A. R. Orage

Gurdjieff International Review

My Note Book

by A. R. Orage

October 1934

The Myth of Progress—Understanding and Attainment—The Self Is or Is Not—Men on Earth and Divine Purpose—Free Will, Fact or Fiction?—Physicists and Psychologists.

In an essay “The Myth of Progress” published in the British Journal of Medical Psychology, my old friend, Mr. M. D. Eder, undertakes his usual rôle of enfant terrible. There is no Progress; the idea is simply a myth created to make life tolerable; and the realistic objective fact is that “we are born mad, acquire morality, become stupid and unhappy, and then die.” “This natural history of man under domestication,” he says, “is so little agreeable to our self-love” that we devise a myth of Progress as a refuge. But if it comes to a question of devices and refuges, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: the “myth” of Progress for the one, and the “myth” of No Progress for the other. And even though Mr. Eder may appeal to the “objective” criterion of “natural history” it is obvious that his reading of natural history may be as subjective as that of the subjectivists themselves; and who is to decide between them? The truth appears to me that we are literally not wise enough to settle any such question at present. Save for a few rare individuals in every age, mankind, as a whole, even in its most developed members, is scarcely beginning to be able to state such questions with exactitude; and as for answering them objectively, scientifically, and therefore, measurably, neither the men nor the means as yet exist. Mankind, in short, (always excepting the few who, again, are out of court for lack of a competent jury), is trying, in the person of its intellectuals, to solve problems in algebra before it has mastered arithmetic.

I agree with the editorial writer in The Aryan Path for June 1934, that of the three lines of evolution perceptible to man (and hence attributed by him to Nature), the highest, because the most inclusive, is spiritual evolution defined as the Self-perception of Self. But between, first, this verbal definition and the realisation of its meaning; and, secondly, the realisation of its meaning and its actualisation in being—there may be æons of difference. From merely understanding that the highest value is self-objectivity (the ability, that is to say, to see everything thought of as self, exactly as if it were not-self) it does not follow that we have it; any more than it follows that if we understand that gold is of more value than silver, we necessarily possess gold. The attainment of the state of Self-objectivity is something totally different from its understanding, just as acquiring gold is something totally different from the appreciation of its value. What I am therefore disposed to say of the problems already referred to is that their understanding and appreciation need to be supplemented by something entirely different before they can be solved; and that, in fact, the modern mind, even when as desirous of objectivity as I know Mr. Eder’s to be, is incapable of solving such problems for the simple reason that the modern mind is not, in actuality, self-objective. I beg myself as well as my readers not to mistake understanding for attainment; and not to imagine, on the strength of their realisation of certain truths, that they possess them, or, still less, that they can use them. Our being, in which alone truth is possessed, is still a long, long way behind our understanding. Is, then, Progress a “myth?” I do not know. Is it, on the other hand, a fact in Nature? Again, I do not know. Nor do I find it necessary to settle the question one way or the other for my peace of mind. To understand what the question implies, to be satisfied that one cannot answer it now, but to hope to be able one day to answer it, that, I think, is enough for arithmeticians not yet really capable of algebra. The attitude is not favourable to the role of enfant terrible on the positive or the negative side; but it leaves one actively contented.

There is no doubt that, long before such questions can be finally settled, sides in their discussion are taken according to temperament and experience; and a species of partisanship arises, in the course of which heads are knocked together, or, possibly, counted. There is, of course, a value in the discussion from the mere exercise of the muscles and limbs of the mind; but it is a great mistake, in my opinion, to imagine that there is any more. To repeat myself, I would say as follows:

In the first place, things are as they are and not otherwise. This is to say that truths exist. Progress, for example, is a fact or it is not a fact; it is not a matter of opinion.

In the second place, there either is or is not a means of proving them. This is to say that discussion, in the absence of the means of proof, is merely partisanship.

In the third place, the proof, if any, cannot be confined to simple understanding; it must be part of our being. And finally, without this state of being, not only the proof cannot be realised, but even the question of the possibility of proof is one for faith, rather than for reason.

I am led to say this by the excursion into algebra of another of my greatly esteemed friends, Professor Denis Saurat of The French Institute, and recent author of a stimulating work: the History of Religions. Professor Saurat appears to me to have adopted a “side” in the controversy on the subject of the “self,” le Moi; and to be as diligent and conscientious in the defence of his case as if he were briefed in honour to support it. He even looks for confirmatory evidence among witnesses of repute with the jury, and occasionally strains the facts to secure their support, as in the case of Valéry, for example, whom he declares, after cross-examination, to be as destructive of “le Moi” as Proust, who broke the self into innumerable pieces and denied they had ever made a whole. I can certainly not myself settle the question one way or the other; but I can certainly say (without offence) that neither can my friend Professor Saurat, with all his witnesses. The existence of the self, is, I agree, a question of fact; the self is or it is not. But the distance from this logical statement to the proven conclusion that the self exists or does not exist, is all the distance from understanding to being; and, in default of being, the understanding, even at its best, is liable to change. Once again I implore myself not to be tempted to hope to arrive at truth by discussion. Only when self-objectivity is a fact of our being, and of the same unquestioned validity as any of our senses—only then can arithmetic safely pass into algebra. Only then can we know even as we are known.

