Foreword to Philip Leon’s Philosophy of Courage (by Glenn F. Chesnut)
September 23, 2008, 3:33 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Philip Leon finished writing The Philosophy of Courage in December 1938, with a publication date in 1939.1 So it was not a direct influence on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was completed (basically anyway) slightly before that point, a bit earlier in 1938. But Leon puts down in print some of the most important of the Oxford Group ideas which had so greatly influenced the early A.A. people, and he also gives an illuminating philosophical discussion of a number of the basic ideas and principles which A.A. learned from the Oxford Group. As a consequence, people in the twelve step movement will find a good deal of interesting and very useful material in Leon’s book.

Leon was associated with one of the new British universities—University College, Leicester—which had been founded right after the First World War. The city of Leicester is located right in the center of England, only sixty miles or so from Oxford. Three years earlier, he had written a very successful philosophical work called The Ethics of Power or The Problem of Evil (London : George Allen & Unwin, 1935).2


The title of the work we are looking at here—The Philosophy of Courage—is significant in itself. It places Philip Leon, in his own way, in the context of the famous existentialist philosophers and theologians of that period. Most of those figures were, like Leon, reacting to the ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his nineteenth century followers. Kantianism proclaimed that our human minds were imprisoned in a box of space and time, where we had no access to the eternal, absolute, unlimited, and unconditional divine realm which lay outside the box.

The atheistic existentialists said that all that lay outside that box of space and time was an infinite abyss of Nothingness, and that even within the world which our human minds could grasp, human existence was absurd, and the only certainty we could state was that our lives were inexorably lived towards death. The closest human beings could come to living with dignity was to face the absurdity and death with resolution and courage. Philosophers and writers like Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sartre (1905-1980), and Camus (1913-1960), along with existentialist psychiatrists like Fritz Perls (1893-1970), all saw our basic human problem as one of fear: the fear of emptiness and death, but also the fear of change and novelty, and above all the fear of being creative and being ourselves instead of trying to be what other people wanted us to be. In Fritz Perls’ metaphor, we needed to develop the courage either to spit out what we detested about our lives, or to chew it up and swallow it and digest it and make it our own.

Among the Christian existentialists of that same period, one of the most important figures was Paul Tillich, who taught with Reinhold Niebuhr (the author of the Serenity Prayer) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1933 to 1955, that is, during the formative period when A.A. was born. One of Tillich’s most important books had the simple title the Courage to Be (1952). Existential anxiety (what Philip Leon called “the great Terror”) was what destroyed our souls, and courage was the remedy which would heal our disease.

The Oxford Group “spirit of the tables”
It was at the ancient medieval city of Oxford however that Leon had his first encounter with the Oxford Group. As he describes this in his own words: “On July 8, 1935, I went straight from a philosophers’ congress to an afternoon meeting of an Oxford Group house party held at Lady Margaret Hall” there at Oxford University. “As speaker after speaker rose and spoke briefly about his experience of God … All I had ever heard or read of wisdom and of truth seemed to be concentrated in those speakers, who more and more assumed for me the semblance of pillars of light.”3 This took place only three or four weeks after Dr. Bob’s last drink, over on the other side of the Atlantic—that last bottle of beer Dr. Bob drank on June 10th (or 17th) 1935—so Leon’s discovery of the Oxford Group and the start of his enthusiastic immersion in their activities was contemporaneous with the beginning of A.A.

What struck Leon so powerfully was what the early A.A. people would call the spirit of the tables, and he accurately described this as his direct experience of the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. It turned Leon into a completely different kind of philosopher. As he explains in the introduction to The Philosophy of Courage, he attempted in this book to talk about the personal experience of God in the language of philosophy. Both parts of this statement are equally important—The Philosophy of Courage is a book on philosophy but also a book based on personal experience. Leon was the first philosopher to attempt to talk about some of the most important principles of the Oxford Group, and hence the first philosopher to attempt to discuss some of the most important ideas underlying the twelve step program. But he also attempted to base his philosophical musings, not on some set of abstract theories dreamed up by an armchair philosopher, but on his own direct personal experience of the explosive power of God erupting forth and turning the world upside down.


The God of power, energy, creativity and novelty
In the Middle Ages, there was a tendency to turn God into a static entity called the Unmoved Mover, which attracted all of reality towards it as a distant ideal goal. We see this kind of concept of God coming out above all in St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) and his First Proof for the existence of God, the Proof from Motion.4 The very fact that Aquinas’ God was referred to there as the Unmoved Mover gave the basic picture better than any other words one could conjure up. This medieval God of the philosophers was regarded as an almost completely impersonal absolute, perfect and unchanging, which was so completely transcendent that it was far removed from all the things of this universe, where we human beings lived our lives.

Philip Leon was part of a rebellion against that kind of concept of God which came to a peak during the first half of the twentieth century, and involved a number of other excellent philosophers. This rebellion began with the Boston Personalists: Borden Parker Bowne’s The Immanence of God came out in 1905, and his successor at Boston University, Edgar Sheffield Brightman, published The Problem of God in 1930. The process philosophers then took up the same crusade, with Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929) and Adventures of Ideas (1933), followed by a string of books by the prolific author Charles Hartshorne: Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1937), The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (1948), Philosophers Speak of God (edited with William L. Reese, 1953), and many others.

Just like the Boston Personalists and the process philosophers, Leon insisted that God was not some rigid, impersonal, and static reality. That was certainly not the biblical notion of God, he argued, nor the experience of the Oxford Group. The God of the Bible (and the Oxford Group) was above all a God of power and energy (in Greek, dynamis and energeia), exploding into the world and working miracles within the human spirit. God was the power of creativity and novelty, by which (Leon said) he meant “positive or constructive power or efficiency and not negative or destructive and obstructive power.” Forces that were purely negative and destructive came from a different kind of power, one which was opposed to God. [Chapter 1, section I]
For Leon, this was not just a philosophical theory. It was something which could befelt and experienced at a meeting of the Oxford Group (A.A. people called it the spirit of the tables, while traditional Christianity called it the presence of the Holy Spirit). When Leon went to his first house party at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, he experienced an atmosphere which was electrically charged, magnetized, and dynamic. It was filled with the spirit of the new, the uninhibited, and the fearless. Everyone had stripped off their masks and disguises, so that you could see who people truly were. There was also a spirit of divine calm, where conflicts healed themselves and the knots in people’s lives came untangled, and everyone present could relax and feel true peace at last. But it was the energy and the creativity which most struck him after the meeting had begun.

God as the supreme Personality
Also, just like the Boston Personalists and the process philosophers, Leon stressed that God was the supreme Personality. “In calling God personal I do not mean that He is thought, feeling, will. He is spirit, and spirit is not thought, feeling, will, but the source of these.” All spiritual beings necessarily had to be personal beings. A being’s personality was the unity of its power, love, wisdom, and so on, which in turn gave rise to that person’s thought, feeling, and will. [chapter 1, section I]

“Self” is bad but “person” is good
In Leon’s philosophical vocabulary, being a “person” is good, but acting in terms of “self” (that is, being motivated by selfishness) is the root of all evil. That distinction in the way he used those two words is essential to understanding his thought. Since selfishness, Leon said, is the cause of all of our unhappiness and misery, the pursuit of the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes (Absolute Love, Absolute Purity, Absolute Honesty, and above all, Absolute Unselfishness) is the only real answer to the fundamental human problem.

