P. D. Ouspensky

Gurdjieff International Review

A Brief Overview of Certain Aspects of the Thought of Petyr Demianovich Ouspensky

by Michael Presley

This document may be copied, quoted, and freely distributed as long as the above attribution is retained. Any comments regarding the content of the document are welcome. Disclaimer: the following represents solely the opinions and conclusions of the author.


It is my hope that this brief survey will, in small measure, place Petyr Ouspensky's ideas in some sort of historical context within modern philosophic thought. Also, it is my express intention to, as much as possible, convey Ouspensky's ideas separately from whatever attribution the writings offer toward the popularization of the legacy of G. I. Gurdjieff. This is, of course, not in any way meant to discount Ouspensky's acumen as an interpreter of Gurdjieff's "Russian period" but, generally, the pre-Gurdjieff (and non-Gurdjieff) writings have been relegated to a position of secondary importance in favor of specific teachings learnt from Gurdjieff. And while this in itself would be more than a suitable legacy it is nevertheless the case that Ouspensky remains, if not a distinctly original thinker, certainly a creative synthesizer whose writings stand on their own—that is, apart from the Gurdjieff material. Indeed, at least from a philosophical and productive literary standpoint there are grounds for thinking that Ouspensky's native thought likely would have flourished in important ways had his meeting with G. never occurred.


Although a variety of Ouspensky's works are currently in print, the author's intention was to prepare only certain selected writings for general publication. His views regarding the text that came to be known as In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of An Unknown Teaching are certainly not clear.1 Containing material gathered during his studies with G. I. Gurdjieff, Fragments was never an attempt to represent his own ideas separate from those of Gurdjieff but was, rather, an attempt to bring to a more general audience and within an historical setting an overview of already thought out principles of the then existing Gurdjieff system. Similarly, The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution was intended only as a primer for certain of his own private study groups while The Fourth Way, A Further Record, and A Record of Meetings are not authorized works but simply transcripts of talks held between Ouspensky and his students. Whether he expected these writings to eventually be released subsequent to his death remains an open question. The screenplay, Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, and Tertium Organum: A Key to the Enigmas of the World, along with A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to the Problems of Science, Religion, and Art remain. As the authorized works, then, we will consider only these.2

Epistemology and Metaphysics

Upon our very first steps toward cognition, writes Ouspensky, certain conditions determine both our usual way of thinking and understanding. Much of what we take as known and familiar in our daily lives is, in reality, far from certain and when pondered remains enigmatic. The question of time and its relation to space, problems associated with the mysteries of life and death along with man's various conceptions of God remain distant and, as it were, obscured from unaided reason. Yet, recognition of these problems as enigmas along with attempts at possible solutions remains fundamental to any comprehensive understanding of the world.

Generally we believe in the progress of ideas; we believe we are able to know both ourselves and the world and to a lesser or greater degree we also believe that whatever remains unknown must eventually be revealed through the application of the logic of scientific discovery. But what with certainty can we say we know? Our two primary intuitions of being relate to the division between internal (or personal) subject and external object. Beyond this, that is, beyond the immediate, intuitive recognition of our inner life contrasted with a world outside, all phenomenal knowledge (that is, the knowledge of particular things) must be discovered and subsequently validated by way of reason in conjunction with strict empirical methodology.

Discursive knowledge (the product of reason) relies on concept formation, however conceptions are not primary intuitions but, instead, result from percepts [sensations] integrated by our cognitive faculty—the process of analysis, and in this we have no direct link between the logical (i.e., conceptual) foundation of our empiricism and its bare object. Derived as it is from conceptual knowledge mankind's intellectual edifice necessarily remains an abstraction dependent upon vagaries inherent within linguistic construction (which, after all, is the means or the tool by which we represent to ourselves concepts). In a real sense reason and experimental knowledge remain aesthetic creations.

We infer the world of objects to be ontologically independent from the caprices of personal sensation but, for Ouspensky, such a view is strictly conventional. Further, Ouspensky writes that knowledge of Being (the fundamental ontological intuition in contrast to empirical or phenomenal knowledge) derives from the degree of correspondence between a noumenal form (which we can never directly intuit but from whence comes, somehow, the phenomenal object of perception and, therefore, empirical knowledge) along with corresponding conceptual formulations derived from experience and reason. Thus, our goal—that is, the goal of cognition—is really the elucidation of an accurate (or at least closely approximate) understanding of a likely world form independent of confluence between our perceptive and conceptual faculties. This is the true theme of A New Model of the Universe.

Ouspensky accepts the first Critique's doctrine called Transcendental Aesthetic wherein Kant argues that the intuition [experience] of both space and time are predicated upon forms particular to our sensibilities and not actual [objective] existents. Kant's "Copernican Revolution" dispels a common sensical view whereby we generally think of time and space as discrete objects functioning not unlike a container within which our life and the things affecting our life reside and evolve.3 From this latter and, perhaps, more traditional point of view it makes little practical difference to the average man whether either the critical philosophy or, for that matter, modern scientific thought premises spatio-temporal relations ontologically different from that reported by "common sense." In our lives sensual space exists as an external three dimensional Euclidean continuum while time shows itself as an internal sensation not necessarily grounded upon any preexisting spatial relationship. Although space is felt three dimensionally, we experience time linearly but, like space, we presume it remains one and the same for all existence. Where time comes from or where it may go remains obscured, and in an effort to communicate to ourselves and by way of an attempt to understand the supposed physical "properties" of both space and time we are forced to offer up vague and indefinite descriptive terms such as "infinity" which, while having a definite mathematical meaning, nevertheless remains tenuous when viewed from the standpoint of a physical property.

By considering space and time as mere perceptual forms and not as direct objects of sensation a critical analysis of our conventional understanding of spatio-temporal relations cannot derive solely from an empirical analysis. Instead, its predicate must be psychological material. Ouspensky argues that we need first specify all necessary psychological parameters inherent within the human conscious faculty prior to constructing theory. In keeping with that line of thought outlined by Kant he accepts a supersensible or noumenal substrate as the material cause or foundation of our world. So, although our world intuition is grounded in spatio-temporally based physical relations, it follows that the noumenal ground upon which the perceptual object of experience ultimately derives its being must possess neither properties of space nor of time.

Now, inasmuch as our form of perception can be said to correspond to (or at least be described by) normal geometrical laws and, likewise, inasmuch as noumena can be understood, phenomenally speaking, it is true, as that base metaphysical something which is extended outward into our everyday world of objective intuition and hence responsible for the things we perceive, Ouspensky finds it reasonable to hypothesize that the substrate which we cannot perceive, i.e., noumena, should nevertheless be amenable to description by means of corresponding metaphysical (or more exactly, metageometrical) extension of conventional geometric laws. And just as the science of geometry exists to describe phenomena in normal space, a new metageometry postulates properties of an extended or higher space.4

The material form of space has at least until recently been almost always based upon Euclid's geometry. Traditional Euclidean geometric space is conceptualized as a three-dimensional infinite sphere; that is, a line rotated on its axis 360 degrees and, then, bisected by another line perpendicular to the first which is also rotated 360 degrees. Within this sphere any convergent set of coordinates constitutes a point of space. Constructed as an extension or expansion of a geometric point into a solid (the point being one boundary of the continuum and its complete expansion, the three-dimensional solid in time, the other) normal space serves as a paradigm for the science of metageometry. And just as we describe how a "point" of matter (or a collection of such points) becomes a solid of three dimensions so too can we imagine the properties of higher space.

