Attic cup with owl
National Archaeological Museum, Madrid
But despite the flat-screen madness, Homer's world is still our world; in the Iliad, the choice between Agamemnon's world of things—gold, silver, land, horses and women—and Achilles' world of values—relationship and brotherhood—couldn't be more stark. Achilles is willing to joyfully face down the inevitable jaws of fate and death themselves, but his principles, his inner values, are sacrosanct. In an act of holy denying, he remains true—even in defiance of the Gods themselves. They are not, he rightly intuits, his concern—his attention must perforce be riveted on his immediate responsibility. Not plagued by doubt like weak-kneed Arjuna, he knows and is unembarrassed: as a killer, he must kill, and then be killed.
What of modernity? We may (perhaps a little too easily, a little too blithely) discard our ancient Gods; but we still live crushed between the Homeric jaws of desire and value. Nothing has changed. But our inner values are steadily degraded; we would all be Agamemnons.
The things, it would appear, are winning.
In this dense and suffocating atmosphere of modern materialism, the one who seeks inwardly easily falls victim to the idea that the only path to a higher level is through manipulation: whether the manipulation of things or the manipulation of values, we steadfastly and ever more believe that it is from the laying on of our own hands that goodness comes.
I'm reminded here of a quote from Evagrius Ponticus:
Never give a shape to the divine as such when you pray, nor allow your mind to be imprinted by any form, but go immaterial to the Immaterial and you will understand."
—A. M. Casiday, Evagrius Ponticus, London 2006, p. 196.
This example of hands-off understanding, the antithesis of manipulation, preserves value by allowing an emptiness into which the good may flow.
Yet I am filled by the world and crave it.
These contradictions are most difficult to resolve; and when engaged in an inner work that urges a seemingly endless variety of experiments with breathing, chanting, and physical exercises, the idea of hands-off inner work is lost in the fog of war.
Why the word war?
Our efforts on behalf of a higher inner nature too often become a battle against our lower one. Here's yet another reminder of the oft-ignored dangers of inner effort (yes, it is not "all roses, roses"): some parts of ourselves enslave others in the service of what appears to be a better master, but behind whose veil lurks the visage of a tyrant.
Gurdjieff's harmonious development involves the gentle and accepting integration of all the parts, not through sheer force of virtue or of exercise, but by the gradual and gentle re-organization of our inner rates of vibration, which cannot be forced. The broad range of questions Gurdjieff posed in the beginning of his pamphlet for application to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man sketch a brief but telling outline of just how comprehensive he meant for this enterprise to be: far more broad-ranging, let's admit, than the narrow scope of any of today's Gurdjieff organizations, whatever lineage they claim. Gurdjieff was teaching from—and into—a society far more properly schooled in the ancient questions of the classics than any modern men or women are; those of us, like myself, who are of a certain age and grew up in a European school system founded on the classics can smell it. (It is not an odor, I daresay, that many Americans would recognize.) One can't understand Gurdjieff without at least a whiff of that.
On my recent trip through Spain, my review of over three thousand years of art history, conducted across a broad range of truly outstanding museums in Madrid, emphasized to me the difference between an art of intuitive harmony and an art forced by personality. Somewhere here lies the difference between what Gurdjieff called objective art—an instinctive art of the soul—and the subjective art of the ego.
Now, there's no doubt of the irony of bringing up the world of form as an adjunct to a discussion about emptiness; how can that be possible?
The art of harmony—objective art in this particular interpretation, which does not precisely correspond to Gurdjieff's definition (I am crafting my own here, based on my own experience, rather than merely parroting his)—is an art of intuition. It is the harmony sensed, the harmony felt, in the expression of the image. It is not a harmony imparted by a theory of the intellect, or derived from the assumption of a formula supposed to produce the intended result. Such harmony can't (ultimately) emerge from academic schools or organized teachings, even though they may lay the groundwork for it. In the end it always arises from the living, breathing expression of the human being who engages in the effort; and it incorporates an inward teaching.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.