Those who know something about the history of philosophy will immediately recognize the strong influence of Arthur Schopenhauer and his famous work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation, 1819). In Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of the world, the will-to-life drove human beings with continual desires for goals which could never be attainable (to live forever, never suffer ill health, control and dominate everything around us, and so on). Life was ultimately futile. The stronger the self, the more suffering and pain that person would end up experiencing. As the little student jingle goes, “he who wants a gloomy hour, should spend a while with Schopenhauer.”

Schopenhauer was strongly influenced by Hindu thought. He kept a copy of the Hindu scriptures by his bedside, and named his pet dog Atman (the word in Hindu philosophy for soul or life-principle). He also particularly treasured an ancient statue (covered with gold leaf) of Buddha dressed as a beggar. He believed that asceticism (the kind of voluntary self-sacrifice and self-denial which one sees in the life of a Buddhist monk) could bring a kind of salvation from suffering, by removing some of the pain-producing effects of our selfish desires.

One way perhaps of describing Leon’s philosophical system would be to call it an effort to give a Judeo-Christian answer to the problem raised by Schopenhauer and the kind of Hindu and Buddhist tradition which he represented. It is important to remember however, that in Leon we see not a denial of the problem, but rather an attempt to give a different kind of answer, one that is world-affirming instead of world-denying.

The human self is necessarily diseased: the Kingdom of Fear and the great Terror
Philip Leon stated bluntly that the human self was inherently and inescapably diseased. Our natural instincts, our dispositions and characters, and our acquired habits drove us to desires and ambitions which were of necessity diseased and impure. What we called the “self” was a collection of desires based ultimately on the fear of death and the fear of insecurity. We desperately want to live forever, but also much more than that: “except on the occasions when he is threatened with biological extinction, existence means for [the self], not just being alive, but having a certain income, status, reputation, etc.” [chapter 1, section II] In our sickness, we want it all.

The cause of our human selfishness may appear (on the surface) to be insatiable desire. In classical Buddhist teaching, for example, tanha (the desire, craving, or thirst for sensory pleasures, life, fame, love, and so on) is regarded as the root of all human misery. But Leon said that the true driving force behind this selfishness is a kind of raw fear which lies underneath these desires. It is the fear which is the real driving power. The self therefore always and inevitably turns the world into a Kingdom of Fear, ruled by Fate and Karma. As long as I am looking at the world from a purely selfish standpoint, I will always eventually start falling into what Leon called the great Terror.

Those who have a little bit of goodness are terrified when they are forced to look at other human beings (such as the truly outstanding members of the Oxford Group) who have achieved the true optimum. Those who are diseased, even if only in part, are terrified by what they see there of true health. Those who are tainted by impurity, even if only to a degree, are terrified by absolute purity.

Absolute Love, Absolute Purity, Absolute Honesty, and Absolute Unselfishness are terrifying to those who have settled for just getting by with a minimum of mechanical surface morality. The good is the enemy of the best: “One fear says: ‘So much knowledge, but no more’; another: ‘So much love and health, but no more’; a third: ‘So much power, but no more.’ Together they shout: ‘We have everything, we are everything. Beyond us is nothing, beyond us is the great Terror!’”

The real God is the infinite power of true creativity and novelty. But those who cling to the finite are terrified by this vision of the infinite. Those who repeat the same things over and over are terrified by the revolutionary, and frightened to their depths by true creativity and novelty. To the depths of our being, we fear change.

And above all—and this is one of Leon’s most interesting comments—“The fear at the bottom of each individual is that of recognizing himself, and of being recognized, one day, as a son of God.” The true God appears and offers us salvation and true sonship and daughtership, and we shut our eyes and put our fingers in our ears and run away as fast as we can run. [chapter 1, section II] We resist the saving message because we are too scared of becoming good and holy people ourselves, people who shine with the divine light within. And among all the tragic consequences of human fearfulness, this is the greatest tragedy of all.

Comparison with Bill W. and A.A. on the “corroding thread” of fear
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous the fourth step was an inventory of our resentments and our fears, for the twelve step program teaches that these are the two things which cause all the truly unbearable human pain and suffering. In the Big Book, Bill W. told us in 1939 that fear “was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it.” This fear arose, he said, because the self got in the way: our attempts at total self-reliance turned us away from God and thereby ultimately made our fear grow even worse. At that level, Bill W. and Philip Leon agreed for the most part: trying to live on the principle of selfishness and self-interest produced soul-destroying fear, and eventually cast us down into the inner hell which Leon called the great Terror.5

Nausea: salvation through becoming sick of ourselves
In the introduction to his book, Philip Leon says that real religion “makes us sick—sick of ourselves. Only self-sickness will cure us of our mania.” For the sake of American readers, it needs to be pointed out that Leon, who was living and writing in England, used the word “sick” in a different way from American usage. Down to the seventeenth century, the word sick in England meant “ill” in any kind of way. The American colonists continued to use the word in that fashion, and it is still the ordinary American usage today. But in England, in the modern period, the word sick has come to be restricted in meaning, so that by the twentieth century it referred only to feeling nauseated, to feeling ready to vomit. That was the way Leon was using the word.6
And that in turn points us to the continental European existentialist philosophers of that period. Jean-Paul Sartre published his famous existentialist novel La Nausée (Nausea) in 1938, around the time Leon was writing this book. We “feel sick” (become nauseated) according to Sartre when we confront the absurdity of human existence and all of the existential anxieties that are an intrinsic part of that.

Anxiety (angoisse in French and Angst in German) is a kind of dread or anguish which goes far beyond ordinary fear. Fear is the human reaction to a specific threat: for example, let us say that I am out driving and another automobile crosses the center line on the highway and starts hurtling head on at the automobile I am in. But anxiety in the language of existentialist philosophy is the human reaction to an all-encompassing reality which is woven necessarily into the basic fabric of human life. Anybody who exists will at times be cast into situations where that existential anxiety will surge up into consciousness: for example, the realization that I (like all human beings) must someday die.

There are a number of different kinds of existential anxiety. There is the anxiety, for example, of fate and death: the feeling of being in the grip of implacably hostile or uncaring forces which I cannot control, and the horror I feel when I contemplate my own death. There is the anxiety of guilt and condemnation: the awareness that I can never be perfect (at an absolute level) in meeting all of the demands which life will place on me, and that I will always be guilty of not having been good enough, along with the closely associated anxiety of rejection and abandonment. Each period of human history tends to have its own dominant form of existential anxiety, which overshadows the others in importance for a century or so. Images of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness filled many of the artistic, literary, and dramatic expressions of the twentieth century: one can see it appearing in the apparently meaningless drips of color which made up the paintings of Jackson Pollock during the 1940’s, in Albert Camus’ formative novel The Myth of Sisyphus, and in the works of the playwrights who were associated (in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s) with the theater of the absurd—Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Edward Albee, and so on.