First, when extended into space, the point becomes a line of the first dimension. The perpendicular extension of this line "into space" creates the figure of a plane surface, i.e., the second dimension. Likewise, a surface so extended becomes solid—a figure of three dimensions. Far from a purely speculative endeavor it should be noted that the actual existence of a geometrical point in physical space has perceptual reality in that bit of matter of which no smaller can be observed. In everyday life we observe instances of each of these phenomena, although it is generally accepted that each exists, in reality, differently than perception holds the difference being attributed to an opposition between the relation (i.e., relative position) of the perceiving subject to its object. In A New Model Ouspensky describes a star (the point) in the night sky (a surface). Reason tells us that these appearances are entirely subjective, contingent upon our own unique perspective. Yet, if we consider the previously recounted specifics of geometric expansion we find that the dissimilarity between any "higher" or "lower" dimension is, in itself, strictly a matter of perspective also, for the difference between our abstract understanding of respective dimensions is no more than the alterity between viewing various cross sections of an object: the point is a cross section of a line, the line is a cross section of a surface, and a surface exists as the cross section of a solid. Our obvious concern, then, is how we can possibly represent to our minds the form of a four dimensional "solid" of which our present reality is but a section?

A "point of three-dimensional space" exists as a moment in time, although we remain unaware of isolated static moments just as we are not cognizant of any singular spatial point. Instead, we experience objects [extensions] in motion relative to each other. Motion is our conscious awareness of a sufficient number of discrete points of time and can be represented geometrically as a segment on some greater line of time. We experience segments on the timeline as duration, and for each and every three-dimensional object encountered we know the object's existence by its extension in time. Thus, (and from the standpoint of metageometry) our sense of the present is really no more than the recognition of a cross section of a fuller or extended spatial existence spanning the entire line of time.

Owing to our limited cognitive faculty, we are immediately conscious of no more than fairly short but usually "continuous" episodic moments. Moments past we consider, ontologically speaking, fictional existents known only through the persistence of memory; likewise, are they ordinarily considered fixed and unchangeable. Future events, if they can be said to exist at all, live only as possibility, the Aristotelian entelechy. Nevertheless it can at least be supposed that, unlike the past, the future possesses varying degrees of potential changeability. And if the past remains only a function of memory while the future exists only as uncertainty delimited by various probabilities of occurrences, then we must accept the present as the final and true reality. From the metageometer's view, however, these conventional ways of thinking are turned upside-down. Understanding our experience of time as the partial experience of what is in reality the perpendicular extension of a three dimensional object into higher space allows a radical expansion of the definition of actuality, or, to be more precise, the form of the world.

In metageometrical space objects participate in one or more dimensions than we are able to perceive. Currently, our immediate experience of any object consists of knowing, at most, only a portion of an object's temporal existence. Owing to limitations of sensation we cannot directly intuit the being of an object in four dimensional space, but, instead, perceive three-dimensional objects bounded by unidimensional time (here, time is the boundary which is, in reality, nothing more than our partial experience of higher dimensional space). The temporal moment is, metageometrically speaking, simply a section of some larger four dimensional continua, whereas an object's entire life corresponds to a more sizable "chunk" of this four dimensional "stuff." Hence, if we could suffer objects four dimensionally, we would know them very differently. First, they would be static and never changing, complete, and unevolving. We would simultaneously observe a thing's birth, its subsequent life, as well as its death.5

Let us attempt to visualize the metageometrical form of a four dimensional solid using as a model the planetary world. From this view when looking into the sky we are actually observing cross sections of the sun and the moon. Planetary movement (as is any movement) remains, our perception of a succession of discrete points along the greater line of time. Thus it may be more accurate to describe the path of a planet in space as a spiral band (of which we are only cognizant of a certain section). Divorced from its fuller dimensional existence a planetary globe seems to us but a sphere in empty sky.

In order for us to appreciate the magnitude of a four dimensional form we must take as our subject of investigation a sufficient number of points along the solar system's timeline. But inasmuch as our own individual lives are quite trivial relative to solar existence we cannot hope to formulate an interesting or even approximately accurate representation unless we view a much longer span of time than that occupied by the mere life of either a man or, for that matter, mankind. Therefore, let us take as our "point in time" a one million-year segment.

To simplify our model let us first presume that the direction of the sun comprises a straight line. The four dimensional body or form of the sun over a million years would appear as a large burning rod to an observer capable of perceiving such a thing. Bound and tightly coiled about the rod spiral twelve much smaller concentric threads—planets. Upon closer examination we detect even smaller ridges spiraling the planetary threads. These are various moons and satellites. We could further complicate our model to include asteroids and comets as they traverse the sun, and as a matter of course we would have to significantly expand this now growing model if we were to place the sun in its proper place, because our star itself spirals "through space" on its own predetermined path within the confines of a much larger galactic cosmos. Thus, instead of a straight rigid rod we would likely observe a curved, twisted, and spiraling rod. In fine, within this new model our time has become space.

Imagining space thusly (i.e., in four dimensions) begs the question, "What of a man's life?" Dissecting tightly wound threads from the central core and subsequently stripping away the outer threads (planets) we would eventually reach the third to the last thread, our earth. If we had a powerful enough viewing instrument we might discover various geologic ages. And if our microscope were capable of finer resolution we might even be able to discern the age of man. As yet, an individual man, or even a single civilization would not be apparent. Perhaps certain age-old relics would be observable such as the Sphinx or the Great Pyramids. And maybe the period between 1945 and 1965 would somehow be detected as the many above ground atomic explosions conducted by the U.S., USSR, and China were measured as strange bursts of nuclear energy. Still, the life of any individual would be missed. The wars, deaths, and all the suffering of mankind would be a minor thing indeed. And what we revere in our science, religion, and art would be nothing. In reality and if such a thing was possible it would be even less than nothing since we must remember that we are dealing with an almost instantaneous fragment of the life of the sun, i.e., a mere one million years.

Phenomenal Commensurability

Accepting that logic cannot, derived as it is from cognition tempered by unique perceptual forms, grasp noumenal existence there is no reason to suppose that the logical attributes of our phenomenal world have any other than a partial relation to the real world as it might exist separate from sensation. The foundation of epistemology must be based on an understood and agreed upon logic rooted in experience, and the practical results of logical inference must correspond to our actual world expectations. Nevertheless, sometimes even the simplest and seemingly most obvious occurrences remain obscured. Often what we take as known is really something quite vague and indefinite. Something, more often than not, simply labeled for convenience sake and then passed over in silence as if a thing now named were somehow completely revealed. This is undoubtedly the reason why many attempts to explain the world are so often met with incredulity and confusion. For Ouspensky, an example of this type of thinking is found in the physical theory of relativity. Nowadays it is common for the average man to be familiar (at least in name) with "the theory" and most would unthinkingly affirm the incontrovertible truth of this idea. At the same time the average man would be hard pressed to formulate the theory in any coherent or meaningful fashion. And when one attempts to come to grips with the fundamentals of relativity one is immediately struck by its obvious nonlogical nature. Nevertheless, we do not usually stop to consider whether this illogic might result from a fundamental misunderstanding of various ideas usually taken as self evident and certain.

