Gurdjieff International Review

Thus Spake Beelzebub

Richard Hodges

I first read Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson over 40 years ago. It has become a central reference point in my life. Recently an encounter with another book helped me think about Gurdjieff and his legacy, and opened up certain reflections about Beelzebub’s Tales. This book was Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.[1] I had always heard it was an important work but never got around to reading it.

Nietzsche’s choice of a first-person protagonist seems puzzling at first: the Zarathustra in whose voice he writes seems to have little in common with the historical one, though in fact not a great deal is known about the man himself. But is it not true that Zarathustra and Nietzsche book-end a period of three thousand years (more or less) in which religion and its handmaiden philosophy take themselves as necessary, universal, and beneficent transmissions to mankind; in which the struggle between good and evil is taken as the chief business of religious man; and in which the Book (and books in general) is taken as a principal vehicle for this transmission?[2] Nietzsche spoke about this period as a kind of childhood of the race, and of a possible quest for a new condition of being, an adulthood, in which childish things (such as religion) are put aside.

Nietszche’s übermensch has usually been rendered in English as “superman,” but that term has connotations that do not correspond with Nietzsche’s thought. What he meant, I think, is that the New Man must rise above the unconscious addictions and beliefs inherited from millennia, see them for what they are, and become free of them, and that, with this freedom, he will be able to have powers of action in the world that man is meant to have. This is not so different perhaps than the project and the promise at the source of religious traditions, but without the accumulated baggage. Nietzsche’s idea is similar, I feel, to Gurdjieff’s idea of “man number four,”[3] a man who is working to develop beyond what he is born as and what ordinary culture develops in him.

The history of Western thought has been divided into ‘Before Nietzsche’ and ‘After Nietzsche.’ He called himself the “last philosopher.” Although he represents not so much the source of the revolution he announces, but its messenger, many of Nietzsche’s themes, such as skepticism of received wisdom and the quest for individual freedom and full human existence, were much talked about long before his advent.[4] The impact of his work should not be measured by ideas alone, but rather by the joy and freedom that are so present in his writing, amounting to a new kind of certification of hidden yearnings. I had felt a similar response to Beelzebub’s Tales. It has been said that Nietzsche does not merely write about ideas, he lives them. This is also true of Gurdjieff. This quality is rare; the result of so much unlived writing about ideas is that the very word “idea” has become suspect.

One of the reasons I found Thus Spake Zarathustra so compellingly interesting was that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Gurdjieff’s great book. Both books use the format of epic story to create an impression of a Being who possessed great understanding, and who struggled unstintingly to rise above his native spiritual condition; both stories have an overarching plot of exile and return; both books have the form of a disjointed and confusing series of stories and discourses narrated by the protagonist; both books invite the reader to a personal relationship almost like in an oral tradition; and “Beelzebub” was one of the epithets applied to Zarathustra by early Christians who wished to denigrate his religion, which was still powerful and competed with Christianity for souls.

But, in spite of the fact that Nietzsche’s work was already well-known when Gurdjieff was teaching and writing, one would be mistaken to accuse Gurdjieff of imitating Nietzsche:[5] Gurdjieff’s aims for what a “fully developed human being” should be and could do are clearly of very much greater scale and scope and more specificness than Nietzsche’s übermensch. It is clear that Gurdjieff and some of his immediate circle of students actually did realize a very high degree of development; and that Gurdjieff offered a practical approach to human development in a form that could outlive him. The community of people who carry his teaching constitute his principal legacy, and to the extent that his teaching actually is able to help people realize the development he indicates, it is more important than the legacy of a Nietzsche, who had no close students, and no tested program for realizing his ideals; such a legacy as Nietzsche’s can only be one measured in literary and philosophical influence.

On the question of religion, it is tempting to see a similarity between Nietzsche and Gurdjieff. Nietzsche is famous for declaring “God is dead;” but for those who actually have read him, it is clear that he was not declaring war on God but deeply mourning the death of an idea that he had great feeling for. What he actually said was “God is dead, and we [Western civilization, including Western religion] have killed Him.” Gurdjieff also distanced himself from existing religions, and states unequivocally that all contemporary religions long ago lost their ability to help people, because people’s universal traits of vanity, self-love, greed, violence, etc. led them to make each religion into something nearly the opposite of what it might have been originally. This seems not so different, if more wordy, than “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Yet, many have noted the essentially religious impulse in Gurdjieff, which finds frequent expression in Beelzebub’s Tales. For example, René Zuber, a close follower of Gurdjieff, wrote “The crisis in which we are all involved on the planet Earth, and which shakes the very foundations of our existence and our civilization, is the ending of Christianity. Could it be that [in Gurdjieff] a new bud is sprouting on the old Christian tree in front of our eyes?”[6]

