“A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour.”
George Gurdjieff is a prominent philosopher, mystic, and esotericist of the 20th century who popularized the Enneagram in the West and founded the Institute of Harmonious Human Development. Since the 1970s, his teachings, based on the Enneagram and a cosmic philosophy, have been used in esoteric practices and formal psychotherapy. In addition, significant areas of interest in cognitive and consciousness studies, neuroscience, and spiritually-oriented psychology have evolved based on his works. Hence, the philosophy of George Gurdjieff and his mystical figure do not lose their relevance to this day.
The Early Years of George Gurdjieff
The early years of George Gurdjieff are not well documented. It is believed that he was born between 1866 and 1877 in Alexandropol, Russian Empire, what is now Gyumri, the territory of Armenia. Gurdjieff’s biographers’ opinions regarding his birthdate differ. James Moore, in his book Gurdjieff: A Biography: The Anatomy of a Myth, considers 1866 more appropriate, while William Patrick Patterson believes 1872, as written in his book Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man, the Teaching, His Mission. However, according to his passport, his birthdate is November 28, 1877.
George Gurdjieff was born to a Greek father, Yiannis Georgiades, and an Armenian mother, Evdokia. The name Gurdjieff represents a modified version of the Greek surname “Georgiades.” A fusion of the Greek-Georgian languages was common in Kars Oblast, where George Gurdjieff spent most of his childhood, and Muslims in the country of Georgia called Georgians “Gurdji” (“Gurdjieff” is the Russified form). From 1878 to 1918, Kars was the capital of the Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, ruled by the Russian Empire. The area was populated by multi-ethnic and multi-confessional people. It was home to Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds, and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe. These people’s history, culture, and self-identification were largely connected to mysticism and religious syncretism.
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The ethnic and cultural diversity of the area where Gurdjieff grew up made him multilingual. Even though he knew ten languages, (Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian, Georgian, Turkish, and other dialects of the Asian and middle east countries he traveled to), he still preferred the Georgian alphabet while writing his works. According to American writer and esotericist D. A. Halsey’s reports, Gurdjieff knew not only the Georgian language but also the Georgian alphabet. In his works, George Gurdjieff refers to himself as “He who in childhood was called “Tatakh”; in early youth, “Darky”; later, the “Black Greek”; in middle age, the “Tiger of Turkestan”; and now, not just anybody, but the genuine “Monsieur” or “Mister” Gurdjieff, or the “nephew of Prince Mukhransky.” In historical sources, Mukhranski is the Georgian prince.
George Gurdjieff’s curious and adventurous nature led him to travel around the world from the beginning of his early adulthood. During this period, he was interested in Asian culture, particularly India, Tibet, and Central Asian countries, where he tried to fulfill the need to comprehend the mystery of human existence. Relatively little is known of his wanderings in these countries. The only reliable information appears in his work Meetings with Remarkable Men, where Gurdjieff recalled how he supported himself during traveling by participating in trading schemes, minor political activities, and working at a rehabilitation center as a hypnotherapist.
He returned to Russia in 1912, stating: “I began with Russia and ended with Russia.” The same year, he married Julia Ostrowska from Poland and moved to St. Petersburg.
The 20 years he spent traveling in the Middle East among religious sects, leaders, and brotherhoods gave Gurdjieff a new experience of understanding the life and evolution of an individual, and pushed him to create a complex system of cosmology and metaphysics.
In Russia, Georgia, and Western Europe
After returning to Russia, Gurdjieff started to attract his first students, including the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, an eccentric lawyer named Rachmilievitch, a future esotericist P. D. Ouspensky, and the composer Thomas de Hartmann. With his students, Gurdjieff started working on the Glimpses of Truth, which included the account of a conversation with Gurdjieff, that Ouspensky first read in 1915. By 1916, Gurdjieff had 30 associates.
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Gurdjieff moved to his hometown, Alexandropol, and established temporary study facilities in the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast. In parallel, he started working on the Sacred Dance. According to Gurdjieff, the movements represented powerful tools for growth. They created conditions for transforming the body–machine into a place where the forces of intelligence, heart, and action can evolve. The performance was publicly staged at the Tbilisi Opera House, with the assistance of the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife, Jeanne.
In 1919, George Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Tbilisi. However, the trembling political situation in Georgia forced Gurdjieff and his students to travel to western Europe in 1922. He started giving lectures in Berlin and London, finally settling in the south of Paris, Avon. A new Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man was established in the old mansion of Prieuré des Basses Loges. Gurdjieff gathered his students and associates in the mansion and started working on his new philosophy.
