Gurdjieff on Chief Fault

“Every man has a certain feature in his character which is central. It is like an axle round which all his ‘false personality’ revolves. Every man’s personal work must consist in struggling against this chief fault.” – George Gurdjieff (as quoted by Peter Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.233)

Gurdjieff on Chief Feature

Gurdjieff spoke of a central feature in man’s psychology around which his entire falsehood revolved. “One man talks too much; he must learn to keep silent,” he said. “Another man is silent when he ought to talk.” This chief feature is custom tailored to each, which makes work on chief feature a personal and practical endeavor.

That we would have a chief characteristic standing at the root of all our other traits heralds both good and bad news: on the one hand, it spares us excessive study by inviting us to focus on a single mechanical trend. If only we gain control of that hub, we will, with one stroke, become masters of all the spokes that branch out of it. But on the other hand, this trend is so deep a part of psychological makeup that we are unable to grasp it.

Blindness is a fundamental trait of chief feature. Man is asleep because he doesn’t know he is asleep. He is governed by mechanical actions because he cannot see them. Blind to what determines his own conduct, man remains unable to see himself, unless he is shown by someone else.

“A man cannot find his own chief feature, his chief fault, by himself. This is practically a law. The teacher has to point out this feature to him and show him how to fight against it. No one else but the teacher can do this.” – George Gurdjieff (quoted by Peter Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.233)

Gurdjieff’s Possible Sources

Ancient Greek Wisdom

Gurdjieff - Hercules slaying the Hydra

Hercules Slaying the Hydra

This blind, weak spot appears in several myths of various cultures, most famously embodied in the ancient myth of Achilles. The mighty warrior was invincible to human assault save for a single weakness, through which he was defeated. The Greeks coined that chief and lethal weakness the “Achilles Heel”.

The principle reappears in another important Greek myth: Hercules and the Hydra. As one of his twelve labors, Hercules is sent to kill the Hydra, a many-headed poisonous serpent. Hercules cuts off one of the Hydra’s many heads only to discover that two spring out in its stead.

Gurdjieff - Hydra locking Hercules

Hydra winding its tail around the heel of Hercules

What Gurdjieff expressed systematically the Greeks conveyed mythologically: the many heads stemming from the body of the Hydra mirror the many spokes stemming from the axle of chief feature. The Greek Hero’s labor to dispatch the Hydra embodies the heroic deed of mastering oneself.

But self-mastery is difficult and we will often get entangled in our own net of self-delusion. A 17th century marble fragment shows the Hydra winding its tail around the heel of Hercules, augmenting his already troublesome position. Again the blind spot, the chief weakness, being used against the valor of the hero.

Hercules only succeeds in slaying his foe when a friend helps him congeal with fire each decapitated neck. Fire prevents new heads from springing forth. Our hero is forced to address the root of the problem, just as Gurdjieff advised his students to gain a handle on their chief weaknesses.

Achilles, as we know, suffers a different fate than Hercules. He is slain through his weak point. Paris shoots a piercing arrow to his heel, dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra.

“One can hardly ever find one’s own chief feature, because one is in it, and if one is told, one usually does not believe it.” – Peter Ouspensky (The Fourth Way, p.184)

Ancient Christian Wisdom

Gurdjieff - Last Judgment

Adam and Eve kneeling at the Last Judgment. A serpent bites Adam’s Heel

If chief feature is so central to man’s psychology, then it is reasonable to expect that it would become a central tenet in Esoteric Christianity – which it did. Adam and Eve, the primogenitors of mankind, embody both the principle and the consequences of chief feature.

Possessing, as they do, the honor of being the parents of mankind, Adam and Eve also gained notoriety for having committed the ‘original sin’, for succumbing to the temptation of the serpent and losing Paradise. Orthodox depictions of the Last Judgment recapture this scene, showing Adam and Eve crouching before Christ the judge, begging forgiveness for their famous fault.

A large serpent winds down from Adam to the underworld. As players of this game of snakes and ladders, we viewers are given two options: either climb to heaven or slide to hell. And where does the serpent threaten to bite Adam? Where else, but in the heel!

Since our senses are mostly located in our heads (with the one exception of the sense of touch), the heel stands at the farthest extreme of our awareness. It is a physical weak spot. But as without so within: ancient myths draw a parallel between this physical blindness to a corresponding psychological one. George Gurdjieff called it chief feature.

The prospect of being blind to the hub of our falsehood is most unsettling. But we can turn this weakness into a strength: we can acknowledge our blindness and convert it into the drive to tread the heroic path of self-mastery.

“The study of the chief fault and the struggle against it constitute, as it were, each man’s individual path, but the aim must be the same for all. This aim is the realization of one’s nothingness. Only when a man has truly and sincerely arrived at the conviction of his own helplessness and nothingness and only when he feels it constantly, will he be ready for the next and much more difficult stages of the work.” – George Gurdjieff (quoted by Peter Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.233)