I discovered the writings of P. D. Ouspensky from a book by Colin Wilson called The Occult. Wilson quotes a long passage from The New Model of the Universe, which so struck me that the next time I was in a used book store I inquired about Ouspensky. The owner of the store didn’t have any of his books, but he knew Ouspensky and gave me his opinion of the man. ‘He was great writer,’ he said, ‘He wrote a brilliant book called Tertium Organum, but then he became associated with a charlatan named Gurdjieff and went downhill from there.’
As far as I know Ouspensky’s reputation outside the Gurdjieff movement has not changed substantially in the last 50 years. He is certainly less fashionable, but he is still considered by many to have been a brilliant philosopher/writer whose first book rivalled Aristotle and Bacon. Tertium Organum means ‘third canon of thought,’ Aristotle wrote Organum, and then Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum (1620), ‘new canon of thought.’ It was a bold move, some would say arrogant, for the young Ouspensky to associate his first full book with Aristotle and Bacon.
But that is not what I want to talk about here. It is Ouspensky’s reputation inside the Gurdjieff movement that I want to speak about. Many of the articles and comments I have read about Ouspensky in the last two years seem to me to be either unfounded or based on a misunderstanding of what the system is and what it represents for all us. My plan here is to look at some of the most common complaints and respond to them individually. But I before I get into that, I want to point out something that people who criticize Ouspensky tend to forget: besides Gurdjieff, no one in the early days of the movement did more to support, clarify and promote the work than Ouspensky. Many of Gurdjieff’s most important students came through Ouspensky, and when Gurdjieff needed money to buy the Chateau du Prieuré at Fontainebleau, much of the money that was raised came from Ouspensky’s friends. And as far I know In Search of the Miraculous is the only book about Gurdjieff’s teaching that was authorized for publication by Gurdjieff.
I will cover five complaints that appear to me to be the most common and most repeated.
That Ouspensky was just an intellectual and didn’t really learn to practice the work.
This is by far the most common judgement leveled against Ouspensky by his critics. This criticism is largely based on a misconception that the work must manifest through a moving/instinctive activity like dance or that a teacher of the work must, like Gurdjieff, be powerful and charismatic.
Gurdjieff was hard on all his intellectual students, including Ouspensky. He made Orage dig ditches when he came to the Prieuré, and he is reported to have told Bennett, ‘Never once I see you struggle with yourself. All the time you are occupied with your cheap animal.’ But he was their teacher and he more than anybody knew their weaknesses, and how to help them balance their lower centers. A ‘man’ in Gurdjieff’s terms was someone who had created a balance; that is, an ability to use and respond from his instinctive/moving, emotional, and intellectual brains as the situation required. So we must assume that Gurdjieff’s intellectually centered students (men number three) needed to develop their moving and emotional centers, but at the same time we must assume that his instinctive/moving and emotionally centered students (men number one and two) needed to develop their intellectual centers. It is unrealistic that to suppose that a man like Ouspensky could have excelled in the movements, but at the same time it is unrealistic to suppose that Gurdjieff’s best dancers could have developed intellectual abilities rivalling Ouspensky.
In reality there is no perfectly balanced man. It is an ideal. Perhaps Gurdjieff himself came closest to realizing this ideal, but even he had his imbalances. Essence means being strong in some areas and weak in others. It is what makes us different. Some people are born with an agile moving center, and some, like Ouspensky, are born with an agile mind. To some extent we all have to play to our strengths if we want to serve the work, because it often turns out that our weaknesses are also where our greatest strengths lie.
We also need to remember that the fourth way is not a way of dance, or of art, or of any other activity. It is a way of understanding. And if you read The Fourth Way, certainly still the best group of lectures by Ouspensky, what you find is not an intellectual expounding ideas, but rather a man who understands the difficulties and complexities of inner work who tries his best to bring his students around to the necessity of effort. In other words, a man who knows the work from the inside, and understands its difficulties because he has experienced those difficulties himself. It is a book that can only be appreciated when we begin to try to make those same efforts.
From all accounts Ouspensky was not charismatic, at least not as charismatic as Gurdjieff, still he must have had something to have been able to attract so many students. We must careful not to mistake charisma for consciousness. (Here I am defining charisma in the ordinary, popular sense, as one who arouses fervent devotion and enthusiasm, not in the theological sense of possessing the power to perform miracles.) There are many politicians and performers in everyday life who possess the power to attract a fervent group of devoted followers who clearly have no grasp or experience of higher centers. Consciousness may manifest in a charismatic essence, as was the case with Gurdjieff, but a charismatic personality is not evidence of higher consciousness, and the lack of a charismatic personality is not evidence that higher consciousness is lacking.
That Ouspensky only repeated Gurdjieff’s ideas, that he no original ideas of his own.
This criticism is the result of a misconception of the nature of esoteric knowledge. First of all, they were not Gurdjieff’s ideas. He makes it plain that he acquired his knowledge through a long search. In other words, he was given the ideas, just as Ouspensky was. Gurdjieff was not very forthcoming about his sources, but he never claimed to have invented the ideas of the system.
