The Inner Circle of Humanity

organic portals10 08From: Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: A Critical Appraisal

The source of Gurdjieff's teachings has never been conclusively established by either scholars or students of Gurdjieff. However, some have speculated that he contacted and learned from esoteric schools that were custodians of ancient spiritual teachings on the evolution of humanity.

Gurdjieff spoke in general terms about esoteric schools directed by a circle of evolved human beings who have guided the spiritual development of humanity throughout history:


The supposition that such people have existed in the past, and that they decisively influenced human life in ways that ordinary people cannot understand, is the hypothesis that an ‘Inner Circle’ of humanity existed in the past . . . This tradition is common to most Sufi teachings and it was affirmed by Gurdjieff himself. He associates it with the idea of esoteric schools. He defined ‘schools’ as organizations that exist for the purpose f transmitting to the ‘Outer Circle’ --that is, ordinary people --the knowledge and powers that originate in the ‘Inner Circle.’ (1)

Gurdjieff's only explicit reference to an Inner Circle is his description of the ‘Sarmoung Brotherhood’ in Meetings with Remarkable Men. Ostensibly located in Central Asia, the actual existence of the Sarmoung has been questioned by students and biographers of Gurdjieff and many regard his account as allegorical. (2) Nevertheless, there is a widely held belief among his students that Gurdjieff did make contact with and learned from some sort of esoteric school connected with the Inner Circle of Humanity.

Esoteric Knowledge and Schools

According to esoteric tradition, a body of ancient knowledge of human spiritual development has existed since time immemorial, and has been transmitted through a chain of succession from initiate to initiate. (3) Gurdjieff taught his students that this body of wisdom or ‘Great Knowledge’ has been continuous and present throughout history, but has been frequently reformulated so as to be suitable for each time, each place and each community:

Great Knowledge, which has existed from the most ancient times, has never been lost, and knowledge is always the same. Only the form in which this knowledge was expressed and transmitted changed, depending on the place and the epoch . . . The form in which the Great Knowledge is expressed is barely comprehensible to subsequent generations and is mostly taken literally. In this way the inner content becomes lost for most people. In the history of mankind we see two parallel and independent lines of civilization: the esoteric and the exoteric. Invariably one of them overpowers the other and develops while the other fades. A period of esoteric civilization comes when there are favorable external conditions, political and otherwise. Then Knowledge, clothed in the form of a Teaching corresponding to the conditions of time and place, becomes widely spread. (4)

A number of important features of the Great Knowledge have been identified by scholars and researchers:

  • It is a science or body of esoteric knowledge based on a number of immutable spiritual laws.
  • It has been preserved and transmitted throughout history by a continuous stream of altruistic guardians chosen for their capacity, spiritual development and purity of intention.
  • It is an organic whole with its own postulates, procedures and schemata. It is organized and prescribed to ensure the most positive spiritual influence on those receptive to the teaching.
  • Its correct application to the needs of humanity is based on conscious design, which provides the methods and instruments that are effective in a given circumstance, following the dictum ‘knowledge of the end creates the means.’
  • Its manner of transmission must ensure its proper reception and comprehension with a minimum of distortion and corruption.
  • It is transmitted by teachers who have completed the journey of spiritual self-realization and who are able to guide others along a similar path.
  • It may be formulated in a manner devoid of any apparent spiritual content or appearance, effectively concealing its true nature from the uninitiated.

When asked why the Great Knowledge was not disseminated to as many people as possible, Gurdjieff replied that it is a misconception that higher knowledge is deliberately hidden or made inaccessible to those capable of assimilating it:

No one is concealing anything; there is no mystery whatever. But the acquisition or transmission of true knowledge demands great labor and great effort both of him who receives and of him who gives. And those who possess this knowledge are doing everything they can to transmit and communicate it to the greatest possible number of people, to facilitate people's approach to it and enable them to prepare themselves to receive the truth. But knowledge cannot be given by force to anyone. (5)

One of Gurdjieff’s most controversial ideas was that knowledge has properties similar to a material substance. Knowledge, he claimed, can exist in different strengths and solutions, from the very weak to the very strong. It can be collected, preserved and shared. At certain times it may be plentiful, and at other times scarce. Gurdjieff believed that although efforts are made to disseminate esoteric knowledge as broadly as possible, it is more desirable to limit rather than expand the number of people having access to it.

Although this approach would seemingly deny knowledge to some so that others can receive a greater share, Gurdjieff was steadfast in his defense of this principle: “There is nothing unjust in this, because those who receive knowledge take nothing that belongs to others, deprive others of nothing; they take only what others have rejected as useless, and what would in any case be lost if they did not take it.” (6)

Gurdjieff believed that higher knowledge cannot become common property because the vast majority of people either ignore it, reject it or are unable to receive it properly. Therefore, knowledge of humanity's developmental possibilities is entrusted to initiates who have the wisdom to collect, preserve and transmit the knowledge at appropriate times in human history.

