I am slowly working my way through the classics of New Thought, and have just finished what is probably the grandaddy of them all, Ralph Waldo Trine's 1897 In Tune With the Infinite.
In Tune With the Infinite is one of those books that you see referenced everywhere. Quotes from it regularly start chapters of New Thought books, and Trine's name is invoked even now in all kinds of self-help books. In Tune With the Infinite was motor magnate Henry Ford's favourite book of all time, and he gave copies of it to all of his executives, insisting they read it. Ernest Holmes, founder of the Church of Religious Science, was great fan of Trine's work, and to date In Tuune With the Infinite has sold over 2 million copies.
That said, it is not an easy book to read. Written in the slightly flowery language of its day, In Tune With the Infinite probably deserves some more careful re-reading to get past its stylistic failings. And yes, I acknowledge that it's foolish to criticise an author for conforming to the literary conventions of his day, just because expectations are different now. I just feel I should warn prospective readers that an amount of patience is needed when reading the book. Though not long, it is packed with ideas, and really is in many ways the sourcebook of New Thought teaching.
Trine was s tudent of world religions, and one thing that really does shine through the book is his deep indebtitude to the ideas of the Eastern faiths, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. In many ways In Tune With the Infinite is a reworking of the doctrine of karma, rendering it in a more theistic way and making the idea more palatable to a Western mind trained in conventional Christian ideas.
And like most New Thought writers of the time (and since), Trine was keen to emphasise that he was not advocating a new religion or a new set of dogmas and fanciful supernatural ideas. He advocated rationality in the face of the mystical, and the book is surprisingly free of the overtly devotional language that one encounters when reading Charles Fillmore or any of the later New Thought writers. He saw the new attitude as one of science and reason yoked to a spiritual vision based on quite a sophisticated understanidng of God and the universe:
"Reason is not to be set aside, but it is to be continually illumined by this higher spiritual perception, and in the degree that it is thus illumined will it become an agent of light and power."
An advocate of science and reason, Trine could also see the dangers of a more thourough materialism, and wanted his readers to negotiate a western Middle Way between the two. And while convinced of the infinite possibilities of the human mind, he was also no advocate of magical thinking. Like his more stolid Victorian forebears, people such as Samuel Smiles, he endorsed hard work as the very best way to ensure happiness, prosperity and good fortune.
Self-help critic Micki McGee suggests that Trine's work popularised the transcendentalism of his namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, and melded it with a more materialist philosophy, the fusion becoming the very essence of New Thought.
"Thoughts are forces, subtle, vital, creative, continually building and shaping our lives according to their nature" says Trine, setting out clearly what would become the ultimate trope of self-help writing until the present day - the notion that our material reality is a product of our own thinking. As problematic an assertion as that is, it is one that carried (and continues to carry) an immense cultural power, and Trine's influence on the modern imagination and concepton of the self has been greatly undervalued.