Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff and Money

Part I

Quotations by G. I. Gurdjieff

In the second chapter of his book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff wrote respectfully of his father’s exceptional standards in connection with money.

Gurdjieff's Father

To give a fuller picture of my father’s individuality, I must say something about a tendency of his nature rarely observed in contemporary people, and striking to all who knew him well. It was chiefly on account of this tendency that from the very beginning, when he became poor and had to go into business, his affairs went so badly that his friends and those who had business dealings with him considered him unpractical and even not clever in this domain.

And indeed, every business that my father carried on for the purpose of making money always went wrong and brought none of the results obtained by others. However, this was not because he was unpractical or lacked mental ability in this field, but only because of this tendency.

This tendency of his nature, apparently acquired by him when still a child, I would define thus: “an instinctive aversion to deriving personal advantage for himself from the naïveté and bad luck of others.”

In other words, being highly honourable and honest, my father could never consciously build his own welfare on the misfortune of his neighbour. But most of those round him, being typical contemporary people, took advantage of his honesty and deliberately tried to cheat him, thus unconsciously belittling the significance of that trait in his psyche which conditions the whole of Our Common Father’s commandments for man.1

~ • ~

Many of Gurdjieff’s observations about money and the idea of ‘payment’ were recorded by P. D. Ouspensky.

Man never on any account wants to pay for anything; and above all he does not want to pay for what is most important for him. You now know that everything must be paid for and that it must be paid for in proportion to what is received. But usually a man thinks to the contrary. For trifles, for things that are perfectly useless to him, he will pay anything. But for something important, never. This must come to him of itself.2

~ • ~

Consider what the cultured humanity of our time spends money on; even leaving the war out, what commands the highest price; where the biggest crowds are. If we think for a moment about these questions it becomes clear that humanity, as it is now, with the interests it lives by, cannot expect to have anything different from what it has.3

~ • ~

A small accidental I may promise something, not to itself, but to someone else at a certain moment simply out of vanity or for amusement. Then it disappears, but the man, that is, the whole combination of other I’s who are quite innocent of this, may have to pay for it all his life. It is the tragedy of the human being that any small I has the right to sign checks and promissory notes and the man, that is, the Whole, has to meet them. People’s whole lives often consist in paying off the promissory notes of small accidental I’s.4

~ • ~

The final chapter of Meetings with Remarkable Men records Gurdjieff’s special talents in the sphere of making money as well as the ethical challenges that often accompany such skill.

Thanks to the resourcefulness, breadth of view and, above all, common sense, developed in me by correct education, I was able to grasp, from all the information I collected intentionally or accidentally in the subsequent course of my life, the very essence of each branch of learning, instead of being left with merely an accumulation of empty rubbish, which is the inevitable result among contemporary people of the general use of their famous educational method called learning by heart.

And so, at an early age, I was already well equipped and able to earn sufficient money to provide for my immediate needs. However, as I had come to be interested, when still quite young, in those abstract questions which lead to an understanding of the sense and aim of life, and gave all my time and attention to this, I did not direct my capacities for earning money towards that self-sufficing aim of existence on which, owing to abnormal education, all the “conscious” and instinctive strivings of contemporary people, and particularly of you Americans, are concentrated. I turned to earning money only from time to time, and only in so far as it was needed for my ordinary existence, and to enable me to accomplish whatever was necessary for attaining the aim I had set myself.

Coming from a poor family and not being materially secure, I had to resort rather often to earning this indeed despicable and maleficent money for unavoidable needs. However, the process itself of earning money never took much of my time, because, owing to the resourcefulness and common sense developed in me by correct education, I was already in all these life matters what might be called an expert, cunning old blade.5

~ • ~

Even when I was offered too trifling a payment to justify the time spent on repairing some article or other, I nevertheless undertook to put it right if the thing was new to me, since in that case I was interested not in the money itself, but in the difficulty presented by a kind of work that was as yet unfamiliar to me.6

~ • ~

I met at the bazaar a Georgian whom I had known before. . . He was now a contractor for army provisions and he offered to sell me several old iron beds, of which he had a surplus.

I went to his house that same evening and we went down into the cellar to look at the beds, but there was such an intolerable stench that it was almost impossible to stay there. Hastily examining the beds, I fled as quickly as possible, and began negotiations only after we reached the street. I learned then that the stench in the cellar came from herrings that were stored there, twenty barrels of them, which he had bought at Astrakhan for the local officers’ mess. When the first two barrels were delivered and opened, the herrings were found to have gone bad and were rejected. The Georgian, fearing to lose his reputation, did not wish to offer them anywhere else, so he took them back and placed them temporarily in his cellar and then almost forgot about them. It was only now, after three months, when his whole house reeked of them, that he had made up his mind to get rid of them as soon as possible.

