There used to be a bookstore in the same plaza as my local movie theater. So I’d arrive early to buy a movie ticket and spend an hour browsing the books before seeing the movie. It was the perfect combination.
The bookstore closed shop at that location and reopened in a nearby mall. Visiting the new location, I noticed a drastic change in the layout. Half of the bookstore was devoted to a bright and airy Self-Help section, while the other sections, including philosophy, religion, history, and politics were crammed into the other half of the store and had poor lighting. The philosophy bookshelves were literally in darkness because the overhead lights were sparse and they provided weak illumination.
Of course the new layout was an economic decision. Self-help books are top sellers and the many women who seem to buy books at the store rather than online are attracted by the home decoration items and knickknacks for sale which are sprinkled around the books about business-friendly spirituality and how to unlock your superhuman mental powers.
But why in the first place is the self-help industry more popular than, say, philosophy? Both disciplines address the same big issues of the nature of reality and knowledge and what should be done about it all, but the bookstore gives philosophy short shrift.
Likewise, you might be intrigued to learn that the “philosophy” tag in Medium currently has 53K posts associated with it, whereas “self-improvement” has 197K. By that metric, self-improvement as a subject is roughly four times as popular as philosophy on Medium.
Of course, philosophy took itself out of the mass market by becoming too dry, academic, and overcomplicated to hold most people’s attention. But that would mean philosophy books and philosophical Medium articles, for example, are considered guilty by association with the hieroglyphics of the philosophy journals. The philosophical works you find in mass culture are written to be popular. So why aren’t popular science books shunned with the same relish as philosophy ones? Both science and philosophy have at their cores academic journals that would be indecipherable to the average reader.
Neoliberalism and the Law of Attraction
Let’s focus for a moment on self-help writings. What in general are they about? The name of the genre says it all. Self-help books and lectures and support groups are meant to provide techniques for improving you as a person. Sounds great! Who wouldn’t want to improve themselves?
But let’s reflect on the subtext of that industry. It’s you who’s trying to help yourself, say, by reading a self-improvement article on Medium. You’re doing so by yourself and the goal isn’t to help society directly, but just yourself.
So you would be both the vehicle and the object or the target of that advancement. That is to say, you’re left to help yourself because society isn’t helping you much. The societies in which self-help thrives are individualistic, capitalistic, and neoliberal. This means the culture in which you explicitly seek out tools to improve yourself reduces all values to economic ones and presupposes the paradox that society prospers only when we prioritize ourselves even if doing so should come at the expense of many others — because we’re in an economic competition. That’s why the subject in question isn’t society-help, but self-help.
In such a society we fend for ourselves as a cost of our personal freedom. We’re free to succeed or to fail, so we’re encouraged to show initiative and to help ourselves. No one else is going to rescue us, because we’re on our own. Everyone’s looking out mainly for themselves, we compete in the marketplace of products, services, and ideas and the industrious succeed while the rest fail.
New Thought is Socially Darwinian and Pseudoscientific
That’s one of the major presuppositions of the self-help industry: neoliberalism. But self-help promoters have other presuppositions, one of which is especially illuminating in its contrast with philosophy. One of the key ingredients of self-help programs is the so-called “law of attraction,” which says that we get what we deserve depending on the contents of our thoughts. If you think positively, you tend to succeed, whereas if you think negatively you’ll attract unwelcome outcomes.
This “law” is part of the New Thought movement, which goes back to Mary Baker Eddy and to such all-time best-selling books as Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, and You can Heal Your Life. According to this quasi-religious movement, God is everywhere, mind is more real and powerful than matter, and we can get what we want mainly with the power of our mind. We can even heal our body just with positive thinking.
I can see why successful people especially would be drawn to this creed, because it flatters them. As they’d love to believe, wealthy people like Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump deserve all their riches and happiness because they earned it just by being themselves. They brought their wealth into being by summoning the right mindset and that’s all there is to how the world goes around.
Luck, for example, has nothing to do with it, because there’s no escape from God in this pantheistic worldview: everything happens for a reason and spiritual interpretations of events trump amoral or naturalistic ones. There can be no such thing as luck or as coincidence; meaning and moral value are everywhere, because the apparent godlessness of nature and matter is illusory. Everything happens as it ought to happen, because spiritual and moral laws matter more than scientific ones.
The majority who don’t become billionaires simply don’t want wealth badly enough. Likewise, poor countries shouldn’t blame a history of oppression for their woes, since the population has the divine mental power to transform their society, but the people evidently prefer to live in poverty.
Those are some of the social Darwinian implications of this allegedly spiritual way of thinking. Of course, the spiritual or moral “laws” in question such as the law of attraction are pseudoscientific and unfalsifiable, which is handy since as dubious as this worldview may seem, you can always say that deep down you get what you deserve, that perhaps your unconscious doubts are responsible for your failures.