Being sickened by my own inner rottenness
When he attended the Oxford Group house party, and felt God powerfully at work in that gathering (what the twelve step program calls the spirit of the tables), Leon discovered that there was no way of becoming conscious of God without also becoming conscious of self. And the rottenness he discovered within himself made him sick to his stomach and nauseated. He started to become aware of all the falsity and phoniness which had made up his life. He found that all of the things he had had preying on his conscience (things which he had spent years trying to suppress and forget and alibi and explain away) were coming up to the surface of his mind once again: acts of selfishness, cowardice, and dishonesty. He found himself trying to project these feelings of self-loathing over onto the Oxford Group people who were so disturbing him: they were the ones who were phonies, they were the ones who were bossy and opinionated know-it-all’s, they were the ones who were out to trick him out of something or other. [chapter 1, section I]

Recovering alcoholics who can remember things like driving an automobile drunk and running into other people and hideously injuring those other people and having to stand there uninjured (with police handcuffs on) and listen to those injured people scream with pain can understand exactly why Leon said that it was a feeling of nausea which we felt when we confronted our true selves. Drug addicts and gambling addicts who think too hard about how their addiction caused them to cast away their spouses and children, find their insides cramping up within them, in the same kind of total visceral disgust with themselves.

I must embrace my own feeling of soul-sickness
If I wish to engage in positive spiritual growth after having had this experience, Leon says, “what happens to me comes about step by step.” (We can compare this to Bill W.’s insistence that spiritual growth occurs in a series of discrete steps.) God is all powerful, but will not work on me until I give him my consent. My first act of consent must come with a willingness to feel this self-sickness instead of running away from it. I must identify each piece of selfishness or cowardice or dishonesty within me, and then let God change me and heal me. [chapter 1, section I]

The Cross: surrender and acceptance
Frank Buchman had the experience which gave birth to the Oxford Group when he went to the Keswick Convention in the Lake District up in the north of England in 1908, and attended a small chapel service where Jessie Penn-Lewis7 preached on the Cross of Christ. In an overwhelming religious experience, Buchman suddenly realized the necessity of surrendering all his earthly resentments and making restitution (or “making amends” as the twelve step people call it) to those at whom he held those resentments.

Philip Leon talks again and again in this book about accepting the Cross of Christ, but those who find this language objectionable should note how he makes the rather startling statement here that readers who want to test his theories about the centrality of the cross, can begin if they choose by regarding “the whole account of the life, the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus as a fairy tale invented and used by many people through many ages in order to illustrate what they meant by God’s power in relation to the world as it is.” But like all good myths and fables, they need to note that this one has an important moral: “God, it teaches us, is that power which changes degradation into glory, death into life, defeat into triumph, inertia into inexhaustible activity.” [chapter 1, section I] And Leon believes that once I see the transforming effect of this power on my own life, I will begin to realize that I am dealing with something which (at some essential level) is not a fairy tale, but totally real.

Part of me aches and longs for God’s healing and energizing love, while another part—the selfish part—resists God with all its might, because that part of me fears change, creativity, and anything involving real effort on my part. [chapter 1, section I] This is the part which must be crucified, or “crossed out” if you are someone who objects to too much heavily Christian language. I must practice what the twelve step program calls surrender and acceptance—that is, in traditional Christian terms, I must crucify all these selfish fears—or I will never find the new divine life which emerges on the other side of the crucifixion.

The cure for my evil and soul-sickness: its replacement by the Absolute and Perfect
The Oxford Group people spoke frequently about the Four Absolutes, which were Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Love, Absolute Purity, and Absolute Honesty. Leon says that speaking only of four absolutes is an oversimplification, because in fact there are an infinite number of positive qualities which make up God’s absoluteness. God is absolute power, patience, wisdom, love, efficiency, creativity, newness, harmony, bravery, and so on. As long as human beings ask God for help, they can participate in God’s absoluteness, and act, for each moment in which they surrender to God and cling to his grace, with absolute unselfishness, love, purity, honesty, and so on. [chapter 1, section I]

Leon goes on to say: “Absolute and infinite power, wisdom, love, etc.—we may sum all these up by calling them perfection.” [chapter 1, section I] What we have in this part of the Oxford Group’s teaching, in other words, is a doctrine which holds that Christian perfection is attainable in this life. One can see this sort of teaching appearing in some Quaker theology (both in the early period and in the nineteenth century), and in parts of the Methodist and Wesleyan tradition. There are still some very conservative Wesleyan groups in the United States, the second blessing Methodists as they are called, who not only believe that Christian perfection is attainable in this life, but also argue that no one can be saved who has not achieved Christian perfection.8

I am not God
Leon devotes an important subsection of his book to explaining why I must come to understand that “I am not God.” [chapter 1, section II] A modern skeptic, he says, might well try to argue that all of these Oxford Group claims are the product of autohypnosis and naive self-delusion, and that it is only some part of my own mind with which I am coming into contact when I think I am experiencing God. But as Leon points out, I could likewise use that kind of pathological skepticism to claim that other human beings only exist in my own mind. That would be difficult to disprove, would it not? And yet, if I am in difficulty and need help from my fellow human beings, I can only be helped if I admit that they really exist.

Where is God? Since God and myself-as-a-person (as opposed to my physical body) are not things in space, there really is no “where.” But in my experience of God, he is inside me rather than outside, in such a way that I can talk about “God being in me” while at the same time “I am in God.”

Alcoholism and addiction as forms of mania (spiritual insanity)
The self is a disease, Leon says, which results in a mania. Now this is very interesting, because what he means by this, is that the self (and its greed, selfishness, and craving) is in fact a kind of spiritual illness or malady which will inevitably manifest itself in some kind of addiction.

He uses the old word for alcoholism, dipsomania, which means a maniacal craving for alcohol. Just like the A.A. Big Book, Leon sees alcoholism as arising primarily from what in fact is a spiritual malady. But he also perceptively realizes that alcoholism is only one kind of addiction. We also have what he calls morphinomania (addiction to morphine and other opiate drugs), satyromania and nymphomania (male and female forms of sexual addiction), cleptomania (compulsive stealing), onanomania (obsessive masturbation), along with the all-dominating lust for power, riches, and glory. Setting up a legalistic set of moral rules (whether based on the Bible, the edicts of the Pope, the Koran, or the rules laid out in the Twelve Traditions or in A.A. conference decisions) and then trying to follow these fanatically, only throws us into another kind of mania, Leon warns. [chapter 1, section II]

It is especially alcoholism, however, which he focuses on to show how a spiritual disease can give shape and form to a physical addiction.

He talks about eight characteristics of alcoholic thinking and acting
1. Dipsomania (alcoholism) is a compulsion which makes us feel like victims. The dipsomaniac believes that “he cannot help himself,” but is held powerless under the control of some force which always defeats him.

2. It is driven by fear: “he must have his drink, or else—so it seems to him—something terrible will happen, the end of the world.”

3. His behavior is marked by rigidity (as opposed to variety, novelty, and creativity) and overpowering fear of change. Eventually only alcohol will satisfy his unbearable longings: for joy, comfort, excitement, peace, and the illusion of love.

4. Pleonectic behavior (from the Greek word pleonektikos): always attempting to take more than one’s share, “asking for more and more of the same thing without end.” Ultimately, there is never enough alcohol to truly satisfy him, no matter how much he drinks, and yet even then, he cannot stop.

