Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is often attributed to the famous philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:
What you are comes to you.
Some adherents of “New Thought” and “New Age” belief systems view this as a spiritual law. This saying reminded me of the quasi-mystical book “The Secret”. However, I have not found this sentence in Emerson’s essays. Could you examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: QI has not located this quotation in the works of Emerson, and QI hypothesizes that the ascription to Emerson emerged from a misreading of a passage by the best-selling writer Norman Vincent Peale who was a minister and proponent of “Positive Thinking”.
In Peale’s 1967 book “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference” he included a section about a psychological strategy he labeled the “‘As If’ Principle” which was summarized with the following quotation: 1
“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
Peale recounted an anecdote in which an apathetic baseball player started to play as if he were enthusiastic. The athlete’s energy and vitality led to success and admiration, and these positive developments generated genuine enthusiasm.
Peale ended the section with a discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson that included the quotation under investigation. But Peale did not claim that the short phrase “What you are comes to you” was from Emerson. In fact, the phrase was Peale’s and not Emerson’s. Peale was presenting his own summary analysis of Emerson’s perspective:
You too can activate yourself into enthusiasm by use of the “As if” principle. What you are comes to you. This remarkable principle is thus stated by Emerson, “A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like unto him wherever he goes.” So act as you want to be and you will be as you act.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson published a collection of essays which included “Essay IV: Spiritual Laws”. In the following passage Emerson depicted the choices made by individuals as fundamental constructors in the experiential character of the universe: 2
A man’s genius, the quality that differences him from every other, the susceptibility to one class of influences, the selection of what is fit for him, the rejection of what is unfit, determines for him the character of the universe. As a man thinketh, so is he, and as a man chooseth, so is he and so is nature. A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like to him, wherever he goes. He takes only his own, out of the multiplicity that sweeps and circles round him. He is like one of those booms which are set out from the shore on rivers to catch drift-wood, or like the loadstone amongst splinters of steel.
In 1920 Richard Ingalese published an edition of “The History and Power of Mind” which included the variant phrase: “What you demand comes to you”. In the preface Ingalese stated that his work presented “modern teachings of the Science of Mind” based on lectures he gave between 1900 and 1902 together with more recent material. The author suggested that a person should make a mental picture of the object or quality that he or she desired and demand it. Boldface has been added to text: 3
Get out of the old theological belief that because you are good God is going to give you a reward. Get out of the thought that you are a chosen child of God and that He is looking upon you with special favor. Get into the thought that you are a student of Occultism and that by working with mental law you are going to be able to make quick demonstrations and a better environment. Realize that you are using an immutable law and that what you demand comes to you because you are using a law and that nothing can prevent its coming that, God Himself cannot prevent it without violating His own nature—a thing inconceivable.
In 1967 Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book about cultivating enthusiasm as noted previously which included these words:
What you are comes to you. This remarkable principle is thus stated by Emerson, “A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like unto him wherever he goes.” So act as you want to be and you will be as you act.
The 2006 book “Behind the Mask of Religious Traditions” ascribed an instance of the quotation under examination to Emerson. The phrase was appended to an excerpt from Emerson’s 1841 essay: 4
A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle gathering his like unto him wherever he goes. What you are comes to you.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The same composite quotation was attributed to Emerson in a 2006 compilation titled “Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing”. 5
In conclusion, QI has located no substantive evidence that the quotation presented by the questioner was used by Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, the phrase was used by Norman Vincent Peale adjacent to an excerpt from an 1841 essay by Emerson. QI believes that the phrase was mistakenly reassigned directly to Emerson.
Image notes: Norman Vincent Peale photo from Library of Congress via Wikipedia. Ralph Waldo Emerson image from Library of Congress via Wikipedia. Secret Book cover from Wikipedia. See Wikipedia for additional usage notes.
(Special thanks to Caitlin Steuben whose email query gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1967, Enthusiasm Makes the Difference by Norman Vincent Peale, Page 20-22, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans of 1971 fourth printing) ↩
- 1841, Essays by R. W. Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Essay IV: Spiritual Laws, Start Page 107, Quote Page 117 and 118, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920, The History and Power of Mind by Richard Ingalese, Quote Page 301, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Canada. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 2006 Copyright, Behind the Mask of Religious Traditions: Your Guide to Discovering and Destroying Sacred Cows by Mark Briggs, Quote Page 63, Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2006, Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, Compiled and Edited by Larry Chang, Quote Page 103, Column 2, Gnosophia Publishers, Washington, DC. (Google Books Preview) ↩