An attempt has been made in a recent novel entitled Proud Man (by Mr. “Constantine”) to pass an “objective” criticism on the human species, as examined and judged by superior beings—namely, by men who have, on another planet, completed a later phase of human evolution than our own. The idea has, of course, been used before, by Utopians, like Butler; by imaginative sociologists, like Wells; and by moralists, like Mark Twain. But Proud Man is the first published attempt of which I am aware to evaluate humanity on Earth from the standpoint of his divine purpose, as a creature in process of becoming that which he is designed to be. It must be admitted that the attempt, in the hands of anybody not already developed past our present stage, is somewhat temerarious (mere premature algebra, in short); and, from certain unmistakable signs, it is clear that the author is still human, all too human. On the other hand, I confess that I found the book stimulating, since it provoked in me precisely that kind of effort which it is the chief aim of Culture to arouse—the effort to see myself as I see others. As the narrative proceeds—being chiefly the report of an “angel” of his observations of Man on Earth—the reader is gradually made aware that he himself is one of them. I do not know by what trick of fence the author manages to turn the mirror round and to make the reader see himself in it; but the trick is accomplished; and from a somewhat self-satisfied superiority over the defects of our humanity as portrayed, the reader is made to pass through the stages of apprehension that he may be one of the creatures described, growing belief that he probably is, to finally, the shocking certainty of it. The experience is salutary, but not, I fear, lasting; for here again, the difference is abysmal between realisation and being. It is possible that if one could continue to look at one’s self as if one were somebody else, the cumulative effect would be transforming; but an occasional glimpse, however poignant, is sooner or later forgotten.

“The Principle of Uncertainty,” that affirms that it is impossible to increase the accuracy of measurement of velocity without introducing uncertainty into determination of position, is a weak straw for the doctrine of Free Will to cling to, though a considerable number of people have clutched at it. In the first place, the indeterminable (by any means) is not necessarily the indetermined; and, in the second place, the mode of proof of Free Will or otherwise is not and never will be a matter of measurement. The range and quality of any one of our senses can be measured, but vision itself, hearing itself, taste itself; these are subject to no possible proof but direct experience, or what I have called fact. Now it may be the case that Free Will is not a fact in the same sense. It may be that we are like a blind race talking of “vision” without the least experience of what it means. Again, it may be that from time to time—like a blind man who occasionally sees—we experience the possession of a unique sense which we call Free Will. But, in the absence of its normal possession by ourselves, and in the absence of its normal possession by others than ourselves, it is impossible, I think, to do more than either to “discuss” it, or to speak of it without “proof.” Those who see, can “prove” what they see to those who can see; but they can prove nothing of sight to the blind. And similarly (at least presumably) those with “free will” can prove their possession of it to those who have it. As for the rest even evidence is not evidence.

It is a pity that modern physicists are not also psychologists, or modern psychologists also physicists, since the conceptions now current among physicists would be very useful to psychologists. The difficulty of modern physics, as everybody knows, lies in the unimaginability of its conceptions; they cannot be pictured, but exist only as operations in process. Even Einstein or Jeans is incapable of imagining curved space, let us say; but any competent modern physicist can not only take the curvature of space as proved, but act as if it were so, with complete confidence that the facts will bear him out. Now if the Universe, in respect of Space and Time, has become for the physicist a construct of his mind that is non-picturable, but at the same time is valid for practical no less than theoretical purposes—what is to prevent the psychologist from taking the “psyche” as proved, and proceeding to treat it as if it were the reality of the actual physical body? The universe for the physicist is something entirely different from the Universe for the “sensualist;” the latter makes pictures where the former realises processes. At the same time, though both universes are valid in their own terms, there cannot be the smallest doubt that the former conditions the latter; and that, in this sense, the physicists are nearer the source of reality than the “sensualists.” In the same way, the psychologist who deals with “psyche” is nearer the source of reality than the physiologist who deals with pictures. It is true that he is concerned with processes; it is also true that they are non-picturable; but, exactly as the physicist is capable of more accurate measurements of the Universe than the “sensualist,” it is my conviction that a psychology that considered “psyche” alone would arrive at greater truth than our physio-psychologists today who insist upon pictures. It is unfortunately the case, however, that in Europe at any rate, no Einstein among psychologists has yet arisen. The physical Universe has been resolved into a system of operations unimaginable and non-picturable; our sensible Universe is only a shadow cast by it. Physicists have become psychologists on the grand scale, while psychologists have remained physicists on the small scale.

Copyright © 1934 The Aryan Path
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