THE SLY WAY
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The Russian mathematician, journalist and ‘Fourth Way’ philosopher Peter D. Ouspensky (1878–1947) is largely ignored and seldom taken seriously today by intellectuals. One might say that Ouspensky’s contributions to the ‘Crazy Russian’ stereotype were not appreciated by his peers. His reputation was virtually ruined during his lifetime, not only because of his enthusiasm for the fashionable fourth-dimension discourse of his day and esoteric subjects as well, nor for preaching his rationalizations of the self-remembering method of his iconoclastic master, yet another black sheep, the self-remembered mystic and lover of distilled spirits, G.I. Gurdjieff (1872-1949), but also because of his eccentric, drug-enhanced lifestyle.
Following in the relatively fresh footsteps of the Russian seer, tobacco fiend and professional charlatan, Madame Blavatsky, first Gurdjieff and then Ouspensky embarked on a nomadic, Oriental search for golden nuggets and priceless jewels of ancient wisdom, for miraculous notions and alchemical potions, a quest that contributed to their popularity among disaffected radicals of all sorts, bohemians, beatniks, and hippies. The eclectic product of their adventures was rendered absurd by its often self-contradictory assortment of ancient lore posing as modern revelation. Ouspensky’s attempt to gloss the Absurd over with rationalizations was taken to heart by persons who found some security in its mechanical or systematic aspect, hence we occasionally encounter an apparently objective or heartless system that provides for emotion in name only, an awful burnished machine that does not, however, raise consciousness to the classically harmonious realm purposed by the ‘Work’ of his fascinating master, Gurdjieff, whom Time magazine referred to as “a remarkable blend of P.T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx, and everybody’s grandfather.”
In sum, Gurdjieff’s hard ‘Work’ was based on ancient premises and techniques that are by no means proprietary or unique to his school, but are necessarily platitudinous premises still held. And the related techniques and rituals are still practiced by modern psychologists. His therapeutic work employed music, dance, rituals, and a sort of psychological shock therapy to prepare the novice for initiation into the version of reality Gurdjieff had became acquainted with on his peregrinations.
Gurdjieff stated that his semi-biographical work, Meetings With Remarkable Men, was intended to be “prepatory instructive material for setting of the consciousness of creatures similar to myself a new world”; that is, a real world instead of an illusory world. He wrote another work, Beezlebub’s Tub, “to destroy mercilessly the beliefs and views rooted for centuries in the mind and feelings of men”, by arousing unfamiliar thoughts in their minds. Of course he employed more than words to shock his students out of their wits.
Most importantly, Gurdjieff emphasized an artificial, triadic structure of human beingness: In the name of the mind, the body, and the feeling, as One. He supposed that, IF the three centers were brought into triunal harmony, THEN a higher level or state of being-consciousness would naturally follow. Gurdjieff the mystic, by the way, was a composer and hypnotist. Although Ouspensky’s intellectual analysis of Gurdjieff’s Work tends to divorce the mind from body and feelings and exalt the rational function, Gurdjieff’s version of classical Harmony, his harmonious level of being, is an emotional state of being, at least from the perspective of modern psychology.
When a bow is pulled across a string of a musical instrument in just the right way, strife is music to the ears. When strings conflict in such a way that they insult ears sensitive to an accustomed musical system, the result is deemed inharmonious. Life itself is a sort of lover’s complaint in its war against nature, and all against all after bliss is left behind and self-consciousness gained.
What is love? Love is simply your life, said Swedenborg. So we say each life is a lover’s complaint because the individual would persist without resistance forever if only s/he could, but s/he can not. An individual with power unlimited would not be divided within nor without, and would in effect be as powerful as the projected Holy Power or Almighty so many persons worship with all their might. Hence, albeit a form of complaint, self-love is essentially life, and therein is the unity of all lives.
While militant philosophers believed strife to be the general Good from which all goods flow, and held that blood must and should be plentifully and frequently shed to improve the moral fibre of the race, others, who hankered after peace among men, abhorred strife, and they opposed to strife an altruistic love, an overarching metaphysical Love that would transcend strife and purportedly bring harmony. That is to say, harmony within, to the basic anxiety of existential complaints, which would, in turn, be orchestrated, and harmony without, in forms of loving cooperation to mutual ends. Or perhaps we would better say, in mutual admiration or mutual self-love, inasmuch as all are to love their neighbors as themselves, as absurd and repugnant as that might seem.
Wherefore we hear of “Harmony” in several languages from many philosophers who profess to hold usually three-pronged keys to an emotional state of being we might all enjoy; in a word we might call it bliss, the best emotion of emotions.
Now emotion is widely regarded as the thinking-feeling basis of morality. Modern psychology’s frequently stated tripartite analysis of emotion disintegrates the notion of integral emotion into body (feeling), mind (thinking), and behavior (acting) components. In brief, an emotion is a conscious feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness, accompanied by a biological activation and expressive behavior. Again, emotion has cognitive, physiological, and behavioral components, which have been referred to in popular terms as “centers”, namely the thinking, feeling, and acting centers. A person’s behavior communicates her emotional state, which is not always clear without corresponding context, which may include verbal communication. For instance, the facial expression of grief, crying, may be misinterpreted out of context as laughter or “crying with joy” until the context is made clear.
