Who is Gurdjieff?

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

What if everything you had been searching for all your life, all your questions and concerns, were to be answered right now and in a way that went far beyond anything you yourself had come to?

Take a moment—what would be your experience?

Go into it deeply.

If you allow yourself to experience the wonderment of all your questions being answered—then you would be experiencing something of what P.D. Uspenskii must have felt when he first met G.I. Gurdjieff in that noisy merchant's café in Moscow almost 81 years ago.

How is it, you might ask, that this Greek-Armenian—sitting across from you and speaking Russian with a Caucasian accent rarely associated with the authority and presence he emanates—could know all this?

You, who are heralded in theosophical and literary circles. You, who have lectured before thousands on "The Problems of Death" and "In Search of the Miraculous." How could it be that you—despite your many gifts and seriousness of search—have not even remotely approached the scale of this strange man's understanding?

The question is there from this first meeting and will continue all your life—Who is this George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff?

It is no less the question today than it was in April 1915. Today, it is ours to meet him not in the flesh but through the ideas in his magnum opus, "All and Everything", the Legominism he hurled into the future.

Many, if not all of us, have shared in Uspenskii's wonderment and his question. So it was, too, with the members of the early St. Petersburg group who often wrestled, as Uspenskii reports, with the question of Gurdjieff's identity.

"What he [Gurdjieff] had been born with," said Uspenskii, "and what had been given him by schools, if he had passed through a school—we often spoke of this, and some of us came to the conclusion that Gurdjieff was a genius in his own domain, that he had scarcely had to learn, that what he knew could not be learned and that none of us could expect or hope to become like him."(1)

This from Pyotr Demianovich Uspenskii, a man not given to easy praise. Uspenskii's standards were high. His formidable intellect, the earnestness of his seeking, were apparent in early childhood. At the age of six young Pyotr was reading books by difficult authors such as Lermontov and Turgenev. As an adult he had actively searched for the miraculous, studying, writing and making two journeys to the East in search of what he called "a new or forgotten road... a school of a more rational kind."(2) He had met many teachers and schools but none that suited his independent spirit and discerning intellect. Uspenskii was a seeker of a very high type and not one to be easily won over. And so for him to admit that Gurdjieff was a genius in his own domain, that he had scarcely had to learn, that what he knew could not be learned and that none could expect or hope to become like him indicates the level of being which he first perceived in Gurdjieff.

He was not alone. The normally reserved Dr. Leonid Stjoernval, one of the Petersburg group's earliest members, had once exclaimed:

"Yes! I believe that Georgi Ivanovitch is not less than Christ himself!"(3)

Later in Paris the actress Georgette LeBlanc, who spent the summer of 1923 at the Prieuré and who later was a member of the group known as "The Rope," gave this impression of Gurdjieff:

"The light that came from the little salon illuminated him fully. Instead of avoiding it, he stepped back and leaned against the wall. Then, for the first time, he let me see what he really is... as if he had torn off the masks behind which he is obliged to hide himself. His face was stamped with a charity that embraced the whole world. Transfixed, standing before him, I saw him with all my strength and I experienced a gratitude so deep, so sad, that he felt a need to calm me. With an unforgettable look he said, 'God helps me.'"(4)

Of course, one can easily explain all of the foregoing and many similar reports in terms of suggestibility. But such an explanation is only that. An explanation, not proof. And so we are left with the reports from a highly intelligent and accomplished cadre of people who worked closely with Gurdjieff.

Let us leave the question of Gurdjieff's identity for the moment and ask what brought him to the West. Here, opinion will likely be more unanimous. It is quite clear that Gurdjieff believed he had a mission. That mission was to bring to the West an ancient teaching, formulated and calibrated to exigencies of the contemporary world. From his first appearance in Moscow in 1912 until his death in Paris in 1949 never once did Gurdjieff ever refute or contradict himself on this point.

His coming to the West was no wild idea. And he came not as a holy beggar or ethereal saint but as, of all things, a businessman who by his own effort and ingenuity had been able to amass a million roubles and two invaluable collections, one of old and rare carpets, and the other of Chinese cloisonne.