Ouspensky regards the origin of the notion of contradictory properties of observed phenomena to be resident in the idea of scale. To cite an example, our primary misunderstanding and, hence, ensuing misrepresentation of natural law as it relates to relativity originates from the generally accepted notion of phenomenal homogeneity. That is, we have traditionally presumed the consistency of phenomena and made this view a fundamental axiom of theory formation. This conviction was never challenged so long as our perception involved only events which were commensurate with our primary cognitive faculty, i.e., our biological senses and concomitant reason. As a result consistency between theory and experience was maintained.

If we consider the various technologies as extensions of our physical and psychic being, it is probably easier to understand how our present confusion in formulating coherent theory arose. That is, everyday life allows no conflict between what we perceive and what we expect to perceive. This, again, is fundamental to the logic of our perceptual categories and, as Ouspensky notes, is nothing less than the experience of the general consecutiveness of phenomena. Although trivial, it is nevertheless worth repeating that if this were not the case there would be no foundation whatsoever for positive science. Now, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century certain discoveries confounded the usual logical relations which heretofore established principles of natural law. These new "discoveries" which in no way could be explained with existing scientific or philosophic material corresponded directly to the amplification of our senses by technology. Our perception became expanded in an unprecedented manner and, teleologically speaking it is true, a manner unanticipated by our biology. For the first time we experienced events which had been hidden from our natural means of perception.

In our normal everyday world we exist within a three-dimensional continuum bounded by time. Yet, by technologically extending our perception, we became aware of, on the one hand, a "higher" world of astronomical space and, conversely, a "lower" electronic world each existing independently from the day to day realm available to direct, non-enhanced perception. And because our preexisting logic was never adapted to or prepared for engaging these "new worlds" we became confounded in our attempt at logically interpreting fundamentally incommensurate phenomena and its attendant properties. Thus we were unwilling to accept outright the possibility that our given logic would not naturally apply to non-commensurate domains when viewed within the conventions of a traditional perspective.

From a commonsense point of view the world is one and the same for all phenomena (or possible phenomena). However, if spatio-temporal relations are categories intrinsic to the mechanism of perception and not "things" separately perceived then there is no organic reason to presume that phenomena not meant to be perceived (again, teleologically speaking) ought necessarily conform to our logical expectations.6 It is as though the limit of our natural perception delineates a boundary allowing consistent logical relations within its own scale, yet once this proportion is exceeded our logic cannot accurately interpret the data. Hence reason is consequently forced to construct new logical modes. For Ouspensky, relativity theory is an example of this kind of struggle inasmuch as it is an attempt to reconcile at first contradictory intuitions such as the fact that all terrestrial velocities are relative whereas the velocity of light remains constant. A similar paradox can be found in the quantum theory.

Psychology and the Esoteric Idea

Tertium Organum is primarily a study of psychology even though its subject is far removed from what we typically consider under this name. The book's theme is not the psychology of everyday life, but, rather, noumenal psychology. That is, the psychology of higher dimensional perception or the psychology of higher mind. For the reason that the science of higher geometric space is called metageometry, perhaps it would be better to call the study of higher consciousness metapsychology, however we know this subject more familiarly as mysticism.

An analysis of the psychological foundations of our present epistemology finds its basis in the standard logic generally ascribed to and flowing from Aristotle. As mentioned previously, traditional logical convenances carry the weight of describing the form of a three-dimensional world in time whereas the coterminous psychology is idealized by the "rational mind." That is, a means of thinking and behaving consistent with laws existing in the everyday world. Also, a way of thinking which allows an explanation of phenomena in a manner consonant with our collective life experiences. Indeed, explanations that portend not the sensual world are considered fantastic and, today, at least by certain philosophical schools, unworthy of recognition. In the extreme, non-rational ideas may be considered pathological, indicative of certain psychological disorders.7

Side by side with the rational there exists widely promulgated non-rational beliefs accepted and encouraged by every class of human association from the most loose knit and primitive bands to the great civilizations. Beginning with an oral tradition later codified, certain of these beliefs evolved making the major religions. In the West various divisions of the Christian faith emerged prominent. The psychological significance the role religious thought plays in the life of man cannot be underestimated. Contrary to a modernist positivistic thread grounded in an essentially materialist psycho-epistemolgy which understands metaphysical problems to be wrongheaded and, maybe, moot at best, the majority of mankind has known either vaguely or explicitly that certain questions cannot be approached (much less solved) using the intellectual material at hand. For this group religious thought suffices to assuage the anxieties of not knowing using what at first appears to be simplistic answers to complex questions. Many modern psychological critiques have rightly understood the pacifying effects of seemingly foolish and quite simply, if taken literally, absurd religious explanations.8 However, in their attempts at criticism they have routinely dismissed not only the drive toward religious activity that has been incorrectly interpreted as unsophisticated naivete, but also denied the inward or esoteric idea contained within the germ of outward or exoteric religiosity. And it is within the varieties of religious thought that Ouspensky finds a key or a possible avenue for approaching the noumenal world.

Throughout his life Ouspensky believed that mind can operate on qualitatively different levels even though in our day to day existence we typically experience or recognize mere quantitative differences within the same level of mind. Dissimilar levels of mind are directly associated with unique levels of Being and not related to our notions of either genius or idiocy which are but ranges on a continuum within the limits of normal everyday mind. Separate and distinct levels of mind manifest as fundamental differences in the evolution of individual human consciousness. That is to say, higher mind represents, within a single person, the development of an entirely new way of understanding. As a qualitative difference in knowledge and understanding there is no guarantee that all men can be privy to such distinctions; the acquisition of esoteric knowledge is not a democratic process, and it remains a big question as to how one may become associated with esoteric ideas and how one begins to recognize higher mind.

Acroamatic relics are our only link, albeit an indirect one, with higher mind. Simply, it is the task of certain artifacts to convey ideas that cannot be related in ordinary discursive language due to the paucity or limitedness of speech in passing on superincumbent thought. Just as metageometry is limited in the ways it can convey the idea of higher dimensional space by using surface analogies, so too is esotericism limited in the manner it transmits the science of higher mind. Ouspensky believed that esoteric ideas are necessarily communicated symbolically within the traditional framework of art, science, and religion but cannot be approached without special preparation. Generally speaking, modern philosophy (at least the philosophy which has been prominent in 20th century institutions) denies the possibility of a knowledge which surpasses ordinary thought and requires not only specially prepared material but training before it can be addressed. Yet modern philosophy (really, positive thought) has rightly understood its position even if this ultimately meant abandoning what has traditionally fallen within the rubric of philosophy.9 Therefore, if one is to take philosophy seriously as a means of satisfying man's desire to apprehend the unexplainable we must abandon the line of positivism represented by certain modern schools and look elsewhere. For Ouspensky, the radical embrace of both the esoteric idea and the psychological method as a channel for understanding satisfied this condition.

Ouspensky taught that throughout history certain artifacts were created by "men of higher mind" and those with the ability to translate or decipher the authors' meanings can, themselves, attain at least the possibility of attaining higher mind. Examples in art cited by Ouspensky included the Sphinx of Ghiza, certain Gothic10 cathedrals, selected "religious" texts such as the Gospels and the Upanishads (even though the interpretation of each of these as works of esoteric art must necessarily transcend the usual archaeological interpretations and, in the case of the Gospels, the usual church interpretations). For instance, Ouspensky rejects the dogmatic Christian view of the Gospels as popular religious texts considering them, instead, principally psychological arguments the purpose of which was never intended to create and subsequently support an eschatological bureaucratic persuasion. And, for Ouspensky, in the case of the Gospels it has been their usurpation by men of ordinary mind which has led to the creation and popularization of Christianity with its attendant unrealistic doctrines and less than inspired but often base and contemptible history.

