P. D. Ouspensky, circa 1938

Gurdjieff International Review

P. D. Ouspensky

A Biographical Outline

Compiled by Merrily E. Taylor

[This biographical outline was first published in Remembering Pytor Demianovich Ouspensky, a brochure compiled and edited by Merrily E. Taylor and celebrating the acquisition of The P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection by Yale University Library in 1978. Copies of the entire brochure can be acquired at a cost of $4.50 by writing Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives, P.O. Box 208240, New Haven, CT 06520-8240 or calling (203) 432-1735. Their e-mail address is: mssa.assist@yale.edu.]

Thirty years after his death Ouspensky’s books are still being bought and read. The six books in English—Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, and The Fourth Way—sell over 40,000 copies a year. They have been translated into French, German, Spanish, and other languages. Yet both his teaching (called ‘the System’ or ‘the Work’ by his pupils) and Ouspensky himself remain virtually unknown. The System, Ouspensky said, cannot be learned from books; if it could, there would be no need for Schools. As for himself, he was convinced that he had lived this life before, that is, in the limited sense of human understanding. In the Autobiographical Fragment printed as the introduction to this [Remembering Pytor Demianovich Ouspensky] brochure, he wrote, ‘In 1905, during the months of strikes and disorders which ended in the armed insurrection in Moscow, I wrote a novel based on the idea of eternal recurrence.’ Six years later, in A New Model of the Universe, he combined the three dimensions of space with the three dimensions of time: ‘Three-dimensionality is a function of our senses. Time is the boundary of our senses. Six-dimensional space is reality, the world as it is.’ We are one-dimensional in relation to time: Before - Now - After, and we call time our fourth dimension without really understanding that there must be a line of the fifth dimension perpendicular to the line of time, ‘The line of eternity ... Eternity can be an infinite number of finite “times.”’

The novel written in 1905, when Ouspensky was only 27, was not published in Russian until 10 years later, under the title Kinema-drama. Although it was translated into English in the 1920s, it remained in manuscript until the last year of Ouspensky’s life when he had it published as Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. The timing of this publication seems significant, for the novel states that the knowledge of having lived before is a great secret, given to a man only once. For the man who learns this secret, eternal recurrence is no longer eternal; he has only a few more lives, perhaps only one or two, ‘to escape this trap called life.’ In the book, The Magician—an entirely imaginary character—tells Ivan Osokin:

A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something... So if a man wants to acquire important knowledge or new powers, he must sacrifice other things important to him at the moment. Moreover, he can only get as much as he has given up for it... You cannot have results without causes. By your sacrifice you create causes... Now the question of what to sacrifice and how to sacrifice. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. It is a very small price to pay since you meant to throw it away in any case. Instead of that, give me your life and I will see what can be made of you... I shall not require the whole of your life. Twenty, even fifteen years will be sufficient...When this time is over you will be able to use your knowledge for yourself.

Ouspensky discriminated between ordinary knowledge and ‘important knowledge’ even as a schoolboy, and from the age of 18 onwards ‘to acquire important knowledge’ became the chief aim of his life. Thus he began to write and to travel extensively—in Russia, in the East, in Europe. In 1907 he ‘found theosophical literature... It produced a very strong impression on me although I at once saw its weak side ... that it had no continuation. But it opened doors for me into a new and bigger world. I discovered the idea of esotericism ... and received a new impulse for the study of “higher dimensions.”’ He moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1909, where he continued the study of occult literature and gave public lectures on such subjects as the Tarot, Yogis and Superman. A collection of essays on these subjects and The Symbolism of the Tarot were published in 1913, but Ouspensky’s major work at this time was Tertium Organum which was published in 1912.

Tertium Organum was immediately recognised as a ‘magnum opus.’ As Claude Bragdon wrote in his Introduction to the English translation: ‘In naming his book Tertium Organum Ouspensky reveals at a stroke that astounding audacity which characterizes his thought throughout... Such a title says, in effect: “Here is a book which will reorganize all knowledge. The Organon of Aristotle formulated the laws under which the subject thinks; the Novum Organum of Bacon, the laws under which the object may be known; but the Third Canon of Thought existed before these two, and ignorance of its laws does not justify their violation. Tertium Organum shall guide and govern human thought henceforth.”’

