There are few books with which I have had more difficulty in getting through than A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. It was not the density of his prose, my inability to grasp what was being written but that I was constantly writing critical comments in the margins next to absurd propositions conceived of as esoteric nuggets of wisdom and my constant state of surprise at the logical leaps that he made, not to mention it’s lack of academic rigor. While adherence to generally standardized regulations for intellectual compositions aren’t something most people use when making value judgements about what they are reading, especially in the realm of popular literature, caring more for the “feelings” it gives them instead, it is worth noting those objections in order to better ascertain the validity of Tolle’s position.
There are a total of thirty citations found in the Notes section of A New Earth and of these there are a total of twelve different texts. 19 of them are from the New Testament, two are from Shakespeare, and there is one each from works by Hafiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Lao Tzu, one of the Upanishads, A Course In Miracles, a New York Times article and a statistic for the U.S. Department of Justice. While it is common to relate one’s own positions to the literature which came before it in order to show knowledge and mastery of material – we see here that Tolle doesn’t do this and that one of the intellectually troubling aspects of the book is in its use of other people’s perspectives to justify his own position when they fundamentally disagree with him.
One such example of this occurs on page 235, where Tolle quotes Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “For happiness, how little suffices for happiness! … the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a whisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.” Just as there are lies, dirty lies and statistics – any person who has been trained with high standards of academic discipline will tell you that it is quite easy to misrepresent someone by decontextualizing a quote. This Tolle does by saying that this is evidence that Nietzsche, a seminal authority on human thought as the forefather of depth psychology, justifies his position that it is the simplest things in life, like nature, which lead to the greatest happiness.
For one, there is the explicit claim that a character through which Nietzsche used to clarify some of his own positions, Zarathustra, is in fact Nietzsche himself. As a variation of the bildungsroman and as other scholars working of Nietzsche’s oeuvre have noted, it is clear that all that Zarathustra says is in fact not meant to indicate Nietzsche’s final position as it evolves over the course of his life any more than we are to take Werther to be Goethe, or Kierkegaard to be any of his many pen names. This is not to say that Nietzsche did not use Zarathustra as a mouthpiece for some of his ideas, but Nietzsche’s use of irony and writing style defies any such cut and paste hermeneutics. We able to discern this not just through Tolle’s misattribution of who spoke the text but by looking further in his work to see if the two actually share the same notion of happiness.
It is widely noted by Nietzsche scholars that as a result of his philosophical and psychological investigations he did not propound that the type of “happiness” which Tolle describes (and ascribes to Nietzsche) was the ideal to which human being do or ought to aspire. As noted Nietzsche scholar and translator Walter Kauffman puts it in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, in a statement that seems almost to anticipate Tolle’s misreading: “Every pleasurable sensation, however trivial – the smell of a flower or the taste of cold water – is valued for his own sake. The indefinite addition of such pleasures, however, does not make for happiness…” (Kauffman 279). The dissonance between their notions of happiness is not unique and there are many other points of departure.
In addition to this quote used by Tolle, there is other evidence of his misprision of Nietzsche as a supporter of the “inner space” happiness that Tolle claims is a state to which people should aspire. Shortly following this quotation, Tolle writes that people should focus just on the “being conscious” and “add nothing to it” so that all of the physical attributes fall away and you thus connect to the “spacious womb of creation (Tolle 236). While Nietzsche recognized that one could attempt to negate oneself though such a practice, he felt that doing so was not a sign of spiritual strength but of weakness. Tolle wants to negate conflict and drama, whereas Nietzsche sees these as the human, all to human qualities which can lead people to greatness and self-overcoming. The areas of divergence between the two are myriad, yet the reader uninformed of them reads not of it and thus assumes that the two are in agreement on this point. Unfortunately Nietzsche is not alone in receiving this type of aggressive misreading that Tolle imposes on them in order to justify positions that is fundamentally at odds with their own work.
While I’ll not speak on behalf of Tolle’s biblical scholarship, suffice it to say it’s worth noting that Richard Abanes published A New Earth, An Old Deception: Awakening to the Dangers of Eckhart Tolle’s #1 Bestseller in order to delineate Tolle’s perceived misuse of the Bible. While I’m not qualified to comment on it as Biblical exegesis is not my specialty nor have I read Abanes’ criticism, something that does strike me is his use of Jean Paul-Sartre. Before I speak on this, however, I must contextualize A New Earth so that I don’t give Tolle the same foul treatment that he gives others.