The means by which higher knowledge is transmitted are complex and multi-faceted. Historical examples include the Mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece, the philosophical schools of Plato and Socrates and traditional religious teachings. Other means include myths, legends, teaching stories, literature, rituals and ceremonies. Various forms of sacred art have also been employed, among them dance, music, poetry, sculpture, drama and architecture.

In most cases, the vehicles that transmit higher knowledge are consciously designed products of esoteric schools. These schools transmit spiritual knowledge according to a precise plan “to a very limited number of people simultaneously [through] the observance of a whole series of definite conditions, without which knowledge cannot be transmitted correctly.” (7)

Rodney Collin, a student of P.D. Ouspensky, studied the history of esoteric schools and identified some of their salient characteristics:

  • The primary purpose of these schools is the regeneration of individual human beings through increased consciousness and purification of being. The secondary purpose is to spread objective understanding of cosmological laws and human spiritual possibilities throughout humanity.
  • Esoteric schools may be hidden or openly visible according to the conditions of ‘time, place and people’: “At most favourable times . . . though the inner school will still be hidden and concentrated, its preparatory schools and its external work or effect may reach large proportions and even fundamentally affect the course of visible history.” (8)
  • The inner workings of these schools are largely invisible to ordinary humanity and cannot be readily ascertained by ordinary means of investigation: “What true schools are like, how they are organized, what are their rules and methods, how suitable pupils or raw material are drawn out of the general run of life, we do not know. Evidently one of their chief requirements is secrecy and anonymity.” (9)
  • Schools may engage in some external expression of their work such as the construction of temples or churches, the writing of spiritual literature or poetry, the composition of sacred music and even scientific research. (10)
  • Schools may transmit their knowledge in encoded ways through enciphered language or the symbolism of special sculptures or buildings.
  • The activities of schools follow a pattern in harmony with cosmic planetary cycles. When these influences are favourable the work of inner regeneration and outer expression in the world proceed more productively.
  • Often esoteric schools disseminate their knowledge to the outside world through individuals who are sympathetic to and influenced by a school’s inner circle, but who are outsiders to the school, like some professional scientists or writers.
  • When the work of an esoteric school is finished traces of its existence may remain. An imitation or counterfeit school may then form around the vestiges of a formerly vibrant school. (11)

According to traditional wisdom, esoteric schools or organizations form the bridge connecting ordinary humanity to a higher order of being. P.D. Ouspensky, even before meeting Gurdjieff, was convinced of the existence of these esoteric schools:

According to tradition, the following historical personages came from esoteric schools: Moses, Gautama Buddha, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato, as well as the more mythical Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus, Krishna and Rama. Ouspensky also includes in his list of school products the builders of the Pyramids and Sphinx, a few of the old alchemists, the priests of the Egyptian and Greek Mysteries, the architects of the Gothic Cathedrals built in the Middle Ages, and the founders of certain Orders of Sufis and Dervishes. (12)


(1) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 51.

(2) Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 24) writes:

Gurdjieff claimed to have learned much from a three months stay in ‘the chief Sarmoung monastery,’ belonging to a brotherhood which he said taught him secret wisdom derived from traditions dating back to 2500 B.C., including physical techniques for self-transformation, and sacred dances. Gurdjieff was careful never to be specific about the exact location of these teachers of secret knowledge, although he later stated that he had a teacher from whom he was never separated, and with whom he constantly communicated, presumably telepathically. The Sarmoung monastery cannot be identified and even disciples of Gurdjieff regard his account of it as an allegory rather than literal truth.

(3) The guardians and custodians of these ancient secret teachings hold that there are eternal universal truths that are the foundation of all religious and spiritual traditions. This trans-dimensional knowledge has been described as the “inner kernel or essence of spirituality”, “the science of human evolution and transformation” and the “river of knowledge from beyond the stars.” The source of this timeless esoteric tradition of mystical knowledge is mysterious and unknown. It is said to have ancient prehistoric roots originating from the most remote antiquity. Some of the historical manifestations of this ancient stream of transcendental wisdom have been provisionally identified by scholars and esotericists:

  • Egyptian and Chaldean masters (Hermes and Zoroaster)
  • Hindu Vedas and Upanishads
  • Indigenous shamanic traditions
  • Old Testament prophets (Adam, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Noah, Elias and John the Baptist)
  • Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah
  • Greek philosophers (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle)
  • Taoism (Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu)
  • Gautama Buddha and his School
  • Jesus Christ, Essenes, Gnostics
  • Mohammed the Prophet, Sufi saints (Rumi, ibn el-Arabi, El-Ghazali)
  • Medieval alchemists (Avicenna, Roger Bacon, Raymond Lully)
  • Christian mystics (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila)
  • Masonic and Rosicrucian teachings

Although the outer form or external shape of each historical manifestation of the perennial teaching is different, the inner essence is the same: “All authentic expressions of human spiritual aspiration may be seen as having a single source, and that the differences are in appearances only, imposed by cultural and local conditions.” (Idries Shah, A Perfumed Scorpion, London: Octagon Press, 1984, p. 160). From this viewpoint the three great monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are each manifestations of the same original religious impulse and the Torah, New Testament and Koran expressions of the same universal spiritual truths.

