July 20, 2009
Technology is the active human interface with the material world. – Ursula K. Le Guin
From Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson”, page 1047
“That they think thus may perhaps be possibly justified by taking into consideration that owing to the abnormal conditions of ordinary existence established in past epochs, no exact information has reached them about events which have occurred in the past in the process of the existence of the three-brained beings who existed before them on the planet; but how is it possible to admit that up till now there has not arisen in any one of them – in whom it has already been established that even until quite recently there does sometimes proceed a “something” similar to the process of “comparative logic” – at least the following simple and almost, as they themselves would call it, “childish idea”?”
Gurdjieff then goes on to explain what this “childish idea” is: that in the history of mankind, although everyone admits that there were many wise people, it never occurs to us that some of the surely could have invented such things as we take as technological progress. If these previous wise beings could have invented these things but didn’t, why does it not occur to us that perhaps there was some reason for them not doing so?
(Beelzebub’s examples of technological progress, showing Gurdjieff’s preference for strange-yet-appropriate details, are comfortable toilets and canned food, but as with most of his Tales, if you get stuck on those details, you miss the main point. And if you get through the details to the main point, then the details are understoof to be much more appropriate.)
Also, just to clarify, in the beginning of the above quote, the phrase “that they think thus” is referring to several earlier paragraphs where Beelzebub explains that one of the main causes of the trouble with the then-present society, was the belief that “former beings similar to them had never perfected themselves to that (level of) Reason to which their contemporaries have attained and in which they can still continue to perfect themselves”. That is, the idea that history is building toward something and that each era of history is in all ways progressively “better” than the previous.
Something kind of similar has come up here before, that every generation has to re-learn the knowledge of the past generations, and to add to it where we are able. But that to consider past knowledge as something that does not need to be learned because “someone else knows it already, why bother?” will only lead to more and more ignorance as time goes on. And although I fully admit that the comments on this site and Gurdjieff’s thoughts on the value of “historical progress” are not exactly the same thing, where they do overlap is what I’m trying to get at here. The belief that our society is the peak of all past civilizations, and the belief that progress marches on without stop and without maintenance, are both dangerous in exactly the same way…
All Gurdjieffian wise-acring aside, I do recommend reading the Tales. The conclusions presented therein may not always make sense at first, or match in with modern scientific knowledge (was tempted to put that in quotes…), but Beelzebub’s thoughts on how a typical “three-brained being of perfected Reason” functions, is conveyed amazingly well, in a between-the-lines kind of way. The language is difficult, yes, but in trying to understand it, and in tying the parts that do make sense together, the broader picture that is revealed is breathtaking. Both the potentialities and the utter failings of humanity are put in sharp contrast. As Gurdjieff apparently used to say, it really puts you “in galoshes”…
But the difficulty lies in appreciating it as a message from a certain person’s contextual viewpoint, directed at certain other people within a certain era of time. And to bring back in the quote from the beginning, one of the biggest problems in human history has been the fact that a truly “objective” history as such has not existed. As Beelzebub puts it “no exact information” has reached us about the past. Look at some of the greatest spiritual teachers recognized now. Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, they all taught entirely through the spoken word, as addressed to the people at the time. That is, in a true combination of subject and object, their teachings were created directly for those people who were listening to them at the present time. If we are to truly derive any benefit from the teachings contained Plato’s dialogues, the Sutras, or the New Testament, we have to understand both the teachings, the teacher, and the students to which they were given (to all you Buddhists out there, that’s the three treasures right there…). Trying to understand any one without at least some limited understanding of the others will very likely lead to missing the point entirely.
Originally and most essentially, the dharma teachings were the words spoken and sung by the realized ones. Sutras, the words of the Buddha, always begin “Thus have I heard” not “Thus have I read.” In the same way that one could not expect to become a world-class pianist simply by reading piano manuals or a cook simply by reading cookbooks, one must receive the dharma teachings by hearing them from a teacher. To learn the dharma, we must hear the nuances and subtleties; we must experience the eloquence and the flights of those steeped in living understanding and realization.
Thankfully, and in spite of Gurdjieff’s warning against any idea of “unending progress”, we seem to be reaching a point where technology can serve as a sort of external hardrive for history, outside the bounds of 4 dimensional space time. Kind of a trippy way to put it, I know, but check out this article from Futurismic, and the accompanying BC News piece. If we ever are able to have a complete visual and audio record of everything that happens to us, as well as a way of adding our own comments to these records when desired, then we have essentially solved the problem of lack of a true objective historical context for any record. As it’s put in the linked article, we have not even really entered history yet. It’s something that’s still coming into being. But imagine being able to go back and access the recorded life of Christ, from his perspective, and then to be able to do the same for each of the people to whom he spoke. We’d perhaps have a better chance to know what he meant by what he said, to place his linguistic choices in the proper context to be able to extract the actual intent behind those sometimes arbitrarily seemingly linked word.
As Abraham Lincoln said in his “A House Divided” speech: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
Which is just as true if you change it to third person past tense: “If we could first know where they were, and whither they were tending, we could then better judge what they did, and how they did it…”
Not only does that idea excite me (as well as trouble me, because yes, it does have some Big Brother, Brave New World type potentialities) but think what it creates in the mind. Think of a society where the ability to experience history like that is taken for granted. Where traveling back to the lived expereince of the past is as effortless as turning on your computer, and clicking on a few files. Where our own future, more mature perspectives can be brought back to better analyze, understand, and put to rest the demons from our past, both individually and collectively.
* The is also the last of my “on the train to Boston” posts. Took me a while to get all the sources together for this one together. Don’t know why some take longer than others, but that’s just how it goes. Fitting, though, that I post this now, since I finally came to the end of the Tales just under an hour ago.
Course, ol’ Gurdjieff also said you should read each of his books three times. Not sure how I feel about that. For those unfamiliar with the Tales, the complex sentence structure of that quote is found throughout all the 1238 pages of the Tales. my opinion is that Gurdjieff just has a unique way of teaching non-duality. For G, sentences are no other than paragraphs, paragraphs no other than sentences. Sentences are exactly paragraphs, paragraphs exactly sentences.
And you will have anywhere from 3 to 7 per page. ;)