If one looks to find examples of human history on earth in A New Earth, one will find a dearth of them. Discussions on history and social policy are almost staggeringly absent. Tolle claims that because the Now doesn’t have any history it’s not necessary. I would provide the counter-interpretation that as Tolle simply doesn’t know much history, he de-emphasizes it to the point of insignificance. What replaces the struggles for social, racial, ethnic and economic justice are instead comments stating that once enough people get in touch with their inner space and find purpose everything just “gets better”. Be Scotfield’s article Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us at Tikkun presents a number of insightful criticisms on Tolle’s model of social and political change that are worth reading. While Scotfield’s incisive comments focus on a small number of the many errors he makes, he is quiet on the points where Tolle addresses what he cites as an alternative to his own conception of how to bring about a better world: socialist politics.
In the few historical descriptions Tolle writes in a New Earth, no other class of people receive the same sort of haughty disdain as Socialists and Communists. On page thirteen Tolle writes: “The history of Communism, originally inspired by noble ideas, clearly illustrates what happens when people attempt to change external reality – create a new earth – without any of the prior change in their inner reality, their state of consciousness. They make plans without taking into account the blueprint for dysfunction that every human being carries within: the ego.” Tolle later goes on to cite Pol Pot and Stalin, two figures renowned for the blood they’ve shed, as examples of applied Marxism and thus evidence of it’s ideological paucity. While no apologist for either of these figures, no historian who has been presented with the evidence would claim that their actions was simply a result of ideas in their head. As it unfolds, for Tolle, Marxism, socialism, communism is just a “materialist” straw man with which to counterpose his amorphous, “spiritualist” enterprise.
Now how does all of this relate to Jean Paul-Sartre? Quite simply, he was an anti-imperialist, reconstructed Marxist. Sartre wrote extensively on how his entire existentialist project was but an offshoot of Marxist models of historical materialism and stood in opposition to the violent excesses of Stalin. Tolle uses another decontextualized and unattributed quote by Sartre to deconstruct Cartesian dualism. However after doing so he then does away with “Sartre’s Insight” a few lines later by claiming that Sartre was unable to perceive the awareness of awareness. He does this to buttress aspects of his intellectual edifice, if one could even look beyond it’s shoddiness and call it that, by saying that following this there is a “new dimension of consciousness which is “awareness of that awareness”, the “egoic mind” defined as it is by a “pain-body”.
Unfortunately, I do not have all of my personal library with me at the moment to pull quotes from Sartre or about him to prove that such a reading of Sartre is false.
Suffice it to say Sartre’s range of concepts, being in an intellectual tradition which includes Marx and Hegel, certainly includes alienation, perspectivism, individual and social consciousness, resentment, different levels of abstraction, etc. In fact not only did they recognize such aspects of the human condition, but they did so while maintaining a position that was deeply at odds with Tolle, thus disallowing any grace to Tolle for his misrepresentation of Sartre due to their valences being different. Where Tolle reifies space and nothingness as the ideal inner state to direct one’s being as according to him it is the only one that brings peace, the philosophy of historical materialist seeks to instrumentalize individual and collective historical agency to bring conflict to a state of peace.
Tolle says people suffer because their “pain-body” sustains injuries due to it’s identifications with the body or ideas at the level of personal experiences or inherited narratives, whereas materialists say that they sustain injuries due to limited access to affordable health care, genocidal policies to dispossess people of their tribal lands and capitalist social relations, etc. As I said before, Scotfield’s article goes into some criticism of this so I won’t repeat them here.
What I will say is that for the above reasons I believe it’s important for readers of Tolle to be aware of his intellectual heritage. His year of graduate studies at Cambridge University was in Latin American literature and what research I have been able to garnish from online articles his emphasis is on ancient and medieval spiritual leaders and mystics. As is clear from the above quotes that I’ve analyzed, if he is familiar with post-enlightenment philosophies, it is only tangentially so and his understanding of them is not just weak but fundamentally wrong. This of course begs the questions as to why it is he would avoid such people considering the giant leaps in human consciousness and experience that have occurred since then. If forced to make an estimation why this is so, and why it is that so many people have taken to Tolle’s A New Earth is not because they want to better know themselves, but as they want to avoid knowing themselves too well for according to Tolle, peace is preferable to drama.