Also Sprach Herakleitos

Nietzsche’s choice of the Iranian (not necessarily Persian) prophet Zarathustra was far from arbitrary, and Nietzsche wanted us to know this.

“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name of Zarathustra means in precisely my mouth, …” — Ecce Homo

Though taking the title “the first immoralist,” Nietzsche did not suggest that his Zarathustra is the anti-Zarathustra, as one might superficially presume. Nietzsche, rather, believed that the great dualist of old would be the first man to discover “the death of God,” as it were, because of the nature of the Zarathustrian worldview.

“Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, and end-in-itself, in his work.” — Ecce Homo

It was the cosmic dualism of Zarathustra, as Nietzsche knew the prophet, that led Nietzsche to make such use of him. To Nietzsche, as to many others, Zarathustra is the prophet that brought morality and metaphysics together, seeing good and evil as the very metaphysical fabric of reality. This was the first essential aspect of Zarathustra. The second essential aspect is the fundamental distinction between Zarathustra’s good and evil: Truth (Asha) and the Lie (Druj). To Nietzsche, Zarathustra was the most honest prophet, so Nietzsche thought that the honesty of Zarathustra would ultimately prevail over his moralism, taking him “beyond good and evil.”

“Not only has he had longer and greater experience here than any other thinker … what is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supremem virtue. … To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue. — Have I been understood?” — Ecce Homo

That triumph of honesty over the idols of moralism is a central theme of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“I count nothing more valuable and rare today than honesty.” — TSZ, Of the Higher Man (4.13.8)

Nietzsche plays with other Zoroastrian themes throughout the book:

  • Mountains: Zarathustra was as much a mountain prophet as any, and Nietzsche loved mountains.
  • He returns repeatedly to purity, even speaking of the need for cleansing after childbirth.
  • He honors cattle, and the ox, more than once.
  • He likens Zarathustra to a rooster, a bird that is treated with reverence by Zoroastrians because of its role as a harbinger of the dawn (3.13.1).
  • Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, like the Zarathustra of tradition, experiences an enlightened moment wherein he doesn’t cast a shadow.

Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is no nihilist, but rather quite the opposite. The lesson is not that good and evil are irrelevant; they are crucial:

“No greater power has Zarathustra found on earth than good and evil. … without evaluation the nut of existence would be hollow.” — TSZ 1.15: Of the Thousand and One Goals

This is not the only passage where Zarathustra associates good and evil with power.

What Nietzsche’s Zarathustra discovers is that they are not static:

“Allegories are all names of good and evil: they do not express, they merely hint. A fool is he who wants knowledge of them!” — TSZ 1.22.1

“May your virtue be too lofty for the familiarity of names: and if you must talk about her, be not ashamed to stammer about her. So speak and stammer: … I do not will it as the law of a God, …” — TSZ 1.5: On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions

Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who lived circa 500 B.C.E., said something quite similar about the allegorical nature of truth:

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.

What Zarathustra sees in good and evil is what Heraclitus sees in his Logos: a harmonious war of loving antagonists.

“… the secret of all life! That there is battle and inequality and war for power and predominance even in beauty … How divinely vault and arch here oppose one another in the struggle: how they strive against one another with light and shadow, these divinely-striving things.” — TSZ 2.7: Of The Tarantulas

How closely this observation resembles what Heraclitus sees in the bow and the lyre:

“People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the cases of the bow and the lyre.”

For Heraclitus, the world is not merely flux, but more: the world is a war of opposites, but it is also a symphony.

We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

Heraclitus criticizes the poet who said, ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men’ [Homer Iliad 18.107]’ for there would not be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male, which are opposites. —Aristotle

Another angle of this unity of opposites is the unity of ascent and descent. Both Heraclitus and Zarathustra have something to say on this particular theme:

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.” — Heraclitus

“Summit and abyss—they are now united in one!” — TSZ 3.1: The Wanderer

This symphony of opposition is the key idea that Zarathustra and Heraclitus have in common. Near the end of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the prophet sings:

“All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love; …” — TSZ 4.19.10: The Drunken Song

Likewise, Heraclitus says:

“Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.”

