The Cradle of Ethical Metaphysics

If we turn to the Gathas to determine the geographic origins of Zoroastrianism, it seems reasonable to conclude—or guess—that Zoroastrianism originated somewhere in or around Bactria-Margiana. Recent discoveries of what appear to be ancient, pre-Zoroastrian fire temples in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), appear to confirm this line of reasoning.

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3 (Bactria)

But we cannot necessarily conclude that all aspects of Zoroastrianism can be traced back to the same time or region. The definitive doctrine of cosmic dualism, for instance, is not apparent in the Gathas or in the archeological finds of Bactria-Margiana. Perhaps we can say that the Zarathustra of the Gathas taught that some thinking is good and some is bad, and that dishonesty is a chief characteristic of the latter, but that does not necessarily mean that Zarathustra taught a doctrine of ethical metaphysics—or cosmic dualism, as identified by Nietzsche.

So what would be a good guess as to the geographic origin of cosmic dualism?

When, for starters, did the Zoroastrian Satan “Angra Mainyu”, or Ahriman, first appear?

We know that the words Angra and Mainyu do first appear together in the Old Avestan as “bad thinking” or “miserly thinking”, which is opposed to “Spenta Mainyu” or, roughly, “bounteous thinking”. So it is reasonable to credit the Gathas of Zarathustra with the philosophical seed of cosmic dualism, but it does not necessarily follow that Zarathustra was a cosmic dualist; indeed, it seems positively unlikely that he was.

The earliest evidence available to us at this time of cosmic dualism was an account of Herodotus (484–425 BCE) of the Magi [I 140], which he seems to have identified as a tribe of the Medes, distinct from Persians but related thereto. All Herodotus mentioned was that it was customary among the Magi to kill noxious beasts. Western accounts of Ahriman and cosmic dualism do not emerge until Plutarch (46–120 CE), well into the Parthian era, and probably before a word of the Avesta was put into writing.

In light of this scarcity of evidence, it seems peculiar that what we recognize as Mazdean dualism is so similar to the ideas of Heraclitus, who was a contemporary of Darius, and predated Herodotus by two or three generations. Heraclitus, though, appears to have been critical of the Magi (though he may have been using the term as a generalization for sorcerers, faith healers, etc.). Still, it seems likely that someone by the name Magi were battling “noxious beasts” before the time of Heraclitus. Perhaps their primitive notions of good and evil caused him to reflect on the ubiquity of opposition in nature, but I’m inclined to go a little further and suggest that the dialectic of Heraclitus was probably a response to a doctrine of universal opposition that was commonly known and discussed in his corner of the Persian Empire.

I think it’s fair to credit the term “Ahriman” to Zarathustra, but I am not so sure that the idea of Ahriman is as Zoroastrian as it is Magian, and the Magi, to the best of our knowledge, were Medes. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain that the Magi weren’t a priestly caste throughout the Iranian world.

Where did this cosmic war between good and evil originate? It is not easy to say. Because we cannot say that it began in the Old Avesta, it seems difficult to claim that it originated in the lands of the Old Avesta. Perhaps the best we can say is that it is an Iranian idea. That would include modern peoples from the Pashtuns to the Kurds, and perhaps the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians as well. But when we look at what we have heard of those ancient tribes of the steppes, we find nothing even alluding to cosmic dualism, which might lead us to suggest that it might have been an invention of the Bactrians or Margianans who succeeded Zarathustra, or even the Medes or the Persians. Perhaps the evidence that points to the origin of the name “Ahriman” in the vicinity of Bactrian-Margiana is the best evidence we have for the geographic origin of the idea of Ahriman; but isn’t it possible that Ahriman derives from a Median word of similar meaning?

At this time, I am inclined to credit the Old Avesta as the inspiration behind the idea, and the lands of the Old Avesta as the soil where the seed was fist planted, some 500 years before Herodotus. There was plenty of time for the idea to develop. When and where it first took the form of doctrine is difficult to say.

The Original Holy Land

What place do most of us think of when we hear the term “Holy Land”?

Perhaps we ought to think of Afghanistan.

Let us begin by looking at that highly influential proto-western religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism. Though it is evident that Judaism originated in Mesopotamia and developed in and around Palestine, it is also evident that Judaism acquired much of its classical character during its Babylonian captivity, and that much of the influence that the Judeans succumbed to was Persian.