Ouspensky had by now refined his aim to a search for an esoteric school which could be followed and proven step by step—not the kind of school which the Magician had offered Ivan Osokin, where a man had to sacrifice everything before he could start, before he could know whether the school did in fact possess the ‘important knowledge’ which he sought. He set out once again for the East and found in India and Ceylon schools which interested him very much but nevertheless were not what he sought. He had decided to continue his search in the Mohammedan East, chiefly in Russian Central Asia and in Persia, but he was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1913. His return to Russia under the conditions of war was by a circuitous route through London, Norway, and Finland, and he reached St. Petersburg in November 1914. There, early in 1915, he gave public lectures based on his travels in India and Ceylon. At the lectures on The Problems of Death and In Search of the Miraculous there were over a thousand people in the audience, and afterwards many people came to see him or wrote to him. (He could probably have started a ‘school’ of his own if he had compromised the integrity and honesty which characterized his entire life.) After Easter he went to Moscow and gave these lectures there; two men in the audience told him that there was a local group which was engaged in occult investigations and through them Ouspensky met Gurdjieff. In the first chapter of In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, Ouspensky has recorded some of the conversations between himself and Gurdjieff during the first week of their acquaintance. From these it is clear that this was to be no ordinary teacher-and-pupil relationship and that Ouspensky was accepted as a thinker and writer of no mean stature.

Before joining Gurdjieff’s group, Ouspensky explained that he was a writer and must remain free to decide for himself what he would write and what he would not write. He could not promise to keep secret anything which he learned from Gurdjieff; moreover, he had been working for many years on questions of time and space, higher dimensions, the idea of esotericism, and so on, so that it would be very difficult to separate later what Gurdjieff had told him from what his own mind already contained or might afterwards produce. It was agreed between them that Ouspensky would not write without understanding what he was writing, and at Constantinople in 1921 just before Ouspensky left for England, Gurdjieff gave full permission for the writing of an account of the teaching and system.

Ouspensky must have begun writing this account soon after his arrival in London, because the oldest surviving manuscript of Fragments of an Unknown Teaching is dated ‘London, 1925.’ However, Ouspensky was already acquainted with G. R. S. Meade, and when he learned that one of Meade’s books had the title Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, he realized that his title would have to be changed. (Nonetheless, when chapters were read to his groups in London, they were always referred to as ‘from Fragments.’) He was still revising the text when the Second World War began in September 1939; even so, it would seem to be an extraordinary sacrifice that he did not publish this seminal book during his life. In fact, after his three years of study with Gurdjieff, Ouspensky published only what he had written previously (Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and A New Model of the Universe) and nothing whatever about the System. All three books about the System and the Work were published after his death by Madame OuspenskyThe Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, and The Fourth Way.

Ouspensky had to return to his work in St. Petersburg after that week of meetings with Gurdjieff in Moscow, and it was already autumn before Gurdjieff visited St. Petersburg. There Ouspensky introduced Gurdjieff to his groups, and there began the exposition of the System and the practical study of methods for development which continued through almost three years of war and revolution.

Ouspensky had an unusually clear perception of current situations because he took account not only of the past but of its future implications. History, he said, is not only history of the past but also history of the future. In February 1917 he spoke to Gurdjieff about leaving Russia and waiting out the end of the war in a neutral country, but got nothing definite on which he could base his own actions. That was, in fact, Gurdjieff’s last visit to St. Petersburg, for the revolution and the abdication of Nicholas II took place a month later; ‘March 1917, the end of Russian history’ was Ouspensky’s note. Gurdjieff left Moscow for the Caucasus before the revolution but asked Ouspensky to continue the work of the St. Petersburg groups until his promised return for Easter; then a week after Easter a telegram came to say that he would arrive in May. This most difficult time for Ouspensky ended with a telegram from Alexandropol in June: ‘If you want to rest come here to me.’