Heraclitus & Zoroaster

This commonality between Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Heraclitus is startling, but what is also startling is that Heraclitus may have also recognized the common ground between his own thought and the Zarathustra of antiquity, for there are some striking similarities between the two:

  • To Heraclitus, the world is a war of opposites; to traditional Zoroastrianism, the world is a war between two opposing forces (Good and Evil).
  • Heraclitus drew a parallel between his Logos and fire, just as the Zoroastrians’ universal principle of Asha is associated with fire. Heraclitus is thought by many to have taught that the world is made of fire, whereas Zoroastrians are thought to worship fire.
  • Heraclitus draws an identity between “the wise” and divinity; the God of Zoroastrianism is named “Lord Wisdom”.
  • Heraclitus lived in the Persian Empire, perhaps 1-7 centuries after Zarathustra.

Seeing all this commonality, it is not hard to see a triad formed by Heraclitus and the two Zarathustras. One might venture to assert that both Heraclitus and Nietzsche strove to take the theme of Zarathustra beyond the dogmatism of Zoroastrianism, though, whereas Nietzsche made a point of making references to Zarathustra, Heraclitus appears to have taken the opposite course, perhaps in an effort to avoid being associated with the Persians among his fellow Greeks, or possibly to discourage any suggestion that his “Logos” is in any way a derivative of any doctrine.

Nietzsche could even be seen to have taken that departure into the poetic, musical style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra specifically to serve the theme. In doing so, Nietzsche conceived of a protagonist that is not unlike our image of Heraclitus: something of a hybrid between poet and philosopher; a cryptic, contrary riddler and hermit; an elitest and yet a prophet for universal affirmation. Even Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, similar to a Stoic doctrine that was likely inspired by Heraclitus’ notion of a cyclic return of things to fire, teaches a somewhat Heraclitean lesson of world-affirmation. There is much in common between Nietzsche and Heraclitus, and much of what they share can be attributed to the legacy of Zoroastrianism, itself a religion of world-affirmation.

Prop 8: Making Government into God

The upcoming election will give Californians an opportunity to declare that we are dedicated to the core American principle of non-intervention of government in personal and spiritual affairs. My fellow Californians, let us not place spiritual vows in the domain of the state. This is not China or Soviet Russia. Strike down Proposition 8.

Gimme that Old Time Religion

Yeah, that’s right, I consider myself a Mazdean, among other things. I’m sure that there are a lot of Mazdeans who would not consider me a Mazdean, but that doesn’t matter to me. They won’t be around for long anyhow.

 

Why, you may ask, have I adopted such an ancient, backward, and dying religion? Well it’s not just because I want my corpse to be devoured by birds.

Here are the principles of Zoroastrianism as I see it. How does it stack up against your fundamentals? Tell me what you think.

American Transcendentalism by Philip F. Gura
  • Cosmic Dualism. Traditional Zoroastrianism is chiefly about a universal war between Good and Evil. I, like Henry David Thoreau, see morality in every aspect of our lives, just as Heraclitus saw that “war is the master of all”. I interpret the cosmic battle between Good and Evil existentially, that is, that the phenomena of consciousness are fundamentally moral, and that our very existence is saturated with a sense of good and bad, that is to say, perception is value-laden. Some might prefer to say that our perceptions are aesthetic, but I don’t think that “aesthetic” is a strong enough term for our involvement in the world.The Zoroastrian God is benevolent, but not omnipotent. The key point of this is that the only legitimate object of worship is the Good, or one might say Beauty (in the word’s broadest sense), and that no compensation can supersede the value of the Good. In other words, the Good is the only reward.
  • Universal Salvation. Zoroastrian salvation is ultimately the salvation of existence itself. Personal salvation is secondary to world reform.
  • Fire (Atar). Fire is the symbol of universal order, just as it was for Heraclitus. It’s also a beacon of a somewhat moral character; a temple in its own right. It’s more than a mere symbol of life, illumination, transformation, and purification; it’s a tangible phenomenon, and, as combustion, it is our very life force, and the most ancient companion and technology of our species.
  • Life (Getig). I believe in affirming and celebrating life—this life, in recognizing the Good in life, and living wholly within the present day and the present world. “One world at a time.” (Thoreau)
  • Truth (Asha). Asha vs. Druj: truth vs. the lie. I believe that a proper understanding of the Zoroastrian principle Asha, which is symbolized by fire, must be understood in the context of its opposition to Druj. Like Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry David Thoreau, I revere the truth, though I do not believe in confession. Most of all, I strive against the inner lie.”Every violation of truth is a stab at the health of human society.”—Emerson