Often saying that his teaching was “esoteric Christianity,” Gurdjieff makes it clear that his Christianity is an ancient one, which long preceded the Biblical Jesus, and whose true nature is unknown to contemporary people. He says that one of his aims is to introduce a “new idea of God” into the world. What this new idea consists of cannot be explained in a few words; understanding it depends on experiences that the methods of Gurdjieff’s teaching enable people to have. If Nietzsche wrote a heartfelt epitaph for God it may have been a valuable service to 20th Century thought; but what Gurdjieff seems to be trying to do is to arrange for a reincarnation—a much more challenging service.

The practice of Gurdjieff’s “work” makes it clear to those who attempt it that it is through individual struggle that this new birth has to take place. This is a message that is not very appealing to the contemporary public, including many of those who call themselves “spiritual seekers,” whose feeling often seems to be that everything of spiritual value must be easy and natural and given freely to all. But Gurdjieff is not concerned to be popular; rather he offers something substantial to those who are able to recognize its great value and who are willing to work for it.

Reading of Beelzebub’s Tales can be the beginning of this struggle. It is not an easy task: the book’s subtitle “An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man” may both attract and repel, as may its stated aim: “To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.” The reader has to struggle with page-long convoluted sentences, with invented words, and with outright attacks upon what may be his cherished beliefs, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Freud’s psychoanalysis.

Gradually, with repeated readings, a relationship develops with Beelzebub’s Tales, a relationship that is less awkward than it was initially. For one thing, Gurdjieff insists that people should think for themselves, and these attacks which he puts in Beelzebub’s mouth can be understood not as dogmatic catechisms that must be accepted by his followers (that is one of the habits of human thought that killed God!) but as koans, questions for deep reflection, which are symbols and gateways to encounters with one’s own contradictions. This offers far more possibility than merely accepting or rejecting attacks upon certain well-burnished idols. Practitioners of martial arts, such as myself, understand that to be attacked seriously invokes a special kind of relationship which demands a serious response.

I would like to say a little about what experience in martial arts shows about books. It is impossible to learn a martial art from a book. Early in my many-years-long study of Judo, I would sometimes read one of the many “how to do it” books, would try to grasp the essentials of some of the techniques being described, and then try to execute them on the mat. The results were embarrassing. Even though I thought I had been able to imagine the physical actions, there was always a discrepancy between what I had imagined and the actual physical facts. Later, if I had been working with my teacher on some specific technique, it was possible to glean a few technical points from certain books, but even here only with the help of someone who really understood the technique and could see what I was doing wrong.

This applies even more to studying and practicing a “spiritual path,” or tradition of inner work. There are, for example, many books about how to meditate, but they are useless as well. Only the direct influence of a mentor within the context of a tradition can help. There are certain books that are useful for someone actually engaged in a tradition, and ones that can draw a person toward a tradition, but they are never how-to books. A good example is Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. It has a direct action on the reader which is measured by his response to the many challenges it presents. If the reader is not challenged and thinks he already understands what the book is saying, it becomes useless to him, because this action cannot take place.

Why would somebody read such a book, given that he may at first feel repelled and threatened by much that is in it? A person engaging in a tradition may read a book because he knows, or is told, that it will help him. But it happens in many cases that someone starts reading and continues without knowing why. What is happening? The reader tastes something, and wants more. In the case of Beelzebub there is sometimes an actual experience of some entrenched habit of thought falling away before the onslaught of the book, which opens up a new area within the vast arena of possible thought and feeling, an area that had been blocked by the habit. This taste can be thrilling, even if it is only semi-consciously perceived.

The Gurdjieff teaching is both an oral tradition and a “way of the Book.” The Word, spoken down the generations, was originally a key vehicle for transmission of culture, and of that special part of culture that informs people about that which transcends their personal and biological needs. But from tenuous beginnings three thousand years ago in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Vedas, and the older parts of the Old Testament, a stunning crescendo of words written in books has assumed an increasingly powerful role in defining human horizons and the possibility of transcending them.

