A. R. Orage

Gurdjieff International Review

My Note Book

by A. R. Orage

January 1934

Modern Knowledge and Ancient—Disappearance of Soul-Science—Coins—Conventional and Intrinsic Values—The Absolutely Intrinsic forever Unknowable—Bio-Chemistry in 600 A. D.—Men and Things Radio-Active.

[Friends and admirers of A. R. Orage, Editor of The New English Weekly describe him as a practical mystic, others as an impatient idealist; either way, he and his newspaper are forces to reckon with in the building of a new society everywhere. In this quarterly instalment of his “Note Book” he makes use of Analogy, which is the guiding law in Nature, the only true Ariadne’s thread that can lead us, through the inextricable paths of her domain, towards her primal and final mysteries.—The Aryan Path Eds.]

Suppose that the capacity to carry on the discipline of modern science were to atrophy in the world, but that our textbooks remained to be discovered by a future generation,—what would our remote descendants make of them? If they had reason, they could not but conclude that our scientific dissertations appeared to exhibit reason. And since many of them would appear to refer to practical results they could not but conclude that there seemed to be method in our unintelligibility. Ultimately, perhaps, or possibly through the agency of a few people who had preserved the traditions, our science might begin to be understood; and little by little, if all went well, our textbooks would be read as intelligently as they were written. I am often tempted to employ this parallel when reading the “ancient scriptures.” Nobody with reason can deny that, however indecipherable, fantastic and irrelevant they may appear, they have the form and formality not only of reason but of exact reasoning. And nobody, again, of any judgment can deny that at least they appear to be concerned about practical matters and about practical matters of obviously the very highest importance to the authors. Of relatively late years, moreover, the parallel can be carried into the field of interpretation and revival. Many of us remember, as one of our greatest experiences, the translation into modern language of some of the ancient texts by Madame Blavatsky. It is true that even Madame Blavatsky could not reduce the ancient wisdom to the level of our ordinary understanding; but without the smallest doubt she convinced many of us, first, that the ancient wisdom of the soul was once a science; secondly, that its disappearance from the world was not on account of its supersession by a superior science, but on account of some temporary occultation of the higher faculties of man; thirdly, that the tradition of the science remained and possibly continued to be taught by its masters and practised by its pupils; and, finally, that it was concerned with the highest values, without the realisation of which all our civilisation is doomed merely to creep, as it were, on the ground. What, and much more, the translation of the Rosetta tablet was to our knowledge of Cuneiform, Madame Blavatsky’s discovery of a key to the ancient science was, and will be, to the world’s knowledge of its own spiritual past and future. It is even unimportant to inquire whether Madame Blavatsky did anything else, or, indeed, was anything else than an inspired “reader” of the long-dead and forgotten language. In the history of values still to be realized she will rank as the great re-discoverer and initiator.

Another analogy. We have all seen children playing with coins of different values and discriminating them, not by their conventional differences, but by properties irrelevant to their value: their size, for instance, or their colour and polish. The realisation of relative monetary values, irrespective of irrelevant signs, is one of the landmarks in the development of the child’s mind. The parallel in the case of grown-ups is their almost universal failure to discriminate values in almost every other department of life save in precisely the department of money. It would almost seem, in fact, that with the successful effort to overcome childish ignorance in the matter of money-values, the majority of mankind ceased making any effort to discriminate other values. This is not to say that mankind in general does not love to play with values—the values, for instance of Biology and Ethics, Art and Religion, Science and Philosophy (I have named, in their proper ascending order, all but the comprehensive seventh value). These values have the attraction for mankind that coins have for children. But it is obvious that, in the first place, their discrimination is not according to their proper relative qualities,—or mankind would agree about them; and, in the second place, that very few people are even interested in their proper relation—or all our differences of opinion would at least be referred to the ultimate conventions. A dispute among children concerning the relative value of coins would only occur when one of them began to question the arbitrary discriminations. Thereafter, presumably, either they would all accept the definitions of grown-ups, or, at worst, they would continue to “play” but in the knowledge that they were only “making believe.” In the case of adults and the higher values, however, not only do the majority “play,” but they decline to listen to what they regard as “authority” (though real authority is only the declaration of the convention) and, in consequence, they continue to play without even the suspicion that they are playing. De gustibus, they say, non est disputandum;1 exactly as children might say that the difference of coin-values is a matter of taste and not of reason. On the contrary, I look forward (as well as backward) to a culture in which precisely matters of taste in values are subject to dispute and final settlement; in which, perhaps, only such matters are considered worth disputing.

In using the word “convention” for the proper order of relative values I am again employing analogy. But the analogy this time is rather more subtle. We know very well that the relative values of coins is conventional in the sense that they are man-made. On the other hand, though man-made, and therefore not intrinsic, the vast majority of people are unaware that they are so, and, what is more, these conventional values work as if they were intrinsic. Though gold and silver and copper have no intrinsic differences of value, the man-made convention of their difference acts as if they had; in other words, in the society where they are current, copper, silver, and gold of equal quantities command relatively different responses from society. What I wish to, if I dare, suggest, is that the differences of values in the universal field are as much a convention as the differences of value in coins; only that, in the larger field, the convention is Logos-made, and the “society” in which they are current is our world. Only such a supposition, I think, gives meaning and importance to values at all. If their ordering is not due to intelligence, if their currency with their established difference is not intentional and purposive, if they are not, in fact, instituted (on the analogy of money-values) for and in the interests of the Great Society, then no dispute as to their relation is more than a waste of words and a mockery of reason. It is true that in accepting the highest values as only a convention (albeit Logos-made and not man-made) we are still removed from the absolute intrinsic; but, in the first place, the absolutely intrinsic is forever unknowable, being, as it is, the Potential of an infinity of Actuals; in the second place, the convention, though not absolutely intrinsic, may be intrinsic in our Actual world; and, finally, exactly as the convention of money-differences works as if the differences were intrinsic, so the conventions of value in the Great Society of our world may, and I think, do work as if they were intrinsic. I forbear to risk vulgarising the conception by reminding myself that Emerson said that “our world” is like a shop where you can buy anything in stock with the proper values.

The history of Bio-chemistry, we are told, though short, is already glorious; but the science has a long, long way to go before even beginning to catch up with its predecessors in sixth-century Hindu thought, and still further to pass it. My friend A.E.,2 the well-known Irish poet, painter and mystic, remarked to me the other day that the faculties of man are “radio-active”; their presence, or rather, the substance of their presence, produces effects of an entirely different order from the effects of their manifest activity. And it was thus that he accounted for the extraordinary “influence” that people, and not only people, but all things, exert on each other unconsciously and untraceably. Without accepting as precise the phrase “radio-active” (and I am sure that A.E. had no intention of strictly scientific meaning) the suggestion of reciprocal bio-chemical influences arising from the neighbouring or even remotely separated “presences” of beings is distinctly valuable, and points, perhaps, to a field of observation and experiment so far untilled by the young science of Bio-chemistry. It is too soon, in fact, to demand any psychological results of the new science. Much, much remains to be redone, even in the matter of metabolisms, before the modern bio-chemist can begin to compare with his Hindu forerunners. On the other hand, the greatest service to the new science, next to that of working practically in it, is to keep its windows open on the widest possible vistas; and to be unsatisfied, if not dissatisfied, with anything less than its achievement of the understanding of the psychology of chemistry—or, as the ancients called it, Alchemistry.

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1 Latin aphorism, “Taste is not disputable” or “There’s no accounting for taste” in contemporary vernacular. [G. I. R. Editors]
2 George W. Russell. [G. I. R. Editors]

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