George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was certainly a serious man. He traversed continents digging up ancient knowledge, which he then brought to the Western world. But he was also a playful man. He loved to confound people, to upset their automatic expectations, and for a very important reason.
Gurdjieff realized that when the average person is presented with new information, brand new material, three things can happen: 1) The material is rejected out of hand; 2) The material is viewed skeptically, without understanding; or 3) The material is accepted whole, but still without understanding. These results occur because most people receive information mechanically, without engaging their active attention. And without active attention there can be no real understanding.
In order to engage our interest and awaken our active attention, Gurdjieff constructed a mighty puzzle, a labyrinth with twists, detours and tantalizing clues that, when deciphered and digested, could lead a person to a new and encompassing vision of the Universe.
This maze, this cosmic puzzle, is the book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, originally conceived as a crucial part of his grand opus, All & Everything. In this book, which is read religiously by students of Gurdjieff, a millennia-old “devil,” Beelzebub himself, explains the secrets of the Universe to his grandson Hassein (and thus to the persevering reader) over more than a thousand pages which demand patience, unflagging interest, and most of all, active attention.
Gurdjieff’s literary method, as he explained to his editors, was to “bury” every nugget of information. To gain any true understanding, we are forced to dig. When we dig, we work; we labor and toil, and finally… find! And then, every hard-won nugget becomes our own, an integral part of our understanding, which we will not forget.
In the use of this method, Gurdjieff was following the practice of the ancient Pythagoreans, which Cicero alludes to: “It is not that you are hiding things from me, as Pythagoras used to do from outsiders…”
The Neoplatonist Iamblichus, a later head of the Academy, explains the evasive method of the Pythagoreans:
Their writings were not composed in popular or vulgar diction, or in
manner usual to all other writers, so as to be immediately understood, but
in a way not to be easily apprehended by their readers. For they adopted
Pythagoras’ law of reserve, in an arcane manner concealing mysteries from
the uninitiated, obscuring their writings and mutual conversations.
A good example of Gurdjieff “burying the bone” is found in Chapter 18 of Beelzebub’s Tales, titled “The Arch-Preposterous.” Here Beelzebub visits the planet Saturn, the home of a scientist called Harharkh, a large bird whose invention converts metals to gold. Viewing this transmutation under a special apparatus, Beelzebub witnesses, at one point, a process similar to Death, or the decomposing of bodies on Earth.
Those familiar with Alchemy will quickly recognize the clues buried here. The planet Saturn symbolizes the metal lead, which alchemists sought to turn into gold. The large bird is the Raven, symbol of Saturn, which stands for the Black stage of the alchemical process, the Nigredo. Also called Death, it is represented by Saturn, the Old Man with a Sickle who harvests the life of mortals. The Raven is not mentioned in this chapter, and neither is Alchemy, but it is obvious that Gurdjieff is “burying” this information here, right under our noses.
With this glimpse into Gurdjieff’s Pythagorean method, we can turn our attention to the larger puzzle embedded in Beelzebub’s Tales (and in Gurdjieff’s other writings), which is: “Where did Gurdjieff’s esoteric ideas come from?”
Gurdjieff’s father was a Cappadocian Greek, living in Armenia, and an “ashokh,” or bard who recited, from memory, ancient myths and legends that had been handed down orally through thousands of years. One of the ancient myths told by Gurdjieff’s father was the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who set out in search of immortality. Decades after hearing this story as a boy, Gurdjieff was astonished to hear that archaeologists had recently discovered clay tablets in the lost city of Nineveh, telling of the quest of Gilgamesh, a tale that had been lost, and forgotten, for thousands of years.
Now Gurdjieff was certainly proud of his Greek father and his knowledge of ancient traditions. He writes about boyhood with his father in Meetings with Remarkable Men. He returned to his father’s house many times throughout his travels. And finally, he bid farewell to his father as the Turkish army was approaching, which his father chose to face, sitting calmly in his courtyard with a rifle across his lap. Years later, Gurdjieff asked that a memorial tombstone be set up for his father, by kindred souls in more favorable circumstances.
And yet, as proud as Gurdjieff is of his father, and presumably of his Greek heritage, in Beelzebub’s Tales, he calls the ancient Greeks a bunch of “bored fishermen” who sat around inventing fantastic fables about everything under the Sun and the Moon. Is this what Gurdjieff really thought of his father and of the Greeks? Or was he once again “burying the bone,” and not just the bone, but as he liked to put it, even “burying the dog …?”
