Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings have attracted criticism since the earliest phase of his teaching in Russia. Pupils admitted that they found many of the cosmological principles incomprehensible and questioned their validity and relevance to their own lives. External observers noted that much of the cosmological teaching is difficult to verify on the basis of personal experience. Critics have stressed that many elements of Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings lack scientific verification and directly contradict established scientific facts. The language that Gurdjieff used to present his cosmological ideas was also problematic for some. Gurdjieff used technical terms like ‘matter’ and ‘atoms’ in ways that were inconsistent with established definitions of the terms.
Gurdjieff made the already daunting task of understanding his cosmological ideas more difficult by the style of his writing. Manuscripts like Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson abound in complex neologisms (invented words) and obscure expressions of ideas. In this way, Gurdjieff deliberately challenged his readers and forced them to make extended efforts of attention and comprehension.
The validity of Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings has been questioned on a number of grounds, ranging from their sheer implausibility to more substantive issues of definition, meaning and lack of scientific support.
Gurdjieff clearly intended that his teachings challenge his students’ existing world view. In the preface to his first series of writings, Gurdjieff wrote that his objective was “to destroy, mercilessly, without any compromise whatever, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.” (1) This explains, to a great extent, the provocative nature of his teachings regarding the universe and the purpose of human existence.
Critics have dismissed Gurdjieff’s conception of the universe, describing it as unbelievable, incoherent and even delusional. Psychiatrist Anthony Storr believes that Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings were an elaborate “confidence trick” that showed how gullible and impressionable his followers were.
One of the major difficulties in approaching the written presentation of Gurdjieff’s cosmology is his complex writing style and his use of unusual terminology. This has caused critics like Anthony Storr to dismiss Gurdjieff’s cosmology out of hand:
Gurdjieff’s cosmogony can only be described as fantastic. Reviewing his picture of the universe, it is hard to understand that any intelligent, educated person could believe in it. Yet disciples managed to read All and Everything as if its incoherence must contain esoteric wisdom; as if it was their fault if they did not understand it rather than the author’s inability to construct a credible picture of man and the universe or to write intelligibly. (2)
Storr goes further by suggesting that Gurdjieff’s use of language resembles that used by some psychiatric patients. He argues that chronic schizophrenics frequently invent words which carry a special meaning for them but which others find completely incomprehensible. However, Gurdjieff’s unusual writing style appears to have been consciously chosen. He employed unusual neologisms like ‘harnelmiatznel’ and ‘triamazikamno’ to challenge his readers’ linguistic assumptions and encourage deeper investigation. Gurdjieff’s students found it difficult to understand his cosmological writings and lectures, but believed that the obscurities in meaning were intentional. They were their teacher’s way of ensuring the students would invest significant effort to find meanings rather than being fed doctrines and ideas whole.
Gurdjieff was aware that when discussing profound ideas, the depth of meaning and flexibility of expression were often sacrificed for the sake of clarity and precision. John Bennett, a senior student of Gurdjieff, writes: “As Gurdjieff’s ideas derive their significance far more from their breadth and depth than from logical consistency or even factual accuracy, he was almost compelled to express himself in new and startling terms.” (3) Bennett suggests that, in a sense, Gurdjieff’s writings were an experiment in a new literary form combining Eastern and Western modes of expression.
(1) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), preface.
(2) Anthony Storr Feet of Clay (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 41.
(3) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 273.
(4) Students of the Gurdjieff Work, such as theatre and film director Peter Brook, have argued in “The Secret Dimension” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker eds. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (New York: Continuum, 1996), pp. 30-31) that the scientific model is fundamentally incomplete and unable to explain or describe the apparent duality of matter and spirit:
Since the Renaissance, our own science has accurately pinpointed the detailed processes and mechanisms of the universe, from the infinitely large to the infinitely small, but it has failed disastrously to introduce into its equations the dimension of living experience. It omits consciousness; it cannot capture the meaning of perception, nor the specific taste of thought. The highly abstract and purely mental system of mathematical symbols has no way of evoking the humanity of artistic experience nor the spirituality of religion. As a result, we have two parallel interpretations of reality which can never meet: the scientific language of definition and the symbolic language of perception.