New Thought is Totalitarian
But the reason the law of attraction and thus the self-help movement are appalling rather than just based on a series of falsehoods is that they’re totalitarian. Again, there’s no escape from the divine order, not even in the interim. In monotheism, by contrast, we can escape God’s justice at least for a while, since God isn’t identical with his created world. Ultimately, God catches up to us, but in the meantime we’re free to obey God or to go our own way, according to traditional monotheistic religions.
However, there’s no real freedom in New Thought and Self-Help. There’s no separation between self and world, because the material world is unreal. The outcomes are automatic and guaranteed, depending just on the contents of our thoughts and feelings. Our minds attract positive or negative experiences.
What this means is that detachment from the world is metaphysically impossible in New Thought. Thus, existential alienation from the world is also ruled out. Suppose you feel alienated, because you assume nature’s real, after all, which means your successes and failures ultimately don’t matter; the natural universe is indifferent to whether we live or die. Sometimes you curl up in bed and feel alone and crushed by the weight of your cosmic insignificance.
For New Thought and the self-help industry, there’s no such thing as being apart from the world. There’s just the foolishness of entertaining negative thoughts, including the wrongheaded fear that we don’t matter, and there’s the negative result of those thoughts. Your feelings of alienation from nature may cause you to fail in various ways; for example, your grimness may alienate others at a party, which exacerbates your loneliness. But there’s no real chasm between you and the world; on the contrary, you’re connected to the world by the law of attraction, which means you’re embedded in the environment you deserve, based on who you are as a person.
Instead of being thrown up pointlessly by a godless, indifferent cosmic wilderness, you enmesh yourself in situations that punish you because of your pessimism. Instead of being crushed by bad luck, amoral natural processes, or the logic of a cruel neoliberal marketplace, our failures and suffering come solely from us.
The law of attraction is thus solipsistic and totalitarian, because it’s a self-reinforcing delusion, which makes New Thought and Self-Improvement ideal for those who think of themselves mainly as consumers. After all, you might have noticed that the law of attraction has much in common with a specific experience, namely with that of being an infant.
New Thought is Infantilizing
When we’re infants, we’re cared for at all hours of the day. We smile and we’re encouraged by our parents who give us a loving embrace. We cry and we’re fed or our diaper’s changed, and all of this happens automatically (assuming we’re well cared for), as though there were no separation between us and our world. Of course, there’s no such separation, psychologically speaking, because at that age our world extends no further than ourselves and our guardians whom we identify with ourselves.
The law of attraction isn’t just totalitarian in precluding freedom from the world, the freedom to go our way which entails that the resulting alienation and despair aren’t deluded but revelatory, as in Nietzsche’s rhapsodizing about the death of God. No, this New Thought principle isn’t just totalitarian but infantilizing, as is consumerism, which is the culture of capitalism. As consumers we assume our chief pleasure in life is to be able to view an advertisement, push a button and receive the product we pay for, like the gluttonous far-future humans in the movie WALL-E. That’s what Amazon and Fox News and the internet are for, to embed us in the world we prefer so that we never have to feel confused or estranged.
The more infantilized our self-image, the less subversive we are and the less likely we’ll revolt even when faced with gross systemic injustices. The irony of the self-help industry, then, is that by following its principles we help ourselves to an infantile, regressive outlook. By favouring self-help over philosophy, we presume we ought to get what we deserve because we’re special spirits in the midst of God, like helpless babies in the arms of their mother.
To be sure, we can “improve” ourselves by thinking our little thoughts, by whining and shaking our rattle, and out will pop the experience and the opportunities we attract. In the limit case, if you want to cure your cancer, just think positively and that nasty cancer will go away because you’re such a special little guy and Mommy loves you that much.
The Bracing Air of Philosophy
Here, then, is the deeper reason why those who are enthralled by extractive capitalism prefer the pablum of Self-Help to the harsh wisdom of Western philosophy. That philosophical tradition goes back to the ancient Greeks, to the skepticism and subversion of Socrates and the naturalism of Lucretius, Aristotle, and the atomists. This tradition is science-friendly, mostly deistic or atheistic, and its humanism challenges us to a heroic reconciliation with existential truths that aren’t fit for children or for babyish consumers.
Nature’s indifference is real, God is nowhere, and reason liberates us from animal servitude and even from the economic cons of infantilization.
But who wants to hear that sobering message when we’re busy being consumers, surfing the net in our information bubbles, selfishly trashing the ecosystem while fretting over our trivial First World problems? Best to sop up that thin gruel fed to us by the self-help industry, to flatter the wealthy one percent of predators and parasites that reap the lion’s share of profits from our self-destructive economies and our fraudulent political systems.