The rest lasted only two weeks. The last six weeks of the summer of 1917 were spent in Essentuki, where Gurdjieff unfolded the plan of the whole work to a group of just over a dozen people, as described in Chapter 17 of In Search of the Miraculous. Suddenly, everything was changed by Gurdjieff’s announcement that he was dispersing the whole group and stopping all work; Ouspensky confesses that his confidence in Gurdjieff began to waver from that moment. Some months later, in February 1918, a circular letter over Ouspensky’s signature was sent by Gurdjieff to all the members of the Moscow and St. Petersburg groups, inviting them to come with those near to them to Essentuki to work with Gurdjieff, and about 40 people came.

Now Ouspensky saw that there were changes in the nature and direction of Gurdjieff’s work, so that if Ouspensky stayed with him he would not be going in the same direction as at the beginning. Before he met Gurdjieff, Ouspensky knew enough about the principles and rules of esoteric schools to understand that if a pupil disagreed with his guru, there was only one thing for him to do—leave. Ouspensky moved into a separate house in Essentuki and resumed working on his books.

Ouspensky was never a man to talk unnecessarily, nor did he need to explain his actions to others. However, almost 20 years later under persistent questioning during a meeting of one of his groups in London, he explained why he had left Gurdjieff:

When I met Gurdjieff I began to work with him on the basis of certain principles which I could understand and accept. He said: ‘First of all you must not believe anything, and second you must not do anything you don’t understand.’ I accepted him because of that. Then after two or three years, I saw him going against these principles. He demanded from people to accept what they did not believe and to do what they did not understand. Why this happened I don’t pretend to offer any theory. (From the typescript of a meeting on October 13, 1937.)

Gurdjieff left Essentuki with a few people in August 1918. Ouspensky later wrote in In Search of the Miraculous:

I had decided to leave Essentuki, but I did not want to leave before Gurdjieff did. In this respect I had a strange kind of feeling. I wanted to wait until the end; to do everything that depended upon me so that afterwards I could tell myself that I had not let a single possibility escape me. It was very difficult for me to reject the idea of working with Gurdjieff... I must confess that I felt very silly. I had not gone abroad when it was possible in order to work with Gurdjieff, and the final outcome was that I had parted from him and stayed with the bolsheviks. (p. 375)

The last 10 pages of In Search of the Miraculous give a very abbreviated account of Ouspensky’s beginning of independent work along the lines of the St. Petersburg groups. In 1920, in Constantinople, many people were attracted to his lectures, but when Gurdjieff arrived a few months later from Tiflis, Ouspensky still hoped to work with him and handed all his groups to him. The same difficulties arose as in Essentuki and in August 1921 Ouspensky left for London, where he once more began independent work. Gurdjieff arrived in London in 1922, having failed in his third and fourth attempts to establish his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ in Berlin and Dresden. Ouspensky introduced Gurdjieff to his own groups and helped him collect money for his Institute in France. A considerable sum was thus raised, and with this Gurdjieff bought the historic Chateau Prieuré in Avon, near Fontainebleau. In 1922 he opened his institute there.

Ouspensky found the work at the Prieuré very interesting but did not accept Gurdjieff’s invitations to go and live there because he did not understand the direction of the work and felt elements of instability in the organization of the Institute. He was, however, at the Prieuré on the day in January 1924 when Gurdjieff left with some of his pupils for America, which reminded Ouspensky very much of the departure from Essentuki in 1918. When he returned to London, Ouspensky announced that his work in the future would proceed quite independently.

The typescripts of Ouspensky’s meetings from 1921 to 1947 form the major part of the gift to Yale University Library. The Fourth Way consists of verbatim extracts from these typescripts, but several more volumes would be needed to include the whole, even though a number of papers have been lost since this book’s publication in 1957.

Questions about Gurdjieff were not permitted by Ouspensky unless they were necessary for understanding the nature of a school of the Fourth Way—its principles, rules, methods, and origin. The following exchange took place in a meeting held on November 4, 1937:

Ouspensky: Gurdjieff gave me many new ideas I did not know before, and he gave a system I did not know before. About schools I did know, for I had been travelling and looking for schools for 10 years. He had an extraordinary system, and quite new. Some separate fragments of it could be found elsewhere, but not connected and put together like they are in this system. And certain things, particularly belonging to the psychological side, were quite a revelation. And also on many other lines. This was sufficient proof for me that this system was not a thing one can meet with every day. And I had already met with a sufficient number of schools to able to judge.

Question: Did you never ask Gurdjieff about the origin of the system?

