Maurice Nicoll, “The New Man” – Violence and Truth

One of the odd things about the Shambhala edition of this book is that, so far as I could find, it does not mention that it was first published in 1950. It is presented as if it were being published for the first time in 1981 or 1984. This is important: understanding that it was making Gurdjieff’s ideas public in 1950, while Nicoll was still alive but Gurdjieff had died, explains why Nicoll does not mention Gurdjieff. Otherwise, it would appear as if Nicoll was being parasitic on the teaching. It also helps to explain some of Nicoll’s ideas: they were, to some extent, influenced by the state of biblical studies in that period – a particularly dark period for the field. Also, having only the 1980s dates make it seem as if it was being posthumously published, which could make one wonder why: was he trying to hide something? It also leaves one to conjecture whether the book has been left in the state which he wanted it to appear in (often a contentious matter with posthumous publications). Full disclosure is always best.

Having got that out of the way,  Nicoll’s stated aim in writing the book was: “… to indicate that all teaching such as that contained in the Gospels, and many teachings both old and new, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterises mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence” (the note on the author, unnumbered). This ties in with the truly remarkable essay at the end of The Mark, which was posthumously published from notes Nicoll had left. It is also related to what he writes in chapter 3, on the Marriage at Cana: about the inner silence which is the context of the miracle, and that in neither this nor any other of the miracles of the Lord is there violence (28). Now this leaves out the cleansing of the Temple, and the statement of the Lord about the kingdom suffering to be taken by violence (Matthew 11:12). But I will deal with Nicoll’s ideas, just noting that his treatment of the topic is not complete.

He then connects this to Peter’s cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant: “To believe passionately, violently, in someone prevents others from understanding. Such a person uses his Truth, this knowledge of Truth, violently, and as it were cuts off another person’s understanding. This happens because the emotional state of the man who has only Truth and knowledge is wrong. He is partisan. There is no patience in him” (77) Nicoll gives this a symbolic interpretation, where the sword equals truth and the ear the emotional understanding. Incidentally, Nicoll uses this to assert one of his favourite ideas: “All this has a meaning totally apart from its literal sense-based meaning; and in order to understand such things, you must get away entirely from the historical narrative and the actual picture of the events unrolled in the description. The historical description is made to represent the psychological meaning, not the other way round” (77). I do not agree. I do not think that one can or even should “get away entirely from the historical narrative”. Again, I will leave that for later.

Violence is, for Nicoll, a way of working on particular levels, but it can always be superseded for higher activities, by the work of a higher level. This is higher level is the one on which faith operates. “Faith” is critical for Nicoll’s understanding, and he relates it to will, knowledge and love,  hence he writes: “The knowledge that is a matter of faith cannot enter the will unless there is love for it. It is not only a change of mind that connects a man with what is higher than himself, but a change of will – that is, a change of love, of what one loves” (122). Other comments about faith on that page are also important.

The higher level is a question not so much of what to do, as of how to be. And a higher level of being does not have the same need for violence. Nicoll states: “… in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ begins by telling His disciples not what to do but how to be before a man is capable of gaining the Kingdom of Heaven” (95). This is then used as a point of departure for the profound insight that John the Baptist represented a literal understanding, and that this can be “harsh” (96). Again, we are back at Nicoll’s concern about violence. It also could also explain something which has puzzled many people: why, at the end of his life, is John the Baptist asking whether Jesus is the one who is to come? On this view, it is because John was not able to comprehend the new dispensation, and how Jesus and his disciples did not fast, but ate and drank.

There is a great deal in this volume, but I think that the idea of avoiding violence by rising above it is very profound. How to rise above it? By seeing that there is something above even Truth, and that is the Good. Nicoll puts it like this: “All Truth must lead to some state as its goal. This was the idea belonging to the term ‘vineyard’. Wine was produced. A man began to act from Good, not Truth, thus becoming a New Man” (16). I wonder if there is not a false dichotomy here: can the Good and the True be separated out and distinguished like that? Or are they not different, complementary aspects of being? If being has levels, as I think it does, then this could explain why one on level violence (the cleansing of the Temple) is acceptable, but on another level it is not. It could explain why different ideas and concepts of the good seem to be in such harsh and implacable contradiction.

I find Nicoll to have been brilliant. But there is something about his published books, especially, The New Man, The Mark and Living Time which strikes me as forced, perhaps trying too hard to say something new. I am not sure. The first two are quite valuable, even for ideas. I am not so fond of the third. But there is something now quite right about the three …

Joseph Azize, 14 March 2019


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