This piece is the first in a series looking at the tradition of New Thought (aka Mental Science or Science of The Mind). In these pieces I want to explore issues of intentionality, magic, and cosmological co-creation. I’ll investigate in particular a number of the techniques or processes within the New Thought tradition as well as its larger metaphysics. The dual lenses of weird naturalism and ontological flooding will guide our examination of New Thought.
We’ll begin the exploration with some historical notes to set the context and understand the roots of New Thought practice and belief, roots that are often misunderstood, minimized, or even forgotten altogether.
New Thought began in the 19th century in the United States, originally flowing out of the work of Phineas Quimby. Quimby attended Charles Poyen’s tour of the United States demonstrating the process of Mesmerism. Quimby followed Poyen for two years seeking to become an expert in mesmerism himself.
A brief word on Mesmerism is then in order because while Mesmerism is often cited as so influential on Quimby and Quimby is undoubtedly the godfather of New Thought it’s surprising that more thought does not seem to be given in the literature to the precise impacts of Mesmerism on New Thought.
Franz Anton Mesmer believed there was a fluid magnetic force in life which he called animal magnetism. Mesmer believed this force had physical effects and could be worked upon directly to create, for example, healing effects. Mesmerist practice involved various techniques like “passes” (gentle physical contact running down the arms and legs) which would resemble later massage and Reiki energy healing practices.
The French aristocrat The Marquis of Peysegur, a Mesmerist, came to believe that rather than a force of animal magnetism the power of mesmerism lay in suggestion. Peysegur came to this conclusion after observing a client fall into what we now call a somnambulist trance state.
I believe in the existence within myself of a power. From this belief derives my will to exert it. The entire doctrine of Animal Magnetism is contained in the two words: Believe and Want. I believe that I have the power to set into action the vital principle of my fellow-men; I want to make use of it; this is all my science and all my means. Believe and want, Sirs, and you will do as much as I. Believe and want, Sirs, and you will do as much as I.
Belief and want/desire, as we’ll see, play a huge role in New Thought. Also note
in this quotation the important shift from animal magnetism as a universal (quasi)material fluid force to the force being that of one’s own individual soul (“vital principle of my fellow-men”). From de Peysegur as well as his friend Abbe Faria mesmerism moves over into hypnosis and even channeling (I’ve covered both of those processes in previous posts here and here).
Quimby learned this more hypnotic form of mesmerism. He worked for a time with Lucius Burkmar who was particularly open/susceptible to hypnotic processes and would go into trance and offer intuitive medical readings on individuals.
Over time Quimby came to argue that the cause of disease was in the mind of the patients—even if the mind was understood to be “subconscious.” (It’s worth noting that the hypnosis thread eventually leads to Freud and from that point the psychoanalytic tradition is born).
Quimby believed that if different “mental programs” could be placed within oneself, then health and vitality would be restored. This belief becomes the basis for what Qumiby called “mind cure”, later to be known as Mental Science (or the Science of the Mind).
Warren Felt Evans, William Walker Atkinson, Emma Curtis Hopkins and others began the process of building a larger cosmological and metaphysical theology on top of Quimby’s “mind cure” processes. These larger themes create New Thought proper.
Somewhat simplistically stated, these individuals substituted Mesmer’s animal magnetism for a notion of The Divine as the all-encompassing “fluid magnetizing reality.” The power within oneself that Marquis de Peysegur had noted became in New Thought The Divine Self within one’s own being.
Added to this was the notion that the Universe was following various Spiritual Laws, parallel to the scientific laws of Newton. In this New Thought rubbed shoulders with it’s erstwhile cousin Spiritualism (whose influence into present spirituality I’ve traced in multiple pieces).
By the end of the nineteenth century and into the early 20th century New Thought was reaching fuller maturation as a full spiritual philosophy and life path.
The Church of Divine Science (one of the major New Thought organizations) believed that:
“limitless Being, God, is Good, is equally present everywhere, and is the All of everything…
Further God is:
“pure Spirit, absolute, changeless, eternal, manifesting in and as all Creation, yet also transcending Creation.”
So far, this teaching, as covered elsewhere on the site is an updated form of Neoplatonism. Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, wrote that everything came from The One (To Hen) in an emanation (efflux), which then returned to The Source via the Source’s ever-alluring presence to draw all reality back to Itself (reflux). The later Neoplatonist Proclus clarified that in the flowing out and flowing back The One never actually left itself. (For more on Plotinus specifically and Neoplatonic thought more broadly, see this piece.)
In such a way The One could remain eternal, unchanging, and both the Source and Essence of all Reality (manifest creation) which itself can go through flux and change while never affecting The One’s core Essence, precisely as stated in The Church of Divine Science.
Infinite Intelligence or God is omnipotent and omnipresent.
Spirit is the ultimate reality.
True human self-hood is divine.
These principles further confirm the ultimately Neoplatonic dimension of this teaching.
