Detail from The Annunciation
Jan de Beer, c. 1520
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Emmanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Swedish mystic who emphatically re-wrote Christian cosmology as it was then currently understood, brought us, in his writings, to a world where angels descended from heaven specifically to educate him in the matters of heavenly and angelic hierarchy and behavior.
Although the model was didactic and not literate, the premise bears a striking relationship to the developmental trajectory of Gurdjieff’s Tales to his Grandson, in which a high-ranking angel similarly intervenes in world affairs through direct contact with mortals. In the first case, admittedly, Swedenborg professed to be the receiver of angelic wisdom himself; although Gurdjieff makes no such overt claim, the idea that he shares an identity with Beelzebub in not just covert, but also overt, ways is central to imparting credibility to any of his text. The influences he claims to have garnered his teaching from are, after all, from what he calls influences C; given the cosmology of Beelzebub’s Tales, it is hard to imagine any source other than an angelic one as far such influences are concerned.
In certain major ways, then, Gurdjieff and Swedenborg share an identity of cosmology. Burrowing deeper into Gurdjieff’s ideas and Swedenborg’s texts, one discovers ever more striking commonalities of reasoning and purpose; if the two cosmologies are not brothers, they are at the very least first cousins.
We can trace Gurdjieff’s ideas about angelic intervention into human affairs at least as far back as 1922, when he said — in a meeting either June 30 or July 17 (the notes combine the two dates):
Cosmic forces know humanity en masse, not individuals at all, but help the "quickest" through intermediaries.
Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is the story not just of the fallen angel Beelzebub, but a series of heavenly interventions by other angelic beings sent to help correct the course of humanity. The book is, furthermore, deeply populated by angels of varying abilities; the hierarchy includes Archangels, Cherubim, and Seraphim.
These angels represent a collection of persons; indeed, Gurdjieff’s heavenly population is intensely personal, with angels named. The situation finds a close mirror in Swedenborg’s heavenly hierarchies, where personhood is a quality share not just by the angelic host, but God himself. Gurdjieff’s characterization of God in his book seems equally personal.
The point may seem moot; after all, it’s impossible to present a book without personal characters. Yet the typical explanation of esoteric or mystical forces and their actions within man is one of mysterious “energies” — much like the kundalini energy that supposedly liberates man in the yogic teachings. These teachings tend to deal with mystical forces or higher energies as decidedly impersonal ones (think, for example, of the way Gurdjieff's ideas are interpreted in The Reality of Being.) Gurdjieff’s departure from that norm is significant. His personalization of angelic cosmology here once again shares an identity with Swedenborg’s.
Swedenborg proposes a heaven where most of the spirits and angels go about activities much like the ones they did in ordinary life. They display great interest in philosophical questions and the nature of human life, and engage in argument and discourse about the nature of the cosmos and God. Gurdjieff’s angels are, on the other hand, technocrats; they design spaceships and investigate the physical nature of the cosmos. While the trajectories of the two cosmologies depart in somewhat different directions here, both of them propose an angelic hierarchy which is inquisitive, industrious, intelligent, and dedicated to exploring the “sense and aim of existence,” as Gurdjieff would have called it. This insertion of a spiritual workforce into heavenly matters is once again somewhat unique to both cosmologies, since typical descriptions of heaven and hell throughout the range of Christian mysticism and literature depict heaven as a place exclusively devoted to worship, and hell as exclusively devoted to torture of the damned.
Both authors have hence solved an oddly mundane yet critical problem with heaven: what do creatures do there, anyway? By proposing an active and dynamic community of working beings, Swedenborg and Gurdjieff have imparted an intelligible purpose to heaven absent from the dreamlike abstractions of alternate cosmologies. Although the flow of events in each one is different, it’s not at all difficult to imagine them being contrasting descriptions of the same environment. In each of the two cosmologies, illustrations of this working community are detailed and elaborate; both human souls and angels are given rank within a hierarchy and tasks to complete.
The two cosmologies have suffered somewhat different fates at the hands of followers. While Swedenborg’s devotees generally sign on to his cosmology as an accurate description of heaven and hell, Gurdjieff’s adherents— while they treat the text of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson much like a Bible — ascribe to it a largely symbolic significance. The entire book, it would seem, is to be taken as allegory — except that the Gurdjieff community conducts intense investigations and arguments about how literally some portions of it can be taken, for example, the absurd contention that the sun neither heats nor lights. The painful process of listening to devotees discuss this and other similar questions is likely remind one of the argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
I think that the takeaway on this is simple enough: either the book is an allegory, in which case such arguments are moot, or the book needs to be taken literally, in which case one needs to come to grips with the complexities of angelic hierarchies and their interactions with man. The book, after all, presents an argument of over a thousand pages that personal individuals from the angelic hierarchies interact with human beings. If the intention is allegorical, the prosecution of the device seems excessive; one is left with the impression that Gurdjieff must have meant, more or less, that things take place the way he describes them. If one accepts this premise— which, I think, is somewhat inevitable given the nature of the book — Gurdjieff’s consonance with Swedenborg becomes quite apparent.
Both Swedenborg’s collected writings and Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub represent revelational texts: works that disclose a higher cosmology heretofore unrevealed to humanity. As such, it’s inevitable that these texts, in their entirety, take on an aspect of biblical lore. Scripture of this nature tends to attract adherents and even fanatics; conversely, it triggers suspicious reaction from those who are not believers. As such, the texts have polarizing effects on readers. This may tend to “magnetize” adherent communities in such a way that they tend to overlook or outright reject similarities between their own origin texts and those of other communities. This actively discourages comparatives that might otherwise underscore a common mystical heritage, as is the case here.
The premise of angelic interaction humanity is assigned equal validity in Swedenborg and Gurdjieff’s works. One can argue the details; but if the premise is absurd in one case, it must perforce be equally absurd in the other—if one is willing to allow for the possibility in Gurdjieff, one cannot avoid allowing for the possibility in Swedenborg. The chief difference, then, between the two on this point is that Gurdjieff reports third party interactions between heaven and earth; Swedenborg reports first-hand ones.
It’s worth noting that more than one of Gurdjieff’s pupils reported that he spoke the Last Supper “as if he had been there.” As such, one can intuit that Gurdjieff’s recounting of angelic interactions had more than a soupçon of personal, first-hand content. His third party "depersonalization" of the text in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson stands in contrast to the deeply personal material he presents in some of his other writings in the same series (Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Only Real Then, When I Am.) He is not, in other words, adverse to playing the role of one who has interacted with “messengers from above,” exactly as Swedenborg claims to; and it is a role which many of his off-the-cuff remarks to his spiritual followers indicate he had a comfort level with.
We find, then, that despite their very different approaches to spiritual work, it’s not just the texts they wrote that show a commonality of experience and purpose. Swedenborg and Gurdjieff had much in common as persons, in that they both experienced a personal contact with angelic forces, received revelatory material, and were thereby transformed. Each one felt it their civic, moral, and spiritual responsibility to pass the teachings they encountered on in the form of books.
Gurdjieff always said that he was the inheritor of a great tradition, not an originator. Reading Swedenborg in detail – as opposed to taking the view from above, as this essay has – one can’t help but come to the conclusion that Swedenborg was Gurdjieff’s predecessor in that same great tradition, which must inevitably, like a tree, spread many different branches from its core.
As such, it seems to me that Swedenborg deserves a more sympathetic, and certainly much more detailed, examination by the Gurdjieff community than he has yet received over the 100 + year trajectory of its development.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.