What vexed him was not only that he had lost money on them, but that in addition he would even have to pay to have them carted to the dump-heap, as otherwise the sanitary commission might hear about it and fine him.

While he was telling me all this, my thoughts began to work, according to the habit formed in me during this period, and I asked myself whether it might not be possible, by some combination or other, to derive profit even from this affair.

I began to calculate: “He has twenty barrels of rotten herrings which must be thrown away. But the barrels themselves are worth at least a rouble apiece. If only I could get them emptied for nothing! Otherwise, carting them away would cost almost as much as they are worth. . .”

Then suddenly it dawned on me that surely herrings—especially rotten ones—would make good manure. And I thought that a gardener, in order to get such good manure for nothing, would surely agree in return to fetch the barrels, empty them, rinse them out, and bring them to me at the workshop. After smoking them I would be able to sell them at once, as barrels were in great demand, and in this way in half an hour I should make twenty roubles. And nobody would lose anything, but on the contrary everybody would gain by this, even the Georgian who had lost on the merchandise, but would now at least save the expense of carting.

Having thus thought things out, I said to the Georgian: “If you will take a little more off the beds, I will arrange for these barrels to be carted away without any cost to you.”

He agreed, and I promised to rid him of this source of infection the next morning.

I paid for the beds, loaded them on my cart, and also took along one of the unopened barrels of herrings to show to a gardener. Back at the workshop we unloaded and put everything in the shed.

Just at that time the old Jew, the father of the boys who were working for me, came in, as he usually did in the evenings to have a chat with his sons and sometimes even to help them with their work. Herring barrel, circa 1900

I sat down in my little yard to smoke, and the thought suddenly entered my head to try the herrings on my pigs; perhaps they might eat them. Without explaining anything to the old man, I asked him to help me open the barrel.

When the lid was raised, the old Jew bent over to inhale the odour, and immediately his face lit up and he exclaimed:

“Now that’s what I call herrings! Herrings like these I have not seen far a long time, indeed not since I got into this damned country!”

I was puzzled. Having lived mostly in Asia where they do not eat herrings, I could never tell good from bad even if I did happen to eat them. They all had the same nasty smell for me. So I was bound to give some credence to this emphatic announcement of the old Jew, the more so since formerly, when he lived in Russia in the town of Rostov, he had had a butcher shop where he also used to sell fish.

However, I was still not entirely convinced and asked him whether he might not be mistaken, but he, offended to the core, replied: “What’s that you’re saying? These are genuine, preserved, such and such . . . herrings!” I do not remember what he called them.

Still having some doubts, I told him that I had by chance bought up a whole consignment of these herrings, and that, among us, it was a good omen when any goods were opened if some were sold at once: it was a sign that the entire sale would be successful. So now we should at once, without waiting till morning, sell at least a few herrings. And I asked him to try to do this immediately.

In this way I wanted to make sure that what the old man had said was true, and to act accordingly.

Near my workshop lived many Jews, most of them tradespeople. As it was evening, most of the shops were closed. But just opposite the workshop lived a watchmaker, a certain Friedman. He was called on first and he instantly bought a whole dozen, paying, without any bargaining, fifteen kopeks a pair.

The next buyer was the proprietor of the pharmacy on the corner, who at once bought fifty.

From the delighted tone of these buyers I knew that the old man was right. The next morning, at daybreak, I hired carts and brought over to my place all the barrels except the two already opened, which were really quite spoiled and from which had come that terrible stench. These I immediately sent off to the town dump.

The remaining eighteen barrels of herrings turned out to be not only good, but of the best quality.

Evidently, neither the buyer for the officers’ mess nor the Georgian merchant, a native of Tiflis, where they do not eat herrings, knew any more about them than I did, that is, nothing at all; and from their peculiar smell they had considered them spoiled, and the Georgian had resigned himself to his loss.

In three days, with the help of the old Jew, to whom I paid half a kopek per herring—which made him extremely happy—all the herrings were sold, wholesale and retail.