What New Thought refers to as “Infinite Intelligence” the Neoplatonists would call Nous. For Plotinus, Nous was the first emanation or manifestation of The One. Nous was the organizing intelligence of all Reality. It is what brought everything into proper alignment, harmony, relationship, and order. Nous is equivalent then to The Logos (Divine Mind), which in Christianity was described as The Word of God, through whom the Source (God) created all things.
“In the beginning was the Word (Logos/Nous)
And the Word was with God (To Hen/Source)
And the Word was God.
The Word was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through the Word,
And Without The Word not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in The Word was life,
And that life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
—Gospel of John Chapter 1, verses 1-5.
This Divine Intelligence is also known as Wisdom or Sophia or even further as The (Holy) Spirit. Where Nous/Logos/Word emphasizes more the Divine Mind/Intelligence, the term Spirit refers more to the Energy or Radiance, the Vibratory Power or Pulsation that charges the Nous/Divine Mind.
As I covered in my series on the psychic, subtle, and causal states-realms, which are themselves all versions of one non-dual reality/substrate, this three-in-one one-in-threeness is a classic description across a multitude of spiritual traditions the world over. And we see the basic outlines of it here again in Science of Mind.
Neoplatonism eventually merged with Hermeticism and vice versa: cf, especially Iamblichus a Neoplatonist and theurgist (magician). Hermeticism added a more specifically alchemical and magical practice to the spiritual realization aspect of Neoplatonism.
This Hermetic-Neoplatonic combination would later re-enter the West (through Arab & Persian translators) and become the basis of the Renaissance. I’ve written about the Renaissance spiritual realizer and magical adept Giordano Bruno previously. Bruno’s memory palaces technique (famously used by Sherlock Holmes) was a public presentation and outward exoteric dimension or first step towards ultimately a much more esoteric practice of magic. Namely the same concentration of mind developed through the memory palace technique was then deployed in magical rituals and workings. To fill out this picture even a bit more, I’ve similarly covered alchemy in a few different pieces on the site (here and here for example).
The Renaissance and early modern European magical systems often existed through elite esoteric and occult individuals and groups and often involved very complex cosmological and metaphysical speculation.
The Science of Mind tradition sought to offer a more popularized, lay-oriented, and democratic spirit to the work. In particular it came to its own interesting developments around the magical side in particular.
Here are some further fundamental principles of New Thought according to Wikipedia:
Divinely attuned thought is a positive force for good.
All disease is mental in origin.
Right thinking has a healing effect.
Here is where New Thought is starting to head in its own unique direction coming all the way back to Quimby for whom “The Truth was the cure.”
For our purposes here perhaps the easiest definition of magic is the ability of the (super)conscious mind to cause change in outer events/reality. Magic therefore is the ability of conscious intention to effect outer reality (or perhaps we might say super-conscious, super-natural intention).
As strange as it may at first sound, telepathy, telekinesis, and a whole host of other psi phenomena have all been rigorously established in controlled experimental conditions so the basic underlying premise is real enough. Most individuals do not consciously cultivate these capacities so in the majority of people they tend to not have much in the way of practical day to day influence—though specific individuals can hone these latent capacities of the human body mind to powerful, even extraordinary levels. Colin Wilson spoke of these as Faculty X. The Theosophical Society’s third principle was to study the possibilities latent in the human being. those are all different ways of pointing to the same thing: magical or psi capacities latent within the human.
It is these capacities that New Thought seeks to hone and master. New Thought then is a streamlined process to develop the necessary capacity to perform magical workings, as well as a larger worldview within which to make sense of those techniques and experiences. New Thought does not involve very complex, complicated rituals as does, for example, The Enochian magical system. But New Thought is also not as street or pop culture-y as chaos magick either.
If we return to the psychic-subtle-causal-nondual schema named earlier we can see New Thought interacting with each of those aspects and seeking to create, in it’s way, a form of integration.
In New Thought The Divine is not only the Source (Causal) but also the reality (Nondual) of everything that is, which is why New Thought deploys terms like The All. This Divine Reality can be conceived of as a Universal Mind-Intelligence (Causal) which works through Archetypal Spiritual Laws (Subtle) to effect material reality (Gross). The human being participates in this larger realty through a series of processes that touch into the psyche (deeper psychic/subtle) of the person and allows them to connect to the larger Archetypal Laws (Subtle) and Divine Mind (Causal) itself.
Following in our (Neo)Platonic line of thought, The Spiritual Laws of New Thought function equivalently to Plato’s Ideas/Archetypes. For St. Augustine (covered elsewhere on the site) the Ideas of Plato all existed inside the Mind of God. They were Ideas in the Mind of God and therefore, for Augustine, connecting to these Ideas allowed one to tap directly into the Mind or Consciousness of God. New Thoguht follows in this Neoplatonic and Augustinian line and asks whether by tapping into the Mind of God, one may effect positive outcomes in life.
So for all the sometimes strange lingo of New Thought when we are able to see it as a more modernist form of Neoplatonism (spiritual metaphysics) and Hermetic magic (“as above, so below”) then things become much clearer.
In the next piece we’re going to dive further into those practices, which bring us deeper into the weirdly natural and high strange nature of New Thought.