The modern “scientific” analysis of the mind-body organic functioning into components or parts is made for the sake of convenience, usually with an interest in understanding human behavior in order to manipulate it to profitable (“good”) ends. The emotional “centers” are not “facts.” Furthermore, the interpretation of the facts or behavioral events is necessarily value-laden; that is, the artificial divisions are to a certain extent arbitrary and based on the prejudicial social mores and personal biases of the analyst. Wherefore the serious student of psychology should always keep not only the unique identities but also the emotional integrity of analyzed subjects in mind. For instance, the limbic system, sometimes mislabeled the “emotional center”, has pathways to and from the cerebral cortex, particularly the frontal lobes involved in the interpretation and control of emotions.
The modern theory of emotion is generally optimistic and coincides in some respects to the optimism of Gurdjieff and other students of psychology. To wit: behavior, including thinking or symbolic acting, can be so managed as to increase the happiness of humankind. Otherwise, why bother with psychology, or, for that matter, any other human art and science?
Modern psychology’s Opponent-Process theory of emotions has practical implications because the theory asserts that an opposing emotion will gradually render a strong emotion weaker. Conflicting emotions can be resolved in favor of an induced powerful or “empowering” congruency, or a “negative” emotion can be deliberately replaced by eliciting in its stead a “positive” emotion, via physical (e.g. smiling) or symbolic (e.g. visualization or positive thinking) action.
The Shacter-Singer Two-Factor theory, which is a cognitive theory, posits that emotions depend on the interpretation of arousal, which we variously label. For instance: a man yells at you; you are aroused; you label his behavior “anger,” and perhaps respond angrily. But he may not be mad at all; he may be a “loudmouth” with something else in mind. Nor should you reflect his anger if anger were in fact the case. In any case, different labels may be applied with different effects (your responses) to the same event.
The Cognitive-Appraisal theory asserts that different people may have different emotional responses to the same situation. Emotional experience depends on cognitive interpretations; therefore reinterpreting the situations can change emotions.
The James-Lange theory posits an order of functions. The standard example: we see a vicious-looking growling dog; we feel nervous; we run; and then we realize we are afraid. Therefore we suppose that, if the behavior (running) can be changed, then the emotion can be changed. Laugh, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her famous poem, and the whole world will laugh with you. We should observe that the James-Lange interpretation of the order of function mistakenly denies the fact of cognition at the very outset: the dog looks vicious and is growling viciously – perhaps the dog is not vicious at all.
Now we can see that Gurdjieff’s so called quasi-religious approach to psychology and therapy is by no means unique. The contrary claims of his postmodern followers who assert that modern psychology has ignored his contributions, are spurious and serve to bolster their egos with the belief that they possess something special that sets them and their practice apart from and superior to mainstream theory and practice.
Modern psychology’s primary directive is not to applaud certain persons and psychological cults but to recognize the general nature and operating laws, such as they might be, of the human “psyche”, however that might be defined, and, presumably, to offer some sort of therapy for human improvement, however that might be defined. Since man’s fundamental nature has changed very little since his emergence as homo sapiens, we are not surprised to find ancient moral platitudes at the bottom of many of the theories of modern psychology and psychiatry. Only recently has the term ‘moral’ been disassociated with ‘mental’. Moral behavior implies mental choices. The moral or socially acceptable behavior of the person is tantamount. Once the drugs are dispensed with, moral or mental therapy remains applicable to “mental illness.”
Garth Wood, for one, is a modern psychologist who believes that far too many mental/moral problems are defined as diseases and treated with drugs and self-defeating psychoanalysis – e.g., dwelling too long on personal histories. A moral approach directed to present and future behavior, particularly in cases of neurosis, would be more effective, he insists, in The Myth of Neurosis.
“In reality, of course, to behave in a ‘neurotic’ way is not a disease but a misguided decision and such behavior is a function of our basic freedom to choose, of our self-determination, of our responsibility for our own lives. Perhaps in some perfect world of the psychodynamists, in which all were exposed to their teachings and methods, such freedoms would be superfluous and there would remain only well-adjusted people, their psyches working smoothly in accordance with the blueprint for some mental machine dreamed up by metaphysical conceptualists who were longer on theory than they were on common sense.”