5. Increasing isolationism: like a Cyclops in the Greek myth, the disease of alcoholism hides in its cave, so to speak, and “leads a solitary existence, neither helping, nor helped by, its neighbors.”

6. The disease of alcoholism is marked by what St. Augustine called the libido dominandi (the lust to control and dominate others, what Bill W. on pages 61-62 of the Big Book called the attempt to play the stage director): “like a tyrant, it tends to subjugate or slay its neighbors.”

7. It becomes a monomania, where eventually everything else in the alcoholic’s life ceases to have any importance: family, job, health, or what have you.

8. It replaces real life, until eventually all that exists in the alcoholic’s mind is drinking and thinking about drinking. [chapter 1, section II]

The second item on that list of eight characteristics—fear—is especially important. Alcoholism may look on the surface like a desire or craving which has gotten out of control, but in fact the alcoholic’s thoughts and behavior are dominated at all times by an overpowering fear and horror: “His secret is not that he makes for drink and takes delight in it as desirous people make for and take delight in that which they desire. Of delight there is very little in his life, and as his dipsomania grows he cannot be said even ordinarily to like drink, still less to delight in it. But as his dipsomania grows, there is something which does grow along with it and proportionately to it, and it is that something which explains it. It is his fear or even horror, of life without drink. That life is a wild beast which pursues him, and his dipsomania is just a running away from it. He desires or makes for drink only in the sense in which we make for a refuge; drink is for him a refuge from life. His repetition of the doses is the action not of a desirous lover but of a coward desperately defending a position with a repeating rifle against an oncoming foe.” [chapter 1, section II]

“Desire” is bad but “passion” is good
When Leon argued that desire plunged us into soul-sickness, terror, and mania, it might seem that he had painted himself into a corner. For how could one desire salvation itself or anything good without being thrown into terror there as well, fear of not achieving that goodness and salvation? Leon attempts to get out of this problem by distinguishing between desire in the selfish sense, and what he calls passion or “pure desire.” Passion is directed towards the Absolute and the Unlimited, rather than towards some specific, particular goal. In the philosophical idealism of Schelling, Hegel, and F. H. Bradley, the Absolute is the unconditional divine reality which is contrasted with the realm of space and time. Everything within the world of space and time is limited and finite, and conditioned by its ever-changing spatio-temporal context. The Unlimited however is the infinite, and the Absolute lies totally outside the box of space and time.

In Kantian philosophical terms, desire keeps us confined within the box of space and time (and specific, finite physical objects), while passion allows us to rise up into the realm of the noumenon (the pure ideas) and act on the basis of a categorical imperative (such as, for example, “always be honest and tell the truth regardless of the consequences”).

Passion “is the desire that absolute love, or power or wisdom, etc., should be manifested in whatever way it is possible for any of them to be manifested at this moment,” without imposing, in advance, any kind of limits or overly-restrictive specifications as to how that is to be done. So let us say that I am starting on writing a book. If this is to be a book which will be a genuinely creative and novel piece of work, then I cannot know what it is that I shall write in particular until after it has been written. I can only preserve the creativity by writing with a passion for absolute honesty and absolute beauty and so on. The same will be true if I am asked to stand up in front of a group of people and talk about my life and the role of spirituality in my life story. If I am motivated by a passion for absolute honesty and absolute love, I will be freed so that I will be able to talk with true creativity and profundity, “from the heart,” in a way that will be able to liberate other people and communicate real grace to them. That is because there is no selfishness in that kind of passion. [chapter 1, section III]


By surrendering the self (and nailing it to the Cross), fear is released, and desire is turned into passion
In order to act with passion for the absolute instead of acting only out of selfishness, I must take my self and nail it to the Cross. I must practice total surrender and total acceptance. “The instinct for self-preservation must be replaced by the passion for the Cross.” I must let the self be annihilated, in order that I may become a person.

But once I have let go of my fear of God, my fear of change, my fear of creative growth, my fear of not being in control, and even my fear of death itself, I will find my selfish desires undergoing a radical change. And in this new changed life, my old selfish desire will have been transmuted into a passion for that which is absolute, perfect, and good. [chapter 2, section I]

In apparently paradoxical fashion, I have to surrender to win, and let go of all things in order to receive all things.

The Quiet Time
The place where I can “cross out” and surrender all my selfishness, and overcome my crippling fear, and become truly open to God, is in the Oxford Group practice called the morning Quiet Time. What we do here, Leon says, “is best summed up simply by saying, ‘I appeal to God and He answers me and helps me. I listen to Him and obey.’” [chapter 2, section II]

The practice of this Quiet Time was of course one of the important things taken over from the Oxford Group by the early A.A. movement. In the Big Book for example (on pages 86-87), Bill Wilson describes how this Quiet Time and request for divine guidance is placed at the center of our morning meditation. In Richmond Walker’s Twenty-Four Hours a Day, the standard meditational book in early A.A. from the time of its first publication in 1948, page after page talks about the prayerful entry into the divine Quiet and the realm of holy Silence.9

This was an ancient concept. One major group of gnostics in the second and third centuries A.D. taught that the two primordial aeons or divine beings, from whom all the other divine beings and godlike and angelic powers had derived their existence, were the male aeon Bythos (“Depth,” “the Deep,” that is, the primordial abyss of nothingness which underlies all reality) and the female aeon Sigê (the divine “Silence”). In the gnostic divine hierarchy, the goddess Sigê gave birth to Truth, Mind, the saving Word, and eternal Life.

The hesychastic monks of the Eastern Orthodox church preferred to use the term Hêsychia, which meant “Quiet” or “Peace,” the ultimate stillness and rest of perfect serenity. By shutting off all their disrupting thoughts and concerns, and allowing their minds to float wordlessly within this realm of peace and quiet, they found that they could eventually experience the divine Uncreated Light in an experience similar to the one which Bill Wilson had in Towns Hospital in the middle of December 1934, after he had had his last drink.10

Guidance and the great Terror
Although it is called the Quiet Time, whenever I ask God for guidance, that is, when I ask him what it is that I am to do today, God’s answer may at first plunge me, not into rest and peace, but into fear and revulsion. What I am asked to do may even plunge me head over heels into the great Terror. Sometimes the act of service which God asks me to perform seems to involve me losing all of my worldly goods, my reputation, and even my life. At other times I may feel God requesting me to make an apology or carry out an amends, in a context which may be quite minor at one level, but which would make me feel totally humiliated. If I have been a person who has been too ambitious and hard driving, and who has worried too much about everything, God’s guidance may even tell me that I need to start relaxing and taking things easy for a while. In the case of people who feel as though they have to be busy, busy, busy all the time, that can throw them into what can sometimes be unbelievable terror and rebellion! Me, just sit down and relax? But such-and-such needs doing, and such-and-such absolutely has to be done!

