P. D. Ouspensky

Gurdjieff International Review

The Psychology of
Man’s Possible Evolution


Ouspensky’s five lectures which make up The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution were not originally intended to be published.

Reading them as a book gives practically no measure of the scale of time and study needed to realize, even partially, the ideas which are expressed or why Ouspensky expressed them in this short form.

In the forty or fifty years since the lectures were composed, analytical, introspective psychology has captured the interest of the masses. It has become a major course of study in colleges and in the so-called ‘free university’ movement and a dominant factor in discussions of education, art, sports and even in commerce, natural science and religion, particularly among the young. Along with this, the conquest of outer space has given an impetus to psychological and metaphysical fantasies of every sort. But psychology as self-knowledge of what a man may become, and what place he has the right to assume in the whole scheme of the universe, has remained a forgotten, almost a disappearing, science.

Today’s reader of Ouspensky’s lectures is thus bombarded, from the first page, with a series of apparently arbitrary statements about himself, many of them now vaguely familiar, although actually in flat contradiction to his accepted notions. Only in rare cases will this provoke enough thought and questioning for such subtle truths to take hold in his mind.

Ouspensky met his master, G. I. Gurdjieff, in Moscow in 1915, and has described in In Search of the Miraculous how, nine years later, he finally severed all relations with Gurdjieff and continued his own study of Gurdjieff’s ideas independently in London. This break with Gurdjieff in 1924 was a final one.

Ouspensky’s first book, Tertium Organum, had appeared in English translation in 1922 and had attracted a good deal of attention. Some of the interested people then went to Gurdjieff in Paris, others remained with Ouspensky in London.

After the break, Ouspensky’s first task, while continuing his private group meetings with these pupils, was to compose an account of Gurdjieff’s teaching exactly as he had received it. This was published after his death, with Gurdjieff’s approval, under the title of In Search of the Miraculous.

As a further task, Ouspensky undertook to translate into English his other pre-Gurdjieff Russian writings, arranging them to correspond with the new ideas. This was not completed till 1931.

At the same time, in meetings and conversations with his small group of pupils, he was observing and experimenting to find out for himself what was the most suitable form and order in which to present Gurdjieff’s ideas at that time.

After A New Model of the Universe appeared, Ouspensky gradually opened his work in London to a larger number, whom he organized in groups of about 20 or 30 people. The lectures which make up The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution were written to be read aloud at weekly meetings by one of the older pupils to each of these groups. They were in a constant state of revision as new groups were collected and only took the present published form during Ouspensky’s meetings in New York in 1941–1947.

No attempt was made to advertise these lectures. On the contrary, the rule that they should not be spoken of outside the circle of Ouspensky’s work was strictly observed. Candidates who became interested in Ouspensky’s books would usually meet several times with an older pupil before being admitted. Broadly speaking, in order to approach Ouspensky, it was obligatory first to attend the whole series of lecture meetings.

The meetings were held in a large, rented room, very plainly furnished. Ouspensky himself generally entered during or after the reading of the lecture, answered questions, and introduced new material. Written questions were encouraged and were read out but were not always answered. Most of the answers were flat, uncompromising statements of the “system” of ideas; only occasionally did a real dialogue open up with the questioner.

When the five lectures had been read, and after a certain interval, a further five lectures, giving the cosmological ideas of Gurdjieff, were read to the group. These readings consisted of passages from the manuscript of In Search of the Miraculous, chiefly from chapters 7 and 9 dealing with the ray of creation, the laws of three and seven, the hydrogen table, food diagram and so on. Gurdjieff’s name did not appear in these extracts. Most people entering Ouspensky’s work after 1931 did not even know of Gurdjieff’s existence until later.

To understand Ouspensky’s procedure, one must grasp that he was not simply passing out to others the knowledge he had received from Gurdjieff.

He was working towards the existence round him of what he called a school.

No doubt one of his reasons for creating an “organization” round him was so that it might attract the notice, and eventually the help, of other masters, such as those from whom Gurdjieff had received his knowledge. Ouspensky continued to expand his work through the decade of the thirties and, even when World War II was imminent, incorporated it publicly in a large house in London, where plans were made for printing and other activities; but, owing to the War, these plans never materialized.

But there was another reason for the “organization.” Ouspensky was certain that the ideas which interested him could only be transmitted under very strict conditions. It was the existence of these conditions that he called a school. Under any other conditions, speaking to others about the ideas could not communicate their whole meaning and would actually hinder the work toward self-transformation. Thus, although sometimes they were read to groups more than once, the lectures were never circulated among new people for private study.

Further, since the lectures represented Ouspensky’s own formulation of the ideas, and since the attitude towards the instructor represents one of the principal conditions of the school’s existence, even the oldest pupils were not allowed without his permission to use the lecture material in meeting new people. In at least one case, this rule was enforced with vigor.

Obviously, Ouspensky was not unaware of the deadening effect of organization on any creative work, or of the obstacle to entering his groups that such strict conditions would place in front of intelligent, warmhearted, inquiring people.

The very word “school” evokes a host of deeply unpleasant associations, which may remain even when the difference between a real school with its useful, voluntary discipline and the artificial school with its false discipline has been explained.

One idea, often given in Ouspensky’s talks and no doubt derived from Gurdjieff, was that the real school needs to include at least two levels of learning, one corresponding to the transmission of higher knowledge and the other to the development of greater being and force. Ouspensky regarded his own circle as a preparatory school.

To understand the inner meaning of a school, and why he found a school necessary for passing on these ideas, one has to have searched and struggled for the transformation of feeling and change of one’s being which is the central purpose of Gurdjieff’s knowledge.

Only those who have engaged in this struggle know the subtle difficulties and temptations with which ordinary human life seems to bar the way at every step and only such people will accept the necessity of this kind of help. It was for this relatively small number that the lectures were originally composed.

Even before they were being given in London, Gurdjieff himself, with extraordinary patience, had put aside altogether the form and language in which he gave Ouspensky and others his ideas in the twenties, and was developing in Paris the completely new restatement which appeared later as Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson and Meetings with Remarkable Men.

Later, in conversations with groups of Americans and French in Paris and New York, Gurdjieff again completely changed his mode of exposition and worked towards the transmission of the same principles and knowledge in new forms with new exercises, adapted to the people who came to him.

It is incorrect, therefore, to look on The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution as a sort of first primer of Gurdjieff’s ideas, or to find in it statements which are inconsistent with Beelzebub. The lectures are both more than a basic introduction to Gurdjieff’s ideas and less. They belong to a definite period, when Ouspensky was convinced that the ideas he had received would be irretrievably lost if they were not transmitted “alive” to those round him, and, as originally given, they include not only all the ideas, but the angle of view necessary for the seed of consciousness in man to develop.

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