His Strange Confession: Self-help, natural philosophy, and what Napoleon Hill learned from the devil
The good man went into his chapel then to fetch a book and a stole which he put around his neck, and on his return he set about conjuring the Enemy. He had been reading the invocation for some while, when he looked up and saw the Enemy before him in such a hideous guise that the stoutest of hearts would have quailed at the sight of him.
“Thou dost plague me cruelly,” said the Enemy. “Here I am now. What is thy business?”
— from The Quest for the Holy Grail (13th Century – Anonymous)
Anomalous phenomena require grounding in an everyday plot. The transitional matrix of experience, from expected to unknown, from known to unexpected, acts as a conduit between material truth and imaginal construct. From UFOs set against the lull of rural life to small town stories of spirits and cryptids, anomaly outlines itself against a mundane background.
A potent confluence of the real and the imagined is found in some of the best examples of classic ghost stories from the more masterful littérateurs of speculative fiction. Storytellers such as Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, and Rudyard Kipling each mixed their personal experiences, and also stories they heard told as truth while traveling abroad or mingling in society, into select short fiction, thus creating works of fiction that, if they were retold as fact, would cause some to question the sanity of the teller.
Then there are authors Charles Leland, William Seabrook, and John Keel: poetic entrepreneurs playing journalist in the nightside of nature, in whose works the boundary lines are thrown out altogether. For these writers, the separation between autobiography and imaginal exposition is absorbed into a holistic vision of high strangeness that is often as weird and otherworldly as the best of Blackwood while being struck through with zigzag currents and unconventionally mundane angles that open up an entirely different atmosphere. These stories are told with a straight face, a wink, and a great deal of crafting, but all separation between fact and fiction is made ignoble by the refusal of the storyteller to do anything but recollect the story. Much of the skill in such a story lies in the author’s seemingly affectless manner of presenting what he heard and saw, with the author locating himself as a mere transitional device that leaves a core of the event untouched.
Leland, Seabrook, and Keel all began as journalists, pursuing crooked career paths in which their professional training was an enhancing element in their work rather than a prime focus. Their jobs in journalism brought them in contact with a wide variety of people on odd assignments, and their willingness to listen allowed them to assemble stories that would have otherwise slipped into the anima mundi uncollected. In all cases the market played an eager hand in shaping the nature of the story in its final form. Literate ghost stories are carefully crafted pastorals, genteel corruptions of the vulgar imagination, whereas poetic journalists hard at the hunt fall victim to the borderland’s subtle snares, reporting back with will o’ the wisp whispers and hints of possibility.
The creative act is a complex interplay of accident and intention. For those who experience the aftermath, this is captured in obscure hints and hidden depths which emanate subtly from the resulting creation. For the creator, this interplay consists in an acceptance of immersion whose ultimate integrity exists in a willing acquiescence to the hungry mouth of the muse.
Perhaps you will get the greatest values if you accept the Devil as being what he claims himself to be, relying upon his message for whatever it may bring you that you can use, and not worrying as to who the Devil is or whether he exists.
If you want my honest personal opinion, I believe the Devil is exactly who he claims to be. Now let us analyze his strange confession.
– from Outwitting the Devil, Napoleon Hill (written 1938, first published 2011)
In 1938, after publishing Think and Grow Rich, the seminal self-help book that has maintained a top position on Businessweek’s best seller list for nearly 80 years, Napoleon Hill produced another book that proved too controversial to release. There are few things more outwardly mundane than the everyday machinations of the American corporate world, and yet at its mythical heart lies the same congruence of anomaly and unassuming facade that informed the work of a Keel or a Seabrook. And Hill’s unpublishable story is in fact an archetypal tale of a crossroads meeting with the devil himself.
Some posit that much of the fear about publishing Outwitting the Devil was due to the involvement of Hill’s wife in the Presbyterian church. Considering the direct manner in which he approaches his subject, this is unsurprising. He said Think and Grow Rich was created after he interviewed a host of successful entrepreneurs and business owners. Outwitting the Devil, however, sourced itself from an interview of a different sort. While many have found C.S. Lewis’s explorations of the diabolical realm in The Screwtape Letters a source of inspiration, Lewis’s well-known penchant for fiction allowed his book of infernal epistles to dance around any speculations about a possible literal reality that might stand behind them. By contrast, Hill’s encounter with the devil is not so easy to place or dismiss, nor does he even try to.
“Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy,
I’ve finished Law and Medicine,
And sadly even Theology:
Taken fierce pains, from end to end.
Now here I am, a fool for sure!
No wiser than I was before:
Master, Doctor’s what they call me,
And I’ve been ten years, already,
Crosswise, arcing, to and fro,
Leading my students by the nose,
And see that we can know — nothing!”
