Based upon a lecture given by the author at the Community Church
New York City, on March 1st, 1961.
All these belong to the period of time which we call modern history. They all are closely related to the advance of science and technology. The cozy world of the Middle Ages collapsed under the impact of scientific knowledge. We found ourselves adrift in a large and meaningless universe. We knew no reason to suppose that this universe had anything in common with us at all, or that there were any universal demands made on human life other than those which religious faith had somehow salvaged from the past. What we could be sure of was science Science went from one triumph to another. If there was one thing that deserved confidence, it was that. The growth of science, in a sense, made up for the loss of the religious values of the Middle Ages and for the loss of the philosophical background of human life.
Five hundred years ago, the cosmos appeared as the setting for e individual man's spiritual drama, which was also the drama of humanity's long spiritual development. In the modem period, however, the cosmos has seemed to have no relation to us at all except a narrowly material one, and spiritual development gave way to the development of scientific knowledge and power. Underlying every other form of alienation was this cosmic alienation, this alienation of ourselves from the universe. What we thought important had no real place in the universe, it only existed in the human world. Scientific knowledge and power were something real and objective. Religion became increasingly a subjective affair; and if religion didn't matter in the universe, it would only be a question of time before it didn't matter in human life either. The entire religious tradition seemed to many people simply outmoded. Many objections could be raised against it - that it was unscientific, that it was socially reactionary, and so on. But there was one objection that was more important than all the others: that is, that religion simply didn't matter.
Now today something of very great importance has happened, though we cannot yet measure the full dimensions of it. In a word what we call the modern world has ended. Now we do not mean, of course, that the world has ended. The world is still here. What we mean is that the historical epoch which we call "modem history" is over. In the history books we will find that by common convention there are three great periods of history - ancient, medieval and modern. The modern period is usually dated from the period of the Renaissance, say about 1500. It is this modern period which has now closed, and careful observers have been aware of it for some time. We are already in a new age, and a hundred years from now there will be a new name for this age in which we live. It cannot be called any longer the "modern world."
This is the overwhelming event that surrounds us on every side and sums up everything that has happened - the end of modem history and the beginning of the post-modern world. We will see that there is a possibility for a vast enlargement of our outlook in this new age. First we want to understand what this great change is. What does it mean to say that the modem world has ended? Basically that epoch exhausted its possibilties. Nothing more could be done within that framework. We had arrived at a dead end.
There are many signs of such a change. Here I want to point to just two and then tell how they are related to the ideas of Gurdjieff.
The first sign that the modem world is over is the meaning-crisis, a growing sense of meaninglessness today. This meaninglessness is a major threat. Many people simply do not think that there is any meaning to human life anymore. They do not know where they are going. They are lost and full of anxiety. We even call this the "age of anxiety". Now this is not primarily a psychological problem, nor an economic problem, to be solved by calling in a psychoanalyst or an econonomist. It is primarily a philosophical problem. It is our philosophy that has failed. It is the entire modem outlook that has failed.
The second sign of the end of an epoch is the scientific crisis. There has been a gigantic transformation in science in the last 50 years, which is still going on. Science has changed from top to bottom. It has broken loose from many old ways of thinking, and that revolution continues and nobody knows where it will lead. Ideas which we have cherished for centuries are now being abandoned - in physics, biology, chemistry, psychology. The whole of science is in a turmoil - from the theory of atomic physics to the ideas of psychology. Everything is being re-examined and that opens up our situation in a very new way.
First of all with regard to the breakdown of meaning - as long as people could believe in the automatic benefits of the advance of scientific knowledge and power, all went relatively well. An uneasiness might haunt some people, but others felt that the answers to all the problems raised by science were never anything more than more science. Science was making the old dreams of mankind come true, and there were no limits to it.
In the 20th century, our power has now grown to unprecedented proportions. In our laboratories we are creating temperatures several times greater than those at the interior of the sun. Nuclear power is sufficient to blow up the earth several times over. And who is standing at the centre of all this? Poor, tiny, helpless, foolish man. The weak link begins to appear. We are not sure of ourselves. We are not sure that we can control the cosmic power or that we know what to do with it. More and more we feel at the mercy of this power, no more controlling it, but positively enslaved by it. In our century people begin to ask frightening questions. Is the scientific advance itself after all demonic? Will it lead to self-destruction? Will it lead to the grave of the world? Are we destined to be destroyed by our own power? These questions are new. They were not asked before. Is the purpose of human life simply to develop more and more power to keep this process running? Where is the meaninglessness coming from? Why are people so full of anxiety? The basic problem of finding a meaning and an integrated direction remains unsolved. We can stand almost anything if we can see some point in it. When the meaning disappears, the heart goes and after that the spirit collapses.