But what brought Gurdjieff to the West? What was the impelling factor, and why at that time? At the Prieuré in the late 1920s Gurdjieff summed it up succinctly:

"Unless the 'wisdom' of the East and the 'energy' of the West could be harnessed and used harmoniously, the world would be destroyed."(5)

Though Gurdjieff's deep understanding of this is still to be plumbed—this perception is quite common now. Then it was radical.

Gurdjieff had seen mankind's future, the impending terror of the planetary situation, and understood that all the old ways were useless to avert the coming man-created catastrophe.

"He [Gurdjieff] predicted," wrote one young resident of the Prieuré, "that a day would come when the eastern world would again rise to a position of world importance and become a threat to the momentarily all-powerful, all-influential new culture of the western world, which was dominated, according to him, by America—a country that was very strong, to be sure, but also very young.... Among the purposes of all leaders, messiahs, messengers from the gods, and so forth, there was one fundamental and very important purpose: to find some means by which the two sides of man, and, therefore, the two sides of the earth, could live together in peace and harmony. He said that the time was very short—it was necessary to achieve this harmony as soon as possible to avoid complete disaster....If enough individuals could develop themselves—even partially—into genuine, natural men, able to use the real potentialities that were proper to mankind, each such individual would then be able to convince and win over as many as a hundred other men, who would, in each in his turn, upon achieving development, be able to influence another hundred, and so on....History had already proven to us that such tools as politics, religion, and any other organized movements which treated man 'in the mass' and not as individual beings, were failures. That they would always be failures and that the separate, distinct growth of each individual in the world was the only possible solution...."(6)

Gurdjieff came to the West to establish a new teaching, ancient in origin, that was specifically formulated for individual growth in the technologized world. It was stripped of the past, stripped of all mysticism, philosophy, religious rites and dogma. It was, and is, the great bequeathing. It is a teaching that gives to contemporary man and woman the great gift—the gift of practical knowledge and techniques by which he can, by his own efforts and intention, transform himself, and, in so doing, free himself from the abnormal being-existence that is the soul-death signature of our time.

And this can be achieved without withdrawing to a mountain top or monastery. In fact, the genius of the teaching is that it uses ordinary life, with all its uncertainty, negativity and suffering, to come to Real Life. The Buddha said, "Life is suffering." Gurdjieff said, Let's use it—but intentionally. Jesus said, "Love thy neighbor." Gurdjieff said, Yes, but first see that, as you are, you can't love.

The teaching that Gurdjieff brought—The Fourth Way, he called it—like all real teachings has been plundered and leveled and explained away. New Age psychologists and other spiritual predators among us make unattributed wholesale 'borrowings' to spice up their own self-styled eclectic brands of 'bon ton' teaching. They attempt to legitimize what they've done by proclaiming that this Fourth Way teaching is, after all, nothing new, just a modern repackaging of many teachings.

Critics point to elements of The Fourth Way being found in other teachings, but cannot the same be said of all teachings? That one can find in The Fourth Way elements of other teachings does not mean, let alone prove, that the teaching is simply a synthesis. One could turn the argument just as easily, arguing that the elements found in, say, Christianity are the remains of the ancient Fourth Way teaching as it was wholly given. Gurdjieff is quite clear that the teaching he brings is different and in no way a derivative. He speaks of the four principal lines, Egyptian, Hebraic, Persian and Hindu, and two mixtures of these lines, theosophy and occultism. Both of these mixed lines, he said, "bear in themselves grains of truth, but neither of them possesses full knowledge and therefore attempts to bring them to practical realization give only negative results." He then declares, "The teaching whose theory is here being set out is completely self-supporting and independent of other lines and it has been completely unknown up to the present time...."(7) [Author's Italics]

Could Gurdjieff be any more emphatic?

Still, whenever the subject of Gurdjieff's teaching is mentioned, one invariably hears contemporary exponents and propagandists of these principal teachings and their derivatives pointing to this likeness or that. But Gurdjieff has been quite clear on this point. "In order to understand the interrelation of these teachings," he said, "it must always be remembered that the ways which lead to the cognition of unity approach it like the radii of a circle moving towards the center; the closer they come to the center, the closer they approach one another."(8)

Many of these teachings have had their day in the sun and, alas, great as they were, have all but spent their seed. No longer are they the potent historical forces they once were. Which is not to say that for the individual or small groups they cannot be effective, but as teachings to move masses, their voices no longer galvanize. True, fundamentalist movements rage everywhere. Their emergence—is it a sign of renewal or that of a desperate last stand?