— Faust, Act 1, Scene 1 (Lines 355-364), Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, trans. A.S. Kline
Hill’s story begins with his skipping town in Ohio, having become involved in a dispute between a local newspaper editor and corrupt town officials that left the editor dead. Eventually, he finds himself holed up in West Virginia with a pistol and a heavy case of paranoia, at a loss for what to do or where to go next. This is Hill’s dark night of the soul, and, in a strange Faustian twist, what he recounts next doesn’t quite mesh with the two-dimensional facade of positive thinking that has emerged around his name and memory in recent years.
In hiding and on the run, Hill takes a deep look at what he has been propagating with his success seminars, and he realizes that, if measured against his own teaching, he wouldn’t consider himself successful. Under pressure, this small crack in his persona starts to give way to greater doubts, until there arrives a crowning moment of catharsis in which Hill, desperate and unsure, summons the devil. Addressing him as “Your Majesty,” Hill proceeds to investigate the roots of practical philosophy in a book length Q & A with Old Nick. If you want to fix a problem, go straight to the source, and so there’s no better way to understand how to overcome adversity than by having a direct conversation with the Adversary itself.
For an author who has fostered such a socially conservative legacy, Hill’s discoveries, and their manner of revelation, are a bit unorthodox. Think and Grow Rich hints at its esoteric background if one pays attention to the sections on transmuting sexual energy and utilizing intuition or the sixth sense to assess potential outcomes and contact discarnate mentors. However, if Think and Grow Rich is an introductory pamphlet, then Outwitting the Devil is the full instructional manual. With the devil as instructor, Hill doesn’t dull the argument in hopes of courting polite discourse.
When Outwitting the Devil intially came to my notice, I had only recently realized that Hill was tapping into deeper streams than I had previously assumed, so I sent out a request for any professionals who were influenced by Hill to tell me how the more esoteric end of his philosophies of success, the sexual alchemy and psychism, sat with their interpretation of his work.
Nathan Vanderploeg Director of CapitalWise Educational Services, commented that “It’s an astounding statement for Napoleon Hill to say that the chief, major reason most people don’t succeed before they’re forty, out of all the thousands of possible reasons, is over-indulgence in physical expression (or pursuit of physical expression) of the emotion of sex. But in my own life, I am 100% convinced that its the major reason I too have not yet achieved the level of success I want! Major takeaways: We need to balance our chasing women with channeling our sexual drives into business.” As a 25-year-old professional, Vanderploeg found this lesson hit home, and its insight helped him to realign his priorities.
Another youthful entrepreneur, Louis Lautman, founder of The Young Entrepreneur Society, wrote to me and said he credits Hill with everything that he has done.
Finding inspiration in one of the more direct pieces of advice in Hill’s methodology, Christopher H. Kilcullen, director of franchise sales and development for Wyndham Worldwide, said, “There are so many principles in this book that I have applied to my life but none more important than auto-suggestion. ‘When you intentionally think about, repeat and affirm your ideals, you are planting the seeds that will grow to bear fruit. ‘” Kilcullen feels that Hill’s practical advice is the key to his current entrepreneurial endeavors with a start-up he’s working on called AmericasGotProduct.com, which focuses on recommitting consumers to buying domestically produced commodities and products.
Steve Mancina, a marketing and communications advisor, had a similar takeaway, reflecting that he “was 19 years old, when my employer at the time, Eleanore Carson, who still remains a dear friend, gave me her copy of this book. I am now 45. I have read and re-read the book. In general, I find the greatest value to Hill’s philosophy to be the measured disciplined approach to completing a task. Any task. Big or small.”
“Outwitting the Devil is a strange confession from one of the founding father’s of America’s philosophy of self-determination. Napoleon Hill’s hidden masterpiece summons the devil into the mundane world, and is all the more strange and wonderful for its down-to earth-dealings with Old Scratch.”
My initial query, however, dealt with the more abstract intimations that float around Hill’s work, and it seems that even with over 70 years as a best seller, the stranger aspects of Think and Grow Rich remain obscure even to those who have found what they consider success by putting its advice to work. It wasn’t until I received a response from Matthew Joyce, a counselor and business professional out of Boulder, Colorado, that I found someone who had touched on the full potential of Hill’s work. His response is worth quoting at length:
I often use what Napoleon Hill calls the sixth sense or the creative imagination, although I don’t often tell my clients that I am doing so. You never know who might be skeptical or challenged by such ideas. Fortunately no one seems to challenge the positive results of the process.