    “There is no wisdom save in truth.”—Martin Luther

    “Sincerity is impossible unless it pervades the whole being, and the pretense of it saps the very foundation of character.”—James Russell Lowell

  • Wisdom (Mazda). As with Heraclitus, divinity is characterized best as wisdom. The traditional name for Mazdaism, “Mazdayasna”, literally means “wisdom worship”, not terribly unlike the original meaning of the word “philosophy.”
  • Partnership (Hamkar). Men are free agents, and potential allies of Good Lord Wisdom (who is not omnipotent) in working toward world reform.
  • Sustenance and Sustainability. The heart—or gut—of Good Religion is to feed the people, and to refrain from acting recklessly with the bounty of the earth (natural resources). Zoroastrians are famous gardeners.
  • Camaraderie with beneficial mammals (“dogs”). In most cases, animals such as sheep dogs, hedgehogs, and otters are considered allies and equals of man.

Zoroastrianism is a very ancient religion, and its scriptures take us back to a primitive society that hardly seemed to know civilization or large-scale warfare. It is a close cousin of the religion of the Vedas, and so it is like that Olive Tree in the Qur’án which is neither of the East nor the West (yes, Iran is indeed within the native range of the olive). Furthermore, it is the ancient root of my religious heritage, not only in the sense that it has influenced the Bahá’í Faith, but also in its influence of Shí’a Islám, Islám in general, and Judaism and Christianity.

In a sense, I was born a Zoroastrian. I was, in fact, raised to believe that Zoroaster was a perfect incarnation (“manifestation”) of God, which is not at all how I have come to see Zoroaster. I now see him as an inspiring myth for mankind, which is a better thing than any divine prophet idol could ever hope to be.

If that doesn’t convince you to convert, here: Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian! (Say no more!)

Religious Tolerance in Ancient Persia

The Vendidad is the Zoroastrian book of laws that was supposed to have been authored, if not written down, roughly around the time of Christ. The content, though, seems quite ancient. There is very little in the Vendidad that suggests that it was written for a civilized (urban) people, or even a warring people; yet, it is supposed to have been authored after Iran had been civilized for over 600 years. It is because of the ancient character of the content that I’m inclined to believe it retained much from an older, primitive tradition.

Reading the Vendidad, one might nearly guess that the supposed author was aware of little more than his own tribe. There’s nothing in the Vendidad about national or intertribal government, kings, or even warfare, though the existence of unbelievers is acknowledged. There are several passages that indicate some discrimination against unbelievers; for instance, murdering an unbeliever does not appear to be regarded as a crime (as in Judaism, perhaps to distinguish murder from warfare), and it also seems that an unbeliever could be absolved of some crimes by converting to Mazdaism.

There are also indications that Mazdean law does not apply to unbelievers, and that would seem to be corroborated by history. The Parthian Empire was evidently a relatively tolerant, loosely-organized empire, and though the Parthians’ Sasanian (Sassanid) successors were quite strict with regard to treason, heresy, and apostasy, they appear to have sometimes permitted Jews and Christians to live somewhat autonomously under their reign. It is thought that the Sasanians were the first rulers to apply what became known as the “millet” system, wherein each recognized religious group would enforce its own laws internally.

“… under the early Sasanians much of the groundwork for the future was established. For example the authority over political and economic affairs of the heads of various religious minorities, famous as the millet system of the much later Ottoman Empire, seems to have been organized by the early Sasanians, as well as the tax system applied to minorities.”