Lord Pentland, who was a leading figure in the Gurdjieff tradition, once said that no book can be a Teacher, but if there were one that could do so, it would be Beelzebub’s Tales. Is it true that certain books can play this role, that a book can act in a way similar to an oral tradition? How far can we trust the experience of a written voice that seems to resound with authority as if from a silence behind pale words? A response to an author’s work develops within each person, but ultimately that response must find its place within the context of a human community—if not, a kind of aberration develops, of which we have seen all too many examples, where a person’s reflections built upon ideas in books soar too far beyond reality. In a “way of the book,” we find a essential trinity in which the dynamic force of each leg supports and stabilizes the other two: the individual—the community—the book.

But we cannot yet leave the question of how the influence of a real way works: my experience of the Gurdjieff teaching shows that words, spoken or written, play only a secondary role. More important is an influence reaching into one’s being underneath the level of words. Over time, a kind of resonance appears in one’s own deep inner life and what one begins to perceive as the inner life of the tradition. This influence is a deep mystery and while it has been described in words and symbols and diagrams in every tradition, these are all too easily misunderstood without the actual experience.

What can we discern about Gurdjieff’s “Christianity?” A clue is found in Beelzebub Tales in what may be an esoteric alternative to the Mosaic Ten Commandments, Gurdjieff’s “Five Obligolnian Strivings.” These were given by his spiritual teacher-figure Ashiata Shiemash for people to practice in order to “have in their consciousness ... genuine Conscience.”

It is necessary here to try to understand what Gurdjieff meant by “conscience.” He described conscience as being simutaneously aware of all of one’s feelings, feelings that are ordinarily experienced separately so that their contradictory nature is rarely noticed. In common with the ordinary meaning, conscience is a function in man from which he experiences “remorse” if he goes against it. But Gurdjieff always emphasizes the difference between subjective morality, which is different everywhere and for everybody, and “objective conscience,” which is an innate and essential function. This function has been relegated to the subconscious and it is necessary for man to make it conscious. Much more is said about conscience in Beelzebub’s Tales. It is the heart of Gurdjieff’s hopes for the development of man into what he is meant to be.

The five strivings are given in Beelzebub’s Tales.[7]

The first striving: to have in their ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for their planetary body.

The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need for self-perfection in the sense of being.

The third: the conscious striving to know ever more and more concerning the laws of World-creation and World-maintenance.

The fourth: the striving from the beginning of their existence to pay for their arising and their individuality as quickly as possible, in order afterwards to be free to lighten as much as possible the Sorrow of our Common Father.

And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai’ that is up to the degree of self-individuality.

A division is noted immediately between the first three, which seem to be directed toward oneself, and the last two which are directed outside oneself.

What is the meaning of the fourth striving? It is reported that Gurdjieff sometimes said that to “pay back” meant to work to earn one’s living, but as is often the case, he seems to have also meant something deeper. Is it to pay back one’s mentors in “the work” by actually becoming one’s own individual? And what is one “free” to do afterward, and why? Well, it seems that the great sorrow is that people in general are not “individuals” but, as explained in Beelzebub, spend their lives as machines, unconscious slaves. To pay back, and to lighten the sorrow, may be to do what is indicated in the fifth striving, to carefully assist other beings to develop “self-individuality.” The fourth and the fifth striving then describe an endless cycle of self-realization followed by assisting others to self-realize. Is this the charter for the community of “the work” that Gurdjieff left as his legacy?

Are we now ready to inquire into the theology of Beelzebub’s Tales? In a letter to the Gurdjieff community written just before he died, Lord Pentland quoted this passage: “Rare are the men who have been able to penetrate the secret of the beginning but all those who have done so have, by spiritual duty, left a witness to the existence of this science, describing through enigmas or allegories, but especially through theological considerations, the process of work and the phases of becoming, without ever revealing the essential secret.”[8]

In Beelzebub, one reads what must be part of the “essential secret”—that man, myself, is composed of all the same energies and levels as the universe. Here is a passage from the chapter “Purgatory.”

And indeed, each of them [human beings] is the image of God, not of that ‘God’ which they have in their bobtailed picturings, but of the real God, by which word we sometimes still call our common Megalocosmos.