By this time I had liquidated all my affairs, and on the eve of my departure I invited that Georgian, with my many other acquaintances, to a farewell supper. At table I related how well this affair had turned out for me, and, pulling the money out of my pocket, I offered to share my profits with him. But the Georgian, holding to a commercial principle firmly established among the old inhabitants of Transcaucasia and the Transcaspian region, refused to accept the money. He said that, when he had let me have the goods, he was certain they were quite worthless, and, if it had proved otherwise, it was a stroke of good luck for me and of bad luck for him, and therefore he considered it unfair to take advantage of my kindness. Moreover, the next day, when I left for Merv, I found among my things in the carriage a goat-skin of wine from this Georgian.7

~ • ~

Some of Gurdjieff’s most pointed comments about people’s attitudes about money appear in All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. The voice is that of Beelzebub.

I went the same day to look up a certain ‘Mister’ there, who also had been recommended to me by still another of my Paris acquaintances.

“By this word ‘Mister’ every being of the male sex is called on that continent who does not wear what is called a ‘skirt.’

“When I found this Mister, to whom I had a letter of introduction, he, as is proper to every genuine American businessman, was up to his eyes in innumerable, as is said there, ‘dollar businesses.’

“I think I might as well remark now at the very beginning of my elucidations about these Americans, that those three-brained beings there, especially the contemporary ones, who constitute the root population on this part of the surface of your planet, are in general almost all occupied only with these dollar businesses.

“On the other hand, with the trades and ‘professions’ indispensable in the process of being-existence, exclusively only those beings are occupied among them, who have gone there from other continents temporarily, and for the purpose, as is said, of ‘earning money.’

“Even in this respect, the surrounding conditions of ordinary being-existence among your contemporary favorites, chiefly among those breeding on this continent, have been transformed so to say, into ‘Tralalaooalalalala,’ or, as our respected teacher Mullah Nassr Eddin would define it, ‘a soap bubble that lasts a long time only in a quiet medium.’

“Among them there at the present time, these surrounding conditions of ordinary collective existence have already become such, that if, for some reason or other, the specialist professionals of all the kinds necessary for their ordinary collective existence should cease to come to them from the other continents to ‘earn money,’ then it is safe to say that within a month the whole established order of their ordinary existence would completely break down, since there would be none among them who could even so much as bake bread.

“The chief cause of the gradual resulting of such an abnormality there among them is, on the one side, the law established by them themselves in respect of the rights of parents over their children and on the other hand the institution in schools for children of what is called a ‘dollar savings bank’ together with the principle of implanting in children a love of such dollars.

“Thanks to this, and to still various other peculiar external conditions of ordinary existence also established by them, themselves, just this love of ‘dollar business’ and of dollars themselves, has become, in the common presence of each of the native inhabitants of this continent who reaches responsible age, the predominant urge during his responsible what is called ‘feverish existence.’

“That is why each one of them is always doing ‘dollar business,’ and, moreover, always several of them at once.

“Although the aforesaid ‘Mister’ to whom I had a letter of introduction was also very busy with these ‘dollar businesses,’ he nevertheless received me very cordially. When he read the letter of introduction I presented to him, a strange process immediately began in him which has already been noticed even by certain of your favorites—it having also become inherent in your contemporary favorites in general—and which they call ‘unconscious preening.’

“And this same process proceeded in him because, in the letter I presented, the name of a certain other acquaintance of mine, also a Mister, was mentioned, who in the opinion of many, and of this ‘Mister’ also, was considered, as they call him behind his back, ‘a damn’ clever fellow,’ that is to say, a ‘dollar expert.’

“In spite of his having been entirely seized with this inherency, proper to your contemporary favorites, he nevertheless, as he talked with me, gradually calmed down, and eventually he informed me, that he was ‘ready to place himself entirely at my disposal.’ Suddenly, however, he remembered something, whereupon he added that to his profound regret, owing to circumstances over which he had absolutely no control, he could not possibly oblige me that day, but not until the following day, because he was extremely busy with important affairs.

“And, indeed, with the best will in the world, he could not have done so, for these unfortunate Americans, who are always governed by these dollar businesses of theirs, can do what they please only on Sundays, whereas it just happened that the day I went to see him was not a Sunday.

“There on that continent, all dollar and other businesses depend never upon the beings themselves; on the contrary, your favorites there always themselves depend entirely on these ‘businesses’ of theirs.8

~ • ~

1 G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, New York: Dutton, 1963; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 47–48.
2 P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950, p. 178.
3 Ibid., p. 39.
4 Ibid., p. 60.
5 Meetings with Remarkable Men, pp. 251–252.
6 Ibid., p. 258.
7 Ibid., pp. 266–269.
8 G. I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1950; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950, pp. 919–921.

Copyright © 2005 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2005 Issue, Vol. IX (1)
Revision: December 1, 2005