(4) G.I. Gurdjieff Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1973), pp. 210-211.

(5) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 39.

(6) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 38.

(7) P.D. Ouspensky The Fourth Way (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 9.

(8) Rodney Collin The Theory of Celestial Influence (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), p. 314.

(9) Rodney Collin The Theory of Celestial Influence (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), p. 315.

(10) The influence on European civilization of the esoteric school responsible for the building of the Gothic Cathedrals is described by Rodney Collin in The Theory of Celestial Influence (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973, p. 317):

About the effects of those schools which at the beginning of the 12th century designed the Gothic Cathedrals and remodeled mediaeval society and custom from top to bottom, we have perhaps most material of all. Everywhere we see their influence; in architecture, music, art, in the ritual of the church, in the spread of political peace, in the right organization of castes and guilds, even in a popular wisdom of legends and proverbs. Upon the stability so created Europe continued to exist into living memory. Hardly any other esoteric current in history created such profound and lasting effect.

(11) Idries Shah describes the deviation of esoteric schools in Learning How to Learn (London: Octagon Press, 1983, p. 71):

Many religious, mystical and other formulations are, up to a point, shrines for the relics of a completely or partially successful attempt to present and make available to various individuals and communities means for acquiring [higher] knowledge. Like almost everything on earth, they are subject to deterioration or fossilization. They become both museums and exhibits, at one and the same time . . . What appears to some people as the sum total of the human heritage of philosophy, metaphysics or even magical thinking can also be viewed as heavily burdened with the wreckage or misinterpretation (through selective choice) of formulations previously operated by coherent Schools.

(12) Kenneth Walker A Study of Gurdjieff's Teaching (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 190.

(13) Ernest Scott The People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983), p. 260.

(14) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 53.

(15) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 310.

(16) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 310.

(17) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 199.

(18) P.D. Ouspensky The Fourth Way (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 99.

(19) William Patterson develops this idea in Struggle of the Magicians (Fairfax, California: Arete Communication, 1996, pp. 26-27):

The fourth way differs from the other ways in many important and substantial respects, not all of which lend themselves to words. The fourth way does not separate work, for example, on body, emotions and mind, but works on them simultaneously. Furthermore, the pupil is not required to give up anything. He must not withdraw from life but, on the contrary, stay in life and learn to use it for his own development . . . The conditions of his life, the uncertainties, the shocks and suffering are used to come to real life. The principal demand of the fourth way is for understanding. For, the greater a man’s understanding of what he does, the greater the results. It is practical, immediate, and works with and through ordinary life. Therefore, in contrast to the traditional three ways, the work of the fourth way can be more effective, more efficient.

(20) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 48-49.

(21) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 49.

(22) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 203-204.

(23) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 312.

(24) This view is articulated by Frank Sinclair in Of the Life Aligned (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2009, pp 97-98):

When Gurdjieff came to the West, most if not all traditional understandings had been forgotten . . . The sense of multidimensional reality and of the sacred and the spiritual were lost. Gurdjieff brought back to the West the lost sense of the sacred. He used a new language because he felt that the so-called traditional ways had been so debased. He brought his teaching to the West to challenge the automatic and habitual thought of modern man. Again, his is an esoteric understanding and not for everybody. It is for those who really want to know.

(25) Louis Pauwels Gurdjieff (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1975), p. 177.

(26) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 82.

(27) Some students of Gurdjieff have wondered whether he merely combined elements from the many spiritual traditions he encountered during his years of travel in the East to forge a new synthesis which he termed the ‘Fourth Way.’ John Bennett speculates along these lines in Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1963, p. 2):

If Gurdjieff was no more than a syncretist, a reformer who put together fragments from various well-known traditions or even secret traditions that he managed to unearth in the course of his search, then he would occupy one place. If, on the other hand, there is something wholly original, which cannot be referred back to any earlier known or secret tradition, then he occupies quite a different place. Herein lies the second enigma of Gurdjieff; which of these two places does he occupy? Was he just a clever man who was able to travel and search widely, to discover many things, to read a great deal, having access to sources in many different languages, and out of all the material so collected, to construct something?

(28) Rafael Lefort The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 56.

(29) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 262-263.

(30) Frank Sinclair Of the Life Aligned (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2009), p. 96.

(31) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 56.