Esoteric ideas come from higher mind. They are not invented so much as rediscovered. This is something that is difficult for us to comprehend at the beginning. Our democratic ideals have blinded us to the idea that men can have a radically different being; that is, that some men, because they have mastered the exercises of esoterism, have a greater capacity to understand. Essentially all esoteric systems are the same, whether they were practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Medieval Christians monks, 13th century Sufis, or the generations of people of the Gurdjieff movement, who have learned to practice self-remembering and non-identification. Higher mind means the working of higher centers. The idea is that when higher centers work, it is possible to see what is normally passed over in sleep. And the knowledge that comes from this perception, particularly the knowledge of the methods and the exercises that are needed to connect to higher centers, is the basis of esoteric knowledge.
This from the first paragraph of The Fourth Way:
The most important ideas and principles of the system do not belong to me. This is chiefly what makes them valuable, because if they belonged to me they would be like all other theories invented by ordinary minds—they would give only a subjective view of things. ~ P. D Ouspensky
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky claimed the knowledge of the system not by inventing it, but by mastering its exercises and disciplines. Now it is our turn to do the same.
That Gurdjieff used Ouspensky for his connections but didn’t believe in his inner work
The argument that Ouspensky used Gurdjieff is just as strong. Gurdjieff had the knowledge that Ouspensky had spent most of his adult life trying to uncover, and he spent his years with Gurdjieff trying to put it all together in a working system, and then left him after he had what he wanted. On Gurdjieff’s side, he gained access to circles that he would not have had access to without Ouspensky. Ouspensky was an important intellectual and journalist in Russia. His lectures, before he met Gurdjieff, are said to have attracted one thousand people. Ouspensky also basically doubled Gurdjieff’s number of Russian students by organizing his Petersburg group, and he quickly became Gurdjieff’s go-to person to teach the basics to new students. When Thomas De Hartman joined Gurdjieff’s group he was straightaway sent to Ouspensky to be caught up.
I think it can be said that the relationship between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky was less personal than it is usually made out to be. What I mean by this is that when Ouspensky helped Gurdjieff by finding sources of income or by sending his students from England to the Prieuré, he had a large enough perspective to understand that he was not helping Gurdjieff as much as he was helping the work itself. Gurdjieff was an agent of the work, but so was Ouspenky, and Gurdjieff understood this, and always included Ouspensky in public lists of his students.
At the same time this does not mean that there was not friendship, or even love, between the two men. We know, for instance, from In Search of the Miraculous that Ouspensky was invited to Gurdjieff’s family home and that he met Gurdjieff’s father. Gurdjieff had an enormous love and respect for his father, and I seriously doubt that he would have invited Ouspensky to meet him if he did not consider him a good and trusted friend.
That Ouspensky made a mistake when he separated from Gurdjieff.
We cannot know what would have been better for Ouspenky’s personal work: staying with Gurdjieff or leaving him, as he did, and starting his own group in London. Clearly Ouspensky was conflicted by his decision to separate from Gurdjieff. But at the same time, I think we can take his word when he explains at the end of In Search of the Miraculous that he found something destructive in Gurdjieff’s methods. In 1923 Ouspensky ‘went fairly often’ to the Prieuré and was invited by Gurdjieff to live there. He considered it, but this was his final conclusion:
I could not fail to see, as I had seen in Essentuki in 1918, that there were many destructive elements in the organization of the affair itself and that it had to fall to pieces. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
The question here isn’t whether Gurdjieff was destructive. All the evidence is that he was destructive. The question is whether his destructiveness was a teaching method, or whether it was simply a weakness of his character. It is not a simple question, but there is evidence that Gurdjieff considered it a teaching method and that he could control it. Fritz Peters’ book Childhood with Gurdjieff includes several behind-the-scenes accounts that seem to demonstrate that Gurdjieff had a remarkable amount of control over his emotional outbursts. It is also obvious to anybody who understands Rodney Collin’s map of human types that Gurdjieff was a Mars/Jovial type, which means that he had an essence that was given to directness and destruction on the Martial side and to arrogance and harmony on the Jovial side. In other words, his essence clearly dictated not only his character but also his teaching methods.
Gurdjieff, more than Ouspensky, Collin, and other fourth way teachers, felt that his students wouldn’t appreciate the knowledge unless they paid for it. This belief accounts for some of what Ouspensky called his ‘acting,’ that is, telling off-color jokes and humiliating his students. It also accounts for his writing style, which was deliberately made convoluted and opaque.
It’s easy for us to imagine that, if we had known Gurdjieff, he would have either appreciated our work or that we would have been able to not identify with his onslaughts. But I seriously doubt that he would have spared any of us, or that many of us would have had the being to stick it out as long as Ouspensky did.