The Happy Machine
The modern mechanical elaboration and rationalization of man’s irrational incongruities in hopes of engineering a happy machine have rendered Gurdjieff’s relatively modern psychological system heartless. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were no doubt duly impressed by the scientific, positive, and empirical schools of the West, and the related modes of thought elaborated during the Enlightenment; particularly in its later phase, represented in France, for example, by the academic Ideologues, whom Thomas Jefferson in America admired and emulated so much that he eliminated the subject of Theology from his university curriculum in favor of Ideology, a subject eventually taken up in its vulgar form throughout the country as the study of political religions rather than the “logic of ideas” recently abstracted by logical positivism (philosophical assertion of the primacy of observation in assessing the truth of statements of fact, while insisting that metaphysical and subjective arguments not based on observable data are meaningless). In any case, the Occident already has the Orient, in the persons of brilliant Arabs, Persians, and Jews, to thank for recovering classical metaphysics and for developing inductive reasoning and the rudiments of modern science.
Of course Newton’s cosmic machine and the notion that man and his society are machines as well, to which mechanical principles or laws apply that heaven on Earth might be engineered, was all the rage back then, an optimistic fashion soon to be interrupted by the Romantically inclined – often to Gothic depression. And then a mysterious, fourth dimension was brought to light, and the human mind speculated on the nature of time and space, and curiously, timespace, waveparticles, and other subjects so occultly contradictory that even the most absurd doctrines of the ancient Brahmins were seemingly upheld by quantum physics.
But the modern mechanical man was not to be thrown out with the bathwater. No, he was to be deprogrammed of his traditional, presumably bad habits, and reprogrammed to suit the times, that he might become a well-oiled machine. The well-oiled machine is not habitually engaged by negative emotions; the well-oiled machine doesn’t squeak. Yet the truth of the matter is that a machine depends for its motion on inherent contradictions whether it squeaks or not; moreover, life is largely a form of complaint we tire of hearing.
But never mind, if we are to be happy machines, we must, first of all, know that we are machines. After Jeremy Bentham applied the Inspection Principle to prison architecture, establishing an unseen monitor in the center of the Panopticon, he thought the concept might be suitable for the conditioning of students as well – his brother had already applied it to industry in Crimea. Someone asked Bentham, “Would not men, under the rational Utilitarian regime of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, conditioned in panopticons, become machines?” No matter, replied Bentham, they would be HAPPY machines. Now the Panopticon has been liberally introjected into everyone, in part thanks to Bentham’s disciple, J.S. Mill, and his dad. Each thoroughly socialized individual – he thinks he is free – is his own indoctrinated and inoculated warden; yet, ironically, the number of external prisons and prisoners is accelerating, as if machines cannot be very happy even when they stop squeaking – perhaps because of the necessary mechanical contradictions that make the machine work. The brick and mortar prisons, observes an upside-down postmodern sociologist, are necessary: the visible presence or prisons causes virtually imprisoned people outside the walls, who are in virtual chains to believe they are free.
Likewise Ouspensky, reflecting further than Gurdjieff on man’s propensity for automatic or habitual behavior, discovered that we are machines subject to certain behavioral drives or centers. Yes, he imagined, we are asleep, and our waking consciousness is really a sort of dream state; we are mired in the psychological mud, so to speak, of our habitual modes of life. Our salvation, at least as self-conscious beings, is to wake up from our stupor and remember our selves, whatever the self may be, if it exists at all.
Many of today’s Fourth Wayers have, instead of remembering themselves, lost the selves sought for in Ouspensky’s over-rationalizations of Gurdjieff’s work. They tend to tinker with the machine for the sake of tinkering, becoming so preoccupied with the parts, with telling the difference between a screw and a bolt, that the objective of the Work, the United Emotional State of Harmony, is forgotten, as if the tinkerer or gypsy had fallen asleep at the reins, unconsciously demonstrating, as it were, the cultish tendency of psychological pseudo-scientism to get lost in classification for its own sake. The Ouspenskian machine does, by virtue of its absurdities, work to disenchant and to destroy, at least in those who love nonsense, the hated habits and traditions that provoked Gurdjieff and like creatures to search for ancient oriental lore and habitude. We are left today, in my lay opinion, with a virtual rubbish heap; but a few precious things can be found therein, providing that the vanities are submitted to the bonfire.
Mind you that Ouspensky is not entirely to blame for the tinkering. Since Gurdjieff identified the Fourth Way as the “Sly Way”, we might suggest that Ouspensky used slight-of-hand to fulfill an ulterior motive. Once the presumably sleeping or stupefied subjects are stripped of the old habits and traditions which block the recognition of revolutionary new masters, said masters can distract them and virtually enslave them with yet another complicated bureaucracy. We might tax lazy people to get them to work for us so they can pay their taxes; otherwise dissident intellectuals can be preoccupied figuring out the absurd tax code. There are many ways for a sly creature to fleece the sheep.
It might be best not to interfere with our machinery once we know we are machines. Gurdjieff was much impressed by the wisdom of a certain dervish who noticed him methodically masticating his food in an effort to get its maximum nutritional value. Well, so much for the traditional parental command, “Chew your food!” Too much chewing will over exercise the jaw and under excercise the stomach.
“It is not necessary to masticate carefully,” said the dervish to the delighted Gurdjieff, whose main childhood game was to avoid doing things the ordinary way. “At your age it is better not to chew at all, but to swallow whole pieces, even bones if possible, to give work to your stomach.”