Ouspensky: We all asked about 10 times a day and every time the answer was different.

Question: Did you ask Gurdjieff why he always gave different answers?

Ouspensky: Yes.

Question: What did he say?

Ouspensky: He said he never gave different answers.

Question: Has it ever crossed your mind to regret having ever met Gurdjieff?

Ouspensky: Never. Why? I got very much from him. I am always very grateful to myself that after the first evening I asked him when I could see him next time. If I had not, we would not be sitting here now.

Question: But you wrote two very brilliant books.

Ouspensky: They were only books. I wanted more. I wanted something for myself.

Question: Where did the schools come from that taught Gurdjieff’s school?

Ouspensky: It is possible to understand that it was somewhere in Central Asia. But what it was, I don’t know. Gurdjieff gave several descriptions, and one of them was very interesting and possible. You must understand the situation: after the Revolution, the possibility to go to that country disappeared. If life were normal, I would go there and try to find this school, but as it is there was no possibility to go there. And probably now everything has disappeared. One school he described was near Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan. But round it there has been war ever since, so probably nothing remains of it now, if there was such a school.

Ouspensky once remarked that he had found himself with the beginnings of a school on his hands, so it is possible that he himself had not sought such responsibility. He told people who wished to come to his meetings that there could be no guarantee that they would find what they were looking for or that they would get the results that they were expecting. He warned them that there were big dangers and big risks on the Fourth Way, because this particular system leaves man very free. Consciousness and will cannot be created by following a restrictive system.

In retrospect, the long period from 1924 to 1934 in which Ouspensky did not let the work develop was perhaps due mainly to his understanding of the principles of school work, one requirement of which is the training of a sufficient number of people to take some of the responsibility for increasing numbers of new people. When expansion began in 1934, Ouspensky wrote a set of introductory lectures which could be read to a new group of people. Through the classical discipline of questions and answers, these people could discover the relativity of their understanding and how it could increase by following all the indications given.

New people were told beforehand of the conditions they should be prepared to accept: they must not talk about what they heard to their family and friends, no payment would be accepted, and it would take at least five lectures to see whether one wished to continue or not. The room in which groups met held only about 50 people, and this created a feeling of common endeavor which was quite unusual for a set of strangers who were seeing and hearing one another for the first time. There was an additional sense of proximity to Ouspensky. Perhaps the most noticeable thing in any meeting, no matter how long one had been going to them, was the unexpected newness of what one heard. Questions would range over the whole field of human affairs and interests, and the questioner might be exceptionally well-versed in the subject of his question, yet Ouspensky’s answer always contained something quite new.

The expansion of the work both required and made possible larger opportunities and better organization. In 1935 a country house and farm about 20 miles from London were bought; here some of his older pupils lived, and practical work of various kinds was arranged for as many as 100 people on weekends. In 1938 a larger house was found in London; this house had a studio with a capacity of over 300 people. Its acquisition made possible the formation of the Historico-Psychological Society, giving an external form to the work and ‘a brass plate on the door.’ The Constitution, Objects, and Organization of this Society as drawn up by Ouspensky is a document of great interest. He had written in the 1926 version of Fragments:

The system is waiting for workers. There is no statement and no thought in it which would not require and admit further development and elaboration. But there are great difficulties in the way of training people for this work, since an ordinary intellectual study of the system is quite insufficient; and there are very few people who agree to other methods of study who are at the same time capable of working by these methods.

Twelve years later, in developing and setting down the ‘Objects’ of the Historico-Psychological Society, Ouspensky indicated the way to continue in the system:

  1. The study of problems of the evolution of man and particularly of the idea of psycho-transformism.
  2. The study of psychological schools in different historical periods and in different countries, and the study of their influence on the moral and intellectual development of humanity.
  3. Practical investigation of methods of self-study and self-development according to principles and methods of psychological schools.
  4. Research work in the history of religions, of philosophy, of science, and of art with the object of establishing their common origin when it can be found and different psychological levels in each of them.

The new London house enabled new kinds of work to be started, of which only one will be mentioned, because for over 20 years Ouspensky had hoped to have his own press. One of his pupils whose specialty was printing, set up a press in the basement of the house, and here Six Psychological Lectures was set, printed, and bound as the first publication of The Historico-Psychological Society. Although 50 sets were bound, some years later the printer wrote to the Yale Librarian that Ouspensky issued only five copies and recalled three of them, and almost all the rest were lost during the Second World War.