Now there have been attempts, characteristic of today, to force a meaning on life in the form of social ideologies - that is, some people say, the growth of social power is the goal. Make society stronger and stronger. Subordinate the individual to this. The individual will find fulfillment in building the social power. And if he will not, then he must be forced to. For what higher aim is there than to increase the power of society? So speak the authoritarian socialists.
Or attempts are made to accept an ultimate meaninglessness, and even to make a kind of religion out of that. If Nothingness is the last word then we must learn to take that as our point of ultimate reference. Live in terms of Nothingness. Even the absence of meaning can become a plane of reality. Life must be lived with this negative God. So speak the existentialists.
Let us jettison science or ignore it and try to recover the pure immediacy of life without direction or purpose. All we need is the absolute directness of experience, the sheer spontaneity and joy of the moment. So speak the Zen Buddhists.
Overriding them all are the hard-headed "practical" people, saying 'Let us go on being practical'. Organize and produce more and more of the goods of life. The aim of life is to deal only in the practical no matter where it leads.
These answers arc no answers. They do not meet the issue. What is the issue? It is that we need great goals for life again, goals for the development of individual men and women, goals that will give me meaning and direction. We have been trying to live in terms of petty aims, or no aims at ail. We need the goals that religion used to offer, but in a form that will make sense to us and does not do violence to science. And this, let me suggest, is the first place where we should pay attention to the ideas of Gurdifieff. Strange as it may seem, Gurdjieff restated many of the great traditional goals in a form that is in keeping with the spirit of today and with the spirit of science. In his teaching ancient ideas that we thought had been left behind for centuries have reappeared in a way that is more advanced than tomorrow, and in this respect he is allied with other prophets of our day.
This is an explosive combination, because there is nothing more powerful than a very ancient idea when it is restated in contemporary terms. Gurdjieffs teaching turns around one fundamental point: the almost totally unrealized potentialities of individual human beings. Gurdjieff taught what many know, and what science has just now become aware of, that, despite the scientific transformation of our environment, the development of human beings themselves has scarecely begun.
In the ancient Gnostic, Christian, Buddhist and Sufi traditions, he found ideas about human development which the contemporary world has yet to discover. The first thing that is needed to cure the sickness of today is to become aware of these great human possibilities again, and to see what they mean concretely.
What are these possibilities? The subject is too vast for a short essay, but two or three can be mentioned. These possibilities, so Gurdjieff said, include levels of awareness that we do not even know exist. Why after all should we assume that we have the maximum possible consciousness? On the contrary, most of us go through life largely unaware. There are people who certainly have been more conscious than we are, more aware and more awake.
Secondly, the possibilities include developments of will that are unknown to us. How much control do we really have over ourselves? Or over our own lives and circumstances?
Thirdly, do we know also that there may be emotions, attitudes abilities that we do not yet have? We suppose ourselves, for example, to be capable of such an emotion as love in the religious sense. Is it possible that we have never experienced anything like that in our lives?
Now where should we start? Gurdjieff says we should start at a place we do not want to, yet the only place where we can begin - with ourselves as we are now. This means doing something that we do not want to do, that is, looking at ourselves. A simple idea but fraught with great consequences. Gurdjieff expressed with great emphasis and with a new force an idea as old as the oldest Greek philosophy: We not know ourselves. People think they know themselves, but in fact they do not, and this is what stands in the way of our development. We suppose that because we live with ourselves, therefore we automatically know ourselves, whereas in fact we are hidden from ourselves. We do not even see ourselves to the small extent that other people see us, nor do we realize just what we are in the eyes of others.
Gurdjieff understood in a profound way the mechanisms of illusion. He revealed how our imaginations work to manufacture illusions about ourselves. Quite automatically, our imaginations keep us self-satisfied and pleased with ourselves. He said it is not a question of thinking about ourselves - that we may do all the time; it is a question of seeing ourselves - and that we almost never do.
The great French poet Paul Valery expressed the same thought this way: "We never think that what we think conceals from us what we are." Gurdjieff taught that we cannot really see others because we cannot see ourselves, and that we can only know others to the extent that we know ourselves. Otherwise we see them in terms of our illusions. To consider another person objectively is beyond our present capacities because we have never considered ourselves objectively.
