Ouspensky on Esotericism
The definition of ‘esotericism’ is: “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest”. Ouspensky’s early draw towards esotericism implies his acknowledgment that ‘truth’, ‘objective knowledge’, ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘self-development’ were not for all. Esotericism implies that humanity as a whole is not intended to evolve and improve. Rather, like seeds, most never develop their potential and degenerate back into dust, while only a few might germinate.
This implies that, alongside and beneath the general course of mankind’s history, there has run another storyline known by few but serving a purpose of utmost importance. This ‘esoteric’ history is closely linked to the present, and has served to preserve the ancient wisdom of schools and bring them to those that could use them in the present age. To quote from Ouspensky:
Ouspensky in Search of Ancient Wisdom
Before meeting Gurdjieff and the fourth Way, Ouspensky went in desperate search for remnants of the truth abroad. Although he didn’t quite know what he was looking for, he was guided by a keen intuition of what it shouldn’t be, as well as aware that it had to be received in the form of direct contact with individuals. Guided by his sense of esotericism, Ouspensky knew that such ‘truth’ could not be common knowledge and, therefore, could not be found among common circles of thought such as academic organizations or renowned psychologists and philosophers.
Ouspensky on Historical Changes
Ouspensky suspected that there had existed an esoteric the course of history parallel to the commonly known one, which could explain the appearance and disappearance of advanced civilizations. He gave the Gothic school as an example, a stream of Christianity that emerges out of the Dark Ages. Gothic Cathedrals seemed to him to deliberately house ancient wisdom, more so than provide houses of worship for Christian followers.
Nevertheless, Ouspensky knew that he was barred from this wisdom, even standing before a Gothic cathedral. Reading the book was one thing, and understanding its contents another. Hence, another principle of esotericism was exclusivity: that ancient wisdom, transported through the ages by the aid of individual agents, could only be accessed by other individuals with similar aims and preparation.
Ouspensky on Prehistory
History spans, after all, a very limited period of time. By definition, it begins with the emergence of historical records and ends in the present day. History, then, is five thousand years old, and anything earlier than that time period falls into the category of pre-history.
Ouspensky noted the curiosity of how some prehistoric art, like the Great Sphinx, seems bigger in concept, higher in level and more intelligent than subsequent art. This puts in question the entire theory of cultural evolution, that man has been steadily progressing since the dawn of civilization. Esotericism thus paints a contrary picture: humanity as a whole has been regressing since its birth, growing in quantity and shrinking in quality; the esoteric legacy of schools, on the other hand, has been strengthening by accumulating more and more expression.
Ouspensky on Literature and the Inner Meaning
Esotericism also presupposes an inner meaning: that ancient wisdom has traveled through the ages by virtue of its being understandable to varying levels. For example, only that ancient literature that could speak to the majority while conveying a hidden meaning to a minority, would be likely to be preserved from one generation to the next.
The Bible falls precisely under this category. On the most external and apparent level, it serves as an historic document of the struggles of a nation and its inhabitants’ relation to God. On a deeper level, it uses historical events as metaphors for human wisdom, teaching by myth what logic cannot convey. And on an even deeper level, it is a detailed psychological illustration of the micro-cosmos man, who contains within himself a heaven, an earth and a hell.
Ouspensky on Finding Hidden Knowledge
But the keys to such hidden knowledge are well guarded. For one, the knowledge is placed where it would be least suspected: right before mankind’s eyes. It is guarded by their illusion that they already understand it. It remains barred by their lack of preparation.
Ouspensky’s travels only showed him the need of coming in contact with awakened individuals. He realized that, until he did so, his search would be a fruitless intellectual examination. On the other hand, once in contact with school, a vast array of ancient wisdom would open up before one, to be used for one’s spiritual advancement.