One measure of the increased pace of activity from April 1938 to the outbreak of the war in September 1939 is the number of volumes of typescripts of meetings; there are 13 volumes for these 16 months, and for the rest of the 25 years from 1922 to 1947 there are 21 volumes.

Restrictions imposed by war made continuation of the work in England impossible; there was civilian as well as military conscription, rationing of all forms of food and energy, and the ‘black-out’ to avoid easy night targets for enemy aircraft. The country house at Lyne in Surrey became a haven for a number of people, and Ouspensky held small meetings there while he waited to assess the probable duration and extent of the war. After the loss of Europe to Germany, he realized that it would be a long war and decided to go to the United States of America, where he had many friends. Ouspensky had considered this move as early as 1922.

Ouspensky held meetings in New York from 1941 to 1946 (to which many people came). Franklin Farms, a large house and estate in New Jersey, was put at his disposal. Here Madame Ouspensky organized practical work very much as she had done at Lyne Place in England, and Ouspensky was able to continue his writing and lecturing.

Although a few members of the London groups came to America during the war and others visited after the end of the war, Ouspensky had not, in his own view, finished his obligations to his followers in England. He felt that they must now be ‘set free’ from the system to find the truth in their own ways. Although he was already very ill, he returned to England early in 1947. The weather was bitterly cold and everything was still rationed and in short supply, and the London house had been commandeered by the Admiralty. Nevertheless, through the great efforts of those who had so eagerly awaited his return, he was able to hold six meetings with audiences of more than 300 people in the large studio. Few, if any, of those in the pre-war groups had realized that the work as they had known it could not continue without Ouspensky himself, and now they were ill-prepared to be told that they were free to continue the pursuit of their aim in whatever way each individual decided for himself. Nonetheless, it was necessary to accept Ouspensky’s decision with as much courage as possible.

The meaning of Ouspensky’s life, his teaching of the system, and his organization of the work is a mystery insoluble by ordinary minds. One realizes that, as he said, the system cannot be learned from books, but that a school is necessary; and a school depends on a teacher whose level of being, knowledge, and understanding is different from that of the pupils. Ouspensky said that his system differed from all others ‘in teaching level of being,’ and that everything else depended upon that.

This idea of levels of being was expressed by the Sufi poet Jalal u’din Rumi in the thirteenth century:

I died a mineral and became a plant.
I died a plant and rose an animal.
I died an animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar with the blessed angels.
But even from angelhood I must pass on.
All except God perishes.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become that which no mind has ever conceived.

Ouspensky was often asked if the passage of system ideas into general currency would not be beneficial to humanity and might also help the school; on one such occasion (a meeting on October 4, 1937), he answered as follows:

It will happen by itself. There is no need for us to worry about it. Ideas will spread, maybe in our lifetime and maybe after us. Most of these ideas will enter into scientific or philosophic language, but they will enter in the wrong form. There will be no right distinction between doing and happening, and many thoughts of ordinary thinking will be mixed with these ideas; so they will not be ideas we know now, only words will be similar. If you don’t understand this, you will lose in this way.

The idea of ‘recurrence’ as a concept came from Ouspensky, who always emphasized that it was not part of the system, although recurrence did not contradict it. From a survey of Ouspensky’s writings, one could conclude that, for him, recurrence was a fact. As in Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and in Rumi’s poem, to escape recurrence required sacrifice. Perhaps the inner meaning of those last months in 1947 was the sacrifice of his life’s work.

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The P. D. Ouspensky Collection Endowment Fund

Persons interested in Mr. Ouspensky and the care, use, and perpetuation of the collection of his books, papers and related materials in the Yale University Library are invited to make contributions to the P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Fund established by anonymous donors. The fund provides for additions to the Ouspensky Collection; for its cataloguing, preservation and proper housing; and, funds permitting, for assistance (including partial publication subventions) to persons doing research on the Collection. Donations to the Yale University Library are tax-deductible gifts under the current regulations of the U. S. Internal Revenue Service.

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