But whatever it is that God will guide me to do in this moment of Quiet Time, it will ask me to carry out the “suicide or the annihilation of the self.” And at that point, my natural human tendency will be to reject the Cross, and cry out that this horrid thing which is confronting me could not be God. [chapter 2, section I]

When alcoholics have to face God for the first time, what these alcoholics see does not seem like God at all to them. What they in fact see is the horrible face of their own alcoholism. They see the wasted ruin of their own lives, and all the catastrophes and failures that have dragged them down, and they cry out that not only is this not God, this is proof positive that God does not exist. Or if God does exist, then he is hateful and evil. This is the biggest problem which alcoholics face when they first enter the twelve step program: the overwhelming fear (“the great Terror” as Philip Leon calls it) which sweeps over them the minute the meeting begins talking about God.

Perhaps what they see is not God per se—that is true—but it is God’s Cross, the cross to which they must surrender their old lives before they can receive the New Life. We do not have to put this in Christian terms. We can go back to the Old Testament, and notice how Moses, when he was standing at the bottom of Mount Sinai, saw its top covered only with a black storm cloud. Yet the guidance he received from God told him to start climbing that mountain, right up into the darkness and fear. It was only after he reached the top, that Moses stepped out into the realm of the Divine Light. Or we can remind ourselves of all the pagan myths in which the sacred and saving presence within the temple is guarded by a hideous monster standing in front of the temple. We must fight our way past the monster’s teeth and claws in order to touch the holy goddess who sits enthroned within. [chapter 2, section I]

In Quiet Time, I deny the self and turn to the Absolutes in order to receive guidance
The Quiet Time is in its essence a meeting between my self and God and the Absolutes. There are an infinite number of absolutes: the 1949 edition of the A.A. classic called The Little Red Book spoke of Humility, Honesty, Faith, Courage, and Appreciation; the A.A. Tablemate or Table Leaders Guide from the early 1940’s spoke of Faith, Hope, Trust, Humility, Simplicity, Patience, Fearlessness, Generosity, Justice, and a number of other virtues. But Leon says that the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes (Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love) are convenient examples of the kind of absolute moral demands that we will confront when we enter the period of Quiet Time.

The self is “faced with the impossible when it is presented with a demand for a pure or absolute act,” because the self can only desire the impure world of its own most selfish wishes. The self’s first automatic reaction is one of resistance. I say to myself that I am a decent person basically, and that these are absurd demands. I give alibis and make excuses. But the fact is that my self not only falls infinitely short of these high ideals, but is totally helpless to achieve them by its own unaided powers. Therefore, until I learn to practice non-defensiveness, I will be unable to get past the self and enter God’s full presence. [chapter 2, section II]

Let us look again at how we practice the Quiet Time: “Immediately on waking, then, I give over my mind and heart to God—that is to say, to absolute love and wisdom—and I pray that I be guided towards absolute love, wisdom, power, truth, etc.” At that point, ideas will pop into my mind, ideas of two different sorts. Some of these ideas will be impure ideas centering on my own selfishness, and entangled in the strife and tension of cause and effect in the material world around me, the world of space and time. But others will be pure ideas—Absolute, Unlimited, and Unconditioned Ideas from the divine noumenal realm, outside the box of space and time. I must ask God to act as my “psychoanalyst” and tell me which are pure and which are impure. That is how I will receive true divine guidance. [chapter 2, section II]

The act of total surrender allows the “pure act” (actus purus), the miracle which creates the New Being
In particular, during this Quiet Time, I have to identify that particular fear which is “the great Terror” or hideous monster dominating my mind at this time, and then totally surrender to it in order to be freed of it. Whatever it is, “with the whole of my heart—that is to say, passionately—I say or think … ‘If it be right, let this thing from which I shrink happen. I will that I preach, lose my job, deal with my calumniator lovingly, deal with the fool patiently, fail to gain the success I desire. I will that my self, which is fear [and] the instinct for disease, be annihilated. Let only the constructive urge, the passion for the Cross, remain in me. Thy Will be done, Father, not mine. Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.’ With this willing I leap into the dark, I fling my self away, I give up the ghost, I commit suicide.” [chapter 2, section II]

Then and only then will I be able to act on the pure Absolutes—absolute and perfect love, unselfishness, and so on—where the motive power of my action is coming not from this world (from within the realm of my own selfish desires), but from the higher divine world (since my action will be impelled by the Unconditioned, the Unlimited, and the Absolute Ideas). So when I act properly on guidance, my action (though a human action) will be what the medieval Catholic theologians called an actus purus, a “pure act,” that is, a living miracle. [chapter 2, section II]

St. Thomas Aquinas for example, in the thirteenth century, said that all we can know about who and what God really is in the literal sense, is that God is that actus purus (that pure act) in which New Being is brought into being out of nonexistence. In modern terms, we would say that God is the source of all that is truly creative and novel and revolutionary. When a human life is suddenly transformed from an evil life into a good life, in a way that seems impossible in terms of ordinary human science and understanding, that is God at work, and the proof that God does indeed exist.

But we must remember the famous warning at the beginning of the chapter on “How It Works” in the A.A. Big Book (on pages 58-59): for all of this to happen, I must not only surrender myself to God, it must be an act of Absolute Surrender. “Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely … Half measures availed us nothing … We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.” Those are my italics on the word absolutely, but Bill W.’s choice of the word absolute is very important in understanding this passage, for the echoes of Oxford Group language are very clear.

Examples of guidance
A woman who has been reading the Bible without receiving any help from it is guided to go to the public library and take a particular book (on the psychology of total surrender) off of a particular shelf, and read it. It ends up bringing the real presence of God not only into her own life, but into her whole family’s life. A man is guided to go see another man on business at a particular time and place, and to his surprise, ends up explaining to the other man how to surrender his life to God, which that other man does right there on the spot. An ambitious man is guided into making a big and very humiliating material sacrifice, but ends up being given an important position where he can do God’s work. [chapter 2, section II]

Testing guidance to make sure that it is not self-delusion and blind fanaticism
People are afraid to teach the idea of divine guidance because they are afraid that it will produce fanaticism. But there are ways of testing guidance, which will help keep this from happening.

1. By its fruits: True guidance produces love and health. Fanaticism produces terror, torture, death, and fear.

2. By motive: People who are truly guided begin by confessing their own sins and their need to correct their own defects. Fanatics try to deal with their own fears and resentments by blaming others and attacking the sins of others instead.