The same poet Valery made the following interesting observation: He said, "Every man possesses very nearly in the centre of his mechanism and well-placed among the instruments for navigating his life, a tiny apparatus of incredible sensitivity which indicates the extent of his self-respect. There we read whether we admire ourselves, adore ourselves, despise ourselves or should blot ourselves out. And some living pointer trembling over that secret dial flickers with terrible nimbleness between the zero of a beast and the maximum of a God. Now my friends, if you want to understand something about a good many things, just imagine that so vital and so delicate an apparatus is a plaything for anyone that comes along."
Here is a strange psychological fact that Valery points to: Every man loves himself the most and yet sets the least value on his own opinion of himself. What is the answer to this riddle?
Gurdjieff suggests the answer. It is this - that what we are trying to preserve is an imaginary conception of ourselves, and for this we would give our lives.
Our illusions about ourselves form an impenetrable barrier to our development - unless we are somehow shocked out of them or, through long and persistent efforts, succeed in overcoming them. Even then, when we suppose we have seen ourselves, it may be still another illusion. Gurdjieff gave one test that is cruel and ruthless but necessary He said, "He who is not horrified at himself knows nothing about himself at all." That would puncture many illusions. Are we horrified at ourselves? We have good reason to be. What is there to be horrified at? Simply and finally, our nothingness as we are now. Just that nothingness which our whole lives are skilfully concealing from us. Gurdjieff's teaching exposes that nothingness. Our self-importance, our easy assumptions that we control our lives, that we know ourselves, that we have a self - Gurdjieff reveals in startling fashion our inadequacy, even our non-existence.
If stupidity is to take things for granted, then we are all colossally stupid about ourselves, because we take ourselves for granted day after day and year after year.
The poet Valery understood this too and made a cryptic remark which students of Gurdjieff will understand. He said, "The essential is against life."
Of all the psychological insights of Gurdjieff, there is one that is particularly important for us now, and that is the distinction between thought and being. What we tend to worry about is our beliefs rather than our being. We suppose that if we have the right beliefs, everything will be all right, and that if we change our thoughts, we are changing ourselves. There could be no greater delusion. Because we identify ourselves with our thoughts, we live a fictitious life in thought and not in reality. The identical same person may go through a long string of philosophies, actually believing that he is changing each time he adopts a new philosophy, whereas in fact nothing in him has changed at all except his ideas.
It is foolish to talk about the development of human beings if all that changes is our ideas, while our emotions, attitudes, habits, impulses, manners - in short our real lives - remain the same. We must be changed totally in a unified way, or there is no change. We must be changed physically.
This is the place where Gurdjieff's teaching points to a long prevailing distinction between Oriental and Western psychology. That is the failure of Western psychojogy to emphasize the distinction between thinking and consciousness. They are not the same thing. To think about something is not the same as to be aware of it, although we sometimes use the word "think" ambiguously to mean both. But thinking is a process, and being-aware is an experience. This distinction has existed in Oriental thought for thousands of years, but curiously enough is not stressed in Western thought. On the contrary, these terms are usually fused together, and it is only just recently that we have become conscious of the importance of the distinction. Gurdjieff's teaching suggests that awareness is perhaps more important to us than thinking, an idea that may be new to many of: us.
One of the great religious geniuses of the 20th century, Simone Weil, made the same point. She said, 'Looking is what saves us.' The greatest capacity we have, she believed, is the capacity for attention. We are changed, she said, by the direction and quality of our attention and nothing else. Thinking will not change us, but the right use of attention, that will change us.
Gurdjieff's psychological ideas light up a great break in human experience, because Gurdjieff was primarily interested in what we should be interested in: The failure of the normal, or what is called the normal. Today it is the abnormality of the normal which is our problem, the universal neurosis of everybody. In a way, the more normal we are, the more hopeless our situation is. What is called "being normal" is just what is wrong with the world. It means living with atomic bombs, bomb shelters, unrestricted materialism, taking all for granted and even priding ourselves on the whole thing. We have learned to be proud of just this normality."
The British novelist, D. H. Lawrence, once said, "People never, never change. That is the tragedy." Indeed yes, we never change. But now more persistently the question is asked: "How can we change?" For we must. But how? It is to this question that Gurdjieff addresses himself. There is a penetrating honesty in the way he answers it. The outcome for him was not cynicism or despair. The outcome was that he was trying to do something about it.
Let me emphasize again this basic point by putting it in another way: What is dawning on many people today is the realization that we are prisoners of our own psychological makeups, and that these psychological are woefully inadequate. We have pretty much the same psychological equipment we had in the stone age, and we are trying to live in the 20th century. Many have expressed this idea besides Gurdjieff. One, for example, is Leo Stein, the brother of Gertrude Stein. Towards the end of his life Leo Stein said: "The next Copernican revolution will be the objectification of selves." Leo Stein tried to change himself by means of introspection and psychoanalysis and he found that these methods were not effective. Introspective analysis remained within his own illusions, and psychoanalysis reinterpreted his past. Only in the long and arduous method of self-awareness did he find success.