Likewise, for the Hatha yoga that Gurdjieff was practicing at the time. No, we are not to take a deep breath, as old wives and others say, to improve our health, for breathing is automatic, an autonomous function. Artificial breathing will damage the machine! So forget the folk wisdom, still practiced to this day with “scientific” justification, that breathing exercises will drive the lymphatic system and thus eliminate toxins, improving tissue and organs and prolonging the person’s life.
“Without the knowledge of the fundamental laws of breathing in all particulars,” said the dervish, “the practice of artificial breathing must inevitably lead, very slowly but none the less surely, to self-destruction.”
From these instances the following induction is drawn:
“If you know every small screw, every little pin of your machine, only then can you know what you must do. But if you just know a little and experiment, you risk a great deal, because the machine is very complicated. There are many tiny screws which might easily be broken by a strong shock and which cannot afterwards be bought in any shop.”
So favorably impressed was young Gurdjieff by this revelation of mechanical laws that he reverently solicited the dervish’s instructions on “how to live in order to put an end to this tormenting struggle.”
We might spin large with the dervish’s assumption, project it onto the entire population, and assume that a radical disturbance of the social machine, namely, a revolutionary overthrowing of the traditions and mores much despised by the youth, say, when Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were young, might result in the utter destruction of civilization; that is, unless the population’s consciousness is simultaneously raised through class-conscious propaganda, and a new state machine installed, totally organized and regularly oiled by party technocrats led by an intellectual dictator.
Several social psychologists have noted that the revolutionary breakdown of social systems has perverse results: instead of elevating people to harmonious intercourse, they become primitive and brutish.
“Revolutionary society… loses its memory… it forgets traditions, beliefs, ideas…” wrote Pitirim Sorokin in THE SOCIOLOGY OF REVOLUTION, discussing the “perversions” or abnormal behavior that ensued after revolutionary intellectuals woke up and enlightened the masses and proceeded to rid the people Russia of their bad habits.
Pitirim Sorokin was certainly aware of the effects of “waking” people up in the middle of the night and making them acutely conscious of their bad habits and mechanical behavior – he was secretary to Alexander Kerensky in 1917. The complete breakdown of the state machine that resulted from the advance in revolutionary personal consciousness had many perverse effects besides famine. For instance, you might be a beloved comrade one day and executed on the next day simply because your spectacles and belly made you look bourgeois. Or maybe it was something you said again, but it was taken in another way. Sorokin was eventually arrested by the Communists, sentenced to death, released at the last moment due to the influence of friends, and, later on, banished. He became Professor of Sociology at Harvard in 1930.
“The gray cortex grows similar to a complex telegraph and telephoning station…. Often various contradictory messages are ‘sorted’ there…. ‘Sorting and appraisement’ demands time and energy…. The more intense and serious the process of reflection and thought, the more time will it require to come to a conscious definite decision…. The influence of inhibiting factors… makes us careful….” The extinction of habitual processes results, according to Sorokin’s mechanical model, in “primitiveness” and “simplification.” “This degradation of spiritual activity is the fundamental feature of the psychical perversion of revolutionary society and render it akin to the psychology of the savage and the animal…. When a great quantity of reflexes… grows extinct in man, his nervous apparatus begins to resemble a complicated machine in which the screws have gone slack…. Because of this, the machine begins to work all wrong….
“The perversion of conduct provoked by the first stage of revolution renders society more primitive and brings men nearer the conduct of animals…. Every extinction of conditioned reflexes means both the rupture, the annihilation of the former communication between the world and the organism; and a simplification, a returning to primitive motives; a decentralization of activity of the cerebral matter and the whole nervous system …. The mechanism of associating and of combining perceptions and ideas in revolutionary society shows a resemblance to that of primitive society…. It is primitively chaotic, inconsistent and unstable…. Today the Girondins are termed ‘Saviors’; tomorrow – ‘Executioners of the People.’ Today certain groups fight against each other; tomorrow they embrace.”
Eventually people become exhausted: “During the second period of revolution… ‘restraining factors’ and the exhaustion of energy sets in. Society loses all will-power…. You can do what you please with it…. Dictators strike…. It is like ‘new-mown flax’ ….” The mob becomes like children and savages, more imitative, and it is then that the masses sleep: “They have grown to be somnambulists,” Professor Sorokin concluded.
Those of us who have not experienced, because of our time and circumstances, extreme social shocks, might, out of sheer boredom, secretly long for them, just as we might unwittingly long for death, as if we were subject to some sort of death instinct that would vacate the mind and resolve the body into dust. Indeed, not only do the young often long for revolutionary change, the old, as they approach the end, believe a general apocalypse is nigh. And then there are those who would just plod on and on in the same old ruts, even against their own interest – at least as defined by others – perhaps a cloud of LSD sprayed over cities or a voluntary course of shock therapy would wake them up so they could be reengineered.