3. By the end: Fanatics have limited particular ends, specified rigidly, to which they will sacrifice everything and everyone else. Things must be fit by force into mechanical creeds and formulas and systems of legalistic rules and political and economic theories. Those who are truly guided, on the other hand, see that true goodness usually expresses itself in novel and creative ways, which may break or transform all the old rules. They do not say, “what mechanical rule or theory must we slavishly follow?” but leave their minds totally open and say instead, “let us pray, and see if we can discover what will be truly loving, unselfish, and caring.” [chapter 2, section III]

What is the “spiritual experience” we need to have?
1. It is not a kind of experience which we are supposed to have only at particular times. Some modern writers, Leon says, try to portray it as some sort of special feeling which we can only have when we are engaged in a certain kind of ritualistic prayer, or when kneeling in church and looking at stained glass windows and listening to organ music. But the true experience of God is something we can feel continuously through the day, for it is the experience of the health of life. My old life was sick and diseased, and I felt the misery of that soul-sickness inside me continuously. The new life is the experience instead of health and vitality permeating everything I sense and experience and think and feel. [chapter 2, section V]

2. It is not a kind of experience which only certain kinds of specially talented people can feel. There are very few people who have the ability to write fine poetry or compose great music or paint a beautiful painting. Only great geniuses can do this. But you do not have to be any kind of extraordinarily gifted “saint” or a “mystic” or anything else of that sort in order to have genuine spiritual experience. If the experience of God is the experience of the Cross, then “you do not have to be a very special or rare person to be lifted up on the Cross.” All that is required to do this, is for me to quit trying to defend my own self and stop giving alibis and excuses for my own continual selfishness and self-centeredness. Or to put it in other words, the kind of spiritual experience which saves us is the experience of genuine humility before God. In this light, Leon quotes from Chapter 13 in the fourteenth century English spiritual work called The Cloud of Unknowing, where Absolute Humility is described as “nought else but a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is.” [chapter 2, section V]

3. It is not inexplicable. There is a long tradition in works on spirituality, where true spiritual experience is described as an “inexplicable mystery.” It is indeed an entry into a realm of mystery, but “a true mystery is not that which cannot be explained, but that which can be explained in countless ways.” Those who have listened to a group of A.A. oldtimers talking about spiritual experience will understand exactly what Leon is talking about here. Each man and woman uses different words and different metaphors and images, but those among the listeners who have had real spiritual experience themselves, understand that all these oldtimers are talking about the same thing. [chapter 2, section V]

4. Likewise it is not ineffable. That term refers to something which can be felt or experienced, but cannot be put into words. There is also a long tradition in works written about spirituality, of saying that real spirituality centers on some kind of ineffable experience. That is not so, Leon says. Genuine spiritual experience is not ineffable, or perhaps we could better say, that it is not “more ineffable than any other state of mind.” It is difficult describing a state of mind, and the words we use can only be fully understood by others who have experienced being in that kind of state of mind. But people speak about their spiritual experiences in Oxford Group and A.A. meetings, and other people in the meeting do in fact understand what they are talking about. [chapter 2, section V]

Philip Leon’s description of his first spiritual experience
Philip Leon described his own first spiritual experience as a revolutionary change in his whole way of looking at the world around him, bringing with it a new sense of freedom, a birth and rebirth, a radical personal experience of what the Gospel of John calls the vision of the Resurrection and the Life:
“But a while ago, and in my world a curtain hung in front of me which shut out the air, so that I choked for breath [but] now—O miracle of miracles!—the curtain has vanished! … The curtain has vanished and I breathe freely, generously. I breathe for the first time! … and beyond the curtain? Miracle of miracles! There is no Beyond! The Beyond is here! Its miracle is here, is everywhere! … Where before everything was vagueness, uncertainty and perplexity, everything is now clarity, certainty, simplicity. Where there was drifting, now there is direction … Where there was … staleness and routine, there is now newness and magic.” [chapter 2, section V]

Suddenly he could see the presence of God shining forth in some strange fashion in the trees and flowers, and hills and skies, and all the world around him. In my book Images of Christ, I refer to this as “nature mysticism,” a way of feeling God’s numinous reality which was a recurrent motif in the Romantic tradition in literature.11 Philip Leon modifies a famous stanza from the English romantic poet Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality to describe this spiritual experience.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

In 1917, the German theologian Rudolf Otto gave a detailed philosophical account of how we can apprehend God in this way, in a book which is still one of the truly great theological classics, The Idea of the Holy. Otto was a Kantian, just like Leon, but used a different strategy for describing the human mind’s contact with God and the realm of the sacred: after toying (in an earlier book) with the theory that we became aware of God’s presence at the level of the Absolute and the Unlimited, Otto argued in The Idea of the Holy that the numinous sense of the holy or sacred was instead one of the basic categories of the human understanding.12

Coming to see the Truth in all religions, as well as the falling short of all religious systems
In this kind of spiritual experience, Philip Leon said, he came to see the Light of Truth shining forth in all the religions and philosophies of the world. He gained a new understanding of the doctrines taught by Judaism, Islam, ancient Greco-Roman paganism, and all the many varieties of Christianity. He was also able for the first time to recognize the truly profound discoveries made by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. But he did not mean by this that everything all of those systems said was true, or that any of those religions and philosophies had the whole truth. He was able to see where each of these religions and philosophies had valid things to say, but also where each of them fell short of the full truth, or even denied an important measure of the truth.


I must become a revolutionary, and a missionary to the diseased human society which forms the “larger self”
Just as the individual self is formed by its diseased fears and desires, so the thousands of fearful selves which at present make up the bulk of human society combine together to make a world dominated by hatred, envy, rigidity, authoritarian rules, and the fear of any kind of novelty, change, or revolutionary new approach to problems. This is Nietzsche’s herd mentality, where the cowardly masses attempt to destroy the Übermensch (transcendent humanity). A social system which is institutionalized selfishness and fear will necessarily oppose any courageous individuals who try to be genuinely creative and think for themselves. [chapter 3, section I]

And contrariwise, to keep my life healed, my only recourse will be to put my full time efforts into changing the society in which I live, by working to change other human lives and bring them out of sickness into health. There is no static defense which will ultimately work; the only effective defense is to throw myself into taking on the rigidity, hatred, fearfulness, authority systems, and selfishness which dominate the world around me. I must be a missionary, and I must be a revolutionary. [chapter 3, section I]

The coming of World War II, and the Communist, Fascist, Nazi, and labor union movements
Let us remember that Philip Leon finished writing this book in December 1938. In his introduction, he made the ominous statement: “The world is going mad, we are all saying … A tide of homicidal mania is rolling towards us.”

And indeed, the world did seem to be going mad. The Fascist leader Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 and soon began calling himself Il Duce. The Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, ended up putting the Fascist General Franco in total control of Spain on April 1, 1939. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, which started the Second World War after Britain and France responded by declaring war on the Germans. On the other side of the globe, Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, and began invading other parts of China in 1937. The United States responded with an oil embargo on Japan and other measures, which ultimately led on December 7, 1941, to the Japanese attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor which thrust America into the war also.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended up with the Bolsheviks taking over that country and then imposing a dictatorial Communist system. In America, the Communist Party USA was formed about the same time, during the years 1919-1921, and had periods of enormous influence in the United States until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Roosevelt began working to encourage the formation of labor unions which rejected Marxist doctrines and were linked to the non-Communist AFL movement instead. Roosevelt’s brilliant solution quickly began destroying the power of the Communist movement in the United States, but we must remember that many people in the Oxford Group were factory owners or otherwise connected with the capitalist class in ways which made them often so anti-union, that they failed to appreciate the skillful way that Roosevelt had prevented a Communist takeover of the United States. So the Oxford Group would put on plays, for example, which attempted to portray labor union leaders as simply trouble makers who were trying to raise up strife and hatred amongst the working class.

In May 1938, Frank Buchman began describing the Oxford Group in a different kind of way, referring to it as a movement of Moral Re-Armament.13 They began to see their major goal now as one of remaking human society as a whole, and trying to bring a new spirit of peace and love to all of the world’s governments and social institutions.