The crisis of meaning points to the fact that we have used up old purposes and are adrift. The remedy is the recovery of our human possibilities beginning with a long look at ourselves. But all these things must be put in a way that makes sense. It is a perfectly legitimate question to ask, 'How does all of this relate to modem science?' We must therefore look at these ideas, the perspective which Gurdjieff suggests, in terms of the changes in modem science.
The "Scientific Crisis"
It is a fact that in the last 50 years science has transformed itself completely. We simply do not live in the same universe that we lived in 50 years ago. The old Newtonian world is gone. We do not live in a vast mechanical prison. We live in a harmony of mathematical relations of the greatest significance and depth, and the more we are discovering, the more we are impressed by the almost unimaginable complexity and wonder of this new universe. In the 1880's people said, "Science has solved most of man's problems." Today we know this is not so.
The Gurdjieff ideas in the realm of science are well camouflaged. Many things were said by him, I am sure, to shock us out of our conventional ways of thinking or to prevent these ideas from being distorted in the market place. We know what happened to the ideas of Marx and Freud and Nietzsche. None of them would recognize themselves in their followers. Marx would say, or did say, 'I am not a Marxist', Freud would say, 'I am not a Freudian', and Nietzsche would certainly say 'I am not a Nietzschean'. It is quite possible that Gurdjieff sometimes has his tongue in his cheek. He was not so much interested in having parrots who would misunderstand his ideas. The important thing was that we should look for ourselves, see for ourselves, and not that we should become puppets of his.
Furthermore, it is certain that those who care only about conformity and about believing what everyone else believes will not be interested in these ideas. We have only to give a single well-chosen quotation to put them off. But behind that wall those who are interested may find something of significance, things which may be of great use.
I want to mention just two of the many changes which have occurred to show how they are related to the Gurdjieff point of view, two changes from the frontiers of science. They relate to the two ageswhich we are now entering: the Space Age and the Cybernetics Age. The Space Age begins with a new cosmology. This new cosmology has broken in on us with very few noticing its importance. Without fanfare or shouting, something startling has occurred. A cosmological revolution has taken place. What is it?
Stated bluntly, astronomers and physicists now believe that life is a common phenomena in the universe and there are hundreds of millions of inhabited planets. This is indeed new. Only a few years ago the theory was that we are the only living beings in the universe. Now would appear that life has a natural role in the universe. We human beings are not lost souls way out in space somewhere, with nobody or othmg like us anywhere, the result of some freakish accident. We belong here. We are part of cosmic processes. And with this change, the period of cosmic alienation of the last three or four hundred years comes to an end. That particular nightmare is over.
Many of our problems, many more than most of us suppose, have stemmed from this sense of having no place in the universe. Cosmology and astronomy tend to seem rather remote from ordinary life, as if they couldn't very much affect our thinking or what we do day-to-day. But, on the contrary, the picture that we have in the back of our heads about where we belong or do not belong in the universe does affect our daily behaviour. If we have the picture that we are lost in the stars, that has an effect on the way we act. This is the way that many people have been living, with just that sense of alienation or strangeness, for a long time.
Today, it is extremely refreshing to see a new age of cosmology begin, with the realization that we are a part of universal processes, that we belong here, that everywhere life develops, that there may be many places in the universe where the evolution of life has taken place intelligences exist. It is an emergence from the dark ages of cosmology, a new spirit, a new way of looking at things. And it is no surprise to the students of Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff reflected, after all, a much older view of the cosmos, one that is coming back now. He pointed to many ways in which we are related to the universe, and some of his students have suggested still others. Here is another place where we can say that very old ideas have suddenly reappeared in a very advanced way.
In most of human history and prehistory the sense of being intimately related to the cosmos has been the predominant attitude. It existed throughout the ancient world. When it was abandoned, the almost exclusively historical way of thinking came to the fore. This sense of history is a good thing and should not be lost. But if human history is to be the only reality, that can lead to a kind of worship of history which produces unhealthy results. Human history belongs in a cosmic framework, in a framework of cosmic history or cosmic evolution. We need not surrender the emphasis on human history, but shoud see it in a much larger setting.