The reality for us is that if Ouspensky had stayed with Gurdjieff, the movement would not be as diverse and robust as it is now. Ouspensky, by settling in England, was forced to reform the system in the English language, which turned out to the prominent language of the twentieth century. He was also responsible for setting a standard of terms and ideas for the other English writers who were influential: Nicoll, Bennett, Orage, and Rodney Collin, all of whom he taught.
That Ouspensky was an alcoholic, and was consumed by nostalgia for his old life in Russia
I have seen the accusation that Ouspensky was an alcoholic made four or five times in recent comments and articles. By all accounts Ouspensky was a heavy drinker, but then so was Gurdjieff, and nobody is calling him an alcoholic. Many people in the movement seem to feel that Gurdjieff had complete control of his weaknesses and that Ouspensky was completely controlled by his weaknesses. I’m guessing that the reality is that both men had a level of being that allowed them to regularly access higher centers, but at the same time both men had a human side, and that this human side was subject to excesses and weakness.
To some extent our attitude about Ouspensky depends on who we believe. I tend to think that Rodney Collin’s accounts have more validity because he spent more time with Ouspensky than most of his critics. He was also there at the end of Ouspensky’s life and recorded what happened in those remarkable last months. In his letters Collin doesn’t allow himself to be drawn into the dispute of who was right and who was wrong, or who was more conscious and less conscious, but rather sees Gurdjieff and Ouspensky as part of a larger revelation.
I believe that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were the two chosen agents of at least one stage of a new revelation. They were partners and complements, chosen because they represented and could transmit opposite aspects of the same truth. Two poles have to be separated for electric current to jump between them and make light. ~ Rodney Collin
In a pamphlet that is not very well known called The Herald of Harmony Collin writes that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky represented two forces in a triad, that Ouspensky played the first or positive force and that Gurdjieff played that second or negative force. He also says that it was his role to play the third or invisible force.
You can also say that the three men in their relationship to the outside world represented one of the three aspects of higher centers: Gurdjieff, will; Ouspensky, consciousness; and Collin, unity.
Like Gurdjieff, Collin at the end of his life experimented with language in order to try and find a different way to communicate the experience of higher centers, except that he went in the opposite direction, instead of a convoluted and opaque style, Collin experimented with an abbreviated or poetic style. This is the way he describes Ouspensky in The Herald of Harmony:
Grew old, invisible. Behind the crumbling façade of the body constructed a new edifice, whence HE looked out. ~ Rodney Collin
It is well documented that Ouspensky liked to sit around a table with his closest students and drink and talk and to some extent reminisce. This seems to me to a very Russian activity. When I went to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and met with a new generation of Russians interested in the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky work, I found myself many times in exactly the same situation; that is, sitting with three or four people around a kitchen table in a flat in Moscow or Saint Petersburg and drinking vodka and talking about the work and its men and women.
Nostalgia is a strange emotion. Unlike sadness or joy, it is not connected to the moment, but is rather connected to the past. This fact alone makes it suspect. But the key to transforming any emotion, including sadness and joy, is non-identification. It is our identification with emotions that make them mechanical. If we can bring self-remembering (the present) to a moment of nostalgia, what happens is that we create a connection between the present and a moment in the past, and if the emotion is strong enough, it can create an arc through time, connecting not only the moment in the past with the present, but also all the moments in between. And this is close to a definition of higher consciousness, which can be seen as an experience of a longer time, or of a line of time. Ouspensky even seemed to believe that if this longer experience of time was powerful enough, that it could extend into the future.
I know this comment is going to upset some followers of Gurdjieff, but I have found that in meeting with hundreds of new students of the movement in 8 or 9 countries that the students who knew only Ouspensky’s books were more prepared for inner work than the students who knew only Gurdjieff’s books. Of course, it was best when they know both Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s works. The problem with new students reading only Gurdjieff is that his powerful character overshadows the knowledge and people try to imitate that rather than trying to create a foundation of knowledge and being for themselves. Gurdjieff also attracts a group of people who are no good for the work; that is, people who are not interested in connecting to higher centers but are only interested in learning how to control and manipulate other people. They see Gurdjieff not as a teacher of conscious evolution, but as a ‘black magician’ or at least as a man who knew how to get what he wanted in a worldly sense.
At university, I had a creative writing instructor who often said to us, ‘This line tells us more about the writer than it does about the character.’ And this is the way I feel about many of the criticisms I read about Ouspensky, that the writers tell us more about themselves than they do about Ouspensky.
People who disparage great men to enhance their own image fool only those who share the same prejudices and only hurt their own possibilities.
You have to do gigantic work if you want to become different. How can you ever hope to get anything if you hesitate and argue on the first steps, or don’t even realize the necessity for help, or become suspicious and negative? If you want to work seriously you have to conquer many things in yourself. You cannot carry with yourself your prejudices, your fixed opinions, your personal identifications or animosities. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
Anybody who has tried to make consistent efforts to bring self-remembering and the non-expression of negative emotions to their day to day activities, knows that this work is difficult both to start and to maintain. It is only when we become serious about inner work, and to some extent awaken to our own possibilities and limitations, that we become grateful to have help, wherever we can find it.