In order to bring into focus Gurdjieff’s connection to the ancient Greeks, we must examine four different aspects of ancient Greek culture, which spanned large distances, from southern Italy to Persia, over the course of more than a thousand years.
One is the ancient Greek religion going back at least to 700 BCE, which taught eternal truths through myths and symbols at its many great temples (Delphi, Olympus, etc.) and through its Mysteries (Eleusinian, Dionysian, etc.).
Two, the esoteric school of Pythagoras, founded around 500 BCE in the Greek colonies of southern Italy, which influenced all later Greek thinking. The members of this school took an oath of secrecy, leaving little for us to decipher, except for what survived through later writings.
Three, the Greek philosopher Plato who drew greatly from the Pythagoreans, yet whose writings were almost all wiped out by the Roman Church. Luckily, Plato’s books survived in Greek Constantinople and in Arabic translations. Most of Gurdjieff’s ideas can be found in Plato’s writings.
And four, the Neoplatonists, heirs of Plato, who over hundreds of years, struggled to keep this ancient legacy alive, even in the hostile climate of Christian persecution when all “pagan” schools and temples
were shuttered and destroyed. A thousand years later, Marsilio Ficino lit a new spark to Platonist ideas by translating Greek works, thus giving birth to the Renaissance, which brought the modern world to light.
Does Gurdjieff really have a connection to the ancient Greek view of the world? Let’s take a closer look.
“KNOW THYSELF.” The oracle of Apollo, the Sun god, proclaimed this to all who came to Delphi, the most sacred temple of the Greek world. At Delphi was located the sacred “omphalos,” the navel of the world. And the most central aspect of Gurdjieff’s teachings, echoing Delphi, is self-knowledge:
“We must strive for freedom if we strive for self-knowledge,” says Gurdjieff. “The task of self-knowledge and of further self-development is of such importance and seriousness, it demands such intensity of effort, that to attempt it in any old way is impossible.”
What is the main attribute of Apollo, lord of Delphi? It’s his seven-string Lyre, which not only gives the seven notes of the musical scale, but also alludes to the Music of the Spheres, the seven classical “planets” in the sky. The Roman politician and scholar Cicero, following the Greeks, claimed that Seven is the “key to the Universe.”Gurdjieff echoes this in his Law of Seven, his Heptaparaparshinokh:
This sacred primordial cosmic law has seven deflections or “centres of gravity” and the distance between each two of these is called a “Stopinder” of the sacred Heptaparaparshinokh. This law, passing through everything newly arising and everything existing, always makes its completing processes with its seven Stopinders.
The Greeks assigned the seven notes of their musical scale to the seven vowels of the Greek language, A E H I O Y ?. In ancient times, these seven vowels where chanted during religious rituals. We still hear echoes of this in the “Alleluiah,” which according to Gurdjieff, “Not even your Pope understands what it means.”
These vowels also appear in Beelzebub’s Tales, where Gurdjieff writes:
This cosmic law is that there proceeds within every arising large and small, when in direct touch with the emanations either of the Sun Absolute itself or of any other sun, what is called “Remorse.” And this sacred process “Aieioiuoa” or “Remorse” always proceeds with the “Omni-present-Active-Element-Okidanokh” also.
What was the primary symbol of Delphi? Sculptures, coins, paintings, and ancient texts show it as the Tripod, symbol of the Three, while a triad of gods ruled the Greek cosmos: Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. And Gurdjieff again teaches this Law of Three, which he calls his “Triamazikamno:”
The second fundamental cosmic Law—the Sacred Triamazikmano—consists of three independent forces; this Sacred Law manifests in everything without exception, and everywhere in the Universe, in three separate independent aspects: The Holy-Affirming, The Holy-Denying, The Holy-Reconciling.
At times, Gurdjieff described himself as “a teacher of sacred dances,” and one of his Sacred Dances is called “The Pythia.” The high priestess at Delphi, who sat on the Tripod and relayed messages from the gods while in a trance, was called the Pythia. So, we again witness the connection to the ancient Greeks. We find this connection also in Beelzebub’s description of the “pythonesses,” the female oracles in ancient temples: “Tiklunias were formerly called there ‘pythonesses’ but contemporary ones are now called ‘mediums.’” The Greeks named these priestesses after Python, the giant snake killed by Apollo, on whose remains the temple of Delphi was supposedly built, and who thus gave us the Pythia.