An even greater scientific revolution is the second one. This is the emergence of the brain machines or the coming of cyberneties. Cybernetics is the science of automatic control. Here is another change of enormous proportions. We must not mince words about it. What it means is that it is possible to create machines which perform many of the operations of what we call thinking. This is a great shock to many, though it is no shock at all to people who are familiar with Gurdjieff. It is, in fact, precisely what they would have expected. They knew all along that thinking, or what is ordinarily called thinking, is a mechanical performance. To discover that brain machines can be made involves no change, no upset, to the Gurdjieff point of view. In fact Gurdjieff suggested that we are ourselves precisely such machines. It is fashionable to underestimate the significance of cybernetics. Many people say, "Oh, the machines will never be as good as we are. We teach them what to do. We will be able to control them. After all, we are far superior to them." Cyberneticists themselves, particularly such a man as Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, know better than that. Norbert Wiener is not at all sure that this is so. He has raised the question, whether human beings will be sufficiently intelligent to control the new machines. The truth is that there are already in existence machines that can calculate faster, more accurately and with better memories and sounder judgments in many areas than we can. Not only that, but they can learn from experience in these operations.
The Gurdjieff view has long maintained that what we call thinking is largely a mechanical affair and that, as human beings are now, we are largely machines, and because we are largely machines, it is only a matter of time before the analogous machines will be built and these machines will do what we have been doing. Now a very important question: What then is the difference between humans and machines? Gurdjieff says that, as far as present man is concerned, virtually none. We ourselves are extraordinarily machine-like, but it has taken the creation of sophisticated machines to make us aware of it.
We have the challenge thrown at us by science now. If we are to have any place in the world of brain machines, we must develop in ourselves something that is not machine-like.
Behaviouristically the machine may duplicate us. It now appears that any function which can be defined exactly and in quantitative terms can be performed by a machine. What is it then that cannot be embodied in a machine? The answer is what is non-function, or what is functional on a level beyond exact definition. That is, if there are aspects of us which are not functional, not definable in exact terms, these things cannot be embodied in a machine.
But the question is: Are there any such non-functional, non-definable aspects of a human being? Is there something in us which is not of the character of a definable functionality? Gurdjieff suggested at least two to begin with: consciousness and will.
If consciousness could be defined, then the machine could be made conscious. But according to cyberneticists, consciousness cannot be defined. (Indeed, the temptation for some of them is to say that it does not exist). That is, it is impossible to state what its function is; or it may not have a function. In a sense, consciousness is irrelevant to the machine. What we want from a machine is that it should function or do something, and we really don't care if it is conscious or not. If a machine does what it is supposed to do, strictly speaking, it would not be of great importance whether it was conscious. A similar question is whether the machine enjoys itself. We don't much care.
According to Gurdjieff's teachings that there are vertical levels of life, for example, different levels of consciousness and different levels of will. We do not have to live purely on a machine level. We have capacities which cut across this functional, machine-like level. If this is not so, then we can absolutely be replaced by the machines and there is nothing whatsoever in us which is not so replaceable. This is at has been revealed by the emergence of the brain-machines.
The conclusion is inescapable: Consciousness, will, spirit, enjoyment, these things which traditionally represent the possibility of growth, the possibility of meaning, either they are real, though perhaps non-functional in a definable sense, or we ourselves are obsolete.
The truth is that we are not primarily, inevitably and necessarily machines, even thinking machines, nor even functional apparatuses. We are evolving creatures who have the capacity to participate in our own self-evolution, which is the true growth of meaning and being, in a way which even permits new functions and new definitions to develop.
Philosophers have lengthy debates on such questions as the soul, free-will, self, and so forth, and these still continue today. Gurdjieff's general answer to these questions is most interesting. He saw life as a task, something to be done. So he said we do not have a self; we have a task to develop a self. We do not have a soul; we have a task to develop a soul. We do not have free will; we have a task to develop it. The almost fruitless arguments as to whether these things do or do not exist now is undercut by the assertion that they are potentialities. They represent what could be. There is a note of health and sanity here because such a teaching appeals to our desire to do something, to develop.
The initial impression of Gurdjieff's teaching is of something extremely bizarre, far-fetched and even "crack-pot". It is only with time that this impression gives way to the realization that behind the exotic facade there is a remarkable amount of good sense. In fact, it is those who know the Gurdjiff ideas best who are most inclined to describe them by the phrase "common sense". This is perhaps the strangest point of all: that what appears so extravagant and fantastic should be in fact a point of view which chiefly recommends itself by its "health, sanity and goal sense."
We are very vulnerable today to mental and spiritual enemies, and only a strong philosophy can resist them. This has to be a philosophy that combines the most ancient ideas with advanced science, the insights of the East with the practicality of the West, the day before yesterday with the day after tomorrow. Gurdjieff's point of view lives in this synthesis. It is tougher than science and more visionary than religion And that is, indeed, a rare and striking combination.