Positive Thinking and Ancient Magic

(This is an excerpt from my book You and the Conscious Universe: Science, Spirit and the New Positive Thinking, published by Perrault and available on Amazon.)

Positive Thinking is as old as the hills – it just looked a little different in days of yore. Itis simply a modern type of ancient magic. Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras were even believed to have special ‘miraculous’ powers, which is how successful Positive Thinking would have looked in antiquity. (And let’s not forget Jesus, that Positive Thinker extraordinaire.) At any rate, these old philosophers1 knew their magic:

‘I would remark, that in the most ancient times … it was in this branch of science [magic] that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown. At all events, we find Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof … Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries …’2

The NeoPlatonist (‘new’ Platonist) thinker Iamblichus (245-325 CE) was also fascinated by the subject of fate and how we might magically ‘overcome’ the one we’ve been given. He was thus a teacher of the Ancient Art of Positive Thinking. In his work, Theurgia – Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, he writes of re-claiming the ‘divine’ part of our soul:

‘I say, therefore, that the more divine, intelligible man, who was formerly united to the Gods by the vision of them, afterwards … became fettered with the bonds of necessity and fate. Hence it is requisite to consider how he may be liberated from these bonds. There is therefore no other dissolution of them than the knowledge of the Gods.’3

Here is Positive Thinking writ large – you can change your life by changing your thoughts, or by using the power of the Subconscious (‘the knowledge of the Gods’.) We find the same message among today’s inspirational teachers and motivators. Iamblichus is saying humans have become alienated from their spiritual side, the ‘divine’ part, thus they’re subject to the whims of their lower selves – fear, greed, envy, sloth (all the seven deadly sins, you might say). Because of this they are playthings of fate, but this can be overcome, for there is:

‘another principle of the soul, which is superior to all nature and generation, and through which we are capable of … transcending the mundane order … Through this principle, therefore, we are able to liberate ourselves from fate. For when the more excellent parts of us energize, and the soul is elevated to natures better than itself, then it is entirely separated from things which detain it in generation …’ 4

Notice that there’s a power ‘superior to nature’ that can ‘liberate’ us from circumstance, that can lift the soul and bring positive change. (When we have ‘energized’ the more ‘excellent parts’ of us.) Put plainly, we can overturn whatever might be dragging us down and be one of life’s winners, instead. Again, this is like modern Positive Thinking:

‘Is there something – a force, a factor, a power, a science, call it what you will – which a few people understand and use to overcome their difficulties and achieve outstanding success? I firmly believe there is.’5

This is from American author Claude Bristol’s book The Magic of Believing, written in 1948. He’s saying the same thing as Iamblichus, referring to the use of this mysterious force. As to how the Magic of Belief really works, another major NeoPlatonist, Plotinus (d. 270) tells us that it is:

‘by the fact in Nature that there is an agreement of like forces and an opposition of unlike, and by the diversity of those multitudinous powers which converge in the one living universe …the powers that answer to incantations [or prayers] do not act by will … The prayer is answered by the mere fact that [inner] part and other [outer] part are wrought to one tone like a musical string which, plucked at one end, vibrates at the other also.’ 6

In Positive Thinking, the subconscious must be ‘one’ with its object, it must believe the goal to already be a reality. Then, things happen. Then, the ‘multitudinous powers’ (the unknowable forces of the Subconscious) get to work. And so, Plotinus – in his roundabout way – is saying nothing other than: like attracts like. Napoleon Hill writes that:

‘our brains become magnetized with the dominating thoughts which we hold in our minds, and, by means with which no man is familiar, these ‘magnets’ attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with the nature of our dominating thoughts.’7

And so, the idea that the human mind can exert control over the environment is nothing new. The nineteenth century mystic and doctor Franz Hartmann also wrote about ‘an internal power of man’ which, if he ‘knows how to use [it] … may enter from the passive into the active state, and employ these powers himself.’8 In the late twentieth century, American spiritual teacher Ram Dass noted how ‘we are all affecting the world every moment’ whether or not we intend it. Again, these are very old ideas. The thirteenth century cleric, Albertus Magnus, informs us how he:

‘discovered an instructive account [of magic] … which says that a certain power to alter things indwells in the human soul and subordinates the other things to her … When … the soul of a man falls into a great excess of any passion, it can be proved by experiment that it [the excess] binds things [magically] and alters them in the way it wants.’9

This ‘magical’ faculty in the soul is a medieval version of Your Subconscious Power – it is the ‘emotionality’ of the soul ‘falling into a great excess’ that does the trick. In the same way, modern inspirational writers insist your desire must be stoked to white heat. Magician Bob Makransky reminds us that in any Positive Thinking exercise, ‘the important point is to get to the feeling of the desire, and not just do it by rote.’ He adds: ‘you should be in a happy, delighted mood – lose yourself in reverie’ and get ‘a feeling of intense longing’. This is the ‘certain power to alter things’ – it is the strength of feeling used in Positive Thinking that actually makes the difference. In Al Koran’s Bring Out the Magic In Your Mind (1964) the author says:

‘Your thoughts and words are all powerful, but the most powerful thing of all is emotion. What you see for yourself. What you feel … Your whole heart must be in getting this thing you want, or it is useless to go on. You cannot make magic (and all you wish it to bring you) a mathematical certainty unless there is strong feeling.’10

Then there is the so-called As If Technique, which has its roots in the same magical culture as the one Plotinus inhabited. We’ll learn how to use it in the final chapter but, simply put, you are to act and feel as if you had already obtained your goal. This is vital to Positive Thinking. Al Koran advises that ‘you obtain your desire by feeling as if you had already got what you want now’. Realising how illogical this sounds, Koran imagines his reader’s response: ‘Screwy, that’s what he is. Screwy.’11 Pretending that one’s goals are already here and now (as a method of attainment) sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Even so, it’s an old, venerable piece of occult advice. Here is Jesus’ take on the As-If method, as quoted in the New Testament:

‘Therefore I say unto you, All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye have received them, and ye shall have them.’12

The existence of this inner force – unlike the attitude of today’s material science – was always taken for granted. The notion of ‘magical power’ wasn’t quite so absurd in those far off days. But if we’re to succeed in operating the Power of the Subconscious we need to look within and trust in its wisdom. If we update the language and vocabulary of these old texts, they would sound just like a modern life-coach. Positive Thinking is thus a most ancient art, indeed – it has simply appeared in different guises throughout history, and not always recognisable ones!

1. Even Plato’s dialogues have been interpreted as not so much a philosophical dscourse, but as a kind of magical or mystical instruction containing all manner of arcane symbolism.

2. Pliny The Elder, Natural History, Book 30.

3. Iamblichus, Theurgia – Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, trans. Taylor, Thomas, London: Dobell 1985.

4. ibid.

5. Bristol, The Magic of Believing, Prentice-Hall inc., 1948

6. In Godwin, Joscelyn, Music Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, Arkana, 1987.

7. Hill, Napoleon, Think and Grow Rich, 1937

8. Hartmann, Magic, White and Black, JW Lovell, 1890.

9. Albertus Magnus – De Mirabilibus Mundi (1485?). In Jung, C.G., Collected Works Vol. 8– ‘Synchronicity’ P448

10. Koran, Al, Bring Out The Magic in Your Mind, A. Thomas, 1964.

11. ibid

12 Mark 11: 24.