My method is a slightly different from Hill’s since I developed it prior to reading his ideas about sexual sublimation/transmutation. To me the real gist of that chapter is that the creative imagination functions best when the mind is vibrating (due to some form of mind stimulation) at an exceedingly high rate. The actual sexual urges or desires to channel the creative impulse into procreation are of relatively little account in my method, but I think Hill made some good points about them. To me the primary focus is shifting the mind to the higher rate of functioning which gives me access to information beyond that available from my physical senses or my conscious mind.
When I work I shift my awareness into a higher state of consciousness with an activating thought. I’ve been doing it so long now that it only takes a single breath to make the switch in consciousness. Moreover, I now maintain a dual awareness of normal consciousness while engaging my higher creative imagination. This means that I switch back and forth while on the phone with the client or in meetings without them noticing.
Where I go in consciousness and what I do after that shift depends upon the circumstances. Sometimes I use it solve problems, posing the question and then reaching out for the answer which appears from the ether. Other times I use it to access new creative ideas for products or strategies or to glance into the future for scenario planning. Its also helpful when I am not sure what to say next. In those cases I open myself up and just allow the ideas to flow. The right thing to say always seems to emerge, be they questions to ask the client, comments about the present situation, or even impromptu speeches I need to give.
In the transmission of esoteric teachings it’s common to discuss the difference between oral and written instruction. With alchemical practice, tantra, Kabbalah, and other forms of study that involve an intermixing of cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy, and practice, it is often the oral teaching that acts as a key to the textual base. Without this key all the reader is left with is a disconnected symbolic puzzle that reflects biases rather than reveals truth. What Joyce has that none of the other respondents have is the oral key, because Joyce, unlike the others, was trained at The Monroe Institute. (For an in-depth interview that I conducted with Joyce regarding his practice, see “Manifestation & the Mind, or the Practical Utility of Astral Awareness.”)
The Monroe Institute was founded by Robert Monroe, whose pioneering work Journeys Out of the Body popularized the concept of out-of-body experiences when it was published in 1971. What’s interesting is that, beyond his role as a seminal psychonaut, Monroe was a successful businessman and millionaire who developed the first cable television service in the state of Virginia. In a way he is a direct example of Hill’s theories in practice, and this goes beyond the basic advice about self-affirmation and extends into the strange intermixing of influences that flows through Hill’s oeuvre.
Satan is the spirit of caution, prudence, and when perverted, negation. At his door are laid the sins of omission. Few realize that man is responsible for the things he has not done. That is part of the law. It is just as wrong not to do the right things as it is to do the wrong thing. Satan inhibits, he draws back, he holds aloof.
— Manly P Hall, Magic: A Treatise on Esoteric Ethics
The key is natural philosophy, a concept of rhythm, harmony, and balance that has been lost in the contemporary world. Or at least that’s what the devil has to say about it, and Hill pulls no punches in directing his attention at all the social institutions that he sees fostering this imbalance. Outwitting the Devil contains the usual tropes of right living, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and all that, but Hills goes further than this by laying blame for modern-day spiritual desolation on the school system, business owners, and mass media that provide the developmental focus for society.
What I find most fascinating about this work is that instead of falling into some of the Orientalist meanderings that were so popular at the time, and rather than creating some allegorical extravaganza, Hill uses one of the most basic stories from Western culture, a pact with the devil, to express his views. Moreover, he does it in such a way that it seems as natural as pouring a cup of coffee in the morning. There is not hint of phantasmagoric flights, barbaric names, sigils, circles, or any of the ritual accoutrements that have come to surround such meetings in popular accounts. Instead, the story unfolds as succinctly and straightforwardly as a farmer recounting a folksy anecdote, remaining practical throughout.
What keeps us away from success? The devil, as Hill relates it, marks fear and doubt as the central cause of most of our problems. These tendencies keep us from staying on the straight path, distract us from accomplishing our goals, cause us to look away from impending problems, and hide our inner turmoils from the kind of clear view that could rectify them. Rather than staying focused, our attention wanders because we doubt where we are going. In this teaching we are presented with a practical ethics no different from what the adept Manly P. Hall outlines in his treatise on esoteric ethics. Even the nature of the devil stays the same.
Outwitting the Devil is a strange confession from one of the founding father’s of America’s philosophy of self-determination. Far removed from the fictions of someone like Algernon Blackwood, assuming none of the esoteric or Fortean overtones of poetic journalists like John Keel, Napoleon Hill’s hidden masterpiece summons the devil into the mundane world, and is all the more strange and wonderful for its down-to earth-dealings with Old Scratch.
So the next time you’re faced with a crisis, consider heading on down to the lonely crossroads. Wait there for awhile, and see if you don’t find yourself face-to-face with a solution from an unlikely source. Maybe it will be a UFO. Maybe it will be spirit. Maybe it will be the devil himself. Or maybe the very time alone will be enough to seed some solace.