Was this an insane goal? Philip Leon responded by saying that, when we have God’s power to draw on, “defeat comes from limiting expectations.” Poverty and war are only symptoms of selfishness. If we can change individuals, then we can change whole societies. [chapter 3, section I]

Defeating the larger self through confession and sharing
The larger self—that is, the combined force of all of the fear and selfishness which infects all of the human selves around me—is the enemy. I will be defeated by this enemy if I allow myself to fall into fear, such as for example, the fear of self-exposure. I may feel fear at the thought of standing up before others and honestly admitting my own fear, sin, and trouble. [chapter 3, section I] But confession, that is, honestly sharing with others who I really am, and exposing my own self for what it really is—a mass of fear and diseased selfishness—is the only way I can communicate my own God-consciousness and my own spiritual experience of God to other human beings.

If the other people begin accusing me of “hypocrisy, cowardice, immorality, stupidity, unreason, etc.,” instead of becoming defensive, I should simply let them keep on talking. Perhaps some of their charges are true, or at least partially true. These I need to admit immediately. But most of these charges will be the other people trying to project onto me what are in fact their own guilts and inadequacies. If I avoid defensiveness and let them keep talking long enough, I will be able to carry out the work of a good psychotherapist, and eventually lead them into seeing that their greatest problems really lie within themselves, not with me or other people. [chapter 3, section II]

If I am successful in working with another individual, there will be produced a kind of “triple consciousness”: God-consciousness, self-consciousness, and other-consciousness. This will produce a kind of magnetic field of multiplied power. Another human being will be drawn into our group, and then another, and another. [chapter 3, section II]

Confession and restitution as a way to change the past: a new kind of psychotherapy
Confession and restitution allow us to actually change the past. It breaks the chain of karma (“the summed-up self” as Leon calls it) and releases us at last from the rigid automatic reactions and compulsions which dominate our lives. It starts by releasing us from compulsions like dipsomania and morphinomania (alcoholism and drug addiction we would say today), and then begins to liberate us also from habitual reactions such as a tendency to fall into anger or resentment or despair, and other similar destructive compulsions. [chapter 3, section II]

How is the past changed? Let us take as an example, an English colonial administrator who “on surrendering his life to God, first wins freedom from a humiliating and disabling sex impurity which obsesses him at the moment, is next enabled to deal with his narcissism, then gains successively release from his pride of family and pride of race, and his arrogance and lovelessness towards the subject population which he has to rule, until one day, through sharing with someone whom he is trying to change, he traces the formation of his character to the fear inspired in him by a governess who used to beat him as a boy with a ruler.” [chapter 3, section II]

What is the difference between this and what the psychiatrists do? The psychiatrists believe that they can heal their patients by showing them how they can blame their present problems on what someone else did to them in childhood. The problem is that the real freeing effect of that, if any, is usually not very great. The Oxford Group says instead that an early childhood trauma is not a cause but simply the beginning of some chain of karma. I can free myself from it only by accepting responsibility for who I have become, instead of trying to shift responsibility onto someone or something else.

Forgiveness of the past
The phrase “forgive and forget” states an impossibility, for “whatever is forgotten is never forgiven, and whatever is forgiven is never forgotten.” Confession and making amends opens up the graves which litter the past, and displays all of the unholy contents of those tombs. When I make amends to other people for things I did to them in the past, this brings the light of truth to part of that ancient scene, which in turn puts a powerful kind of pressure on the other participants to see what they also did in that situation. It gives them a chance to redeem themselves too, if they choose to, without name-calling or condemnation or blaming from my side, which is a very precious gift to give to other people.

And when the graves are opened, and the rotting, festering deeds of the past are finally exposed to light and air, it then and only then becomes possible for me to confront the fear and surrender it to God. Then and only then does it become possible for me to act in the present without my action being a blind reaction to the past. I no longer have to attempt to get revenge, to do something to “show them,” to brag and bluster, to close myself off from other people to hide my shame, or whatever the reactive responses are which I have been compulsively carrying out. [chapter 3, section II]

There is a word of warning here too. There are those who would like to practice censorship, and prettify the history of the Oxford Group and the life of Frank Buchman, or who would like to leave certain things out of the history of the rise of A.A. and the life of people like Bill Wilson. If we do this, we will destroy the power of forgiveness and redemption, and will defeat any possibility of transmitting a higher God-consciousness and spiritual experience to other human beings, because the message we preach will no longer have the power to blow the mighty trumpet which opens up the graves of the past and brings the resurrection of the dead. That is, we will find ourselves no longer having the power to change the past, but will be compelled to repeat our old mistakes over and over forever.


Social problems are not the fault of “the system”
Leon believed that it was a great mistake to think that social problems could be corrected by changing the whole system (the political system or the economic system) in fanatical fashion, or by passing punitive laws. Communists falsely believed that everyone would be happy if only the capitalist system was destroyed, while prohibitionists foolishly thought that alcoholism would cease to be a problem if laws were only passed forbidding the sale of alcohol. But the true causes of class warfare, drunkenness, and so on, lay with individuals, not with society. An individual self which has no real God-consciousness and is dominated by selfishness will pervert any system of government or laws. To change diseased institutions, we first had to change diseased individuals. That was the route which the Oxford Group had decided to follow by the end of the 1930’s. [chapter 4, section I]

Childhood education and sex
But it was also true that we could alter the way we did certain things in human society in a fashion which would help produce changed individuals, starting with childhood education and the whole matter of sex and marriage.

Traditional education, both in the church and in the secular world, focused on “the inculcation of fear.” Children were given mechanical rules to follow, and threatened with punishment (even with eternal hellfire) if they broke any of these rules. They were taught to fear their teachers and to regard them as perfect human beings who never broke the rules and never made mistakes. As a result, each child would be turned into a chain of Karma, a chain which arose during early childhood, but whose series of interlinked selfish and fear-based reactions would decide the course of that child’s whole subsequent life, all the way to adulthood and old age.

In changed education, however, teachers who had themselves undergone the kind of life-changing experiences which the Oxford Group taught, would share with the children. They would not only share their God-consciousness, but also would admit to their own fallibility. From teachers such as these, children could develop real personalities. [chapter 4, section II]

On the issue of sex, Leon spoke against “sex impurity” without really explaining what he meant by the term. For the Oxford Group in general, this tended to mean homosexuality, transvestism, and masturbation, all of which they frequently preached against vociferously. Leon’s ideal was the kind of marriage which was a partnership between a man and a woman who had both surrendered their lives to God. [chapter 4, section III]

Economics and the political world
Leon’s solution to the world’s economic problems was that people should be taught to stop focusing on consumption (a selfish desire which was destructive of human personality) and turn instead to thinking about productiveness (which encouraged creativity and innovation, the fruits of true personhood). Economics needed to be personalized, where employer and employee (and even business rivals) started regarding one another as persons. Absolute Love was the only power which could truly heal economic conflicts. [chapter 4, section IV]

Traditionally, politics was the art of manipulating human fears. But a changed human society would use Quiet Time and group guidance to discover God’s will, based on the principles of Absolute Love, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Honesty, and Absolute Purity.