Gurdjieff founded an esoteric school (it might be said) and he discusses the idea of the “esoteric” in the books Views from the Real World and Life is only Real then when I Am. Now the word “esoteric,” and the concept of the division of students within a school, comes from the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who founded an esoteric school in Croton (southern Italy) around 520 BCE. In this school, a curtain separated the two classes of students. Those on the outside, the “exoterics” could only hear and listen, while those inside the curtain, the “esoterics,” could see Pythagoras and discuss matters with him face to face.
The esoteric practices taught by Gurdjieff are characterized as “conscious labors and intentional suffering.” These concepts can already be found in the Akousmata, the Sayings of Pythagoras: “Do not assist a man in laying a burden down; for it is not proper to be the cause of not labouring; but assist him in taking it up.” And again: “Hard labours are good, but pleasures are in every respect bad. For as we came into the present life for the purpose of punishment, it is necessary that we should be punished.”
The translation unfortunately makes it seem somewhat like masochism, but it’s clear that “conscious labors” and “intentional suffering” were practiced by the Pythagoreans, and that Gurdjieff’s ideas are practically identical. The ancient Greeks credited Pythagoras with discovering the whole-number ratios within the musical scale, with the interval of the Octave being 1:2, the interval of the Fifth being 2:3, and the interval of the Fourth being 3:4. These ratios proved to be the foundation of all musical theory, but the Pythagoreans saw not only earthly music in terms of the Octave, but also the movements of the planets and the stars, the Music of the Spheres. Similarly, Gurdjieff held that the Octave operates throughout the entire Universe through the Law of Seven.
According to the Pythagoreans, the movement of the Planets produces an ethereal sound that most people cannot hear, except those with a purified soul like Pythagoras. Alexander of Aetolia, a Pythagorean, wrote: “The seven spheres give the seven sounds of the lyre and produce a harmony (that is to say an octave), because of the intervals which separate them from one another.”
This ethereal cosmic sound is also found in Beelzebub’s Tales: “To define specific-vibration and specific gravity, these great terrestrial learned beings took as the standard unit the unit of vibrations of sound, then first called by them the ‘Nirioonossian-world-sound.’”
Meanwhile, Gurdjieff’s Law of Three can be seen in the famous symbol of the Pythagoreans upon which they swore their oaths, the Tetraktys. Composed of descending triangles, it has one dot at the top, two dots below that, then three dots below those, and four dots at the bottom, also illustrating the musical intervals of the Octave, the Fifth and the Fourth.
Some Pythagoreans held that the Sun is a giant crystal, a mirror reflecting the light and heat of a Central Fire around which revolves the entire cosmos. Gurdjieff also writes of such a central fire: “Our Common Father Creator Almighty, having changed the functioning of the sacred laws, directed the action of their forces from within the Most Holy Sun Absolute into the space of the Universe.”
One of the most outlandish claims in Beelzebub’s Tales is that “our Sun neither lights nor heats.” Students of Gurdjieff nowadays rack their brains over the esoteric meaning of these words, but this is just another instance of Gurdjieff “burying the dog.” Actually, Gurdjieff is merely pointing to the Pythagoreans and their idea of a Central Fire, whose light and heat our Sun reflects.
The Pythagoreans were sworn to secrecy and so, unfortunately, we know little about their teachings. But there is one Greek philosopher, greatly influenced by the Pythagoreans, whose many writings have
managed to escape destruction. This, of course, is Plato.
The modern philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And when we read Gurdjieff, time and time again, we see him following in the footsteps of Plato.
In his Phaedo, Plato explains that to meditate on one’s death is the duty of one practicing philosophy. Similarly, in the last pages of Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff writes: “The sole means for the saving of the
beings of the planet Earth would be… that every one of them should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death.”
Plato declared that “no one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life.” To be pure is to be free of corporeal impulses and desires.
Gurdjieff echoes Plato: “And so, only he, who consciously assists the process of this inner struggle and consciously assists the “non-desires” to predominate over the desires, behaves just in accordance with the essence of our Common Father Creator Himself…”
The reason for this necessary “inner struggle” is that Man is not a unity, but a divided being. Gurdjieff says that “Man is like a rig consisting of passenger, driver, horse and carriage.” The carriage is the body, the horse is the emotions, the driver is the mind, and the passenger is the possibility of consciousness, of self-awareness. This imagery comes straight from Plato’s Phaedrus: “Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer.”
Where is the “passenger” mentioned by Gurdjieff? Plato calls that the “steersman,” a bit further on: “What is in this place is without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence, the soul’s steersman.”
