Where our knowledge is lacking, in respect of the real world activity Beelzebub mentions, we need to educate ourselves. Beelzebub speaks of ancient civilizations, including Babylon and Egypt, where there is a partial historical record. He covers Greece and Rome, where the historical record is fairly rich. He covers 20th century Russia, France, Germany, Britain and America where information abounds, but about which we may be relatively uninformed.
In practice we need to do background research in two dimensions:
- Background research into Gurdjieff himself and his context.
- Background research into the various tales Gurdjieff tells.
There is a rich literature on Gurdjieff himself. He was born and raised in the Caucasus, a large geographical area peppered with many different cultures and religions. As far as we know the first languages he spoke were Armenian, Greek and Russian. (These languages appear most frequently in the neologisms he creates). Few readers of The Tales will have any knowledge or raw information that corresponds to what Gurdjieff may have gathered in his early years – both incidental knowledge and knowledge he deliberately sought. We know that he was well-read in respect of the scientific theories of his day and had extensive knowledge of medicine and that he spoke many languages and was skilled in many trades, but we do not know the full extent of his general knowledge. Thus, when he engages in telling some tale in respect of, say, some custom adopted in some culture, we have no idea how well he knows what he’s writing about. We need to try to find out—in case the meaning intended is more allegorical than factual.
The second dimension is simply research into history, including recent history. Where it is possible we need to research whatever Beelzebub mentions, Russia and its alcohol problem, Italy and the Catholic Church, Germany and its scientific and engineering traditions. The influence of Roman Law and Greek philosophy and science, the British Raj in India, the British expedition to Tibet in 1903-1904, led by Lieutenant Colonel Younghusband and so on.
In Chapter 12, The First “Growl,” Beelzebub relates the tale of a “writer” who decided to write his own “Gospel” and, as a consequence of this, was anathematized by the church authorities of the day. Many readers will not recognize who Gurdjieff is referring to here and may even think it is an exaggerated incident because Gurdjieff never mentions the author’s name. In fact, the author he is referring to is Tolstoy.
If we research Tolstoy’s life we discover that he did indeed produce his own version of the Gospel. In 1896, Tolstoy wrote a book entitled The Four Gospels Harmonized and Translated. Prior to that, Tolstoy wrote a series of essays criticizing the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, including Criticism of Dogmatic Theology and Confession. In 1901, the Church, possibly with the blessing of some Russian politicians of the day, responded by excommunicating him and posting a notice on the door of every church. The notice read:
“God has permitted a new false prophet to appear in our midst today, Count Leo Tolstoy. A world-famous author, Russian by birth, Orthodox by baptism and education, Count Tolstoy, lead astray by pride, has boldly and insolently dared to oppose God, Christ and his holy heirs. Openly and in sight of all, he has denied the mother who nurtured him and brought him up: the Orthodox church; and he has devoted his literary efforts and God-given talent to spreading doctrines which are contrary to Christ and the Church, and to undermining their fathers’ faith in the minds and hearts of the people – the Orthodox faith … In his works and letters … he preaches the abolition of all the dogma of the Orthodox Church and of the very essence of the Christian faith with fanatical frenzy; he denies the living and personal God glorified in the Holy Trinity, Creator and Providence of the universe; he refutes our Lord Jesus Christ, God made Man, Redeemer and Savior of the world, who suffered for us and for our salvation, and who has been raised from the dead; he refutes the Immaculate Conception of the human manifestation of Christ the Lord, and the virginity, before and after the Nativity, of Mary, Mother of God, most pure and eternally virgin; he does not believe in the life hereafter or in judgement after death; he refutes all the Mysteries of the Church and their beneficial effect; and, flaunting the most sacred articles of faith of the Orthodox community, he has not feared to mock the greatest of all mysteries: the Holy Eucharist … therefore the Church no longer recognizes him among her children and cannot do so until he has repented and restored himself to communion with her.”
Tolstoy was already a well-known and highly regarded novelist at the time, having written The Cossacks, War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the years between 1860 and 1877. Nevertheless, his excommunication simply expanded his reputation internationally. His home-grown religious ideas and writings influenced, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clearly such topics are worthy of personal research.
If you want a topic to research right now, try this:
On page 3, Gurdjieff writes:
That is why I now, also, setting forth on this venture quite new for me, namely, authorship, begin by pronouncing this utterance and moreover pronounce it not only aloud, but even very distinctly and with a full, as the ancient Toulousites defined it, “wholly-manifested into- nation” …
So who are these ancient Toulousites?