A strictly pedantic or theoretical understanding of higher mind is no more than an approach to a fuller understanding of the real [noumenal] world but does not yet offer legitimate knowledge. An authentic appreciation cannot be gleaned by way of typical intellectual or aesthetic apprehension on account of the character of our present condition. As stated previously, an understanding of esotericism necessitates a qualitative change in being and not simply a familiarity with new concepts filtered through the vagaries of our everyday mind. This is perhaps the most difficult tenant of Ouspensky's teaching to grasp.

Usually we approach an unlearned subject with the attitude that although we are presently unfamiliar with a particular argument we can, by the protracted effort of our conventional faculties of apprehension, come to know the unknown. Regarding our present subject Ouspensky tells us that this is not the case. Before we can understand the noumenal world of "higher space" we must first develop, within ourselves, the beginnings of higher mind. Of course, the obvious question is how does one proceed.11

The Theory of Eternal Return

A central belief of Ouspensky is the doctrine known variously as eternal return or recurrence. Surprisingly, in spite of the relative obscurity of this idea the theory has nevertheless found adherents throughout the ages and influenced many notable thinkers. The most recent well-known champion of the theory was James Joyce whose novel, Finnegans Wake, is based wholly on the idea. As a philosophical tenant we generally associate the name of Nietzsche with this view, and in spite of the relatively lesser impact this idea has had upon many of his academic commentators, within the corpus of Nietzsche's writings it has been recognized as central by certain influential reviewers.12 In Western thought the doctrine is associated by reference to Pythagorus through the commentaries of Eudemus of Rhodes, by Archytas of Tarentum, perhaps Plotinus, and the sixth-centurian Neoplatonist, Simplicius. With its emphasis on eschatology modern Christianity never supported the doctrine, although Ouspensky cites several passages within the Gospels which, in his opinion, indicate that Christ himself was conversant with the notion of repetition, and he offers a passage in Origen's On First Principles as an indication of early Christianity's attempt to discredit the idea.13 Recurrence as a cosmogonical hypothesis was never considered tenable, although as a moral foundation it possesses a certain appeal. That is, if all actions repeat eternally the imperative to maximize one's condition might be heightened. Still, with few exceptions this, too, was found lacking as suitable ground for any deontic theory and today the average man would be surprised to encounter the idea. Of course, for Ouspensky recurrence was neither a physical nor a moral theory but was, instead, a metaphysical ground flowing from his metageometrical conception of the form of the world.

Looking back on our speculative discussion regarding the four dimensional representation of our life we recall that any four dimensional figure necessarily encompasses the entire life of a thing and is not just a series of discrete moments hung together by memory. To understand the relation of the theory of recurrence to Ouspensky's so called "new model" let us imagine a specific geometrical form in its relation to our life. We start with the line making up the life of a man. One point, birth, begins in the year 1900 while the line ends with the death of the subject in, say, 1970. The entire figure of the complete life of the man constitutes a four dimensional form. Now, let us curve the line into an angle of 360 degrees. Here, the end of the line connects to the beginning. Death ends in birth. A man is born in 1900, lives his life, dies in 1970, and is reborn again in 1900 encountering the exact circumstances of his previous existence. Consciousness limited to the three dimensional phenomenal form does not recognize an endlessness to the loop of existence, but only the static moment. A man understands his birth but never comprehends what could come "before" nor, with any real knowledge, does he understand what awaits "after" death even though, depending upon his life circumstances, there exist numerous "religious" expositions regarding the supposed afterlife which he might embrace with varying degrees of confidence.

Embracing the fixity of recurrence would seemingly negate any possibility of real change or evolution in the state of an individual man, for if one is destined to relive one's life over in all aspects can anyone hope to escape the hand he or she is dealt? This is an open question but one Ouspensky attempts to address with the doctrine of possibilities. That is, at every moment in time various possibilities of action present themselves, at least potentially. As we move through time a set course unfolds consisting in the actualization of certain possibilities. Certainly, as long as we remain unconscious to the several possibilities inherent within each moment we are unwittingly carried along within our particular time. If alternate life circumstances are possible they can only occur after the attainment of a level of consciousness which allows an individual to recognize the potential for change inherent within each moment of one's life. For Ouspensky, a man tied to a particular line has absolutely no possibility of determining his condition, however it is the purpose of the esoteric idea to show a way out of our current unproductive cycle of recurrence.14

Miscellaneous Thoughts

POLITICS: Ouspensky wrote that while politics could not solve man's fundamental problems, it could certainly create conditions necessary for impeding the possibility of individual development. Ouspensky's views regarding Russian communism, i.e., Bolshevism, were unequivocal. He spoke of Bolshevik politics as mere death—no more, no less. Understanding the nature of man in Hobbesian terms, his lampooning of the Western intelligentsia's infatuations with Leninism would be less humorous and less biting if they had not proven true. In Letters from Russia Ouspensky described normal post revolutionary Russian life: hunger, cholera, typhus, cold, violence, murder and suicides. Also, that, "the right to live" (i.e., possession of a governmental certificate allowing one to 'walk the street') is "now a rule for everybody." Almost supposing today's life in New York City (or L.A., or Rio) he continues: "People don't understand that if anything exists it does so thanks to inertia. The initial push from the past is still working, but it cannot be renewed! There lies the horror … inertia cannot last forever. You will realize the fact of our walking here and that nobody is assaulting us is abnormal. [He is, at this writing—September, 1919, frequenting a deserted street in Ekaterindar with an acquaintance]. It is made possible from inertia alone. The man who will very soon be robbing and murdering on this very spot has not yet realized the fact that he can do it now without fear of punishment." Is this not what Thomas Hobbes describes in his Leviathan when he tells us that (in the so-called "state of nature" of political anarchy) life is, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?"

There is no doubt that, had Ouspensky not escaped to the West, he would have been killed as an "enemy of the people." Indeed, C. M. Sciabarra, in his book on Ayn Rand's Russian philosophical influences (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), discusses the case of Nicholas Lossky, Miss Rand's mentor and professor of philosophy at the Petrograd University. Professor Sciabarra writes that, "despite (Lossky's) adherence to Fabian socialism, he was denounced by the regime as a religious counter-revolutionary" and hence forced into exile. Given Ouspensky's views, then, we need not wonder about his expected treatment had he not emigrated.

Still, Ouspensky never discretely analyzed politics or the state as a separate and distinct subject apart from his formal metaphysical organon; however an inference that Western style liberal democracy coupled with a strong component of individual rights best suited his views would not be unwarranted. But Ouspensky was never among the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition, a current stressing politics either as an end in itself (i.e., Machiavelli or Hobbes) or, more commonly and within the Western tradition stemming from Plato, as a condition for producing enlightened citizens.

Throughout his writings it is clear that Ouspensky was a fervid Russian nationalist and patriot in his own manner. Reading Ouspensky one is reminded of a passage in Wells' Outline of History where Ouspensky's fervor can be mirrored in the Hellenistic outlook Wells describes thusly,

But in the main, patriotism in the Greek was a personal passion of an inspiring and dangerous intensity. Like reflected love, it was apt to turn into something very like hatred. The Greek exile resembled the French or Russian émigré in being ready to treat his beloved country pretty roughly in order to save her from the devils in human form who had taken possession of her and turned him out.