The People of Byt
Beware, however, before taking a radical course of action, for there is some merit after all in repetitious or mechanical behavior. Moderation may be the key to success. Maybe orderly reform instead of violent revolution is the way to progress. A certain social platform is needed, a place where we can safely stand on habit, and then innovate if we happen to be disposed to innovate; but we must not be pulled under into the slough of despond by that platform. Russian was backwards; its traditional society was stagnant; something had to be done to wake up the masses, the majority of whom were peasants. Ouspensky noted that a certain, “unsuccessful” type of people, the “people of byt”, are seemingly subject to eternal repetitive behavior. The Russian word ‘byt’ is difficult to translate. It can mean a habitual lifestyle, say peasant-life, merchant-life, rut-life and so on; or, in theatrical life, the typical voice or tone, the typical bit part, and so on.
“There are, first of all, people of byt, of deeply rooted, petrified, routine life. Their lives succeed one another with the monotony of the hand of the clock moving on the dial. There can be in their lives nothing unexpected, nothing accidental, no adventures. They are born and die in the same house where their fathers and grandfathers were born and died and where their children will be born and will die. National calamities, wars, earthquakes, plagues, sometimes wipe thousands and hundreds of thousands of them from the face of the earth at one stroke. But apart from such events their whole life is strictly ordered and organized on a plan…. It is just this absoluteness of repetition that creates in them some vague consciousness of the inevitability of everything that happens, a belief in fate, fatalism and, at times, as strange sort of wisdom and calmness, in some cases passing into an ironical contempt for people who are restless, seeking for something, striving for something.”
Ironically, like other Russians of literary note, Ouspensky seems to have a certain occult admiration for this repetitious type of person, the “unsuccessful” person whose, consciousness of repetition does not lead to reform but seems to ironically save him from fate by resigning him to it. But Ouspensky is divided against himself. He seems to push the doctrine of eternal recurrence to rid himself of it, but it rolls right back on him. He was a Russian fatalist who dreamed of the New World. East looks West, West looks right back.
In effect, the People of Byt were the Russian peasants whom the nihilists and other revolutionaries idolized and whom they even ventured to live with out in the sticks in order to wake them up and overthrow the Tsar’s state machine. The peasants were certainly creatures of habit, sticks in the mud, set in their ways. The regularity familiar to farmers was reflected in their religious rituals – a regularity that is disastrously interrupted, presumably by the deity, from time to time; a deity whose arbitrary behavior is rationalized by secular authority, whose own tyranny is therefore excused. The population of peasants was very large, and the urban intellectuals’ mission to wake them up was politically motivated. But the people of Byt, like today’s proud “Rednecks”, are not easily converted from their habits. The revolutionaries were disillusioned; millions of peasants were eventually murdered or starved to death. This is the context in which Ouspensky and Gurdjieff and the like should be discussed in order to be understood.
Stupidity and Self-Remembering
Ouspensky reiterated the fact that Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way is the Sly Way; The First Way is the way of the Stupid Fakir. The Second Way is that of the Silly Saint. The Third Way is the way of the Weak Yogi. The Fourth Way apparently consists of cunning and deceptive tactics devised to manipulate people, hopefully for their own good; for instance, towards the usual, harmonious unity desired by alienated people. During our own stage of the Age of Dissolution, we strive to perfect a Fifth Way, the competitive cult of individualism, which we might call My Way, an anarchic way that further aggravates the isolation or alienation from unity associated with Original Sin, the diremption or violent divorce, if you will, from the Supreme Being.
Just as one dimension after another is being discovered or invented by modern science, no doubt more ways to salvation shall be forthcoming. Indeed, until the Final Hour of the Last Day, there shall be no end to the number of ways proposed for salvation. After all, alienation is the condition of self-conscious beings, creatures who are aware of their seemingly independent existence. Human beings are exiled for life. The estranged individual would seemingly persist forever as such if he could, even against his longing for a return to unity, an urge some thinkers have identified with a death wish. Yet he has no choice in the matter, for gravity is a tyrant unto him. No matter how far he strays from his origin, the exile must return home for dissolution and reprocessing. Again, it seems that the individual wanted to perish all along the way, for, despite the cultivation of individuality necessary for survival of the species, he seeks to lose himself by identifying with broader forms of alienation. Even the rebel who tears down all the fences has nothing to declare of himself in the end, except, “I am just another cattle.”
Perhaps most stupefied of all are those discomfited messiahs who are unaware of the Absurd and the Ubiquitous Ambiguities rooted in the underlying crisis or hypo-krisis of humankind. It is all too easy to go around with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an good man, or to climb up on a pulpit and accuse everyone of sin, or to set oneself up as a prophet and cry AWAKE! in the public arena; and not recognize that the accuser, in his witless arrogance and hypocrisy, is dishonest and asleep, even more so than the rest, and that the prophetic alarms are really unenlightening, perhaps even based on self-contempt extended to hatred for the race – the race of course is not so admirable in the light of higher ideals, hence it is easy to condemn. Of course the appearance of impropriety is concealed today by the modern scientific messiah with an objective, detached, facade of concern for the race being anal-ized or mentally butchered into machined parts. Indeed, the essential ambiguity, ambivalence, and hypocrisy of human nature should be the first recognized quality recognized by the self-remembered!
