P. D. Ouspensky
Piotr D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) was a Russian philosopher in the citizen category. Born in Moscow, Ouspensky “refused to follow conventional academic training.” In 1907 he became a Theosophist, and afterwards travelled to India, seeking a deeper knowledge. He subsequently gave public lectures in St. Petersburg (Petrograd). An amateur mathematician, he wrote The Fourth Dimension (1909). This was followed by a more philosophical work entitled Tertium Organum (1912), becoming well known in an English translation.
Ouspensky severed his link with the Theosophical Society when he became a pupil of the Caucasian “occultist” Giorgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c.1866-1949). This new affiliation, occurring at Moscow in 1915, proved influential in alternative thought. Ouspensky is the most famous of Gurdjieff’s pupils. However, he soon assumed a rival role as an expositor of “the Work,” to employ a well known abbreviation for the Gurdjieff teaching. The complexities in this situation are of some interest.
The rift between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky commenced in 1917 at Essentuki; they both became part of the refugee exodus from Bolshevik Russia. Ouspensky was committed to Gurdjieff’s oral teaching, while resisting subsequent factors like the “sacred dance” movements that were now favoured by his mentor. Gurdjieff’s unpredictable personality appears to have been a major problem for the Russian thinker.
Ouspensky left a record of his encounters with Gurdjieff, via the book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1950). This coverage was not published until after the death of both men. Ouspensky details the teaching at some length; his editorial hand has been emphasised by commentators. The origins of this teaching have been much discussed, with several different explanations. Some analysts say that Gurdjieff applied his own accents and flourishes to some older teachings, including Sufism and Greek Christianity. Gurdjieff was not a Theosophist, nor a professed member of any religion. The “pseudo-scientific” casting (admixed with astrological and other beliefs) clearly appealed to Ouspensky, who was in revolt from orthodox religion, desiring a rational form of explanation for a mystical approach.
The strong divergence between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff is a subject of disagreement. Partisans of Ouspensky have depicted Gurdjieff as aberrant, while partisans of Gurdjieff say that the Russian pupil made a serious error in asserting his own role as a teacher of “the Work.” Critics of Gurdjieff have lodged the accusation that his ideas were distortions of concepts found in other traditions. He is also said to have plagiarised some concepts found in Ouspensky’s early writings.
In 1920, the refugee Ouspensky fled to Constantinople some months ahead of Gurdjieff. A reconcilement followed, although the divergence remained. Gurdjieff moved on to Germany, meeting obstructions, while Ouspensky became a successful lecturer in London, creating a “system” from the concepts acquired via Gurdjieff. However, Gurdjieff gained the ascendant when he secured the allegiance of prominent students of Ouspensky, notably Alfred R. Orage, editor of the influential New Age journal.
In 1922, Gurdjieff acquired a new base in France, namely the Chateau du Prieure (or the Priory) at Fontainebleau. Oupensky made visits to this place, becoming estranged from events in process. “In spite of all my interest in Gurdjieff’s work I could find no place for myself in this work nor did I understand its direction” (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 389). Early in 1924, at London, the Russian lecturer announced his decision to proceed independently of his former teacher. Ouspensky gave the strong warning: “It is very dangerous to be near him [Gurdjieff]” (J. G. Bennett, Witness, 1962, p. 126). Indeed, from this time onwards, Ouspensky was averse to mention of Gurdjieff. However, he did make a rather frustrated visit to Gurdjieff in 1931; the episode did not go smoothly and lacks detail.
Ouspensky’s wife Sophie Grigorievna (“Madame Ouspensky”) remained loyal to Gurdjieff during the 1920s, only moving to England when the latter urged her to leave France. From 1931 she assisted her husband, teaching the System (or “Work”) at Lyne Place in Surrey. The Ouspenskys are reported to have gained more than a thousand followers during that decade. The publication of Piotr Ouspensky’s early book, A New Model of the Universe (1931), apparently contributed to this development.
Despite his success in promoting the System, Piotr Ouspensky was subject to depression, developing a drinking habit that amounted to alcoholism. In 1940 he moved to America with his wife, escaping wartime problems in England. He now lived a comfortable life in New York, his expenses being paid by followers. His secretary Marie Seton left a report revealing deficiencies. Ouspensky would instruct Seton to buy expensive food for him. On some evenings, he would spend long hours drinking at a restaurant, into the early morning hours. Seton was his companion on these occasions; she records that he confessed a loss of control. “It is a long time since I could control my state of mind.” Yet the “Work” presupposes control.
Ouspensky even told Seton that his pupils were fools, that they had gained nothing from the “System.” She suggested that he stop lecturing and reorient himself. He expressed an inability to do this, saying: “The System has become a profession with me…. I have become dependent on the comfort, the luxury.” In January 1947, Piotr Ouspensky returned to England, thereafter presiding at six meetings which have led to different interpretations. These question and answer sessions are extant. While detractors of Gurdjieff urge that Ouspensky totally abandoned the Gurdjieff teaching as an aberration, others deduce that Ouspensky heeded the advice of Seton and was retreating from an authority role, admitting ignorance on various matters instead of presumptive knowledge. Nevertheless, Ouspensky became identified with the viewpoint expressed as: “There is no System.”
Whatever the precise angle of his thinking, Ouspensky was suffering kidney failure; his drinking precipitated his death in October 1947. Madame Ouspensky (1878-1961) survived this setback, continuing to direct the “System” community at Mendham in New Jersey. She also liaised with Gurdjieff in his last days. As a consequence, Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous was subsequently published, providing a stimulus to the nascent Gurdjieff movement.
Lachman, Gary V., In Search of P. D. Ouspensky (Theosophical Publishing House, 2004).
Ouspensky, Piotr D., A New Model of the Universe (New York: Knopf, 1931).
——–In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (London: Routledge, 1950).
——–The Fourth Way (New York: Knopf, 1957).
——–The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1950; second edn, New York: Knopf, 1954).
——–A Record of Meetings (London: Penguin, 1993).
——–A Further Record: Extracts from Meetings 1928-1945 (London: Arkana, 1988).
Patterson, William Patrick, Struggle of the Magicians: Why Ouspensky left Gurdjieff (San Anselmo, CA: Arete, 1997).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 50
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