Martin Seymour-Smith

Gurdjieff International Review

The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written

by Martin Seymour-Smith

A Review by J. Walter Driscoll

Martin Seymour-Smith presents reviews of one hundred books, which he points out “actually have exercised, if sometimes in devious and very subterranean ways, the most decisive influence upon the course of human thought—and therefore, of course, upon various kinds of conduct too.” He emphasizes that books are included for review “because they have changed or colored the way in which people, even whole nations—as well as individuals—think of themselves.” This bold, perceptive compilation surveys the great books of many cultures, languages, and times, progressing in chronological order from the I Ching to B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. All of the books have, through their influence, articulated or changed the vision of a people. The result of the author’s lifetime study of the great works of literature, philosophy, science, religion and history, this book provides a spirited and informative guide to the development of thought. Each of the 100 reviews provides a historical background, an overview of the text, the author, and the factors determining the significance of a particular book, as well as analysis of why the book is of enduring significance today. His compilation provides a truly liberal education, especially for independent readers studying outside the shelter of academe.

Seymour-Smyth is the first author to include Gurdjieff and Beelzebub’s Tales in a ‘best books’ compendium. He points out that Gurdjieff's doctrine is “the most convincing fusion of Eastern and Western thought that has yet been seen… The first important thing to note about this doctrine is that there is, explicitly, no room at all for anyone in it who does not approach it itself in a truly critical and skeptical spirit. It has a cosmology and a psychological system—and a method, often harsh or comic but in any case entirely in the hands of the teacher, of helping people to become conscious. But a complete sincerity is required, a sincerity that goes quite beyond devotion or faith as those are ordinarily understood.”

In addition to his penetrating six-page commentary on Beelzebub’s Tales, Seymour-Smith makes perceptive references elsewhere to Gurdjieff’s ideas: in relation to Plotinus’ conception of evil, the influence of the Kabbalah and Kierkegaard’s notion of warring selves, and the search for a unifying ‘I.’ He quotes Gurdjieff’s observation that “Woman knows everything, but has forgotten it,” in his discussion of the impact on men, of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Seymour-Smith notes the emphasis on the “mechanical” nature of human behavior in Gurdjieff’s and B. F. Skinner’s ideas when he discusses the latter’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He concludes that Skinner among others, failed to recognize “what the much maligned Gurdjieff had recognized: That there was a whole submerged side to humanity that was not mechanical, that was ‘religious,’ that wanted the truth, that yearned for what the existentialists used to call (but they investigated the matter less precisely than had Gurdjieff) ‘authenticity,’ that wished to discover why it existed at all.”

British critic, biographer and poet, Martin Seymour-Smith, died on July 1, 1998, at the age of seventy. His more than forty books span five decades. They include several major literary reference sets and biographies. This, his latest work, provides a fine monument and testifies to his enduring stature as an authoritative scholar and skilled writer.

Copyright © 1999 J. Walter Driscoll
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 1999 Issue, Vol. II (3)
Revision: December 1, 2003