On the topic of crime, Leon argued that it did no good to punish criminals just for the sake of punishing them. Criminals, like those who suffered from other forms of mania and insanity, were people just like us, only more so. We might indeed have to place certain kinds of criminals behind a cordon sanitaire (quarantine line) where they could be prevented from entering the rest of society and harming people. But we then needed to send people with changed lives in to work with these people and teach them about Absolute Love and so on, until their lives had been changed, and they could be allowed to reenter normal human society.

The only way to eliminate war—the ultimate mania or insanity into which a diseased economic and political system fell—was to produce a changed society in which total holiness had permeated every human heart. [chapter 4, section V]

Philosophy and art
The proper task of philosophy is not to not engage in endless argument, but to expose error. Truth does not need to be discovered, because it stares us in the face once error has been removed. The primal errors are denying the existence of God, believing that the self (and its selfish desires) is real, and refusing to face the reality of the Cross: the path of surrender and acceptance which leads to true God-consciousness.

Bad art—the kind of art which Leon believed dominated the modern world—glorified sex impurity, protest for the sake of protest, scorn and contempt, meaninglessness and absurdity, and every other variety of negative God-feeling. The changed artist would pray instead, and attempt to portray true God-consciousness and the nature of the Cross. But the changed artist would be above all “the artist of laughter,” who celebrated the ability to laugh at ourselves, which signified the defeat of that old soul-destroying fear which kept us locked in blind selfishness and egotistical self-centeredness. [chapter 4, section VI]

The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous
As we can see, the Oxford Group in 1938 was turning into a movement with a different set of goals, symbolized in their renaming of the group as Moral Re-Armament. Their desire to concentrate more and more on the attempt to bring about world peace and a changed society led them in a direction which the newly formed Alcoholics Anonymous movement did not wish to travel. The only way to treat alcoholism, A.A. had discovered, was through a group which had a singleness of purpose, where the group focused all of its efforts on that task alone.

But the A.A. people took what they had learned from the Oxford Group about the soul-destroying power of fear and selfishness and the way in which the practice of Quiet Time, surrender, and acceptance could allow God’s grace to change and totally remake the human soul, and remained forever grateful, through all the generations which followed, to those fine and good people in the Oxford Group who had first taught them how to find God.


1. Philip Leon, The Philosophy of Courage or the Oxford Group Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939).

2. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr quoted that work in his own masterwork, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), in Ch. 7, “Man as Sinner,” p. 204, note 2: “Philip Leon, in an invaluable study of human egotism, analyses self-deception as follows: ‘The self-deceiver does not believe … what he says or he would not be a deceiver. He does believe what he says or he would not be deceived. He both believes and does not believe … or he would not be self-deceived.’ The Ethics of Power, p. 258.” This passage shows Leon already coming out with important philosophical ideas which the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was going to make famous in works like his L’Être et le Néant (“Being and Nothingness” 1943).

3. Lady Margaret Hall (founded in 1878) was the first women’s college established as part of Oxford University. It is located only a couple of blocks south from where I lived at Park Town when I was a student at Oxford. I arrived at Oxford to begin my studies in 1965, exactly thirty years after Leon went to that house party—a generation later, although there were still many similarities to, and reminiscences of, Oxford in the 1930’s.

4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 1.13.3. Eng. trans. as St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, Book One: God, trans. Anton C. Pegis (Garden City NY: Image Books/Doubleday & Co., 1955). The same argument was given in briefer fashion in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 2, art. 3.

5. Big Book = Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001; orig. pub. 1939) 67-68. But Bill W. later explained in more detail in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1952, 1953), in the chapter on the fourth step, what he had meant in the Big Book (on page 65) by the natural instincts (“our self-esteem, our security, our ambitions, our personal, or sex relations”) which were producing this fear, and how they had to be handled. Contrary to what Philip Leon argued, Bill W. insisted that freedom from the great Terror came, NOT from totally eradicating the self and replacing its natural instincts with absolute (that is, perfect) virtues, but from producing more balance among the natural instincts. So for example, working hard at one’s job in the hopes of perhaps achieving a promotion and a raise was not evil in and of itself, unless and until it started driving us into unbearable resentments and fears. Some alcoholics, who had not held a real job in years, needed to be pushed into developing a much greater drive for finding some kind of honest employment, so they could have a roof of their own over their heads, and food on their families’ tables—developing a little bit of fear of starving to death in the gutter was not an unhealthy growth in these persons.

6. Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000) 28. “Sick originally meant ‘ill’ in the seventeenth century … The meaning of the word was not limited to ‘nausea’ alone, which is the predominant meaning in Britain today. When used predicatively (i.e., with verbs like to be or to feel) the new British sense of the term is ‘ready to vomit, to feel nauseated.’ American English still retains the earlier, more general sense of the word, and it is used of illness in general.”

7. Jessie Penn-Lewis was a very interesting figure. An Englishwoman, her father was a Calvinist Methodist minister. She herself was deeply involved in the great Welsh Revival in 1904-1905. She wrote a book entitled The Centrality of the Cross, from which we could get some suggestion of what she was preaching about at Keswick when Frank Buchman heard her, but was more famous (or notorious) for a book which she and Evan Roberts authored, called War On The Saints (1912), about the dangers of Christians becoming possessed by demons and evil spirits if they were not continually alert. She blamed the ultimate collapse of the Welsh Revival on the work on Satan.

8. Such as the Free Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Church of the Nazarene, the holiness churches, the people who run Asbury College and Seminary near Lexington, Kentucky, and so on.

9. Richmond Walker (1892-1965), Twenty-Four Hours a Day, “compiled by a Member of the Group at Daytona Beach, Fla.,” rev. ed. (Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 1975; orig. pub. 1948). Rich first got sober as a member of the Oxford Group for two and a half years (from 1939-1941) before he went back to drinking for a year and a half. He got permanently sober in May 1942, after he joined the newly founded A.A. group in Boston.

10. The experience of the white light was described by Bill W. in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1957) p. 63. This happened on December 13 or 14 probably. See Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1984) p. 104 for a picture of his discharge slip, which shows that he was admitted to Towns Hospital on December 11, 1934 and discharged on December 18, 1934.

11. Glenn F. Chesnut, Images of Christ: An Introduction to Christology (San Francisco: Harper & Row/Seabury, 1984) pages 57-62.

12. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, 2nd ed., trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950; 1st English trans. 1923; orig. pub. 1917). The earlier book was Rudolf Otto, The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries, trans. E. B. Dicker (London: Williams & Norgate, 1931).

13. The group continued to go by this name all the way down to 2001, when they changed their name yet again, to “Initiatives of Change.”

2 Comments so far
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Glen Chesnut’s forward to Philip Leon’s PHILOSOPHY OF COURAGE is remarkably good scholarship. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and non members alike will find an astutely profound blending of AA’s planned program of recovery and existential thinking of both the atheistic and theistic branches. Readers who resonate with Chesnut’s essay might also wish to read Howard Clinebell’s 1956 classic but largely unknown book the existential theology of AA recovery.

Comment by Ken Hart

I am sober 7 yrs & used the public awarness of AA to attain & re-attian this, as a solution. A sponsor or friend as i call him put me on to the more indepth literature, eg p leon. I (this is not the self but a thinking) will engaged in his-oxford group books to understand care. Care in the world.

Comment by Mr J K Murray

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