Sunday, March 24, 2013

Knowledge and civilization

Aj Sak Teles, Late Classic Mayan Lord
746 AD

Last night, my friend David pointed out an interesting passage in in search of the miraculous, in which  Gurdjieff tells Ouspensky a number of interesting things about the nature of knowledge.

 Gurdjieff, of course, drew a clear distinction between knowledge and understanding, but this particular passage makes it clear that he, like Ibn Arabi, thought knowledge to be an inestimably valuable substance: an essential factor in the culture of man.

The very nearly anti-intellectual stance which one frequently encounters in the Gurdjieff work stands in stark contrast to the appreciation for the intellect which is actually needed in order to conduct any serious spiritual work. Ibn Arabi— who may well have been one of the most intelligent men who ever lived — considered the pursuit of knowledge as one of the absolutely most essential tasks given to man by God, and, of course, Gurdjieff himself said, "Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West and then seek." (aphorism #19, Views From the Real World, p. 282.) And not to forget the third obligolnian striving.  Perhaps even more to the point, Gurdjieff populated the heavens of Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson with an impressive collection of scientifically minded angels engaged in technological research.

Perhaps the most salient section of the passage in the above link is the section where Gurdjieff says,  There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilizations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything that has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture. Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climactic change, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very great quantity of the matter of knowledge.

This is what interested David, and, of course, it ought to be of great interest to the rest of us, because it certainly does seem as though we are now in such a moment. It suggests that this is a moment where a very great deal of knowledge becomes available to those who want it; and it furthermore suggests that those who can acquire it ought to be taking steps to preserve it so that it is not destroyed.

Although we did not discuss this last night — I wanted to ponder this question for a while — I think that the Internet and the rise of electronic technology has caused us to believe that knowledge is somehow better preserved and more available, just because it has been distributed so widely and such a vast quantity of it has been slapped up on the web. It's very nearly forgotten that all of this depends on the trappings of modern technology: electricity, and the ability to retrieve digitally stored information. The collapse of a society with those technologies, even in part, would instantly render the vast majority of this knowledge unavailable. And in such a case, the principal repositories of such knowledge would once again be the traditional ones: men's minds, and books.

I'm not espousing a Luddite attitude here; I'm just pointing out that we take a great deal for granted in this age, as though societies never collapsed, and such things couldn't go wrong.

There are actually two kinds of intelligence being discussed in this passage. One of them is horizontal knowledge, which is materially limited within the level that it arises on. The other is vertical understanding, that is, a type of intelligence that moves from one level to another. Vertical forces of  understanding inwardly form the material substance and intelligence of the levels below them. The lower levels can never fully understand levels above them; yet they depend on one another.

It's important to understand the distinction between the vertical and horizontal influences here. I chose the above photograph of Aj Sak Teles because it so clearly emphasizes his power on the horizontal level. This is the type of knowledge that generally occupies us; and it's our preoccupation with that that distracts us from the vertical forces of understanding that wish to inwardly form us and a different way: Swedenborg's inflow of divine influences. We definitely need both.

 In standing between two sets of forces — locating ourselves at the point of intersection between the horizontal and vertical — we seek to remain exquisitely aware of both. And especially at this time in the evolution of this planet, perhaps we need to carefully consider how to appreciate, value, and preserve the enormous amount of knowledge that mankind has acquired.

What I truly wanted to ponder regarding this question of last night, however, was exactly why knowledge is limited. And I am leaving that until the next post.

 May your soul be filled with light.

1 comment:

  1. Lee, you wrote in your blog: "Ibn Arabi— who may well have been one of the most intelligent men who ever lived"

    I am glad that you didn't call him THE most intelligent man to have ever lived. Most of us with ANY degree of intelligence will gladly tell you that WE are the most intelligent man who has ever lived. (after all, what is life in this lunatic asylum without humor?)

    When I was in the fourth grade my parents were told that they were ashamed that they couldn't keep up with me, and they suggested finding a better school for me. I then went to PS-41, better known as the greenwich village school, where I was placed in what they then (it'a now politically incorrect!") called the IGC program.

    IGC meant intellectually gifted children. To say the least, it was a culture shock to go from rough-housing brats to a class full of "the Children of the Damned", who were a group of children from a million years hence, sent back to alter the course of humanity.

    I loved tests and often got 99%, which pissed me off no end, because I had gotten ALL the questions correct. I went up to our teacher and asked, "If I got ALL the question answered correctly, how come I don't get 100%?"

    She answered as follows: These tests are rated as what % of all the children who did the test performed more poorly that you, and you are part of those who took the test. Since you cannot do better than yourself, there can be no 100%, so the highest score is 99%.

    That answer satisfied my analytical mind, but my emotional mind still railed against some perceived injustice.

    It took me a long time to realize that once you reach a level of mastery, there is no higher to go... human's can only ever rate 99%, and they will always suffer the lack, even if it is a measly 1%.

    This sense that we should be recognized as better than, is sometimes called ego inflation, where we want to be thought of as better than we are -- but we are only human. Where there is ego inflation there is no humility. There will always be a lack to stand in front of, no matter how we perform or manifest behavior.


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