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One of the things that fascinates me, and which I write about in my book, is whether and how we can turn ancient philosophy into a way of life today, and whether we can make this way of life the foundation of a community, movement or even a religion. It’s a question that Alain De Botton has also recently asked, in his book A Religion for Atheists.

There are risks to this attempt to turning philosophy into an ideology or a religion , as I explore in my book. We know all too well how religions can degenerate: through the human lusts for power, money and sex. Well, these abuses can all happen to philosophical and personal transformation movements as well.
What I want to look at today is 20th century self-help, and how it took some basic principles from ancient philosophy, and turned them into something new and strange…and very close to a religion.
Our story begins with Dale Carnagey, an unemployed failed actor, living in the YMCA on 125th street New York, who one day convinced the manager of the YMCA to let him hold a self-help seminar. It went well, and Carnegay started to re-invent himself as a success guru (he changed his name to Carnegie, which sounded much more successful). He distilled his tips on success into his 1936 bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. In that book, Carnegie tells us about ‘eight words that can transform your life’. They are: ‘Life itself is but what you deem it’, which as you may know is a quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Carnegie uses the Stoics’ idea that you can change your world by changing your attitudes as the foundation for his can-do philosophy. But he ties it to a capitalist and sales-driven value system. He thought we should transform ourselves not in the service of God, but in the service of the Dollar – or rather, in the service of our careers. Self-improvement was inextricably tied to financial self-advancement. The proof of your advancement would not be inner peace, as it was in ancient Greek philosophy, but external wealth and corporate promotion.
Carnegie didn’t just spread the word through his bestselling book. He also held seminars, up and down the country, through an organisation called Dale Carnegie Training. These seminars had a huge influence on later self-help gurus, including L. Ron Hubbard and Werner Erhard. Sadly, there’s no footage of Carnegie teaching available on YouTube, but you can see the testimony of one former student, Warren Buffet, talking about how he got over his shyness after attending one of Carnegie’s seminars, on his journey to becoming the world’s richest man.
In the 1970s, the ‘human potential movement’, which included figures like Werner Erhard, L. Ron Hubbard and Anthony Robbins, embraced Carnegie’s book-and-seminars format, and took it to the next level, creating mass coaching sessions that were intense, emotional, and very like an evangelical church experience.
Below, for example, is a video of Werner Erhard, the inventor of erhard seminars training (est), which was a huge success in the 1970s and 1980s. Erhard (his real name is Jake Rosenberg – like Carnegie he reinvented himself) would hold sessions with as many as a thousand people crammed into a hotel conference centre to achieve ‘personal breakthroughs’. The participants would stand up, one by one, and share their problems in front of the entire audience. Then Erhard would rip their ‘racket’ apart, showing them, brutally, the difference between reality and their ‘story’ about reality, in order to guide them into a ‘new realm of possibility’.
Erhard Seminar Training was a sort of shock Socratic philosophy, but with all moral values emptied out. You wouldn’t learn to be ‘good’ or anything like that, you would learn to be ‘effective’, ‘efficient’, to achieve whatever it was you wanted to achieve – money, sex, whatever. So in a way, as Erhard said, est didn’t teach people anything. It had no dogma, no values, no creed – a perfect ‘religion for atheists’.
Or rather, a perfect ‘religion for capitalists’. Erhard’s ‘value-less religion’ was perfectly suited to late capitalism. It was a conveyer belt creating the technocrat-manager that Max Weber dreamed of, who has no ethics or values, only efficiency, rationality and technology. Such an amoral Nietzchean technocrat is perfectly adapted to the modern corporation (and indeed est became very popular with corporations like Lockheed or Monsanto, who would send their managers to its courses). They are efficient, capable, and they don’t let anything soggy like ‘pity’ get in the way of making the rational capitalist decision.
est was itself an incredibly capitalist organisation. A great emphasis was put on ‘enrolling’ others in your breakthrough. It was a sort of pyramid scheme: to get the benefit of the process, you must sign others up to the organisation.
Then there’s Anthony Robbins, who ramped up the mass coaching techniques of Dale Carnegie to even greater heights of intensity, emotion and spectacle. Have a look at one of his events, which he does week-in, week-out all over the world. Notice how close it is to a ‘mega-church’ event: the breakthroughs, the epiphanies, the tears, the hallelujahs. Again, it’s a strange blend of spirituality and business coaching. Notice in the video how one of the interviewees mentions she’s been promoted since attending a seminar. Awaken the giant! Move up the managerial pecking order! Close the sale!