(5) James Moore Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), p. 346.
(6) Historians of science point out that the theories and paradigms of science are constantly changing as new research modifies or refutes scientific “facts.” For further discussion see Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
(7) G.I. Gurdjieff Views From the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), p. 21.
(8) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 86.
(9) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 37.
(10) Whithall Perry Gurdjieff: In Light of Tradition (Bedfont, Middlesex: Perennial Books, 1978), p. 47.
(11) Basarab Nicolescu “Gurdjieff’s Philosophy of Nature” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker, eds. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (New York: Continuum, 1996), p. 44.
(12) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), p. 62.
(13) There is scientific support for Gurdjieff’s contention. The hypothesis that the moon was created some four billion years ago by a cataclysmic collision between a large cosmic body and early earth is now accepted by many scientists. And in 1970 scientists reported the discovery of a small celestial object measuring less than two kilometers in diameter that they believed constituted a third member of the earth-moon system.
(14) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 85.
(15) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 85.
(16) James Moore Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth (Bedfont, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), p. 347.
(17) Robert de Ropp Self Completion (Nevada City, California: Gateways/IDHHB, 1988), p. xxiv.
(18) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 138.
(19) The most intriguing evidence supporting a planetary influence on human behaviour is the extensive research of French statistician Michel Gaugelin, summarized in his books Cosmic Influences on Human Behavior (London: Garnstone Press, 1973) and Birthtimes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). For a review of the scientific debate regarding the validity of astrology see H.J. Eysenck and D.K. Nias Astrology: Science or Superstition (London: Pelican Books, 1984) and John Anthony West’s The Case for Astrology (London: Viking Arkana, 1991).
(20) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 250.
(21) Rafael Lefort suggests that the term ‘Kundabuffer’ is “composed of two Persian words kund, to blunt, and farr, pomp or splendour, the combined word thus being a technical term meaning to blunt the perception by pompousness or self-love.” [The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), pp. 132-133.]
(22) The idea that the human soul must be developed also appears in other spiritual teachings such as Sufism. In The Knowing Heart (Boston: Shambhala, 2000, pp. 211-212), Kabir Helminski writes:
The world is a place for fashioning the soul, in the sense that soul is not given to us automatically, despite our assumptions to the contrary. Our interiority, our presence, must be created from within the distractions and forgetfulness of everyday outer life, from within the constant clash of pleasure and pain, happiness and loss.
(23) Louis Pauwels Gurdjieff (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1975), p. 177.
(24) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 40.
(25) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 246.
(26) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 94. (emphasis in original quote)
(27) William Patterson Taking with the Left Hand (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1998), pp. 86-87.
(28) Gurdjieff’s cosmological system is a vast, comprehensive model of the universe and the place of humanity in the cosmic order. It is an amazingly complex, detailed and internally coherent representation of the ancient dictum ‘As Above, So Below,’ which postulates that the complete human being is a microcosm or miniature replica of the universe or macrocosm. The essence of Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings are presented in P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous and Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Further explorations and elaborations of these ideas can be found in Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, Rodney Collin’s The Theory of Celestial Influence and Keith Buzzell’s Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Explorations in Active Mentation.
(29) The ‘law of three’ is one of the fundamental principles forming the foundation of Gurdjieff’s cosmology. This law asserts that every event or action, on scales ranging from the molecular to the cosmic, is the result of three interacting forces, which he termed ‘active,’ ‘passive’ and ‘reconciling.’ A similar concept of a trinity of forces or energies is found in Hinduism, Christianity, the Kabbalah, alchemy, astrology and Western occult traditions.
(30) The ‘law of reciprocal maintenance’ proposes that the cosmic harmony of the universe is maintained by a mutual exchange of substances and energy through the interaction of different classes and levels of beings. This idea is similar to the notion of systems theory in many biological and ecological sciences.
(31) Michel Waldberg Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 24.
(32) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), pp. 295-296.