The Human Machine


All this pantomime, all this posturing, cannot (in Gurdjieff’s eyes) disguise the fact that man is essentially an impersonal machine: a wonderfully complex stimulus-response mechanism which, ‘eats impressions and excretes behaviour’ 26 an apparatus characteristically devoid of self-cognisance and independent initiative; simply a cosmic transformer used by ‘Great Nature’ to separate the fine from the gross and translate each to its proper sphere.


In the detailed exactitude of Gurdjieff’s blueprint, there is something at once astounding and frightening.  His human ‘machine’ simultaneously burns three fuels of ascending refinement: food, air and sensory impressions.  These fuels blend to power five independent brains or ‘centres’, which govern five functions: the intellectual centre controls our thinking; the emotional centre our feeling; the moving centre all learned external movement of the body in space; the instinctive centre all the organisms’ unlearned interior functioning (respiratory, digestive, cardio-vascular, etc.); and the sex centre all authentically sexual manifestation.                                                                                                                            


The general design of this human machine or ‘food factory’ is admirable, but in practice nothing works properly.  The five centres – unsupervised and uncalibrated – relate inefficiently, jarring and grating on each other.  Some subordinate parts have rusted, some are overheating, and others are inexplicably kept in mothballs.  Breakdowns are frequent and component spares difficult or impossible to obtain.  Such a ramshackle contraption is neither efficient nor cost-effective; after a short time it will certainly be demolished and any valuable constituents recycled in the continuing process of mass production.


Is the situation hopeless then?  A closed Yezidi circle?  An inescapable prison of mechanicity?  Sadly but inevitably Yes, for the great lumpen mass of people who perversely imagine themselves already free.  But not for everyone fortunately; not for the statistically insignificant minority whose frank and unbelievably painful confrontation of their interior slavery presages a long realistic struggle for emancipation.  Psychologists take note: in the final analysis Gurdjieff is not propounding the iron-clad determinism of Pavlov and Watson, but a neo-behaviorism which generously provides for the re-entry of consciousness and free will.  In Gurdjieff’s scheme of things, man is a very special machine which, uniquely on earth, can fully come to know and sense itself alive.  The breathing proof of this we may dimly intuit in such as Buddha, Pythagoras, Christ, Leonardo da Vinci . . . and perhaps some moderns?

26  A. R. Orage, From “Aphorisms” in On Love: With Some Aphorisms & Other Essays, The Janus Press, 1957, p. 48.



– James Moore. 1991. Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth.





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