James Allen, a retired English businessman living at the turn of the 20th century, devoted his post-business life to writing and contemplation. In 1902, he published a text called As a Man Thinketh. A long essay, hailed by some as a “classic” of the self-help genre, Allen’s work is still in print. A hundred and ten years later, a personal coach named Adam Mortimer published a short book piggybacking off of Allen’s.
In The Secrets of As a Man Thinketh, Mortimer writes that his coaching philosophy is influenced by Allen. But it’s hard to know what to make of his reflections. His is essentially a book of thoughts on the power of cognition to create joy or sorrow for oneself. The original ideas from Allen reveal a harsh, social Darwinist outlook. And, conceptually, Mortimer’s additions are so lacking that a critical refutation of some of his passages would be futile.
The book is organized into a forward and seven chapters, most of them very short. The format is generally a brief commentary by Mortimer, followed by a paragraph or two by Allen. The book’s primary thesis is expressed in somewhat doctrinaire fashion in the first chapter: “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” This idea is repeated in a numbing fashion throughout the book. The language is rotund and vaguely biblical, and Allen’s original point of view is of an unequivocal blame-the-victim variety. There are quotations on almost every page, many of them from the bible.
Another passage from the first chapter illustrates the highly moralistic and deterministic nature of the book: “A noble and Godlike character is not a thing of favour or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the effect of long-cherished association with Godlike thoughts,” Allen writes. “An ignoble and bestial character, by the same process, is the result of continued harbouring of groveling thoughts.” Mortimer’s commentary adds little. “Good people are not good by chance,” he writes. “If people are good and positive, it is because they have created the habit of thought.”
The second chapter, “Effect of Thought on Circumstances,” is one long exercise in pick-yourself-up-by-your-psychic-bootstraps-and-stride-toward-success. Some of the observations on man’s place in his social world are jarring in their lack of wisdom and compassion. For example, Allen writes,
“A man does not come to the almshouse or the jail by the tyranny of fate or circumstances but by the pathway of groveling thoughts and base desires.”
Even a staunch believer in personal responsibility would have to gag at this. Poverty is a very complex affair and imagine telling somebody today who is working three jobs and is still treading water financially that his problems are caused by his “groveling” thoughts.
Allen’s treatment of suffering sounds like something out of the Inquisition. “Suffering is always the effect of wrong thought in some direction,” he writes.
“It is an indication that the individual is out of harmony with himself, with the Law of his being. The sole and supreme use of suffering is to purify, to burn out all that is useless and impure. Suffering ceases for him who is pure.”
Mortimer seconds this. “Suffering cannot and will not come from good thinking. It would go against the law of the harvest. What you send out there must come back to you. There is an order in the universe and there are laws that cannot be broken.”
Reading this, I wondered what an inmate of Auschwitz, some poor soul in a Soviet labor camp in the Arctic Circle, or somebody trapped in one of Pol Pot’s killing factories would think. Or the parents of a two-year-old stricken with terminal cancer.
The acquisition of wealth is also dealt with in this chapter. Mortimer writes, “A few examples of money-making affirmations are as follows: ‘Money Comes to me easily. I am a money magnet. We live in a world of abundance. Today I choose to be wealthy. I deserve to succeed. Living a wealthy life is my birthright.’ ” Allen is less specific on the subject of money, writing, “Let a man cease from his sinful thoughts, and all the world will soften toward him, and be ready to help him; let him put away his weakly and sickly thoughts, and lo, opportunities will spring up on every hand to aid his strong resolves;…”
The book next discusses thought as either the engine of health or sickness, depending on its tenor. The essentially spiritual message of the book comes through clearly in the following quote from Mortimer: “Thoughts based on faith will always produce a strong body, while thoughts rooted in fear will always cause sickness.”
The remaining four chapters are more of the same, hammering home through semi-Biblical language the basic message that positive thought is the source of all that is good.
The book is so simplistic that it reads like a satire. I can’t recommend it at all.
The Secrets of As a Man Thinketh
Cedar Fort, Inc., 2012
Hardcover, 64 pages