Stoicism and Gurdjieff

Posted by Olly Robinson on 17 September 2008 | 0 Comments

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I've been trying to find a parallel for Stoicism's unusual theory of tonos, or tension. As far as I can understand it, ancient Stoics believed that all beings had the sacred fire of the Logos within them, vibrating at different tensions.

In rocks, the tension is very low, because they are without consciousness, although they are still animate, in that the Logos is in them. In plants the rational fire vibrates at a greater tension, but still below consciousness. In animals, the level of tension and speed of vibration is greater still. But only in man does the Logos have the potential to vibrate into such a level of tension that it becomes self-aware, and can even - in the very advanced - continue to exist after the death of the body, if only for a short time.

To use an analogy - we are like cavemen, trying to create fire, by rubbing two sticks together. The two sticks are how we react to external impressions. Do we get swept away by them, in which case the sticks are damp, no tension is caused and no spark is created, or do we assert our rational autonomy from them, in which case friction is caused, and a spark of the sacred fire bursts out?

Most of us spend our whole lives sitting around on our haunches, rubbing two sticks together, trying to create a fire. Sometimes we get a spark, or a small plume of smoke, and we leap around celebrating, until the fire quickly goes out, and we have to get rubbing again. Yet perhaps, in one or two isolated spots around the earth, sages have succeeded in actually creating a fire, which lights up the night of ignorance around them, a pleasing site to the gods above. And people can journey to these fires, and light tapers, in an attempt to light their own fires back home.

Is there any similar teaching in ancient or modern sources? The only one I can think of is Gurdjieff, the early twentieth century magus from Armenia. I've been re-reading his disciple Ouspensky's accounts of their conversations in Moscow, in his book In Search of the Miraculous, and realizing quite how influenced by Greek, Gnostic and Hellenistic thought it is - it really is a crazy fusion of Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Pythagorean, Gnostic, alchemical and Stoic thought, with some eastern ideas thrown in.

Gurdjieff claimed that the vast majority of humans were simply reacting automatons. Something happened in the external world, and they reacted, blindly, automatically, and were swept along by impressions. In most cases, the 'I' simply did not exist - man is a chaos of competing impulses and reactions, one replacing the other every few seconds, so there is no coherent, responsible self.

How can such a coherent, responsible self be created?

He said: "Fusion, inner unity, is obtained by means of 'friction', by the struggle between 'yes' and 'no' in man. If a man lives without inner struggle, if everything happens in him without opposition, if he goes wherever he is drawn or wherever the wind blows, then he will remain as he is. But if a struggle begins within them, and particularly if there is a definite line to this struggle, then gradually, he begins to 'crystallize'."

He uses the image of creating an inner fire that alchemically fuses the elements in our personality:

"It is impossible to stabilize the interrelation of powders [ie the elements of our personality] in a state of mechanical mixture. But the powders may be fused, the nature of the powders make this possible. To do this, a special kind of fire must be lighted under the retort which, by heating and melting the powders, finally fuses them together....

"The fire by means of which fusion is attained is produced by 'friction', which in turn is produced in man by the struggle between 'yes' and 'no'. If a man gives way to all his desires, or panders to them, there will be no inner struggle in him, no 'friction', no fire. But if, for the sake of attaining a definite aim, he struggles with desires that hinder him, he will then create a fire which will gradually transform his inner world into a single whole."

Gurdjieff also believed that, if the necessary level of fire was created and the self crystallized sufficiently, it was possible for this self to survive as an 'astral body' after death. However, like the Stoics, he believed this astral body would only exist for a brief time until it too returned to the source.


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