INSTITUTIONALISM: Established cultural institutions received little respect. Ouspensky generally regarded institutional forms to be stultifying and, in the long run, a hindrance for free thought. He termed modern Christianity in its bureaucratic hierarchical form a "sham" and viewed the academy with similar distrust. A well-known saying from Ouspensky is that, in his view, professors were killing the university in the same manner that priests had killed the church.

PSYCHOLOGY: Modern psychology lost all connection with its roots which, from the beginning, was never known as "psychology" proper, a separate and distinct discipline apart from science and the humanities, but was, instead, connected with true religion, certain philosophical schools, and, in the East, yogic practices leading to transformation or evolution of the human psyche. In this sense, modern psychology exists simply for the edification and classification of certain so-called psychic pathologies or abnormalities.

Ouspensky's views on Freud were particularly disparaging. I think there may be several reasons for his unambiguous discontent. First, from a philosophical point of view Freud's works can be viewed as naive, unscientific, and not particularly original. Reading Freud as philosophy one is at once aware of a peculiar synthesis of (or at least close relation to) the writing of Hobbes, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche without either the profundity or poetic depth contained in these intellectual progenitors. And I believe an argument can be made that the contemporary and growing esteem Freud held among Western intellectuals during Ouspensky's time likely engendered a degree of contempt from the Russian. In any event it is clear that Ouspensky understood the completely subjectivist epistemological foundation of psychoanalysis and reacted, at least to his mind, appropriately inasmuch as psychoanalysis masqueraded as positive science. Of course, the purely speculative endeavors contained within Ouspensky's own books were certainly not in keeping with the traditionally understood Enlightenment derived scientific paradigm, however Ouspensky was the first to admit that much of his thought was not scientific in this strict sense, even if, in his opinion, it could be known (and, hence, proved to the satisfaction of an individual within his or herself) psychologically via experience.

Certainly, Freud's suggestion that civilization was nothing more than the bestial impulses of nature tamed, was at odds with Ouspensky's view of civilization as intelligence driven (even if in its base and popular manifestations real civilization intelligence was lacking). Also, the anti-Darwinian elements in Ouspensky contrasted markedly with the biological materialism inherent in Freudian thought. For Ouspensky, consciousness was an overriding principle of nature and represented a fundamental aspect of Being. Freud, on the other hand, could view the sublime artifices of artistic creation as nothing more than sublimated sexual impulse.15

His views on the so-called behaviorist movement were equally unkind. This latter statement may seem surprising inasmuch as behaviorist principles explaining human actions do not contradict Ouspensky's belief of the body as machine. On the contrary, his objection was behaviorism's denial of the possibility of conscious volition as a primary cause of action.

SEX AND SEXUALITY: Ouspensky's statements on sex sometimes appear unusually conservative and other times entirely strange to the modern reader, often either unambiguous in a proscriptive way or, more likely, cryptic. But it is not too much to say that the idea of sex was a central point or theme in Ouspensky's philosophy of man. It is just that the notion of sex in relation to the aim or meaning of life seems always fraught with the seeds of misunderstanding. Certainly no other aspect of man's life is so shrouded with mystery and taboo. Even today, when the social presentation of sexuality is likely more common than at any time in memory the subject is usually discussed with a certain hesitancy, a certain uncomfortableness or intended humor which obscures clarity.

For Ouspensky, sex was ultimately bound with the processes of life, death, and rebirth with all intended ramifications. The following excerpt (and all subsequent quotes in this section) from A New Model explains:

The life which we know, in itself contains no aim. This is the reason why there is so much that is strange, incomprehensible and inexplicable in it. And indeed it cannot be explained by itself. Neither its sufferings nor its joys, neither its beginning nor its end, nor its greatest achievements have any meaning. All these are either a preparation for some other, future, life, or merely nothing. By itself life here, on our plane, has no value, no meaning, and no point. It is too short, too unreal, too ephemeral, too illusory, for anything to be demanded of it, for anything to be built upon it, for anything to be created out of it. Its whole meaning lies in another, a new, a future, life, which follows upon "birth."

Birth as a function of life is seen either as a continuation of the existence of one's being through the eternal cycle of recurrence, or an escape into a new realm or a new existence. And either way, sex is the key.

The continuation of being around the cycle of recurrence is the aim of nature. The transformation of being away from repetition is the aim of a higher type of man. Unfortunately for man, nature has the upper hand. Ouspensky discusses how sex energy as a separate and distinct causal agent is responsible for our general inability to progress from that which Nietzsche understands as, "human, all too human," to the Ubermensch. From the standpoint of nature the purpose of sex, that is, the continuation of the species, can only be considered one aspect of the sexual enterprise. This is simply because nature has given to man a surplus of sex energy considerably above whatever is necessary for the continuation of human life. Yet, nature herself has created this seemingly inefficient system in order to preserve the very thing intended. For if the sexual life of man was limited to only the amount of sexual energy necessary for procreation and sustenance of the species the procreative effect might, ironically, never occur.

…without this immense inflow of force the original aim would probably not be attained, and nature would be unable to make people serve her and continue their species to serve her. People would begin to bargain with nature, to make conditions, to demand concessions, to ask alleviations; and nature would have to yield. The guarantee against this is the surplus of energy which blinds a man, makes him a slave, forces him to serve the purposes of nature in the belief that he is serving himself, his own passions, his own desires; or, on the contrary, it makes man believe that he is serving the purposes of nature, while in reality he serves his own passions and desires.

We have discussed the first aspect of sex in Ouspensky's outline—that is, the continuation of life. However he notes that in addition to this first aim, two coordinate purposes can be identified: first, the preservation of the species at a definite level which, if not maintained, leads to breed degeneration; second, the possibility in man alone which may lead to real evolution.

When discussing "maintenance of the breed" Ouspensky identifies both primary and secondary sex characteristics. The primary characteristics are the male and female sexual organs. Secondary characteristics are, "all those features, apart from the sex organs themselves, which make man and woman different from and unlike one another." Further, "normal development of sex is a necessary condition of a rightly developing type, and the abundance and richness of secondary characters points to an improving, an ascending type." Contrary to the modernist view, Ouspensky continues, "…the decline of the breed always means the weakening and alteration of secondary characters, that is, the appearance of masculine characters in a woman and feminine characters in a man." Although not discussed in detail, it is this second aim of nature—that is, the maintenance and improvement of the species—which manifests from the surplus of sexual energy.

Ouspensky then proceeds to describe normal sex in man. Here, he describes the differences between lower sex, i.e., infra-sex, and the sex of higher types or supra-sex. And with infra-sex we have two further divisions: obvious degeneration and hidden degeneration. In the former we find "all obvious sex abnormalities" such as underdeveloped sex, all perversions manifesting in abnormal sexual desires or abstinence." [Disgust of sex, fear of sex, indifference to sex, interest in one's own sex are examples given by Ouspensky. And it is in this passage where we find the following peculiar and unexplained statement: "…interest in one's own sex…has quite a different meaning in men from what it has in women, and in women it is not necessarily a sign of infra-sex."]

