Bennett, “The Masters of Wisdom”

I have mentioned that I am preparing a plan for a serious, quality volume on the late John G. Bennett. I cannot say I have even commenced the book: apart from the fact I am presently quite busy with the index for my new book (Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises, forthcoming from OUP in November), it is a major undertaking, and it needs groundwork before it can begin. The more I examine the project, the more I realise how badly it is needed. JGB is no minor figure, nor even a second-rate one. I am firmly of the view that his achievement was in fact first rate. I would say that his achievement was chiefly but not only in the spiritual field. I am not in a position to assess his mathematic or scientific output. I am now reading some of the JGB books I had not previously read, and am, as I work through them, getting a better sense of how each volume relates to the course of his career.

One book which I am re-reading, but as if for the first time, is his final posthumously published work, The Masters of Wisdom. I am using the second edition, the 1995 version with a new foreword by Kabir Helminski. According to Elizabeth Bennett’s foreword to 1977’s first edition, he died on the very day he had intended to begin the final chapter, leaving only some notes (5).

I did once read the book from cover to cover, and I recall being quite unsure about it. I really didn’t know what to make of it. I am now re-reading it, and I can see both further into it and yet can also see more clearly that there is an element of mystery in it. I had thought JGB was being dogmatic about certain matters. And there is an extent to which he is, in places, e.g. when he speaks about a Demiurge. But I now think that although there is something far more than dogma here. By “dogmatism”, I mean the assertion of something which can only be accepted or rejected on the basis of one’s prior acceptance of the teacher’s authority. But what I see here now, which I had missed before, is that JGB was speaking on the basis of a comprehensive view of the world which was partly based on information obtained through the lower centres (mind, feeling, sensation), but partly also from the higher centres. It is the extent of this use of higher and lower faculties in his thinking which sets JGB apart from his peers when he writes about world history.

And that is a critical point: mislead by the title and my youth, I took this as a monograph on the Masters of Wisdom. I had missed, although the evidence was there right before my eyes, that it is in fact what I might call “an esoteric history of humanity.” JGB places the Masters within a broader panorama. It is a story told chiefly within earthly time and limits, but not entirely. It links the Masters and the world of man to the divine and to the worlds of reality.

There is a great amount to be said about JGB’s perspective, but I will concentrate here on chapter 4, titled “The Time of Christ.” This is not ideal, as the material before it sets the indispensable background stage for chapter 4. But I shall abstract, and do as best I can.

JGB states that “it is reasonable to suppose that in his early manhood he went through the full training and initiation of the (Essene) brotherhood” (54). I take it that this is something he is not basing upon the use of higher centres. But where the elevated faculties come in is when he affirms, of the Last Super (probably as the climax of the life of Jesus to that point): “The one thing certain is that a tremendous event did occur and has left its mark on humanity for nearly two thousand years. I believe that we do not and cannot know what the event was in its full majesty because it took place in a region that human consciousness cannot reach. … To bring about great and dramatic changes in the visible world it is necessary to bring about an interaction between all the four world” (56). At this stage there is a footnote that “the fourth (world) is the absolute world of the unfathomable godhead …” (56).

Together with some of his other comments in this chapter, I would say that JGB seems to be indicating that we cannot understand Jesus and his achievement in a comprehensive and complete way, because to do so, we would need to be able to penetrate and understand a world beyond our reach. Now this does not seem unreasonable to me: in fact, it is a satisfying thesis in that if it is accepted, then it explains both the power of the Christian message (or at least it explains the origin on the force which was acting through early Christianity, and possibly still can), and the reason it is not possible to present a completely satisfying rational vindication of Christianity. That is, JGB makes no attempt whatsoever to downplay the mystery which is found within Christianity: what is it precisely that Jesus came to do, and what is the value of the contemporary sacrifice of the Eucharist?

Rather, Bennett sets out a sort of framework which allocates a place for the mystery, without attempting to explain it away. His outline gives the mystery its full weight, and not only allows its proper role, but also respects it, and indicates why it is necessary. This is an interesting approach: it is to say, yes, there are things about Christianity which we cannot understand, but that does not mean that they are irrational, only that they are super-rational, as it were, they transcend the ordinary mind (not in that their effects cannot be stated, but that in the ordinary mind cannot perceive their grounds).

There is also a most interesting account of the differences between the four Gospels. In contrast to the modern view which simply sees four different perspectives at work, much the way that four modern writers might cover the one topic, JGB sees them as coming from “four different schools of wisdom, each entrusted with a different task” (55). Of course, one they enter the world, their working and distribution is no longer in the hands of the schools from which they originated. That is the nature of things. But the idea is most intriguing. He is saying that the writing of each Gospel was intentional and that each is irreplaceable. I shan’t go into the details here, but this is but a small glimpse into what is, I have now come to think, a bold, even revolutionary study of world history.

Joseph Azize, 6 July 2019

One comment

  1. George Adie was critical of Bennett and advised me not to waste my time reading his work. However, in hindsight, I realise that no Man, no matter his level, is without biases, justified or unjustified. The evidence that Gurdjieff’s teachings came primarily from Sufi origins continues to increase. Bennett explored this extensively, from all accounts. This does not automatically rule out G’s own statement that the Work was “esoteric Christianity,” as the origins of all religions–the conscious stream of transmission of the Way behind all Ways–is ultimately the same. Given this, I think the time has come for me to explore Bennett and his work more closely, beginning with this book that you point to.

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