James Allen (1864 – 1912), the pioneer of the self-help movement, is almost unknown today – no major reference book mentions his name, and not even the British Museum has much to say about him. Yet, his best known work, “As a Man Thinketh” has influenced motivational and self-help authors of his time and later, and he deserves his page on this website as well.
Allen was born in Leicester, England as the elder of two brothers. His father, a factory knitter, was hit by the downturn in the textile trade, so he traveled to America in 1879 to try and establish a new home to his family. Unfortunately, only two days after his arrival he was pronounced dead in the NYC Hospital, probably due to a robbery.
So, at the age of 15, Allen had to quit school and find work. He was working as a private secretary for several British manufacturers for the most of the 1890s.
In 1893 he moved to London, where he met his future wife Lily Luisa Oram.
In 1901 Allen published his first book, “From Powerty to Power”, and soon after that he moved to Ilfracombe, on England’s southwest coast. In 1902 he started his own magazine, The Light of Reason, later retitled The Epoch. It was also in 1902 that he published his most famous book, “As a Man Thinketh”, which, despite of the fact that its audience was minor, allowed him to quit his secretarial work and to devote all his time to writing.
Allen was actually quite dissatisfied with this work, and published it only after his wife had persuaded him to do so. Yet, it was this book that brought him posthumous fame and the title of a pioneer figure of modern self help and inspirational thought.
Inspired by Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, Allen strove to a life of voluntary poverty, ascetic self-discipline and manual labor. His desire was to improve himself, to master all of the virtues and to be happy, and his usual day in Ilfracombe looked like this: after a pre-dawn walk and an hour of meditation on the Cairn, a stony spot on the hillside overlooking his home and the sea, he would spend the morning writing. The pastime he enjoyed, gardening, occupied his afternoons, and his evenings were devoted to the conversations with those interested in his work.
Until his death in 1912, Allen wrote more than one book per year, while continuing to publish The Epoch. After his death, his wife continued publishing the magazine.
Teaching and Philosophy
Allen’s philosophy was influenced by liberal Protestantism and Buddhism. Before liberal Protestantism, the stern dogma that the man is sinful by nature would make Allen’s work impossible – instead, that dogma was substituted with an optimistic belief in man’s innate goodness and divine rationality. Add to that the words of Buddha that “All that we are is the result of what we have thought”, and the source of James Allen’s teachings becomes more clear.
He insists that a man has the power to create his own happiness and to to form his own character: “A noble and god-like character is not a thing of favor or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the effect of long-cherished association with god-like thoughts. An ignoble and bestial character by the same process is the result of the continued harboring of groveling thoughts. Man is made or unmade by himself.”
Allen explains how a thought, cherished for a long time, finally gains enough strength to attract, manifest the opportunity to ripen itself in action. The source of all temptation is the inner desire, and a “wise man” will never fight against outward allurements – he will simply abandon the desire for them, thus removing them from his thoughts. And the man who masters his thoughts will rise superior to circumstances.
James Allen has written twenty two books, some of them posthumously published by his wife Lily:
- Above Life’s Turmoil (1910)
- All These Things Added (includes: Entering the Kingdom and The Heavenly Life)
- As a Man Thinketh
- Byways to Blessedness
- The Divine Companion
- Eight Pillars of Prosperity
- Foundation Stones to Happiness and Success
- From Passion to Peace
- The Life Triumphant
- Light on Life’s Difficulties
- Man: King of Mind, Body and Circumstance
- Men and Systems
- The master of Destiny
- Meditations, A Year Book
- Morning and Evening Thoughts
- Out From the Heart
- Poems of Peace
- From Poverty to Power
- The Path to Prosperity
- The Way of Peace
- The Shining Gateway
- Through the Gates of Good; or, Christ and Conduct
The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.
A person is limited only by the thoughts that he chooses.
Do not dwell upon the sins and mistakes of yesterday so exclusively as to have no energy and mind left for living rightly today, and do not think that the sins of yesterday can prevent you from living purely today.
Good thoughts and actions can never produce bad results; bad thoughts and actions can never produce good results … We understand this law in the natural world, and work with it; but few understand it in the mental and moral world—although its operation there is just as simple and undeviating— and they, therefore, do not cooperate with it.
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