Genius, Positive Thinking, and Delusion

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Declaring yourself a “stable genius” is laughable, but there is a very American history behind such inanity. It’s called “positive thinking.”

“What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” said Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich, published back in 1937. Think and Grow Rich was one of the first books to explicitly draw a connection between positive thinking and material success. Donald Trump’s tradition goes back a ways.

The classic of positive thinking is Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking. Published in 1952, it has now sold something over five million copies. The book’s most famous quote has become part of American culture: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”

Norman Vincent Peale was a minister at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Donald Trump’s parents were members of the church, and Donald attended. During a CNN interview, Trump said, “The great Norman Vincent Peale was my minister for years.” In a Washington Post interview Trump said of Rev. Peale, “He thought I was his greatest student of all time.” On Trump and Peale

Norman Vincent Peale calledTrump, “one of America’s top positive thinkers and doers.”

So there is that.

When Peale’s book came out, it was immediately and soundly thrashed by both psychologists and Christian theologians. A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Washington D.C., said of the book,

It has sort of a drug effect on people to be told they need not worry. They keep coming back for more. It keeps their minds on a superficial level and encourages emotional dependency. It is an escape from reality. People under stress do one of two things; seek shelter or respond to harsh reality by a deeper recognition of what they are up against. The people who flock to the ‘peace of mind’ preachers are seeking shelter. They don’t want to face reality. (Wiki, “Norman Vincent Peale”)

When Adlai Stevenson, who was Unitarian, was asked about Peale, he responded, “I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.”

Rev. Peale was very open about the connection between positive thinking and conservative politics. After all, tests have shown that there is a clear connection between being what we call “happy” and contentment with how things are, the status quo. So, the rich can afford to be happy. The poor . . . not so much.

The Rev. Joel Orsteen, leader of the largest congregation in the US, is a direct descendent of Peale. Positive thinking is as American as apple pie, and just about as nutritious. Whatever your theological thinking around the concept of prayer, it takes some creative cherry picking to find a formula for positive thinking in Christian scriptures, written as they were by society’s underdogs previous to the the conversion of the Roman Empire to a one-religion theocracy.

I think we can reliably say that optimism is a healthy attitude, but positive thinking is, as Rev. Davies said, “escape from reality” among those who already have a cushy reality.

Unlike Adlai Stevenson, I don’t find St. Paul’s philosophy appealing, but Peale and his disciples are still appalling.

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page

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