As there has been a concerted attempt to cast The Fourth Way as simply a derivative of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, let's examine this contention more closely. Proponents of this view point to the uses of attention in the Philokalia, the writings of the early church fathers. But attention is the basis of spiritual work of all traditions; it is the 'gas' without which no engine runs. After Uspenskii left Gurdjieff he devoted much time to studying the New Testament and the writings of St. Simeon and others. But Uspenskii left because, as he said, "I ceased to understand" Gurdjieff and what he was teaching. One can easily argue that Uspenskii, in trying to find the origin of The Fourth Way in the Eastern Church, was unconsciously trying to justify his break with Gurdjieff. Whatever the case, The Fourth Way is a way in ordinary life. It is not the monastic way of Mt. Athos. The Fourth Way is not a withdrawal from life.

Orthodox proponents also point to when Gurdjieff was asked about the origin of the teaching and he replied that "if you like this is esoteric Christianity."(9) If you like. . . that is, if you must have a familiar category (Russia at that time was heavily Christianized). Gurdjieff was simply speaking to Uspenskii in a way that would not at that time arouse his imagination. He would later tell him that the origin was prehistoric Egyptian.

Many years later in Paris Gurdjieff was again asked about the link between Christianity and the teaching.

"I find the system at the base of Christian doctrine," declared one curious man, the Russian intellectual, Boris Mouravieff. "What do you say to this subject?"

Gurdjieff replied, "It's the ABC. But they didn't understand at all."

"Is the system yours?"

"No. . ."

"Where did you find it?—From where did you take it?"

"Perhaps," said Gurdjieff, "I stole it."(10)

As to the latter point—his stealing the teaching—one must remember how Gurdjieff taught. Mouravieff, as his writings show, was negatively fixated on Gurdjieff. He believed the worst of him. Gurdjieff's answer to Mouravieff was merely mirroring what was in Mouravieff's mind.

About the teaching's origin, what Gurdjieff is saying is that the teaching passed through Christianity but they did not understand it; that is how to properly use it. Not only did the Church Fathers not understand this but they were confused about their own origins. Uspenskii reports that Gurdjieff said that Christianity was "not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know. This Egypt was in the same place as the other but it existed much earlier.. . . prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ."(11)

Which is not to say that Gurdjieff did not hold Christianity in the highest regard. His first tutors were Dean Borsch and Father Evlissi of the Kars Military Cathedral, the latter eventually becoming an Essene. Many years later in writing about Christianity, he declared: "...in none of the ancient religious teachings were so many good regulations for ordinary everyday life laid down as in just that teaching on which this same Christian religion was founded."(12)

However, the usual wiseacring, mixing and deflections occurred. Wrote Gurdjieff:

"And into this teaching [Christianity] of truth and verity, they began also to mix for various egoistic and political reasons, fragments taken from other religious teachings already existing there, but fragments such as had not only nothing in common with the teaching of Jesus, but which sometimes even flatly contradicted the truths this Divine Teacher taught."(13) And because of what he calls "criminal wiseacring," the "genuine faith in all this Divine and uniquely accomplished teaching of salvation of the All-Loving Jesus Christ was totally destroyed."(14)

Gurdjieff realized Christianity's reign as a powerful historic force, had, collectively speaking, eroded.(15) Gurdjieff understood that to yoke a new formulation of an ancient teaching to a Christianity that had lost its force would have neutered the teaching. Gurdjieff was looking forward—not backward.

Stymied in his own time from establishing the teaching, he sent his Legominism, into the future, into our time, to us.