Or look at this seminar by Zig Ziglar, in some ways the modern Dale Carnegie. I came across a Zig Ziglar audio course in the public library when I was really depressed, back in 2001. I thought it was the most awful thing I’d ever heard. As with Carnegie, it used the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy, but all in the service of the dollar, making you the best salesperson you could possibly be. ‘We’re all in the business of selling’, Ziglar tells his rapt audience.

But now, when I watch it, I see that the old man has some sensible things to say, that he’s probably helping his audience, teaching them how to take a ‘positive attitude’ and so forth. I just wish there was some hint that there is a world beyond the market, that life is not just about hitting your sales target. It’s another ‘religion for capitalists’: Zig is the priest, standing in front of his own religious symbol – the Z made to look like a dollar symbol – preaching his own gospel of self-advancement. And after a seminar, you will be reprogrammed. You will love your job, you will love capitalism, you will go out there and make that sale. You will be a winner.
I think Tom Cruise is a really interesting figure in the self-help movement. Jerry Maguire, for my money his best film, is in some ways a film about self-help. Jerry is a salesman, he has an epiphany, he remembers the cheesy self-help slogans of his Carnegie-esque mentor, and he changes his business plan and his life plan. And he gets it all – the quon – more success, more love. On the other hand, Cruise explores the dark side of the self-help scene in Magnolia, where he plays a Nietzchean ‘seduction guru’, who appears on stage to the sound of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Seduction gurus are a whole other part of the self-help scene which I don’t want to get into here. But, very briefly, they also are Weberian value-less technocrats. They don’t teach their devotees any values. They teach techniques (hypnotism, self-affirmation, NLP, behaviouralism) to achieve the capitalist end of maximising your sexual capital.
And of course, Cruise is himself an acolyte of the weirdest and most successful self-help religion of all: Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard invented what is in many ways a form of mass coaching similar to est, Carnegie Training or Anthony Robbins’ thing. At its heart is the same Stoic idea that you can change your reality by changing your attitudes. But he took it one step further. Fuck it, he thought, why not invent a religion. So he took various crazy ideas from his science fiction books, and created a new religion – partly, I think, for tax reasons, because religions don’t have to pay tax. I don’t think he really expected his followers to believe all the stuff he came up with. But they did. They completely bought it. And so now we have millions of people believing in Xenu, level VII thetans, and all that stuff.
Anyway, what I wanted to show in this post was how self-help took some basic ideas from ancient philosophy, and turned them into a movement and a mass coaching experience that looks very like a religion. For millions of people, this has been an incredibly useful phenomenon. It has given them the techniques to become more effective, more efficient, to achieve personal breakthroughs. It has done this, often, without requiring them to sign up to any particular dogma.
Yet the result has often been strange and unsettling. From the value-less instrumentalism and personality cult of erhard seminar training, to the cult of the salesman in Zig Ziglar; from the charismatic emotion-fests of Anthony Robbins, to the aliens and dianetics machines of L. Ron Hubbard. These are religions for capitalists – they provide epiphanies and communities of a sort. But if you want to stay in the community, you have to keep paying, keep signing up for new courses, new breakthroughs, new emotional hits.
And the often relentless promotion of the guru in self-help makes me uneasy too: look in the Tony Robbins video above, for example, at how Robbins ties himself to any world leader or reputable organisation that he can. The video opens with shots of him next to Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan…but it doesn’t tell us if any of them actually agree to any of Robbins’ ideas. It all speeds past in a rapid sales pitch. Whatever happened to the humble, self-effacing guru – the Yoda figure, who turns students away, who hides their wisdom? I guess that’s not a very good marketing strategy. In the self-help market, it’s about he who shouts loudest.
Religions tap into some of the deepest, and darkest, parts of the human psyche: our yearning for transcendence, our desire to obey and follow a leader. You can take God out of that equation, easily enough, and still create something that people will flock to in their thousands. You can even take moral values of the equation. But you can’t remove human irrationalism. You can’t take out the desire for mindless obedience and conformism in many humans. And you can’t take out the lust for power, sex and money in leaders.
So, if you want to start up your own movement, you need to build in mechanisms to protect your movement from the abuses and excesses that religions are liable to: financial abuses, sexual abuses, and excessive veneration for a charismatic leader. I personally think the ‘religion’ that has done that most successfully in modern times is Alcoholics Anonymous, which I write about here.