By the way, what is the self to be remembered besides some happy integer in the nebulae? We can safely assume that the entity remembered should be the true self, as opposed, to the false or conditioned, mechanical self. It is an ideal self by virtue of its current non-existence, a self to be perpetually strived for. Only nothing is permanent and perfect in itself. We doubt that the self is a reconditioned paving machine. We observe that Socrates’ Know Thyself results in skepticism, and not in an assertion that man is a machine, or should be machined after he is put in charge of machines instead of subjected to them.
Self-remembering, Gurdjieff remarked in Meetings With Remarkable Men, “is to take cognizance of one’s own individuality.” He rightly complained that journalism and advertising were putting people to sleep, causing them to forget their selves. Indeed, any mention of a person besides the third person casts doubt today on the truth of the speaker – therefore the ‘I’ here is usually ‘we’ – the plurality has more authority in a democracy. But in this paper ‘we’ are presumably the elite we of meritocracy, if not aristocracy.
Four Mechanical Manifestations
Ouspensky’s notion of self-remembering depends on the objective observation of certain psychological facts, four manifestations of mechanical life that prevent us from remembering what we are. Self-remembering is an awakening, as from a dream. Since we personally identify with the four manifestations, which are presumably bad habits, self-remembering or waking up is no easy task.
Habitual Lying is the first dysfunctional manifestation identified. Liars include persons who presume they know what they do not know, or who presume they are in possession of characteristics they do not possess. Imagination is the second mechanical fault, our tendency to imagine things then believe they are true to please ourselves. Negative Emotions and Unnecessary Talking are the third and fourth malfunctions.
Most misleading of all, claimed Ouspensky, is the notion of the possession of consciousness. Only a man can know if he is conscious or not. Others cannot tell, from direct observation, whether someone else is conscious: he may be a robot for all they know. Consciousness is a matter of degree: duration, frequency, extent of penetration of the objects of consciousness – Ouspensky was convinced that most people are dozing off or sleeping. A man cannot long sustain attention to himself. He is usually unconscious of himself. Hence “self-remembering” awakens him to himself. We cannot control consciousness itself, said Ouspensky claimed, but we can control our thoughts in such a way that we remember ourselves; that is, once we become aware of the fact that we have forgotten ourselves, or are, to wit, asleep. Hence the Work proceeds with the confession, “I do not know myself, I have forgotten myself.” This self-remembering process, he says, has immediate alchemical results on the body.
Well, the honest man will probably admit that human beings are habitual liars. Of course Native Americans observed that the invading European barbarian, the Western White Man, was a liar; one tribe went so far as to name him ‘Liar’ after getting to know him. Some peoples lie more than others. We might imagine that lying would not be the practice in small groups when the everyday existence of members depends on the communication of truth. Of course a people might lie to one’s neighbors as a matter of practice if they are perceived as enemies. But to make friends for mutual safety the truth is better told on essential matters.
The Vice of Lying
We note that the famous Ten Commandments enjoins adherents from bearing false witness against neighbors and from swearing falsely; rather narrow injunctions indeed, leaving a great deal of room for the propagation of all sorts of falsehoods. When populations are civilized through conquest, the competition continues by more civil means, and much of it is deceptive, as if man and his business were corrupt at the core and in need of legal restraint lest all hell break loose again.
As for the individual, we should remember that the child discovers the freedom of his individuality, at least that of his inner life, by lying and getting away with it from time to time. Hopefully he will learn to restrain himself and do no harm, and perhaps even do a great deal of good by virtue of a sort of white lie. He may discover that lying to himself, when restrained by the reality of his circumstances, is a very good thing for him and for his civilization; that is, if there is any such thing as positive progress to be had. In a certain sense, civilization itself is based on systematic lying, of presuming that we are better than we presently are. Religion, Freud said, is an illusion. But for all its faults, we might claim, it has served humankind well over the long run, and now we have other forms or religion besides religion, so to speak; for instance our political and scientific religions.
If man is a natural born liar and it is in his natural interest to lie and to imagine that he is something that he is presently not, then Ouspensky’s lie, that man will improve himself by ridding himself of lying to himself, is not the way to go. Perhaps Ouspensky’s Sly Way would simply replace one set of lies with another.
First of all, claims Ouspensky, a man must not lie. He must know what he has. He must know that he does not possess a thing in order to make an effort to attain it. A man is not going to pay dearly for something he already has. What he does not have yet ascribes to himself, is unity, permanent ego, individuality, will, consciousness, will-power.
“The change will begin with those powers and capacities which man ascribes to himself, but which, in reality, he does not possess. This means that before man can acquire any new powers and capacities, he must actually develop in himself those qualities he thinks he possesses, and about which he has the greatest possible illusions.”