Each of them to the smallest detail is exactly similar, but of course in miniature, to the whole of our Megalocosmos, and in each of them there are all of those separate functionings, which in our common Megalocosmos actualize the cosmic harmonious Iraniranumange or ‘exchange of substances,’ maintaining the existence of everything existing in the Megalocosmos as one whole.[9]

What is the Megalocosmos? It consists of all the galaxies, stars, planets, beings, etc., as well as all the energies and forces that flow among them, the whole of the substance of the universe. The body of the universe. Yet the substance of the universe does not include the very highest level of existence. Beyond, and prior to, substance is the Protocosmos, the prime source.

The chapter goes on to say that in Man, the level of being that is analogous to the Protocosmos is the head brain. Are we venturing too much into the territory of Descartes’ famous (and infamous) mind-body duality to suggest that the function of this “head brain” in respect to the “body” is the capacity to have thought, knowledge, feeling, sensation, wish, intention? I am suggesting that the head-brain is symbolically, in a word, the seat of experience, as differentiated from behavior which is merely mechanical reactions.

What then is the “head brain” of the universe, the Protocosmos? We are told that the purpose for which the world was created was that individual people would develop through certain struggles a “second body” and a “third body,” and that the latter after a period of purification and perfection in “purgatory” would unite with the Protocosmos and become as it were a brain cell of this cosmic head brain.

The cosmos experiences itself in and through the perfected higher bodies of three-brained beings, which include human beings. This role meant for human beings and the reason why we need to struggle for perfection is theological—to become part of the “head brain” of God. If enough people were to fail to perfect these higher bodies, the whole universe would gradually run down, and cease to experience itself.

And what are these struggles? Beelzebub constantly speaks of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” as necessary for creating the higher bodies. Intentional suffering seems to be, in one key aspect, to bear witness to one’s own lies and contradictions—and the greatest lie is the deeply-rooted belief that one is actually conscious. What self-observation constantly reveals is the mechanicalness of almost all thoughts and feelings, and that what we think of as experience is mostly a series combinations of previously recorded impressions that arise mechanically in reaction to new impressions. Yet sometimes we recognize certain experiences that are real and indubitably belong to quite a different level. Only in such experiences can we truly say, with Descartes, Cogito, ergo sum, which I translate as “In that I am experiencing, ‘I am.’” The usual English translation “I think” is often misunderstood to only include discursive thought, whereas Descartes’ “cogito” refers the whole realm of “experience,” which includes much else besides.

In truth, because real experiences are so few and are only tenuously connected with the flow of my inner life, I am not. Surely, the path toward linking my life with a continuous stream of real experience is a long and difficult labor! For this labor we receive the help of a special emotional force coming from what Beelzebub calls “conscience,” the painful recognition of my true “nothingness.” The only thing that can really help us is for this recognition to become a continuous companion.

We recall that in the Gospels Jesus speaks of the “Father within.”[10] Is this “Father” who is (potentially) within us the true consciousness—living experience purified of its mechanicalness, brought to such a continuous state of action that it serves as a genuine head-brain for our real existence? According to the parallel between Man and the Cosmos, this must be also the nature of the Father “above.” In the fourth striving, Our Common Father may refer both to the inner and the cosmic “head brain.” To be able obey the obligation to lighten His sorrows is surely one of the central purposes of our work.

~ • ~

Richard Hodges has been a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California since 1969. He has been studying Judo for over 40 years and received a Gold Medal in the 2009 World Masters Judo Championship. His website is:

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Revision: May 1, 2012


[1] It seems necessary here to address the false accusation that Nietzsche was in some way connected with the Nazis. Certain of his ideas were misappropriated long after his death in a way that was totally alien to Nietzsche’s own intent. This unfortunately tarnished his reputation, though it has since recovered, along with an appreciation of his immense influence on the twentieth century.

[2] This view of Zarathustra’s place in the lineage of our religious traditions is from In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek.

[3] See In Search of the Miraculous by P. D. Ouspensky. This book is widely regarded as the best introduction to Gurdjieff’s ideas.

[4] See, for example, Max Stirner’s 1840 classic Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (translated as The Ego and His Own).

[5] A. R. Orage, who worked closely with Gurdjieff in translating the English edition of Beelzebub’s Tales, was a noted Nietzsche scholar before he met Gurdjieff. Orage wrote the useful book Friedrich Nietzsche, the Dionysian Spirit of the Age.

[6] In his book, Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff.

[7] Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, p. 386.

[8] From R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Le Roi de Théocratie Pharaonique.

[9] Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, p. 775.

[10] For example John 10:14.