, a mysterious figure—possibly a member of an ancient order of philosophers—appeared in the Philadelphia statehouse, somehow passing the guarded doors unseen. Stepping from the shadows, he gave a rousing oration that inspired the wavering delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. Then he vanished.
Reagan’s election, as Horowitz sees it, marked the decisive mainstreaming of positive thinking, the belief that thought alone can cure disease, alter circumstances, and ensure wealth. Today the Penguin Group has an entire imprint dedicated to metaphysical literature, and Horowitz is its editor-in-chief. His book tells of the entrepreneurs and gurus who formulated New Thought, as he calls it, and moved it, over many decades, in from the fringe.
New Thought is simply the belief that “our thoughts possess some kind of power, both on ourselves and on events around us.” Different proponents have taken that to mean different things: Phineas Quimby, a tubercular Maine clockmaker, became convinced in the 1830s that disease originated in the mind and could be cured there. (Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, tended to minimize the intellectual debt she owed him.) Wallace Wattles, an early-20th-century Methodist minister and socialist, preached that the mind, properly used, worked like a magnet to attract favorable circumstances—an idea that reappeared a century later as The Secret in the Oprah-approved bestseller of the same name. Glenn Clark, founder of the Camps Farthest Out, said that the right preparation routine ensured the efficacy of prayer. During World War II, he claimed his prayer groups had slowed Hitler’s march into Poland.
In its early years, New Thought was dominated by progressives and political radicals, suffragettes and other free thinkers. As self-help has become a big business, Horowitz says it’s become a more narrowly materialistic creed, “a methodology of winning” focused on getting ahead and getting rich. Prosperity gospel churches such as Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church and T.D. Jakes’s Potter’s House have become multimedia goliaths, fed by the tithing of tens of thousands of congregants who gather on Sundays to hear about the riches God has in store for them.
Horowitz is a fluid writer, and if some of the figures in his book tend to blur together, that’s probably inevitable given the form he has chosen: a daisy chain of capsule biographies glossed with commentary. While occasionally critical of his subjects, he’s never terribly so. Either because of his own position in the self-help/spirituality industry or because he is himself, by training or temperament, a positive sort, he’s unfailingly respectful of the teachings he describes.
And like Reagan, he’s unembarrassed about the mystical side of positive thinking. Horowitz ends his book with a chapter titled “Does It Work?” He says it does. He points to the placebo effect, which New Thought proponents wrote about long before the medical establishment took it seriously. He also writes of a few unreplicated studies—research most scientists do not take seriously—that show evidence for ESP. He holds out hope that quantum theory, in which “an observer’s consciousness determines objective reality,” might apply on a larger scale, helping explain how our minds might shape the world around us. Where Horowitz will lose readers is between the placebo effect and this parapsychology. Most of us have no problem believing positive thinking has power, but superpowers?