At first glance, it would not appear as if there would be any obvious connection between self-help books and the occult, but the connection is one that is commonly made by those who study the history of various hermetic thinkers, especially in their modern guise. As someone who reads and reviews self-help books on a regular basis it is striking just how often I notice the same sort of mistakes being made in terms of the assumptions that are part of self-help books in terms of matters like laws of success or various “secrets” that ensure success by inducing the universe to work in someone’s favor. It is tempted to dismiss such magical thinking without commentary, but this sort of thinking is so common that it requires some sort of commentary, and I think it is worthwhile to at least do so briefly to give people a sense of what sort of assumptions in self-help books connect their thinking to the occult.
As I noted earlier, one of the most important aspects that connects self-help literature to the occult is the belief that there are secret laws of success in the universe that guarantee that someone will do well. This is something different than the belief in moral laws that will lead to a better life in the world to come, but rather a belief that engaging in certain kinds of action can guarantee success here and now. And it is that belief in guarantees rather than having an understanding that divine providence may not allow for success for other reasons that do not have anything to do with supposed laws or secrets of success. God is not bound to help us succeed individually if we act a certain way. Believers can, and often do, receive blessings for a good life lived well, but this cannot be taken for granted or assumed because it may not be the case.
There are other occult aspects that come along with self-help too, and that is the connection between the assumptions of self-help and gnostic spirituality. Self-help books assume that the individual can (and should) be their own guide to success, despite the fact that we are often among the biggest barriers to our success. The apparent contradiction between the self as a barrier to success and the self as the cause of success (most self-help books are not keen on showing gratitude to God) is resolved by the belief that there is a “best person” inside someone that has a divine spark that is capable of overcoming the barriers of timidity, perfectionism, past mistakes and resulting shame and guilt, and the barriers of heredity and environmental effects. Indeed, self-help books often proclaim that the individual has a godlike ability to overcome barriers and draw on internal strength to succeed.
These narratives do something notable, and that is flatter the reader. In some respect, many genres attempt to flatter their reader, but in self-help books there is the general assumption that someone reading the book is going to be successful because the interest in success is enough to make one successful. This is an understandable error, since the self-help writer considers the location of success to be internal, hence if someone demonstrates the will to succeed they will of course succeed because the internal will of the person is all that matters to make reality in one’s own image. This is often connected to a dualistic worldview where mind and spirit are good and where the flesh and the physical brain is something to be ashamed of, especially because of the biases towards the negative that the brain often has, which contradicts the bias towards optimism that self-help writers and thinkers have.
Let us briefly summarize aspects of self-help that make it an occult enterprise. For one, self-help gurus promote laws of success that are supposed to induce the universe to be favorable to what one wills, and promote a worldview that does not recognize the power of God to thwart our own will if it contradicts His own. While for self-help gurus failure and trouble and suffering are something to avoid, for God they may be ways for people to develop virtue for eternity, a far more valuable payoff than empty success here and now. In addition, self-help gurus tend to neglect the importance of outside effects in general and seek to flatter people by promoting selfish ambition and personal autonomy while disregarding duties and obligations to others, with a focus on positive attitude to the exclusion of other approaches. Finally, these errors are related to a dualistic worldview that seeks to denigrate the physical creation that we have received from God in exchange for talking up our supposedly godlike powers of self-creation through the power of the mind and spirit. All of these factors make self-help books an occult project that encourages followers to seek their own personal godlike power while downplaying the moral realities of the universe as well as aspects of the world to come as well as external judgment for the way that we live our lives.