The second division of infra-sex, hidden degeneration, is further divided into two groups. The first Ouspensky calls sex which is "colored by the psychology of the lupanar." Here, sex is surrounded with an atmosphere of uncleanness, something to be derided or joked about. Pornography in its various manifestations are examples. The latter manifestation of this "hidden degeneration of infra-sex" is sex connected with violence and cruelty in man. The figure of Othello is presented as an example in this instance:

A man of this form of infra-sex seems continually to be walking on the edge of a precipice. Sex and all emotions belonging to sex become in him inevitably connected with irritation, suspicion, and jealousy; at any moment he may find himself completely in the power of a sense of injury, insulted pride, a frightened sense of ownership; and there are no forms of cruelty and violence of which he is not capable in order to avenge his "outraged honor" or "injured feelings."

Normal sex is outlined in the theory of types. That is, sex which is coordinated with the remainder of man's life functions and which is mutually complimented by a hierarchy of opposites. Within certain individuals the maximum harmonious expression of sexuality manifests. Next, exists a second but lower category of potential partners whose love is expressed within a more formal and less passionate relationship but which still retains a certain amount of, if not passion, at least compassion. The third and fourth categories are even less interesting to the participants and can only lead to infra-sexual outcomes.

PHILOSOPHY AND THE SCIENCES: Ouspensky was particularly impressed with the nature of scientific and philosophical thought inasmuch as these disciplines contained the germ or at least the possibility of a beginning grasp of ways leading to possible solutions of the fundamental problems of man's existence. Of all Western philosophers Kant probably fares best but only to the extent that he (Kant) highlighted the noumena-phenomena distinction which became a starting ground for Ouspensky's own attempt to reconcile epistemology with metaphysics. The movement of modern philosophy away from metaphysics, particularly the development of logical analysis, was, for Ouspensky, wrongheaded. He likely would have agreed with Wittgenstein who, in the preface of the Tractatus, admits how little is really gained following this particular line.

Nietzsche also fares surprising well which may seem odd, incredulous, or outrageous depending on one's views regarding the body of Nietzsche's writings. Yet I think a case can be made that Ouspensky's reading of Nietzsche, is, in certain ways—if not quite compatible with Ouspensky's own global outlook—at least explainable to a degree. With this in mind it may be instructive to contrast several passages within Nietzsche which, perhaps, underscore the relation. As a reference text I cite Gotzen-Dammerung [(G-D) or Twilight of the Idols, R. J. Hollingdale trans., Penguin Classics]. This short book which runs the gamut of Nietzsche's mature ideas and can be taken as representative of his thought is, in many ways, a desirable text to quote inasmuch as it was intended by the author as a chapbook of sorts containing the whole summation of his philosophy.

Perhaps the first major contradiction between Nietzsche and Ouspensky is highlighted by the distinction between the "real world" and the "apparent." Ouspensky's epistemology stemmed from the Kantian duality between phenomena and noumena. And at first glance this seems to be at odds with Nietzsche:

First proposition. The grounds upon which this world has been designated as apparent establish rather its reality—another kind of reality is absolutely undemonstrable.

Second proposition. The characteristics which have been assigned to the real being of things are the characteristics of non-being, of nothingness—the real world has been constructed out of the contradiction of the actual world: an apparent world indeed, in so far as it is no more than a moral-optical illusion. (G-D, "Reason in Philosophy")

Here, Nietzsche argues against both the Kantian metaphysic and the more prosaic Christian notion of the afterlife. The latter (his critique of the Christian eschaton) is certainly not in opposition to Ouspensky, however if we are to reconcile the former view we must argue that it is only by way of the psychological method that we will be able to transcend the Kantian dualism which, for Ouspensky, was an ontological schism resulting from our misreading of the real nature or form of the world. In fine, Ouspensky understood that the basic disjunction between the real world and the apparent was a fundamental misapprehension which should be, but was hardly ever, overcome.

Turning to the nature of man in the universe Nietzsche comments:

(Man) is not the result of special design, a will, a purpose; he is not the subject of an attempt to attain to an ideal of man… We invented the concept of purpose. In reality purpose is lacking. (G-D, "The Four Great Errors")

This would seem in direct contradiction to the views of Ouspensky. However, Ouspensky taught that Nature's purpose was not to create a higher type of man. Indeed, Nature has Her own goals and purposes which are served by man as he is. Thus, if a higher type is possible it must be via anti-nature. And anti-nature exists, for Ouspensky, as the possibility of consciousness.

Both Ouspensky and Nietzsche had a deep distrust of established institutions, particularly the academy. Ouspensky frequently criticized the method of the schools; i.e., the suppression of free thought in favor of static acceptance of tradition, and, as mentioned earlier, one of his favorite gibes was that professors were killing the university in the same manner that priests had killed the church. Compare Nietzsche:

Learning to think: our schools no longer have any idea what this means. Even in our universities, the theory, the practice, the vocation of logic is beginning to die out. Who among (us) still knows from experience…! (G-D, "What the Germans Lack")

More obviously we are impressed by the agreement between the two on the importance of the Superman and the doctrine of eternal return, even though in the latter case Ouspensky criticizes Nietzsche's explanation of the necessity of return within physical space and in local time.

As an aside to the poetics (some might say, obfuscations) of Nietzsche, Ouspensky had a fondness for the occult literature prevalent during his day but only inasmuch as it represented an avenue for further explorations of questions which philosophy and science had long since abandoned. All the same he discounted any authentic value such writings might possess in the way of offering real knowledge, and considered most of the material mere fancy.

Mathematicians and geometers, especially those whose investigations paved the ground for understanding the, then, new ideas being introduced in physics were held in high regard. The names of Bolyai, Gauss, Riemann, and Lobatchevsky are prominent. In physics Minkovsky, Fitzgerald and Lorentz, Bohr, and Einstein are discussed, however Ouspensky always maintained that the introduction (really, the triumph) of mathematical physics into the analysis of strictly physical phenomena along with the development and pervasive acceptance of relativity theory was an instance of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of phenomena derived from an inherently limited perspective. This view stems from that tradition in Western philosophy which recognizes mathematical statements as fundamentally a priori and non-empirical. For Ouspensky, to suppose that the foundation of empirical theory can be somehow derived from pure mathematical analysis is epistemologically wrongheaded.

In the New Model Ouspensky underscores and argues against the commonly held view that Newton's Principia somehow posited and legitimized gravitation as a known and, hence, understood phenomena. On the contrary and in actual fact, he points out that Newton merely conceived a formula for calculating celestial movements. Turning to more modern conceptions of physical theory and as previously mentioned, Ouspensky criticized what seemed to him as a convoluted and unnecessary mixing of traditional and relativistic theories due to a misguided attempt to reconcile incommensurate phenomena. Indeed, if these stock descriptions were not generated by Ph.D.'s they might be accepted as fantastic and dealt with in the same incredulous manner as the very popular chimera which modern science argues against. For example, the usual idea of space as a non-Euclidean surface somehow "curved" by mass falls away once we understand "three-dimensional space in time" as a simple cross section of a more fuller extended whole.

Ouspensky's views regarding Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism for speciation were hostile (even though he appreciated the philosophical implications contained within the idea of evolution and expressed agreement with the idea of intra-species modification via temporal genetic variability). He conceived organic life on earth as a choate whose parts may or may not have any direct relation to the purposes of the whole. Certainly he considered Homo sapiens the product of at least some kind of life progression, but believed it naive to suppose that a purely mechanistic process was somehow responsible for the existence and subsequent perfection of human beings.