The Virtue of Lying
Well, we suffer from the underlying crisis or hypo-krisis of our fundamental nature as hypocrites: we are not yet what we want to be, what we say we are. The Greek word for actor was hypocrite; Hebrew scholars, and then Christian thinkers with a vengeance, took up the word to provoke feelings of guilt for not realizing the ideals, for not treading the ideal ways.
Ideals are, fortunately for continued progress, moving targets. To become what we would be, something better than we presently are, we act as if we are just that. Thus, in a certain sense, we lie. We stand up on our hind legs, put our head in the heavens and imagine that we are more than animals; yes, undoubtedly we are much more than that: we are gods too, obviously because of a higher or divine will, a will that we seek unity with, and perhaps we may have it at the last moment.
Thus speaks cock-eyed optimists. People subject to negative emotions may beg to disagree, and point out that history is nothing but the continued history of man’s inhumanity to man, crimes of perpetual war waged in the name of perpetual peace and the one-god, crimes against humanity made large by high technology – low morality is still the rule. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do about it: we are determined to evil, to eventually run down like a machine or self-destruct. But let us not forget what Dr. Pangloss said: men are bound to corrupt themselves for their own good; for instance, to create war machines and slay one another.
“All that was indispensable,” said the Master, “and individual misfortunes create general welfare, so the more individual misfortunes there are, the more all is well.” As for free will in the best of all possible worlds, “Freedom can subsist with absolute necessity, for it was necessary that we be free…..” In fine, said Pangloss, “The fall of man, and his curse, were necessary components of the best of all possible worlds.”
The failure to recognize the truth behind the lies of Dr. Pangloss and other optimists has subjected the race to the misery necessary for its improvement. The few who realize what is really going on will prosper. Take, for example, a contemporary optimist, Jerome Robbins, who went from rags to riches and from fat to thin, pocketing a great deal of our hard-earned money by writing such books as UNLIMITED POWER. Many of us lack unlimited power and would like to have some of it at least: Unlimited Power is the subject of much religious worship. Mr. Robbin’s has entitled one of his chapters ‘The Seven Lies of Success.’ Mr. Robbins believes in lies and knows his Pangloss well:
“Belief #1: Everything happens for a reason and a purpose, and it serves us. Belief #2: There is no such thing as failure….”
If we would succeed, we should retrace our steps, learn painful lessons, examine the possibilities, mend our ways, and so on, says Robbins. Represent your experience in a positive way, imagining that it is just another step to success – don’t dwell on your lessons as mistakes unless you want to be a loser. Everything makes good sense if positively construed according to the drift of one’s wants and wishes. We’ve heard it all before. We find nothing new here for the price of a self-help book but copyrighted twists of the old hat, including the ‘novel’ NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) approach to imagination advocated, which Gurdjieff, a masterful hypnotist, and Ouspensky, a sly fellow in his own right, would find familiar although they have never seen the trademark.
Ouspensky’s derogation of the power of imagination is absurd. Mr. Robbins owns technique-trademarks. His redundant tautologies of ancient wisdom have done many people a lot of good; white lies are a good thing; that is precisely the point.
Robbin’s fictitious or As If approach is not to be disparaged as mere pop-psychology. It is based on the common experience of the race and has been examined and deemed useful by professional philosophers and psychologists.
“The practitioner of Moral Therapy is not so interested in ‘objective truth’ …. In the absence of hard, permanent, unalterable purposes we should encourage the individual to settle for ‘useful fictions’… basically in tune with his moral heritage. He must behave as if he has a firm goal whether it is a realistic one or not. Garth Wood THE MYTH OF NEUROSIS.
But that makes a liar of Ouspensky, who would professedly rid people of their habitual lying and illusory imagination, as well as the negative emotions without which we would have no morality whatsoever. Remember that a negative emotion is often a response to a positive ideal disappointed. S/he who completely ignores evil is good for nothing. Of course that is not to say, for example, that love will not conquer hate in the long run. Popular psychology needs a better definition of “positive”, that the so-called “negative” emotions can be recognized and worked out and turned to more productive and harmonious endeavors.
There are limits to the power of belief or the credulity of the believers. The power of blind faith has no limit because it dishonors all refutation. But belief is not faith: belief is the gradual perfection of knowledge. One may, like Hitler, come to have faith in the truth of one’s own lies, but when lying has destructive effects, people cease to believe in the positive value of the lies and turn on the liar. Hence Mr. Robbins deliberately and rightfully provides in advance for certain painful adjustments.
The Wrong Word For Good Intentions
And perhaps “lying” is the wrong word for our good intentions given the ingrained negative connotations of the term. It is not that we must lie but that we are entitled to our creative illusions. Gurus are right about maya and illusion. Things appear other than they are, as illusions. At least they are real illusions, and we accordingly refrain from jumping through plate glass windows. We are not deluded or hallucinating when we have certain illusions in common, just as we all see water glistening on a dry highway on a hot day due to an unusual refraction of light. Such is the law of phenomenal life, so why not accept that fact and turn it to good account?