The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods
Edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater
The Cambridge History of Iran
Page 132

‘It was likewise under Sassanid rule that the first agreement which can properly be called by the name of “millet” was concluded.’

Religion and Nationality
Werner J. Cahnman

“In 410 AD, during the rule of Yazgard I (399-420), Christians were recognized as a millet, or separate religious community, and were protected as such within the organization of the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid law recognized that the Head of the Christian millet was responsible for upholding discipline within the millet and that the state gave formal backing and recognition to the Head.”

The Christians of Lebanon
Political Rights in Islamic Law
By David D. Grafton
Page 20

The millet system of Yazdagird I, the enlightened rule of other Sassanid kings like Hormizd IV, and the open rule of the Parthians were, in a sense, continuations of a more ancient tradition of interfaith tolerance; established a millennium earlier by Cyrus the Great.

Unfortunately, this and other gestures of Royal toleration were more than equaled by waves of persecution, usually driven by the Zoroastrian priesthood. This is no surprise, for the people most invested in the status quo (the priesthood and aristocracy), as well as the people that must have truly believed the doctrines of traditional Zoroastrianism would have been in natural opposition to religions like Christianity, Mazdakism, and Manichaenism. Irreconcilable beliefs about eternal salvation and damnation are bound to fall into conflict before long.

Still, the situation was not simple. Persecution against Manichaenism, for instance, only flared up after 30 years of royal support had allowed the young faith to flourish. Persecution against Christians, for their part, was often a reaction against Christian expansion efforts and refusal to respect the gods of other peoples.

The question I am attempting to find an answer for is: did Zoroastrianism help or hurt the situation? I am inclined to believe the latter. The dominant traditionalism was too strong to permit toleration for long, in spite of more enlightened aspects of the faith. It was typically the kings who sought tolerance, perhaps realizing a modest tolerance to be in the best interests of the Empire.

Gods of Wisdom


The wise (sophos) is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus. —Heraclitus

Zarathashtra worshiped something he called “Lord Wisdom” (Mazda). He called his religion Mazdayasna, which translates to “worship of wisdom.” Heraclitus might have been the first Greek to advocate philos-sophia, or “love of wisdom.”

Heraclitus and Zarathashtra made a God of wisdom. What might they have meant? “Wisdom” is such a commonly used word with secondary shades of meaning. The greek word “sophia” is no less versatile. Heaven only knows the full breadth of the Avestan “Mazda”.

My fat little Oxford Dictionary of Current English provides the following definition:

wisdom • n. 1 the quality of being wise. 2 the body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period: oriental wisdom.

Alright, so wisdom is primarily a derivative of the adjective wise. That sounds about right. What is wise?

wise • adj. 1 having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment. …

I believe this definition does a fair job of breaking wisdom down into its particulars.

Judgment

Good judgment is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of what we think of when we hear the word wisdom. It is necessary because the notion of wisdom depends upon a notion of rationality.

Choice (Action)

Wisdom cannot be automatic or mechanical. It must involve choice. To suggest that any process can be consider wise if that process was not an outcome of some decision is to propose a concept other than wisdom.

Hence, one might rightly say that if freedom is an illusion, so is wisdom.

Action (and wise inaction) are critical to wisdom, of course, but one might argue that so long as wisdom is embodied, it seems that action and inaction are implied in the idea of choice.

Experience & Knowledge

Experience and knowledge are also necessary to the definition, and I don’t think that personal experience and acquired (or a priori) knowledge merge into one, nor do I think that wisdom can be seen as implying one to the exclusion of the other.

Virtue

The adjective good is crucial to the adjective wise, and I don’t think that any specific definition of what is good is necessary to require this. What is wise is dependent upon what is good, regardless of what good is established to be.

To suggest that wisdom could be defined in an amoral context, using a broad, philosophical meaning of moral (ethical, virtuous), would be to violate the general meaning of wisdom, for the word wise must imply judgment that serves the good. To put it simply, it is generally understood that wisdom is a good, virtuous thing. Let’s remember: we are attempting to understand a word, rather than describing an actual phenomenon.

To summarize, wisdom consists of:

  • reason (judgment)
  • choice; action/inaction
  • direct experience
  • knowledge (innate & acquired)
  • goodness

Can we rightly use these concepts to describe the thought of Heraclitus and Zarathushtra?

With respect to Heraclitus: reason, knowledge, and direct experience were crucial, but the roles of choice and goodness in his thought are debatable. Choice may be permissible to his pantheistic God. The fragments of Heraclitus do not seem fatalistic in their social arguments, so one might claim that choice goes without saying. As for goodness, Heraclitus claims that good and evil are not universal aspects of existence. But would it not have been paradoxical for Heraclitus to tout the virtue of his Logos without considering the Logos—in some sense—good? When he spoke of a universal sophos, he must have been implying a higher good.

Regardless of what attributes the actual Zarathushtra acscribed to his God Ahura Mazda, it can fairly safely be claimed that notions of choice and goodness are fundamental to his religion. There is substantial evidence that Zoroastrianism values reason, but I am not so sure that knowledge and experience are fundamental to Zoroastrianism. Some Zoroastrians may claim that their religion values knowledge, and that it is a very empirical religion, but I am dubious on the suggestion that any traditional religion can be called empirical. Still, if we posit that Zarathushtra, be he real or myth, did worship wisdom to the exclusion of all else, we must incorporate a respect for knowledge and direct experience into his religion, for is it not evident that knowledge and experience are the chief elements of the most primitive notions of wisdom?

Yet Another Persian Word For Self-Preservation


This is a continuation of our discussion on ketman.

I just read a well-timed feature article on Iran in the August 2008 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which emphasizes yet another social practice used by Persians for self-preservation through self-concealment: tárof:

Stone griffin

Tárof is an Arabic word, writes author Marguerite del Giudice, that represents a Persian “system of ritual politeness”, typically manifested as an artful but predictable practice of self-deprecation and modesty. Del Guidice cites anthropologist William O. Beeman, who characterizes the practice as “fighting for the lower hand.”

You Da Man!
It’s essentially the Persian equivalent for the American
“you da man!” “no, you da man!” protocol.

Curiously, del Guidice contends that the height of tárof is to conceal one’s true feelings, beliefs, and identity:

Being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding your true feelings—artful pretending—is considered the height of taarof and an enormous social asset. “You never show your intention or your real identity,” said a former Iranian political prisoner now living in France. “You’re making sure you’re not exposing yourself to danger, because throughout our history there has been a lot of danger there.”

It’s a peculiar practice for a nation that is thought to have once valued honesty and trustworthiness as much as anything. Were the Persians like this before the Arab Conquest? Did they practice ketman, taqiyya, and this form of tárof before Islám made these practices so necessary?

Exceptions to this rule do remain in Iran, though they remain under substantial pressure to relent. The Bahá’ís and the few remaining Zoroastrians come to mind.

Incidentally, for you cartophiles out there, the issue comes with a beautiful two-sided map of modern Iran and ancient Persia. The latter side is noticeably lacking in detail, but features a depiction of the route of the Royal Road.

Last of the Starry-Eyed Orientalists

Since Iran deteriorated into Islamic fundamentalism in 1979, and the Ayatollahs resurfaced to rid Iran of unclean things such as infidels, heretics, and homosexuals, we haven’t heard much from the starry-eyed orientalist; that scholar who tires of the daunting empiricism, formal scientific process, excessive prosperity, and agnostic materialism of the West, and turns to the Orient of whirling dervishes and flying carpets for a renovation of romance.

It’s rather like stepping back in time.

I can understand the need, but I cannot bear to conflate a feline curiosity for the exotic with the transparently negative escapism of these naive daydreamers.

The last of these gullible scholastic tourists was perhaps Henry Corbin, who died in his native France in October 1978, while Ruhollah Khomeini was living in exile in the very same land. I recently read Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1960), hoping to educate myself further on the thought and culture of ancient Iran.

One of the dominant themes of the book is its continual denigration of the West and its loss of faith. Complementing that theme is the book’s air of absolute certainty with regard to the author’s own gnostic and theosophical doctrines. Fair enough: it would do Corbin no good to appear uncertain or impartial, for it is clearly just that impartiality and “pious agnosticism” of the West that he yearns to forsake.

Corbin’s primary need, next to a general desire to believe and to be a Persian, appears to be to find a foundation for immortality. He finds his beloved eternity in a sort of a world of forms—or images, or more: it’s a world of dimensions, sights, smells, and tastes just like our own—very real. The only difference is that his world of images has no death or deterioration.

Let me guess what you’re thinking: in a world full of unchanging, immortal images, can anything or anyone ever be truly alive?

To each his own. Some people simply cannot see the forest for the trees. They cannot see that a living world exists right before their eyes. All they need do to attain immortality is to loosen their grasp on their idols and let the changes flow. But they refuse to acknowledge the rules of the game, though it be the only game in town.

“Through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed.”
—Henry Corbin, Jambet, 1981, pp. 62-3

Corbin, purportedly following the lead of his idol, the Islamic mystic Suhrawardi, made a fundamental misjudgment of the character of Zoroastrian thought. There appears to be a consensus among scholars of Zoroastrianism that it is a life-affirming religion of this world. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of Suhrawardi’s mysticism. Suhrawardi may have revived a form of ancient thought—Manichean thought perhaps, but his efforts only served to increase the distance between Islamic and Zoroastrian Iran.

I would venture to claim that mainstream Shi’ism is closer to Zoroastrianism than the abstract, world-denying asceticism of Suhrawardi (and Sufism in general). This may possibly discredit Zoroastrianism in the eyes of Western admirers of Sufism, but it remains a fact—for better or for worse—that Zoroastrianism is not a mystical, ascetic religion. It is a religion of community and engagement with the world; in no danger of the solipsism and amoral disengagement that Sufi practitioners have always been hazardously near. Not to discredit Sufism: it offers a lot to admire, but it has little in common with the religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

Now’s it’s peculiar, though not surprising, that Corbin has ample indignation reserved for the religion of most Muslims. Attempting to distance his thinking from the suffocating legalism and orthodoxy of the dominant institutions of Islam, Corbin continually refrains the abyss between “legalistic Islam” and what he calls “spiritual Islam.”

“spiritual Islam, to be sure, … is profoundly different from the legalistic Islam, the official religion of the majority.” —page 52

The majority of Muslims, of course, lack the capacity to appreciate spiritual Islam:

“he who does not possess the inner ear cannot be made to hear …” —page 54

This kind of elitist end-run around reason leads one to wonder whether the rest of us ought to simply take his word for all his gnostic, theosophical mumbo jumbo.

One of the first tasks of this “spiritual Islam” is—of course—to recast the Qur‘an as a spiritual book:

“the ta‘wíl is preeminently the hermeneutics of symbols, the ex-egesis, the bringing out of hidden spiritual meaning.” —page 53

Corbin goes on to assert that it was by means of this methodology that Shí‘a mystics transfigured “the meaning of Islam.”

“In the Qur‘an there are verses whose complete meaning cannot be understood except by means of the spiritual hermeneutic, the Shi’ite ta‘wíl. —page 66

I suppose it would charitable of the Shí‘a to let the Sunni use their ta‘wíl, just so they can understand their own scripture? Of course, that will only benefit those with an inner ear, but it’s worth a shot.

Henry Thoreau’s Moral Universe

I’ve been a wilderness lover since the summer my brother David and I first rode our bicycles into the Sierra Nevada, but I never did think much of Henry David Thoreau, until I suddenly fell in love with him.

To me, Thoreau was just some New England liberal garden-naturalist who might have liked to walk Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled”. He was no John Muir.

I’m not sure that I ever really read Walden until I was about 40 years old, after I had just read some Nietzsche and some books on Zoroastrianism.

What an eye-opener! The author of Walden was a mystic, a radical individualist, a wit, and a metaphysician. I was most taken by his usage of the word “moral”, and saw in him shades of Nietzsche and Zoroaster, and maybe a touch of Heraclitus.

Since losing my religious faith, I had become more and more convinced that faith must come from within, as asserted by Emerson in his radical essay “Self-Reliance”. This doctrine was clearly something that Thoreau had taken to heart, but there was much more to him than that.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he said. That is just what I had been yearning to hear. I was attracted to the idea of an ethical metaphysics, that is, a way of looking at the world as fundamentally moral, rather than material or “spiritual” (non-material?). I had begun to understand that everything that we observe seems to be perceived aesthetically. Couple that with our ever-present sense of intention, and you might see a world that “is startlingly moral”; both value-laden and intentional.

One of the great expressions of this idea in human culture can be found in Zoroastrianism. This Iranian religion stood out among the classical schools of thought as one that saw the world morally rather than metaphysically. They saw everything composed of good and/or evil. Their metaphysics, if it can be called metaphysics, is usually called “cosmic dualism.” It is based upon the idea that the world is essentially a cosmic conflict between good and evil.

Thoreau often seemed to see the world as a moral landscape, but he did not view Nature as a moral guide. At times, he would confess that his beloved Nature could be quite cruel, and he could sound a lot like a Zoroastrian:

“Are there not two powers?”
—Journal, Jan 9, 1853

Tauber hits upon this aspect of Thoreau:

Thoreau appreciates the terrifying otherness of nature, an insight that McGregor (1997) has argued was pivotal to Thoreau’s existential and literary development.

Walden startled me. I had just read a work by Nietzsche using the character of the Persian Prophet Zoroaster as the protagonist in a modern moral drama, and next thing I know I’m reading from what I thought was an environmentalist who sounds something like a prophet of ethical metaphysics, like an American Zarathustra!

Curiously, it turns out that Zarathustra (AKA Zarathushtra ), little that we know of him, was also an environmentalist. One of the causes closest to his heart appears to have been sustainable agriculture.

Funny that Thoreau features Zoroaster in one of the paragraphs of Walden:

“The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, …”

Thoreau seemed to think of himself as a prophet of sorts, perhaps the Prophet of Concord. I must admit that hadn’t occurred to me, though, until I read a certain book on Thoreau.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was rummaging through a used book store in Berkeley and stumbled onto Alfred I. Tauber’s book Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing (2001). My eyes must have popped out. If they did, I was too startled to notice. I had found someone wThe Moral Agency of Knowingho was willing to discuss the ethical metaphysics and epistemology of Thoreau.

Upon doing the reading, I was not disappointed. The book is difficult at times, but it is generally accessible, and quite thorough. Tauber clearly took great pains to address Thoreau’s philosophy of value in the context of the enlightenment, romanticism, positivism, existentialism and phenomenalism.

Tauber’s central theme is Thoreau’s view of science. Tauber presents Thoreau as a Romantic naturalist confronted by the onset of positivism, and the dualistic subject-object metaphysics that positivism rested upon, both of which dominated science before the advent of Quantum Mechanics, and still have a strong influence on the modern mind. To Tauber, Thoreau is a poet-naturalist attempting to rescue science from the new objectivism of his time.

“… a theme explored here, is that objectified knowledge must be made meaningful. This was the program enunciated by Michael Polanyi, and, I have argued, this was also Thoreau’s own project.” —Tauber, Epilogue

The only major theme that Tauber appears to overlook is the central role of simplicity (purity) in Thoreau’s mysticism and philosophy (another peculiar parallel between Zoroaster and Thoreau). This may be because the psychology of simplicity, as important as it was to Thoreau, was off-topic for Tauber as a philosopher of science.

Further Reading:

Robert Kuhn McGregor, “A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature” (1997)

Parsí Dualism in Shí‘a Islám

Continuing from our discussion of ketman

Some aspects of Islám are reminiscent of Zoroastrianism in ways unique to Islám, for example As-Sirát (Arabic: الصراط), the Bridge of Judgment, which is reminiscent of the Zoroastrian Chinvat Bridge. Other Zoroastrian influences, such as those involving eschatology and angelogy, appear to have entered Islám by way of Judaism and Christianity.

All this pales before the deeper common themes between Zoroastrianism and Shí‘a (شيعة) Islám.

One aspect of Shí‘a Islám that bears a striking similarity to Zoroastrianism is the Shí‘a catalog of najis (ritually unclean) (Arabic: نجس‎) people and things. Shí‘a Islám has historically singled out non-Muslims and human corpses as unclean, whereas, before the advent of Islám, Zoroastrians had considered foreigners and human corpses as unclean. Even to this day, many Zoroastrians refuse to bury or cremate their dead, for fear of contaminating the elements of nature.

A more fundamental similarity can be found in the dualism of Good and Evil common to Zoroastrianism and Shí‘ism:

Concurrent with this dual vision [of exoteric and esoteric], Shi‘ite doctrine is based upon another fundamental belief: a dualistic vision of the world. According to this, the history of creation is a story of a cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, between light and darkness. Given the vital role of initiation and knowledge, as we have just seen, one might say that Good is knowledge and Evil is ignorance. The battle between these respective forces, of these universal antagonistic powers, is woven into the fabric of existence. According to cosmogonic traditions, what marks creation ever since its origin, is the battle between the armies of cosmic Intelligence (al-‘aql) and those of cosmic Ignorance (al-jahl), …
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

As in Zoroastrianism, we see that Shí‘ism associates light with the Good. Furthermore, the struggle is metaphysical, that is, “is woven into the fabric of existence”.

“Zoroaster was the first to discover in the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical, as a force, cause, and end in itself, in his work.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

The cosmic aspect of this struggle cannot but remind one of Zoroastrianism, presuming that one knows anything at all about Zoroastrianism. How much, I wonder, was Zoroastrianism conquered, subjugated, and humiliated, but how much did it survive in new garments?

What then follows from this cosmic struggle is a worldly, political struggle between the forces of good and evil that culminates in the return of the Shí‘a saoshyant, the Imam Mahdi:

According to theories of cycles, which are far from being clear, ever since creation, the world has known two kinds of government (dawla): of God in which prophets and imams, as guides of light and justice, are able to openly teach esoteric truths, and that of Satan in which these truths can only be transmitted and practiced secretly, as the world in this case is under the influence of the guides of darkness and injustice. Satan having been the adversary (zµedd) of Adam, the history of adamic humanity is marked by adversity and violence by demonic forces of Ignorance; during the adamic cycle, these forces will remain dominant–a majority driving the minority of persecuted initiates towards marginality and isolation. Thus it will be until the End of Time and the advent of the Mahdi, the eschatological savior, who will definitively conquer the forces of Evil.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

Closely related to this struggle between Good and Evil is the Shí‘a belief that God does no evil, which is quite similar to the Zoroastrian idea of a Good Creator (Ahura Mazda).

Also tightly bound to moral dualism is a belief in freewill, as a distinguished from the Quranic doctrine of predestination (for example: the Qur‘án says in many places that God misleads men into evil). The Semitic God of the Qur‘án is truly, consistently omnipotent; the Shí‘a and Zoroastrian Gods are not, but benevolent instead.

What does this mean? Shí‘ism is certainly a form of Islám, in spite of all its esoterism, secrecy (ketman), and moral dualism. It has been a de facto division of Islám too long to be cast aside as heresy, regardless of what the Wahabis assert. Shí‘ism’s submission—however twisted by esoteric interpretations—to the God of Islám makes it irrevocably Muslim, yet it seems quite clear that Shí‘ism shows in its very soul the signs of Iran’s Zoroastrian past.

Further Reading

Encyclopedia Iranica:

Najis Stuff:

  • The Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Unclean infidels page.
  • Majalla’s list of Unclean Things
  • Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam” (1984). See pages 33-34 in particular.