The doer is merely a fiction added to the deed - the deed is everything.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
When your fate is in the hands of the gods, little human exertion is required. As Oedipus discovered, every effort to alter or elude your fate only helps to seal it. But what happens when there are no more gods? You can drift along, hoping to catch a favorable wind, or you can start paddling. The current thinking, at least in some circles, is that this is mainly a matter of mental exertion. "The outer world of circumstance shapes itself to the inner world of thought," wrote James Allen in As a Man Thinketh. "Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own fruitage of opportunity and circumstance."
Allen is usually associated with the New Thought movement, which was driven by a set of religious and philosophical beliefs based on the premise you can become master of your fate by mastering your own thoughts. Although the movement is regarded as a distinctly American phenomenon, one of its early exemplars was a 19th-century French pharmacist named Emile Coué, who taught a simple autosuggestion technique in which people were instructed to repeat the catch-phrase, "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." W. Clement Stone and Napolean Hill incorporated this technique into their book entitled Success Through Positive Mental Attitude. "Your brain sends out energy in the form of brain waves," they wrote. "And this energy is power which can affect another person or object."
Perhaps the best-known work in this genre is Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, published in the 1950s. Similar ideas were more recently disseminated over the airwaves by televangelist Robert Schuller and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, as well as by a variety of hucksters on late-night TV infomercials. All identify a few basic metaphysical principles that can he harnessed to gain mastery over one's life, resulting in greater health, wealth and well-being. Most teach techniques that involve repeated affirmations or vividly picturing favorable outcomes until vision becomes reality.
Positive thinking, by whatever name, can be readily dismissed as wish-fulfillment or witchcraft, depending on how you look at it. Voltaire, who lampooned the relentless optimism of Dr. Pangloss in Candide, would have made short work of it had he been born a century or two later. Pangloss would lurch from one misadventure to the next, mindlessly trilling his mantra, "All things for the best in the best of all possible worlds." A dizzying succession of earthquakes, wars and executions fail to shake his cheery philosophical resolve, leading any sane onlooker to wonder how much worse things could possibly be in the worst of all possible worlds.
Although easily ridiculed, the apparent congruence between thought and circumstance is so broadly recognized by so many that it is impossible to ignore. The mistake comes in assuming a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the two, which applies a model based on classical physics to a quantum universe. We imagine some sort of mental force that operates at a distance on discrete objects in space. In reality, the process works more like a dream in which the thought and its manifestation are the same. One searches in vain for a dreamer apart from the dream. As long as we are immersed in this dream, we are beguiled by a world that appears at times to be magically responsive to our thoughts. Only when we wake up do we discover that the person we thought we were in our dream is just another thought manifesting itself.