My interest in this topic has undergone some development over the past three and a half decades since I first heard JG Bennett talk on the subject in April 1974, but for the purposes of this discussion, I intend to take Bennett’s presentation as a starting point. His talk was delivered to students on the third of his ten-month courses at Sherborne in Gloucestershire, England. At the time, these students had been studying with Bennett for six months and were entering what he called the ‘esoteric’ phase of the course. Although I was in the audience for this talk, it made little impression on me at the time. In terms of the Work (and much else besides) I was a callow youth and had no real experience to set against Bennett’s presentation. In the past few years, however, and in the light of my own experience, the talk has assumed a quite different significance for me. I would go so far as to say that reason of knowing has begun to give way to reason of understanding.
In passing I should point out that this talk is available, and may even be familiar to you, in print form as a privately circulated pamphlet and in an anthology of Bennett’s commentaries entitled Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales. In both cases, however, over-zealous or hurried editing has reduced the impact of the talk - and at some points subtly altered the meaning - and I recommend listening to the original in full.
I would like to begin with a précis of Bennett’s presentation and then consider how far his understanding of conscious labor and intentional suffering is supported by Gurdjieff’s presentation in Beelzebub’s Tales.
Bennett begins by discussing what is meant by ‘conscious’ labor. He first makes a distinction between ‘conscious’ labor, and the effort that all living things have to exert in order to maintain themselves. That much is probably self-evident. Then he rules out the idea that the work we do to fulfill ourselves, essence work we are driven to do by our own nature, comes under the heading of conscious labor. Finally he discusses striving after a goal, striving for some reward. ‘Nearly everyone,’ he says, ‘embarks on our Work in search of a reward, to become better, to become stronger, to be free of this or that trouble, to attain higher levels of being.’ This, says Bennett, doesn’t properly come into the heading of conscious labor. ‘When one is working for a reward, or the attainment of a result,’ he says, ‘one must know it, and know that the reward is the reward.’
In contrast to labor for a reward, he says that the first hallmark of conscious labor is that it is labor undertaken ‘without regard to the fruits of action’, where one works because one must work. He gives the homely example of a mother, who works for her child not in the expectation of a reward, but simply because she must. "The work itself is not for anything, it simply must be done."
"Whenever we see something that must be done," he continues, "it means that we become conscious. That seeing what is necessary, and seeing what is necessary as necessary. That is consciousness. That is the first condition of conscious labor. It is doing what has to be done because it has to be done and for no other reason."
He then adds a sentence which I find very significant, in considering the presentation of being-Partkdolg-duty in Beelzebub Tales: "It is only when we work in that way," Bennett says, "that work can liberate us from our own egoism. If we work for a reward, this reward will satisfy something in us, and this something in us will certainly include our own egoism."
Bennett goes on to discuss what are the circumstances that make this work of conscious labor possible, and this is another of the conditions I want to examine in the light of the Tales. Conscious labor is close - if not identical - to service, he says, but it has a particular aim. He maintains that the way Gurdjieff presents this notion of conscious labor and intentional suffering,
"it is invariably connected with serving the future. Invariably has the quality of the sower sowing the seed. The unconcern with the fruits of action is that the sower is sowing in hope, and is not concerned with who will reap the harvest. It is clear that this is Gurdjief’s intention by everything that he writes in Beelzebub’s Tales."
In all cases, says Bennett, those who are represented as having reached objective reason through conscious labor and intentional suffering, have always been people who have been serving the future of mankind.
Let me sum up the three aspects of conscious labor, as Bennett sees it.
- First of all, it means being able to recognize what is needed.
- Secondly, it means to do what is needed without regard to the fruits of action, and
- Thirdly it requires being content to have sown the seeds for a harvest that others will reap.
He reiterates, to quote again, that "It’s not difficult to see that if one works in this way this will contribute to liberating us from our own egoism, from the consequences of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer."