Gurdjieff has no precedent. This becomes crystal clear when we step back and take a comprehensive view of his legacy—the sum total of what he left behind for the world to ponder and explore. By any reasonable measure, it is extraordinary, in both its depth and its breadth.
Before we provide an inventory of his work we need to acknowledge that we have no knowledge of who taught him and precisely what he was taught. Thus it is not always possible to distinguish between his personal contribution and what he brought from elsewhere.
A World View
Gurdjieff’s world view was that the universe was alive at every level from its entirety to the smallest particle. This conformed with ideas expressed in many religious and mystical traditions. Gurdjieff used the concepts of “subjective” and “objective” to place the individual man within this worldview. By his definition, something was objective if it was perceived in exactly the same way by people on the same level. It was subjective if two people might perceive it differently. Thus, for example, two people with the same acuity of hearing would perceive a given sound objectively. However, irrespective of levels, they might judge the beauty of a particular butterfly differently.
This is a more important distinction than it may appear at first blush. It allowed Gurdjieff to define both art and science in terms of objectivity and subjectivity. Objective art is art that has an identical effect upon all individuals of the same level. The impact of subjective art varies. Objective science provides theories and perspectives about which everyone at the same level will agree. Subjective science (modern-day science) depends upon subjective consensus agreement between scientific authorities.
Having described this distinction we can now list what can be regarded as Gurdjieff’s Legacy.
Gurdjieff was a talented choreographer and dancing master. The dances he choreographed go by the general name of The Movements but are better thought of as sacred temple dances. They demand a special kind of attention and hence are more complex than simple dances. Those who have a deep experience of performing them will likely agree that they are an objective form of dance. Gurdjieff spoke of them as a way to teach knowledge to a man’s centers that was otherwise difficult or impossible to impart. Certain physical postures or combinations of them would invoke entirely new thoughts or emotions in the dancer, and the dancer would thus learn new things. Most Gurdjieff groups regard the Movements as a necessary part of the Work
Gurdjieff composed his music with the assistance of the musician Thomas de Hartmann. About half of the compositions they jointly created were pieces intended to accompany the movements. The rest were free-standing compositions. Gurdjieff claimed that it was difficult to create objective music using Western musical instruments as such instruments did not cater to the inner octaves between individual notes. With de Hartmann, Gurdjieff used half-tones and quarter tones to try to create objective effects.
Gurdjieff’s Written Works
The idea of objective literature is difficult for the Western mind to grasp as Western fictional literature is, without exception, subjective. However, we may suspect that poetic forms (compare for example the sonnet with the limerick) have an objective impact. Some scripture may have an objective (uplifting) impact.
An analysis of Gurdjieff’s magnum opus, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, points to it being objective in many ways: its use of the philological meaning of words, its allegorical nature, its use of the grammar of associations, its use of repetitive phrases and its rhythm when read out loud. To this, we can add that Gurdjieff observed its impact on audiences at public readings and subsequently made changes to the text. Gurdjieff created scripture of an entirely new kind, a strange and original blend of philosophy, historical events, religious thought, and fiction. While it might not seem so yet, in the future his literary influence will be profound. It may attract comparisons with the extraordinary works of William Shakespeare.
The Keys to the New Testament
Of particular importance to Christians and those raised in a Christian culture is that Gurdjieff revealed the “keys to the New Testament” by explaining its symbolism to some of his pupils which they, in turn, passed on. He employs Christian symbolism in different parts of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson although many readers may miss this. The clearest and most practical expression of this teaching is to be found in the writings of Maurice Nicholl: his primary books covering this topic are The Mark and The New Man.
An aspect of the Gurdjieff Work that few people have pursued so far is Gurdjieff’s explanation and articulation of what he calls “objective science,” which is described clearly in In Search of The Miraculous. It embodies a new and original approach to science based on the Ray of Creation, the Law of Seven, and the Law of Three. It completely opposes modern science, proposing that the universe is alive at every level from the Megalocosmos to the smallest particle. As such it has been ignored by modern science and it is likely to remain ignored for a while yet.
Nevertheless, Gurdjieff’s objective science is intended to be taken seriously. Few individuals ever tried to introduce a whole new basis for science—not even Newton.
A Psychological Teaching and Method
What has been described so far could be regarded as less important than the psychological and spiritual ideas and practices Gurdjieff taught. The psychological landscape that Gurdjieff painted of man as a three-brained being, attracts most of those who join Work Groups in the hope that in some way they will be able to profit from their application. The practices, which include self-remembering and self-observation, are described and applied in terms of a psychological model of the inner world that was new when introduced. Practitioners become familiar with inner world behaviors such as inner considering, keeping accounts, identification, the expression and withholding of negative emotion, imagination and fantasy, formatory thinking, and so on.
Those who work with Gurdjieff’s psychological practices increase their knowledge of themselves and in doing so are likely to change some of their less useful habits. Practitioners usually become aware that the methods of the Work are not self-help practices but a path to personal evolution. The Ancient Greek injunction, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi applies: “know thyself.”
By means of the work community he established at the Prieuré, Gurdjieff developed a model for a Work community that has since been applied by other groups, with the kitchen forming the heart of the community. Gardening and various kinds of craftwork were complementary activities. Additionally, there were study meetings, theatre, readings, and movements. The various work weeks, weekends, and days that workgroups hold usually try to apply this model.
Taking all of this together it is difficult to imagine anyone developing even a partial understanding of everything Gurdjieff brought. The curious thing, perhaps, is that there’s no record of what Gurdjieff expected his pupils and the groups they formed to do with this remarkably rich legacy.