According to it, humans are easily manipulated and conformists. To acquire higher consciousness, people must be awakened from the state of constant sleep. This could be achieved by continuous physical and mental work. Specialized exercises and dance movements were taught and performed accompanied by the music created by Gurdjieff himself, and composer Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff believed that physical, emotional, and intellectual development was necessary to achieve the awakening. Lectures and reading lessons were also given, coupled with spartan accommodation and hard labor.
In 1924, Gurdjieff had a near-fatal car accident In France. He made a slow recovery and was forced to close the institute in the same year. Soon after the recovery, Gurdjieff completed the first part, All and Everything, of his new work, Beelzebub’s Tales, in a mixture of Armenian and Russian. The work represents very complex writing, intentionally forcing the reader to “work” on the text to find its meaning. He also composed it in his usual manner, writing in noisy cafes to cause a greater effort of concentration.
In 1925-1926, George Gurdjieff started his journey in the United States, attracted new students, and started the fund-raising campaign, managing to raise over 100,000 US Dollars. His mother passed away from cancer in 1926, and soon his wife shared the same fate. Devastated by the developments, Gurdjieff established a new teaching institute in Paris and called it The Rope. Gurdjieff explained:
“You are going on a journey under my guidance, an “inner-world journey” like a high mountain climb where you must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all….”
The Institute accepted only women, mainly writers. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, and Margaret Anderson, among others.
Gurdjieff’s Philosophy and Influences
Gurdjieff’s philosophy is also called the Teaching of the Fourth Way. According to his teaching, a man has three independent centers: the soul, the personality, and the physical body. These centers are decentralized and have limited influence on each other. Hence, a man is not in a harmonious state. To achieve harmony and higher awareness, one must strive towards the Fourth Way that unites the previous three, and by doing so, humankind can acquire a “bright future.” According to Gurdjieff,
“The fourth way does not require solitude in the desert, does not require a person to leave everything that he lived before, to renounce everything. The fourth path goes much further; this means that a person needs to be prepared for the fourth path, and such preparation is acquired in everyday life; it must be very serious and cover a variety of aspects.”
George Gurdjieff lived and worked in a period that saw the rise of communism under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, and of national socialism under Adolph Hitler. Although there is no direct evidence that George Gurdjieff’s philosophy and particular teaching about the Fourth Way had in any way influenced Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, it is highly probable, as believed by some researchers. The “bright future” mentioned above for Stalin’s communism meant a “just social man and society;” for Hitler’s National Socialism, the Aryan man, and the pure race of German people.
The trajectories of Gurdjieff, Stalin, and Hitler have different intersections. It is widely believed that Gurdjieff and Stalin were studying together in the theological seminary of Tbilisi, Georgia, from 1899 to 1901, and that they shared an interest in cosmology. According to Leon Trotsky’s book Stalin, “At that time he (Stalin) was interested in questions of socialism and cosmogony.” After that, Stalin left Georgia for the revolutionary struggle, and Gurdjieff left for Tibet.
Gurdjieff’s link to Adolf Hitler and German national socialism is clearer. George Gurdjieff was a close friend of Karl Haushofer, the man who incorporated geopolitics into the Nazi ideology, and to whom Gurdjieff allegedly suggested the inverted swastika as an emblem of the German Nazi Party. Karl Haushofer was a German general and politician. He introduced the term Geopolitik, which greatly influenced the development of Adolf Hitler’s expansionist strategies. A French journalist and writer, Louis Pauwels, in his book Monsieur Gurdjieff, describes Haushofer as a former student of George Gurdjieff, sharing an interest in cosmology and Zen Buddhism.
The Final Years and Legacy of George Gurdjieff
Viewpoints on Gurdjieff’s philosophy and works vary. His followers recognize him as a charismatic master who introduced new knowledge to Western society, including in psychology and cosmology, that allow for insights that were not possible through conventional science. This unique contribution was called “the mysticism and wisdom of the East.” On the opposite end of the scale, critics of George Gurdjieff accuse him of being a narcissistic charlatan who was constantly seeking attention for himself.
Gurdjieff died of cancer on October 29, 1949, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. After his passing, numerous organizations were created that are still active. For example, in collaboration with Gurdjieff’s other students, Jeanne de Salzmann created and oversaw the Gurdjieff Foundation, the largest institutional organization influenced by Gurdjieff’s theories in the early 1950s.