Since we are always something other than we might think we are, why not take the illusion in hand and intentionally conceive of and imagine ourselves as otherwise? In our search for unattainable “Reality” or “Truth”, we may create our own illusory realities, conceived ourselves as other than we are, and, by virtue of this continual division of subject from object, live in accord with the law of motion which is the law of life. Such illusionism takes therapeutic advantage of the restless urge for progress in general, or, conversely, nothing in particular – the will to freedom – and applies certain common sense guidelines for its exercise so that the individual will have a more satisfactory or healthy life.
G.I. Gurdjieff and Peter D. Ouspensky were remarkable characters to say the least, and their eccentric ways of life and apparently unorthodox manners of thinking captured the imaginations of inspired many thousands of people, creative and progressive people, particularly creative and progressive persons drawn from the dissident or non-traditionalist ranks of the avant-garde -several variations on the Fourth or Sly Way persist today. Indeed, it is surprising that we find scant or no mention of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky philosophical in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Their approach was hardly novel, and some of the theorizing is rather absurd, but the same may be said of much of contemporary philosophy and psychology today once the complicated elaborations of the platitudes are dispensed with.
Moreover, professional philosophers have remarked that eclecticism is inherently mediocre and necessarily logically absurd because of its contradictory borrowings; but we think they are too proud of their systems, rendered virtually incomprehensible by self-defensive rationalizations. I think it was Hume who noted that philosophy is an elaboration of common sense; we might turn a paraphrase and say that philosophy is usually a lot of nonsense about common sense
G.I. Gurdjieff, it is said, was quite a rake, and, in my opinion, somewhat of a fool; but he was a far more fascinating character than the professor of his Fourth Way, Peter D. Ouspensky. Ouspensky was no mean thinker. Some of his observations are perspicacious. His opus makes me think but leaves me emotionally cold, as if he were himself a thinking machine over-identified with his own intellectual center.
Ouspensky, like our contemporary superstitious PMA (positive mental attitude) pop-psyche preachers, is afraid of “bad” feelings, which he equates with “negative” emotions and thoughts. He preaches control as a way of avoiding negative information, and he seems to believe the repression of negativity, whatever that might actually be, constitutes the “objectivity” he preaches. His denial of imagination is destructive.
One might say that Ouspensky was a natural born ‘liar’, in a certain sense of that term, who gave the lie to his prohibition against lying. But his Sly Way was Gurdjieff’s – if Ouspensky was entirely sincere, then Gurdjieff gave the lie to him and made a fool of him. Credulous adherents are following suit to this very day. We hope it does them a lot of good. Such are the wiles of Lady Folly, that we are amused by all this, and can positively say so without negative emotions.
The High Way
Humankind has naturally developed many different folkways over the ages. Mutual animosity, or negative emotions, if you will, reduced the number of ways and cleared broad paths to several great civilizations. Wherefore people have had good cause from time to time to yearn for the security of one peaceful way rather than the many warring ways that depend on hate-based love or hate-others self-love.
Yet people soon tire of an single or universal way and long for personal identity with certain groups and ways of thought. Of course democracy or individual freedom promised a plurality of ways, even a unique way for everyone who wanted a singular, but individualism in fact constitutes, by way of dissolution and reduction, the utter socialization of existential units, achieving an massive unity in anxious singularity – the basic anxiety is masked by optimism – the smiling face and corresponding philosophy of life denies death.
As for the unique aspect, we can only say, in optimistic self-contradiction ala Leibniz, that we are monadically unique because we differ in the quality of our perceptions. More abstractly, we might hold that each individual, as an absurd (unity of universal and relevant particularities) concrete universal, is a unique coincidence of universal qualities. We might find objective proof of our personal variety in the consumption of a wide array of mass-produced products, whereby each one of us might represent himself as visibly unique in the quantity and quality of his personal possessions, despite his identification with his caste, status, class and so on. For a sense of particular identity in contrast to mass society, we might all represent ourselves as hyphenated-people; for instance, as African-American or Nigerian-French, and so on; and citizens of the cosmos may be cosmopolitan and thus retain their respective nations, and so on. Indeed, the possibilities for identification with different things and thoughts and people are infinite – for instance, a new kind of anarchism has recently been identified: Anarcho-Neanderthalism.
Yet during our metaphysical ascension of the pyramid to the presiding apex or non-dimensional vanishing point, we tend to look down our long noses on everything below, and to have faith in Nothing if not the High Way. Nothing is better than the Fourth Way or any numbered way howsoever defined – the definitions are problematic hence stand in the way. The end of everything teaches us to expect Nothing, and, in the end, to have faith in Nothing, as if Nothing is best. Nothing is better than an infinite number of ways.
That being said by way of monologue, I beg your leave to sign off here and resume my visualization and breathing exercises.