The divided state of Man is depicted in Beelzebub’s Tales as a composite beast:
The statue I saw in the city of Samlios… represented an allegorical being, each part of whose planetary body was composed of a part of the planetary body of some definite form of being existing there… The main mass was represented by the trunk of a Bull, which rested on the four legs of a Lion, and to its back were attached two large wings of an Eagle.
And again, in Republic, Plato writes about a similar composite being:
Let us fashion an image of the soul similar to the natures once said to have been possessed by the Chimaera, Scylla, Cerberus and many another, in which, they say, a variety of forms was begotten in one body… So picture a single model of a beast of many forms, having heads facing all directions… Above these add the form of a lion and at the top one of a man… Then join these three so that they coalesce to make one… Surround them with the form of a single man, so that one who is unable to look within but only on the surface, who discerns only the covering, the man seems clearly to be one being.
In Timaeus, Plato writes: “I have often remarked that there are three kinds of soul located within us… Now there is only one way of taking care of things, and that is to give to each the food and motion which are natural to it.”
This notion of three “foods” is again found in Gurdjieff’s teachings, where he divides a human being into three levels: “Each of the three stories receives “food” of a suitable nature from outside, assimilates it…”
To Gurdjieff, the idea of “food” and “feeding” represented the working mechanism of the Cosmos: “This system, which maintains everything arisen and existing, was actualized by our Endless Creator in order that what is called the exchange of substances or the “Reciprocal-feeding” of everything that exists, might proceed in the Universe…”
And Plato wrote of the same “reciprocal feeding” in Timaeus: “Of design he [the World] was created thus—his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself.”
Has this cosmic system always been the same? Not according to Plato, who writes in his Statesman:
There is an era in which God himself assists the universe on its ways and guides it by imparting its rotation to it. There is also an era in which he releases his control… Thereafter it begins to revolve in the contrary sense under its own impulse…
And Gurdjieff talks about a similar change in the cosmic order:
Our Endlessness, having decided to change the principle of the maintenance of the existence of this unique cosmic concentration… was compelled to create our now existing Megalocosmos… and from then on the system began to be called Trogoautoegocrat.
How about Gurdjieff’s Law of Three, his Triamazikamno, which he describes as: “The higher blends with the lower in order together to actualize the middle…” Can this be found in Plato? Most certainly, as Plato writes in Timaeus:
From an essence impartible, and always subsisting according to sameness of Being, and from a nature divisible about bodies, he mingled from both a third form of essence, having a middle subsistence between the two.
What about Gurdjieff’s Law of Seven, his Heptaparaparshinokh, which operates throughout the Cosmos? This can be seen in the famous Platonic Lambda (a variation on the Pythagorean Tetraktys) from the Timaeus’ description of Creation. From the One, two arms extend downward. The arm to the left bears a triad of even numbers (2, 4, 8) while the arm to the right has a triad of odd numbers (3, 9, 27), giving seven numbers that Plato saw as defining the laws of creation.
Plato also writes in Timaeus: “Such was the mind and thought of God in the creation of time. The sun and moon and five other stars, which are called the planets, were created by him in order to distinguish and preserve the numbers of time… in seven orbits seven stars.”
But the most compelling piece of evidence connecting Gurdjieff to Plato is the story of the island of Atlantis. In Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff writes: “During this second serious catastrophe to that planet, the continent Atlantis… was engulfed together with other large and small terra firmas…”
This of course comes straight out of Timaeus, where Plato writes: “Some time later excessively violent earthquakes and floods occurred, and after the onset of an unbearable day and night, your entire warrior force sank below the earth all at once, and the Isle of Atlantis likewise sank below the sea and disappeared.”
Plato founded a school in Athens, the Academy, which lasted for nine hundred years. The heads of the Academy, the Platonists and the later Neoplatonists, polished and refined Plato’s thinking until it became a shining beacon of spirituality and philosophy in the ancient world. The Neoplatonists, especially, formulated esoteric teachings that have remained with us for over a thousand years.
For example, Gurdjieff claims that “A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born and in sleep he dies.” This notion of “sleep” can already be found in the writings of the Neoplatonists: “Hermes presides over every species of erudition, leading us to an intelligible essence from this mortal abode, governing the different herds of souls, and dispersing the sleep and oblivion with which they are oppressed.”
In order to awaken from sleep, Gurdjieff teaches self-remembering, or becoming present. In the Enneads, Plotinus (ca. 204-270 CE) gives one of the clearest descriptions of self-remembering: “It is not that the Supreme reaches out to us seeking our communion: we reach towards the Supreme; it is we that become present…” And again: “We must turn the perceptive faculty inward and hold it to attention there.”