Ouspensky considered life itself in very broad terms and there are grounds for thinking that he deemed the entire universe "alive"—at least in a definite but unorthodox sense. Here we must be careful to avoid ascribing pantheism to Ouspensky's thought which was never religious in this sense of the word. Still, there is no question that he considered the universe intelligent and, as such, teleologically responsible for the emergence of life (including man), yet he was certainly at odds with the views espoused in the idealistic philosophy typified by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (that is, man as the quintessential creation of Spirit or Being the purpose of whose existence was for the express understanding and elucidation of reality in order that Absolute Being qua Being could somehow reflexively know itself). One gets the idea from reading Ouspensky that, indeed, man is an experiment, but whether he is or will ever be a successful experiment is a big question.


  1. See, Gnosis: Study and Commentaries on the Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, Book One, Exoteric Cycle, by Boris Mouravieff, Praxis Institute Press, Newbury, MA, 1989. In the Foreword Mouravieff writes, "My own relations with Ouspensky, who I knew well, were described in an article of the review Syntheses. I must reaffirm here that although Ouspensky had a spirited desire to publish his book during his lifetime, he always hesitated to do so. I myself had stressed the danger of fragmentary disclosure, and uncertainties in the exposition of certain essential points. The fact that Fragments was only published after the death of the author, more than twenty years after it was written, supports these assertions."

    On the other hand, in A New Model of the Universe, Ouspensky wrote of his intention to publish the doctrine of "different time for different cosmoses" in an upcoming book, presumably the Fragments, and this particular canon was undoubtedly learnt from Gurdjieff. Towards the end of his life (and as transcribed in A Record of Meetings) Ouspensky stated unequivocally that he would not publish Fragments. [In this document, I refer to the extant work as Fragments, which was Ouspensky's own nomenclature for his "work in progress." The fact that it was published under a different title after his death is mere circumstance.]

  2. There also exists a series of essays originally written in 1919 for A. R. Orage's publication, New Age, describing life in Bolshevik Russia after the Revolution, and released in book form under the title Letters from Russia, Arkana, London, 1988.

  3. Making sense of the so-called critical philosophy was never particularly easy due in large part to the peculiar literary style of the author. Of the three standard translations of The Critique of Pure Reason (i.e., the F. Max Muller, the Norman Kemp Smith, and the J. M. D. Meiklejohn) I find the latter to be, in certain ways, more "readable". In any case, the following excerpt from Meiklejohn's translation of the Second Edition's preface (I have taken liberty in editing the passage) explains Kant's views regarding his methodological basis for the foundation of Transcendental Aesthetic as well as any:

    We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, conform to my conceptions.

  4. Metageometry in this sense must not be confused with standard non-Euclidean geometries, the latter being a revaluation of Euclid's axioms which, by challenging the basic definition of the physical properties of surfaces, led to a new understanding of conventional space. Within this convention the axioms of a given geometry, whether standard Euclidean or not, remain logical properties of surfaces in space. Thus, the form of both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry remains three dimensional whereas metageometry extends geometry into the admittedly speculative realm of higher dimensions.

    Also, it must be acknowledged that Ouspensky's geometrical model of existential form was not unique but, rather, a synthesis of established theory. Certainly he was indebted to Hinton, however we realize a foundation as far back as Aristotle. In Metaphysics (Book 4—Gamma; Being and Subjective Essence) we find:

    Next, essence [ouisa] may mean any part immanent in a whole in such a way that while retaining its own specific meaning it also delimits the meaning of the whole to which it belongs, so that if it were destroyed the whole would be destroyed too. In this manner the line is related to the plane, and, as some say, the plane is related to a three dimensional body. More abstractly, number is thought by some to be of this nature, on the ground that it furnishes limits to everything, so that if it were destroyed nothing would exist (trans. P. Wheelwright, 1935).

    Perhaps the latter is directed towards the Pythagorean school. In any case the idea of geometric expansion is not novel. Where Ouspensky takes the idea—that is, the realm of metageometry—is.

  5. Curiously, such a view is closely related to the properly understood religious idea of eternity. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware offer the following definition in the Glossary of their translation of The Philokalia of St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Faber and Faber, London, 1979: "Frequently a distinction is made between the 'present age' and the 'age to come' or 'the new age.' The first corresponds to our present sense of time, the second to time as exists in God, that is, to eternity understood, not as endless time, but as the simultaneous presence of all time. Certain texts, especially in St. Maximos the Confessor, also use the term aeon in a connected but more specific way, to denote a level intermediate between eternity in the full sense (aidiotis) and time as known to us in our present experience (chronos). There are thus three levels: (a) eternity, the totum simul or simultaneous presence of all time and reality as known to God, who alone has neither origin nor end, and who therefore is alone eternal in the full sense; (b) the aeon, the totum simul as known to the angels, and also to human persons who possess experience of the 'age to come': although having no end, these angelic or human beings, since they are created, are not self-originating and therefore are not eternal in the sense that God is eternal; (c) time, that is, temporal succession as known to us in the present age."

    In Chapter 2 of the Bhaktivedanta translation of Text 12 of the sixth book of the Mahabharata, published as Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, New York, 1968, we find the following passage: "Never was there a time when I (Krishna) did not exist, nor you (Arjuna), nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to exist." The Barbara Stoller Miller translation, subtitled Krishna's Counsel in Time of War, Bantam, New York, 1986, while not as "readable" as that of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, does, nevertheless, succinctly convey the idea of eternity in her rendering of Text 16: "Nothing of non-bearing comes to be, nor does being cease to exist; the boundary between these two is seen by men who see reality" (italics added).

    In Chapter 5, Book 2 of The Idiot, Dostoevsky comments on the strange Biblical passage oft quoted by Ouspensky and found in Revelation 10:6, "there shall be no more time," when describing, in almost mystic terms Myshkin's reminiscence of his epileptic fit as "the very second which was not long enough for the water to be spilt out of Mahomet's pitcher, though the epileptic prophet had time to gaze at all the habitations of Allah." Interestingly, the King James version preserves the meaning of whatever translation Dostoevsky used, whereas the New International version removes certain words giving the passage an entirely different meaning.

    Neither is this distinction lost in philosophy proper. As an example, proposition 6.4311 of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus reads, "Death is not an event in life: we do not experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end just as our visual field has no limits."

  6. When speaking of phenomena we are necessarily speaking of things perceived. Thus it is awkward to discuss "phenomena not meant to be perceived." Yet by extending our natural perceptive faculties through technological means we are able to intuit phenomena not directly meant for our purview. Of course what is subsequently discovered as a result of the use of various technologies remains phenomenal in nature since it remains only a partial intuition of a larger, noumenal whole.

  7. It must be stated that the current taxonomy of psychological disorders meticulously categorized in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, at least those not explicitly attributable to organic causes, are for the most part politically or socially validated. This can especially be seen in certain sexual deviancies which over the years have been "declassified" from the official list of mental illnesses along with decided antisocial behaviors now admitted as "mental disorders". Of course in most instances of "psychological illness" the medical profession is simply classifying unusual behavior and not, strictly speaking, identifying disease.

  8. An exhaustive list of thinkers typifying this view would be long indeed, however any list of the most influential would likely have Marx and Freud at the top. Of course, while Freud's critique of religion was primarily psychological albeit with a strong Darwinian anthropological component, in the case of Marx the matter was a bit different his argument being more in keeping with established philosophical tradition. Freud argues that man's relation to God is the relation between child to father objectified outward onto nature. And the relation of God to man is, likewise, fraught with a basic antinomy, to wit, man needs God (the father) for protection but, at the same time, must be wary of His nature and, therefore, constantly lives in fear of Him. This dread, for Freud, was likely secondary to the child's latent sexual relation to the mother along with the father's resultant subconscious jealousy directed toward his offspring [explained in the Viennese doctor's typical matter of fact style in Chapter 3 of The Future of an Illusion].

    Anthropologically, Freud's critique of religion was an attempt to explain the almost universal prohibitions of various taboos such as incest, murder, and cannibalism.

    Marx, on the other hand, explained religion as a necessary progression stemming from his reading and interpretation of the historical dialectic (that is, the material interpretation of the Hegelian account of the evolution of Absolute Spirit). Writing in Die Jundenfrage (quoted from the popular compilation, The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by R. C. Tucker and translated as Bruno Bauer and the Jewish Question) Marx writes:

    As soon as Jew and Christian come to see in their respective religions nothing more than stages in the development of the human mind—snake skins which have been cast off by history, and man as the snake who clothed himself in them—they will no longer find themselves in religious opposition, but in a purely critical, scientific and human relationship.

    Ironically, and whether he was aware of his sidestep is an interesting question, Marx turns strangely ascientific, almost Rousseau-esque, and mystical when, reminiscent of the Catholic doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, several pages later he continues:

    Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being

  9. In his History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell briefly discusses the tenants of the philosophy of logical analysis and its relation to usual conceptions of philosophy as propaedeutic to moral and political behavior flowing from a transcendental or metaphysical warrant. In Russell's view natural science becomes the paradigm for philosophical investigation whereas non-empirical speculative philosophy based on reason is essentially untenable. He writes, "In regard to certain problems [logical analysis can] achieve definite answers which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy." Russell openly admits a that "vast" field of concerns not amenable to scientific methodology necessarily remains but casually dismisses these affairs to the realm of mere feeling. Not surprisingly, because of these delimits philosophy cannot, in Russell's opinion, answer simple questions such as why we should not 'enjoy' inflicting cruelty. Faced with such dilemmas, "they [logical analysts] confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind, but they refuse to believe that there is some higher way of knowing by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect." Russell's view is, of course, consistent with that line of thought following Newton's Principia (which is, really, the paradigm of the British philosopher's methodology) wherein raison d'etre, or telos, or final cause (to use Aristotelian notation) is not entertained in spite of its implicit importance.

  10. Chapter Two, Book Five of Notre Dame offers a brief but nevertheless interesting analysis of architectural symbolism making special note of the famous Parisian cathedral. Victor Hugo writes, "From the beginning of things to the fifteenth century of the Christian era inclusive, architecture was the great book of the human race, man's principal means of expressing the various stages of his development, physical and mental." When speaking specifically of the great cathedrals he points out that, "Sometimes a door, a facade, an entire church presents a symbolical meaning, absolutely unconnected with the worship, even hostile to the teaching of the Church." And, "Because architecture was the only free medium, it therefore found full expression in those books called edifices. Without them, new ideas would have been burned in the public square."

  11. At this point in the discussion it is difficult to separate the psychology contained within Ouspensky's own books with the teaching gained from his association with Gurdjieff. In many respects the authorized works are really only a starting point and anyone considering a further exposition of the actual psychological method practiced and taught by Ouspensky would do well to consult Fragments. There are, of course, many secondary works concerning the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and, to a lesser extent, Ouspensky. Perhaps the most in depth is a five volume work, Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky by Dr. Maurice Nicoll, which has been available from time to time. These lecture transcripts offer, perhaps, a more practical accounting than the theoretical exposition given here.

  12. As an example, in his four volume analysis of Nietzsche, Heidegger devotes an entire book, The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, to this topic.  The Will to Power as Art, The Will to Power as Knowledge, and, finally, Nihilism make the remainder.

  13. Piecing together the beliefs of a quasi-historical figure such as Christ, or attributing a line of thought to the likes of Pythagorus, both whom never wrote or, if they did, their writings are lost to the ages, is problematical at best. Even with contemporary figures certain major ambiguities in meaning often manifest. For instance, when speaking of recurrence Ouspensky mentions Lermontoff, an author who made a strong impression on him at an early age. A specific passage taken from a 1928 translation of A Hero of Our Time and quoted by P. D. O. in A New Model follows: "I was exhilarated to feel myself so high above the world. It was a childish feeling, of course, but when we get away from artificial conditions and approach nearer to Nature we cannot help becoming children. All that we have acquired falls away from our being and we become once more what we were and what we shall one day assuredly be again (italics added)." Contrast this with the 1966 Paul Foote translation (Penguin Books, Wrights Lane, London) of the same passage: "I felt somehow happy to be so high above the world—a childish feeling, I grant, but we can't but help becoming children when we leave social conventions behind and come nearer to nature. All life's experience is shed from us and the soul becomes anew what it once was and will surely be again." The latter meaning is much more abstract, poetical and nonspecific than the text quoted by Ouspensky.

    Further, recurrence as an established and formal doctrine is not particularly easy to place—at least in any concrete exoteric form. Milic Capek's short essay in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy remains the most accessible overview of this strange idea. Yet at least certain aspects of recurrence manifest throughout the history of Western philosophy; Capek mentions the commentary of G. Le Bon who likened recurrence to the classical myth of Sisyphus, and points to M. de Unamuno who, in The Tragic Sense of Life, disparages the doctrine "as a poor substitute for [presumably, the Christian doctrine of] personal immortality." In popular commentaries on Pythagorus, neither Father Copleston's A History of Western Philosophy, Russell's History, Durant's History of Western Civilization, or Larson's Story of Christian Origins mention recurrence.

    On the other hand, after his discussion of Saint Thomas' philosophy, Professor Copleston briefly mentions the development of the so-called "Latin Averrost" movement. When discussing Siger of Brabant, Fr. Copleston comments on his influences: "Siger's notion that all terrestrial events are determined by the movements of the heavenly bodies smacks of the Islamic philosophy. Again, while the idea that no species can have had a beginning, so that there can have been no first man, is Aristotelian in origin, the idea of the eternal recurrence or cyclic process of determined events is not found in Aristotle" [Italics added].

  14. This line of thought is, in a way, a line central to the teachings of Gurdjieff, however inasmuch as it bears a relation to recurrence it is probably germane to include in an exposition of Ouspensky's native views.

  15. As previously mentioned, Freud's view of man as a creature of sexual desire owes much to the prominent idea of will as found in the works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

~ • ~

[Ed. Last summer we asked Michael Presley for a short biographical sketch.]

There is really nothing of interest I can say as far as a bio goes. I live in on a couple of acres in Central Florida where, right now, it's hotter than hell. My back yard is a lake. The neighbor owns a large yellow Lab who usually lives in the lake, but bounds out occasionally to chase my cat or to suck down a pork chop I might be grilling. I listen to a lot of 1940's and 50's jazz and prefer imported lager beers. The only reason I wrote the essay in the first place was because no one else had bothered to do anything on Ouspensky. Yes, I know that Wilson wrote a biography of sorts, but it seemed too critical of Ouspensky's supposed motives and psychological intent—something I know nothing about, and, in any case, am not particularly interested in. The day someone offers something better is the day I'll quit working on the thing.

Copyright © 1998 Michael Presley
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Winter 1998/1999 Issue, Vol. II (2)
Revision: January 1, 2000