Speaking of All and Everything, A.R. Orage said, it "is a sort of Bible; the anomalies that seem to us incongruous and absurd may be a text within a text, which, when rooted out, may comprise an alphabet of the doctrine... Gurdjieff's book, perhaps, is a kind of Bible for the future."(16)

And Gurdjieff himself said: "I not wish people identified with me. I wish them identified with my ideas. Many who never will meet me, simple people, will understand my book. Time come perhaps when they read All and Everything in churches."(17) Neither Gurdjieff or the ideas is to be worshipped, but rather worked with and understood. He was not bringing a religion but a teaching of self-transformation to be practiced in ordinary life.

Finally, the 'charge' that it is not really new, is meaningless. Gurdjieff has said the same himself:

"...all the great genuine religions which have existed down to the present time, created, as history itself testifies, by men of equal attainment in regard to the perfecting of their Pure Reason, are always based on the same truths...the saying is fully justified which has existed among people from of old—'there is nothing new under the sun.'"(18)

Given the foregoing, there cannot be any doubt—from Gurdjieff's point of view—that:

1) He had a mission to bring the teaching to the West.
2) The Fourth Way is whole and independent of other lines.
3) "All and Everything" is a Legominism.


(1) P. D. Ouspensky, Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. Draft. Sterling Library, Yale University

(2) P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Brace, 1949, p. 5.

(3) Anna Butkowsky-Hewitt, With Gurdjieff in St. Petersburg and Paris. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 67.

(4) Margaret Anderson, Unknowable Gurdjieff. Arkana, 1962, p. 149. A quote from Georgette LeBlanc's La Machine a Courage.

(5) Fritz Peters, Gurdjieff Remembered. Samuel Weiser, 1971, p. 122.

(6) Fritz Peters, Boyhood With Gurdjieff. E. P. Dutton, 1964, pp. 160-61.

(7) P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Brace, 1950, pp. 285-86

(8) Ibid., p. 285

(9) Ibid., p. 102

(10) Boris Mouravieff, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff et les Fragments d'un enseignement inconnu. Revue Syntheses, Bruxelles, 1957, p. 8. Mouravieff's question in French was, "Je trouve le systeme a la base de la doctrine Chretienne." This question is ambiguous in that it can be taken as meaning that Christian doctrine is at the base of the system. Inasmuch as Gurdjieff was not a native French speaker, the question remains as to why Mouravieff phrased his statement so ambiguously, and also how Gurdjieff understood it. Mouravieff met both Gurdjieff and Uspenskii in Constantinople in 1921. His last contact with Uspenskii was in 1937 and with Gurdjieff probably earlier. Robin Amis, a former Gurdjieffian now leading the Mouravieff camp, says Mouravieff's father gave him information on the relationship between Gurdjieff's Fourth Way, Russian monasticism and Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and some lay circle. If true, why did Mouravieff, whose views of Gurdjieff are so rigid as to be pathological, wait until after Gurdjieff and Uspenskii died to publish his Gnosis, a three volume work that attempts to hinge The Fourth Way to Eastern Orthodoxy? Mouravieff gives no real concrete proof of this connection yet proceeds to pirate the teaching. The level of Mouravieff's writing is far below that of Uspenskii (let alone Gurdjieff) so, to those able to discern and not imagine, that gives a strong indication to what is going on here. In terms of energy, it should be noted that a few year's after Mouravieff's death the institute he founded to propagate his views closed.

(11) Ouspensky, Search, p. 302.

(12) G. I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything, First Series. E.P. Dutton, 1950, p. 1001.

(13) Ibid., 702-03.

(14) Ibid., 736.

(15) Ibid., 707. "This Christian religion also had already come to an end."

(16) C. S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff. Samuel Weiser, 1961, p. 194.

(17) William Patrick Patterson, Struggle, p. 157.

For the remainder of this article, please order The Gurdjieff Journal Issue #27

If the ideas and perspectives you've found in this article are of interest, please subscribe to The Gurdjieff Journal. We promise you four lively, provocative issues of the only international journal devoted to exploring self-transformation in the contemporary world and the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff. The Gurdjieff Journal publishes interviews, book excerpts, essays and book reviews. It does not, and will not, carry advertising. For its publication, it relies solely on the support of its readership.

Subscription Information

» Articles
    » Essays
    » Interviews
    » Working in the World
    » Meetings
    » Film Reviews
    » Book Reviews
    » Subscription Information
    » Description of Back Issues

Recommend This Page: