Lecture 36 — Unity and Symbolism

by G I Gurdjieff

Contents List:

Unity in Diversity
Understanding Symbols
Harmonising Centres
Theosophical Addition
Other Systems of Symbolism
A Warning
Efforts and Results
The Law of Octaves

Return to:


See also:

Eternal Recurrence
Universal Octaves
The Symbolism of the Tarot
Spirit — What Does It Mean?

Unity in Diversity

One of the most central ideas of objective knowledge is the idea of the unity of everything, of unity in diversity. From ancient times, people who have understood the content and the meaning of this idea and have seen in it the basis of objective knowledge, have endeavoured to find a way of transmitting this idea in a form comprehensible to others. The successive transmission of the ideas of objective knowledge has always been a part of the task of those possessing this knowledge. In such cases, the idea of the unity of everything as the fundamental and central idea of this knowledge, had to be transmitted first and transmitted with adequate completeness and exactitude.

To do this, the idea had to be put into such forms as would ensure its proper perception by others and avoid in its transmission the possibility of distortion and corruption. For this purpose, the people to whom the idea was being transmitted were required to undergo a proper preparation, and the idea itself was put either into a logical form — as, for instance, in philosophical systems which endeavoured to give a definition of the 'fundamental principle' from which everything was derived — or into religious teachings which endeavoured to create an element of faith and to evoke a wave of emotion carrying people up to the level of 'objective consciousness'. The attempts of both the one and the other, sometimes more and sometimes less successful, run through the whole history of mankind from the most ancient times up to our own time, and they have taken the form of religious and philosophical creeds which have remained like monuments on the paths of these attempts to unite the thought of mankind and esoteric thought.

But objective knowledge, the idea of unity included, belongs to objective consciousness. When perceived only by subjective consciousness, the forms which express this knowledge are inevitably distorted and, instead of truth, they create more and more delusions. With objective consciousness it is possible to see and feel the unity of everything. But for subjective consciousness the world is split up into millions of separate and unconnected phenomena. Attempts to connect these phenomena into some sort of system in a scientific or philosophical way lead to nothing, because men cannot reconstruct the idea of the whole starting from separate facts and they cannot divine the principles of the whole without knowing the laws upon which this division is based.

Although the idea of the unity of everything exists also in intellectual thought, its exact relation to diversity can never be clearly expressed in words or in logical forms. There remains always the insurmountable problem of language. A language which has been constructed through expressing impressions of plurality and diversity in subjective states of consciousness can never transmit with sufficient completeness and clarity the idea of unity which is intelligible and obvious for the objective state of consciousness.


Realising the imperfection and weakness of ordinary language, the people who have possessed objective knowledge have tried to express the idea of unity in 'myths', in 'symbols', and in particular 'verbal formulas' which, having been transmitted without alteration, have carried on the idea from one school to another, and often from one epoch to another.

It has already been said that the higher psychic centres work in man's higher states of consciousness: the 'higher emotional' and the 'higher mental'. The aim of 'myths' and 'symbols' was to reach man's higher centres, to transmit to him ideas inaccessible to the intellect and to transmit them in such forms as would exclude the possibility of false interpretations. 'Myths' were designed for the higher emotional centre; 'symbols' for the higher thinking centre. By virtue of this, all attempts to understand or explain 'myths' and 'symbols' with the ordinary mind, or the formulas and expressions which give a summary of their content, are doomed to failure. With the appropriate centre, it is always possible to understand anything, but only a properly prepared mind can transmit ideas belonging to objective knowledge without introducing elements which are foreign to them.

The symbols that were used to transmit ideas belonging to objective knowledge included diagrams of the fundamental laws of the Universe; and they not only transmitted the knowledge itself but also showed the way to it. The study of the construction and meaning of symbols formed a very important part of the preparation for receiving objective knowledge; and it was itself a test because a literal or formal understanding at once made it impossible to to receive any further knowledge.

Symbols were divided into the fundamental and the subordinate: the first included the principles of separate domains of knowledge; the second expressed the essential nature of phenomena in their relation to unity,

Among the formulas giving a summary of the content of many symbols, there was one which had a particular significance — namely, the formula 'As above, so below', from the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus. This formula stated that all the laws of the cosmos could be found in the atom or in any other phenomenon which exists as something completed according to certain laws. This same meaning was contained in the analogy drawn between the microcosm — man, and the macrocosm — the Universe. The fundamental laws of triads and octaves [see Lecture 19 — Ed.] penetrate evrything and should be studied simultaneously in the world and in man. But in relation to himself, man is a nearer and more accessible object of study and knowledge than the world of phenomena outside him. Therefore, in striving towards a knowledge of the Universe, man should begin with the study of himself and with the realisation of the fundamental laws within him.

From this point of view, another formula, Know thyself, is full of particularly deep meaning and is one of the symbols leading to the knowledge of truth. The study of the world and the study of man will assist one another. In studying the world of phenomena and its laws, a man studies himself; and in studying himself he studies the world. In this sense, every symbol teaches us something about ourselves.

Understanding Symbols

The understanding of symbols can be approached in the following way. In studying the world of phenomena, a man first of all sees in everything the manifestation of two principles, one opposed to the other, which, in conjunction or in opposition, give one result or another — that is, reflect the essential nature of the principles which have created them. This manifestation of the great laws of duality and trinity man sees simultaneously in the cosmos and in himself. But in relation to the cosmos, he is merely a spectator who sees only the surface of phenomena which are moving in various directions — though seeming to him to move in one direction. But in relation to himself, his understanding of the laws of duality and trinity can express itself in a practical form. Having understood these laws in himself he can, so to speak, confine the manifestation of the laws of duality and trinity to the permanent line of struggle with himself on the way to self-knowledge. In this way, he will introduce the line of will — first into the circle of time and afterwards into the circle of eternity [see Lecture 35 and Eternal Recurrence — Ed.], the accomplishing of which will create in him the great symbol known by the name of the Seal of Solomon.

The transmission of the meaning of symbols to a man who has not reached an understanding of them in himself is impossible. This sounds like a paradox, but the meaning of a symbol and the disclosure of its essence can only be given to, and understood by, one who, so to speak, already knows what is comprised in this symbol. Then a symbol becomes for him a synthesis of his knowledge and serves him for the expression and transmission of his knowledge just as it served the man who constructed it.

The more simple symbols:

or the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, which express them, possess a definite meaning in relation to the inner development of man; they show different stages on the path of man's self-perfection and of the growth of his being.

In the normal state natural to him, man is taken as a duality. He consists entirely of dualities or 'pairs of opposites'. All man's sensations, impressions, feelings, thoughts, are divided into positive and negative, useful and harmful, necessary and unnecessary, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. The work of centres proceeds under the sign of this division. Thoughts oppose feelings. Moving impulses oppose instinctive craving for quiet. This is the duality in which proceed all the perceptions, all the emotions, the whole life of man. Any man who observes himself, however little, can see this duality in himself.

But this duality would seem to alternate; what is victor today is the vanquished tomorrow. Everything is equally mechanical, equally independent of will, and leads equally to no aim of any kind. The understanding of duality in oneself begins with the realisation of mechanicalness and of the difference between what is mechanical and what is conscious. This understanding must be preceded by the destruction of the self-deceit in which a man lives who considers even his most mechanical actions to be volitional and conscious, and himself to be single and whole.

When self-deceit is destroyed and a man begins to see the difference between the mechanical and the conscious in himself, there begins a struggle for the realisation of the conscious in life and for the subordination of the mechanical to the conscious. For this purpose, a man begins with endeavours to set a definite decision, coming from conscious motives, against mechanical processes proceeding according to the laws of duality. The creation of a permanent third principle is for man the transformation of the duality into the trinity.

Strengthening the decision, and bringing it constantly and infallibly into all those events where formerly accidental neutralising 'shocks' used to act and give accidental results, gives a permanent line of results in time and is the transformation of trinity into quaternity. The next stage, the transformation of quaternity into quinternity and the construction of the pentagram has not one but many different meanings even in relation to man. Of these, the first, which is the most beyond doubt, relates to the work of centres.

Harmonising Centres

Development of the human machine and the enrichment of being begins with a new and unaccustomed functioning of this machine. We know that a man has five centres: the thinking, the emotional, the moving, the instinctive, and the sex. The predominant development of any one centre at the expense of the others produces an extremely one-sided type of man, incapable of further development. But if a man brings the work of the five centres within him into harmonious accord, he then 'locks the pentagram within him' and becomes a finished type of the physically perfect man. The full and proper functioning of the five centres brings them into union with the higher centres which introduce the missing principle and put man into direct and permanent connection with objective consciousness and objective knowledge.

And then man becomes the six-pointed star, that is, by becoming locked within a circle of life independent and complete in itself, he becomes isolated from foreign influences or accidental shocks; he embodies in himself the Seal of Solomon.

In the present instance, the given series of symbols — 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 — is interpreted as applicable to one process. But even this interpretation is incomplete because a symbol can never be fully interpreted. It can only be experienced — in the same way, for instance, as the idea of self-knowledge must be experienced.

This same process of the harmonious development of man can be examined from the point of view of the law of octaves [see Universal Octaves — Ed.], which gives another set of symbols. In the sense of the law of octaves, every completed process is a transition of the note do through a series of successive tones to the do of the next octave. The seven fundamental tones of the octave express the law of seven. The addition to it of the do of the next octave, that is to say, the crowning of the process, gives the eighth step. The seven fundamental tones together with the two 'hiccups' and the 'additional shocks' give nine steps. By incorporating in it the do of the next octave we have ten steps. The last, the tenth, step is the end of the preceding and the beginning of the next cycle. In this way, the law of octaves and the process of development it expresses include the numbers 1 to 10.

At this point we come to what may be termed the symbolism of numbers. The symbolism of numbers cannot be understood without the law of octaves or without a clear conception of how octaves are expressed in the decimal system and vice versa.

Theosophical Addition

In Western systems of occultism there is a method known by the name of 'theosophical addition', that is, the definition of numbers consisting of two or more digits by the sum of those digits. To people who do not understand the symbolism of numbers, this method of synthesising numbers seems to be absolutely arbitrary and to lead nowhere. But for a man who understands the unity of everything that exists and who has the key to this unity, the method of theosophical addition has a profound meaning, for it resolves all diversity into the fundamental laws which govern it and which are expressed in the numbers 1 to 10.

Other Systems of Symbolism

As has been shown, numbers are in symbology connected with definite geometrical figures, and are mutually complementary one to another. In the Cabala, a symbology of letters is also used and, in combination with the symbology of letters, a symbology of words. A combination of the four methods of symbolism by numbers, geometrical figures, letters, and words gives a complicated but more perfect method.

Then there exists also a symbology of magic, a symbology of alchemy, and a symbology of astrology, as well as the system of the symbols of the Tarot which unites them into one whole.

A Warning

Each one of these systems can serve as a means for transmitting the idea of unity. But in the hands of the incompetent and the ignorant, however full of good intentions, the same symbol becomes an 'instrument of delusion'. The reason for this consists in the fact that a symbol can never be taken in a final and definite meaning. In expressing the laws of the unity of endless diversity, a symbol itself possesses an endless number of aspects from which it can be examined, and it demands from a man approaching it the ability to see it simultaneously from different points of view. Symbols which are transposed into the words of ordinary language become rigid in them; they grow dim and very easily become 'their own opposites', confining the meaning within narrow dogmatic frames without giving it even the relative freedom of a logical examination of a subject. The cause of this is in the literal understanding of symbols, in attributing to a symbol a single meaning. The truth is again veiled by an outer covering of lies, and to discover it requires immense efforts of negation in which the idea of the symbol itself is lost. It is well known what delusions have arisen from the symbols of religion, of alchemy, and particularly of magic, in those who have taken them literally and in only one meaning.

Efforts and Results

At the same time, the right understanding of symbols cannot lead to dispute. It deepens knowledge, and it cannot remain theoretical because it intensifies the striving towards real results, towards the union of knowledge and being, that is, to Great Doing. Pure knowledge cannot be transmitted: but by being expressed in symbols it is covered by them as by a veil, and, for those who desire and who know how to look, this veil becomes transparent.

In this sense, it is possible to speak of the symbolism of speech, although this symbolism is not understood by everyone. To understand the inner meaning of what is said is possible only on a certain level of development and when accompanied by the corresponding efforts and state of the listener. But on hearing things which are new for him, instead of making efforts to understand them, a man begins to dispute them, or refute them, maintaining against them an opinion which he considers to be right and which as a rule has no relation whatever to them. In this way he loses all chance of acquiring anything new. To be able to understand speech when it becomes symbolical, it is essential to have previously learned and already know how to listen. Where speech deals with objective knowledge and the union underlying diversity, any attempt to understand literally is doomed to failure and, in most cases, results in further delusions.

It is necessary to dwell upon this because the intellectualism of contemporary education imbues people with a propensity and a tendency to look for logical definitions and for logical arguments against everything they hear. Hence, without noticing it, people unconsciously fetter themselves with their desire for exactitude in those spheres where exact definitions, by their very nature, imply inexactitude in meaning.

Therefore, because of this tendency in our thinking, it often happens that exact knowledge concerning details, communicated to a man before he has acquired an understanding of the essential nature of a thing, makes it difficult for him to understand this essential nature. This does not mean that exact definitions do not exist on the way to true knowledge: on the contrary, only there do they exist; but they differ very greatly from what we usually think them to be. If anyone supposes that he can go along the way of self-knowledge guided by an exact knowledge of all details, and if he expects to have such knowledge without first having given himself the trouble to assimilate the indications he has received concerning his own work, then he should first of all understand that he will not attain knowledge until he makes the necessary efforts and that only of himself and only by his own efforts can he attain what he seeks. No one can ever give him what he did not possess before; no one can do for him the work he should do for himself. All that another can do for him is to give him the impetus to work, and from this point of view symbolism, properly perceived, plays the part of an impetus of this kind for our knowledge.

The Law of Octaves

We have spoken earlier of the law of octaves — of the fact that every process, no matter upon what scale it takes place, is completely determined in its gradual development by the law of the structure of the seven-tone scale. In connection with this, it has been pointed out that every note, every tone, if taken on another scale, is again a whole octave. The 'hiccups' between mi and fa and between si and do, which cannot be surmounted by the intensity of the energy of the process in operation and which require an external 'shock' — 'outside help', so to speak — by this very fact connect one process with other processes. It follows from this that the law of octaves connects all processes of the Universe and, to one who knows the scales of the passage and the laws of the structure of the octave, it presents the possibility of an exact cognition of everything and every phenomenon in its essential nature and of all its inter-relations with phenomena and things connected with it.