Gurdjieff talks about “higher centers” in man, higher faculties which lie dormant within us: “These centers are in us; they are fully developed and are working all the time, but their work fails to reach our ordinary consciousness.”
And again Plotinus writes about this:
Within our nature is such a centre by which we grasp and are linked and held; and those of us are firmly in the Supreme whose being is concentrated There… But how is it that although we have such great possessions, we are not aware of them?
The Neoplatonists also discussed the Law of Three, and the Law of Seven as the key to the Universe, but the most revealing connection is that, like Gurdjieff, they held that we are not born with an immortal soul. Rather, as Iamblichus taught, “the perfection of this aetheric and luminous body effects the immortalization of the soul.”
And so, as we travel through a thousand years of Greek esoteric thought, what links to Gurdjieff do we find?
From most ancient Greece, we have the “Know Thyself” of Delphi, the Law of Three in its Tripod, and the Law of Seven, where the seven Greek vowels connect to the seven notes of the Octave. And Gurdjieff’s sacred dances bring us back to the Pythia and the pythonesses of Delphi.
From Pythagoras, we get “esoteric” ideas, such as “conscious labors” and “intentional suffering,” and the Music of the Spheres heard in the movement of the seven planets. And Gurdjieff’s Sun, which “neither lights nor heats,” points directly back to the Pythagoreans.
Coming to Plato, we find the contemplation of one’s death, the struggle with desires, and the divided nature of Man, as shown in the image of the chariot team, as well as in the composite beast of the Sphinx.
Here too we have Gurdjieff’s self-feeding world, the change in the cosmic order, and most importantly, the story of Atlantis, which is now found only in Plato’s work.
Finally, the Neoplatonists tell us that man is asleep, that he must remember himself in order to wake up, and that once awake, he will enjoy higher faculties. The perfection of these higher faculties, and of the “higher bodies,” will serve to make the soul immortal.
As a concluding thought, let’s consider this gem from Plato’s Republic, which has certainly been echoed by Gurdjieff:
One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend and harmonizes the three parts of himself … From having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act.
Cooper, John M., ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
Godwin, Joscelyn, ed. The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music. Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1993.
Gurdjieff, G. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.
— Views from the Real World: Early Talks of G. I. Gurdjieff. New York: Penguin Compass, 1984.
Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan, trans., and Fideler, David, ed. The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library. Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1988.
Hermann, Arnold. To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2004.
MacKenna, Stephen, trans. Plotinus: The Enneads. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Moore, James. Gurdjieff: A Biography. Boston: Element Books Limited, 1999.
Ouspensky, P. D., In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. San Diego/New York/London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
Patterson, William Patrick. Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group. Arete Publications, 1998.
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971.
Stahl, William Harris, trans. Macrobius – Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Taylor, Thomas, trans. Iamblichus on the Mysteries. San Diego: Wizard Bookshelf, 1997.
Thring, Mel. Quotations from G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching: A Personal Companion. London: Luzac Oriental, 1999.
Walsh, P. G., trans. Cicero: The Nature of the Gods. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Whitehead, Alfred. Process and Reality. Toronto: Collier-Macmillan Canada, Ltd., 1969.
 Walsh, Cicero: The Nature of the Gods, 28.
 Guthrie, The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, 83.
 Moore, Gurdjieff: A Biography, 222.
 Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, 45.
 Stahl, Macrobius: Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 74.
 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, 750-1.
 Patterson, Ladies of the Rope, 128.
 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 141.
 Ibid. 138.
 Ibid., 518.
 Hermann, To Think Like God, 49.
 Ibid., 48.
 Godwin, The Harmony of the Spheres, 18.
 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 829.
 Ibid., 756.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 53.
 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 1183.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 72.
 Gurdieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 373.
 Gurdjieff, Views From the Real World, 221.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 524.
 Ibid., 525.
 Gurdieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 308-9.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 1196.
 Ibid., 1288-9.
 Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, 23.
 Gurdieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 136-7.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 1238.
 Ibid., 311.
 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 753.
 Ibid., 751.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 1239
 Ibid., 1242.
 Gurdieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, 177.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 1232.
 Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, 66.
 Taylor, Iamblichus on the Mysteries, 337.
 McKenna, Plotinus: The Enneads, 545.
 Ibid., 360.
 Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, 142.
 McKenna, Plotinus: The Enneads, 360.
 Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, 52.
 Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, 1075.