Friday, December 9, 2011

The Devil Within Us

As I mentioned last week, in Dante's Inferno, Dante and Virgil have to climb over the body of the Devil in order to enter Purgatory– the place where sins can be expiated.

Traditionally, the Devil represents not only sin, but materiality–that is to say carnal existence. This is because carnal existence and sin are, at least in Christian conception, inextricably intertwined.

The act of climbing over the Devil's body is, above all, an act of intimacy. The symbolic implication of Dante's vision is that before he can even begin to work to attain salvation, man must become directly intimate with his material nature, his carnal nature, his sinful nature.

The premise presents a striking contradiction to any routinely moralistic understanding. Dante's image– more than a little sophisticated for its era– eschews any predictable religious expectations of abstinence. Rather than avoiding our sinful nature, the inference is that we must be in close touch with it and see it.

 Taking sin in the broader Augustinian context of everything we do–in St. Augustine's conception, our nature is inherently sinful, because of our separation from God–we must come into intimate contact with everything we do, with ourselves as we are, in the world, in order to begin to approach a place where the expiation of sin becomes possible. So above all, we have to be what we are, not create a construction of “goodness” in our behavior which will gain us merit. If we are bad, we have to be bad: but above all, however we are, we need to become aware of it, to see it. It is the awareness of our nature, regardless of its character, that earns us a place in purgatory.

And this is, in Gurdjieff's cosmology, a specific kind of awareness: not an intellectual awareness, but an awareness that in itself is intimate, comprised as it is of awareness in the body, awareness in the mind, and awareness in the emotions - what Gurdjieff referred to as “three centered being.”

 Pondering the commingling of the soul with matter is an inevitability in religious cosmologies, which generally propose dualistic explanations: either Augustinian, i.e., tragic (as in the case of original sin) or Dionysian, ecstatic, when the incarnation of material existence is seen as a reason for sublime joy. Both of these theological propositions achieve their substantiality through their inherent partiality. (I rarely, if ever, touch on politics in these posts, but one might cogently argue that the tension between conservative and liberal forces in the world is essentially a product of the long-standing tension between competing Augustinian and Dionysian philosophies.)

In Gurdjieff's involutionary and evolutionary universe, incarnation is, conversely, an objective necessity. There is no overt need to reject it or affirm it; it is the inevitable consequence of creation, and must be interpreted not in terms of good or bad, but in terms of service. It is not, in other words, a matter of state requiring action, but of action as a consequence of state. One does not work to be good–or to be bad. One simply works in order to be. And Being does not emanate from duality, but can only be resolved through Trinity.

 The ideas of good and evil are treated at some length in Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson. Gurdjieff's discourse (see pages 1034-1046) indicates that the original conception of good and evil was originally meant to describe the involutionary and evolutionary movement of energy–downwards through the ray of creation to the manifestation of “I am,” or, conscious separation from God (the prime source of arising), and back upwards towards the prime source through the action of surrender–“Lord have mercy.” Good and evil, in other words, originally had nothing to do with an external agency of better or worse moral nature that acts on man.

Man is, in this cosmology, entirely responsible for all of his action- an important point of the parable about Makary Kronbernkzion. “The Devil made me do it” is a worthless excuse, unless one admits that one is, himself, the Devil.

How often do we ascribe  the blame for our emotional state to outside agencies? Based on my recent observations of myself, I would say, nearly always. There is the possibility for an inner action wherein the usual reaction of emotion is transcended by an action of feeling; yet this is rare.

Only an unrelenting inner contact with the truth of the situation might serve to convince me of the fact that I am like this. I have to climb over the body of my own inner Devil, come into contact with all of its parts, in order to know that I am indeed the Devil.

It would be terribly mistaken to interpret this as any kind of moral license. Climbing over the body of one's inner devil is an organic action of intimacy, not a psychological exercise or an excuse for licentious behavior. It involves coming directly to terms with the inescapable, carnal fact of one's organic existence– and is intimately tied to Gurdjieff's idea of a man needing to perpetually sense the inevitability of his own death.

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.

Next post (12/11): Death and the Devil







1 comment:

  1. This blog is a veritable treasure of insights on the Work.
    I have to print and ponder every essay with great care.
    In these days, the focus is on essential questions about life and death, for obvious and sad reasons, and i find essential consonance of thought with various books by JG Bennett that i'm currently reading (Deeper Man, Sacred Influences, Creation).
    Apart from this, i want to subscribe the sharp derivation of right-wing and left-wing political choices from two theological attitudes, the Augustinian pessimism and the Dyonisiac (Nietzscheian) optimism.

    However, i wonder if the Original Sin is simply a "legominism" that refers to some inner limitation of man, or is it an "Historical" fact, the narrative about some trouble with the refinement of the objective reason of man in prehistoric times?

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