Lapis Lazuli
The finest lapis lazuli is mined in the mountains of Afghanistan.

It has long been recognized that Zoroaster, the “Persian Prophet”, was no Persian. He was surely an Iranian, but there are no traditions or evidence placing Zarathustra in or near the ancient province of Pars.

It was once commonly thought that he may have been a Mede, but modern scholars have abandoned that hypothesis as well, and have established a consensus that Zarathustra lived far from Media and Pars.

Today, the suggested homelands of Zarathustra range from Sakastan (greater Sistan), in what is today Afghanistan and far eastern Iran, to the Oxus Delta, in modern Uzbekistan. The Avestan language is considered to be a northeast Iranian language, more closely related to Scythian and Pashto than Persian.

Most modern scholars appear to agree on Bactria or Margiana as the cradle of Zoroastrianism:

  • Frye: Bactria and Chorasmia [1]
  • Khlopin: the Tejen Delta in Margiana [2]
  • Sarianidi: Bactria and Margiana [3]

This modern school of thought is not without its classical antecedents, though the antecedents are of dubious authenticity. A half-dozen early Christian scholars, apparently beginning with Justin, believed that Zoroaster was a Bactrian king who fought the Assyrians. [4,5,8]

Eusebius of Caesarea appears to have thought that Zoroaster predated Abraham:

Ninus the Assyrian, who is said to have been the first ruler of all Asia except India: after him was named the city Ninus, which among the Hebrews is called Nineve; and in his time Zoroastres the Magian reigned over the Bactrians. And the wife of Ninus and his successor in the kingdom was Semiramis; so Abraham was contemporary with these.

Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, Book X, Capter 9

It’s unlikely that Zoroaster ever fought—or even heard of—the Assyrians, yet it is curious how many ancient accounts refer to him as a Bactrian. Perhaps those accounts originate in stories that traveled west after Alexander’s conquest of Bactria.

The World of the Avesta

As researchers have striven to identify that countries mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta, they have found that:

… almost all identified countries are situated beyond the present borders of Iran, to the east and northeast. The only exception is Sistán, and only for its westernmost part. [6]

It turns out that if any modern country can be called the birthplace of Iranian religion, it is Afghanistan, with the world of the Avesta spilling into neighboring Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Indeed, this very region may have been the cradle of Indian religion as well—the land of the Vedas.

Western Expansion

When and how did Zoroastrianism find its way to Persia? It may have made its way into the Empire of the Medes after 625 B.C.E., when the Medes conquered—or appropriated—Bactria. The Medes may well have had a particular interest in Bactria, as the lapis lazuli trade had existed between Media and Bactria into the remote past, possibly even before the Iranians arrived in the region. The route, known as the Great Khorasan Road and the High Road, later became a major segment of the Silk Road. It is possible that trade may even have brought Zoroastrianism into Media before there was a Median Empire. The religion may then have spread from Media to Pars, the land of King Cyrus, who famously liberated the Judeans, and thereby earned the title “messiah”.


  1. Frye, Richard N. (1992), “Zoroastrians in Central Asia in Ancient Times”, Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 58: 6–10
  2. Khlopin, I.N. (1992), “Zoroastrianism – Location and Time of its Origin”, Iranica Antiqua 27: 96–116
  3. Sarianidi, V. (1987), “South-West Asia: Migrations, the Aryans and Zoroastrians”, International Association for the Study of Cultures of Central Asia Information Bulletin 13: 44–56
  4. Nigosian, S.A. (1993), “The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition & Modern Research”: 17
  5. Gnoli, Gherardo (1980), “Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland”, Seminario di Studi Asiatici, Series Minor, vol. 7. Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale: 91–127
  6. Curtis & Stewart (2005), “Birth of the Persian Empire: The Idea of Iran”: 30–
  7. Druncker, Max (), “The History of Antiquity”, : 69–

Good, Evil, and Plutarch

American Faravahar

American Faravahar

Henry David Thoreau, an obscure 19th Century classicist and journalist who earned a reputation as a decent translator of Greek works, once reflected on the profound presence of Evil in the world:

Are there not two powers?

—Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jan 9, 1853

Among the Greek classics which Thoreau is known to have read is Plutarch’s Moralia, which includes an essay

wherein Plutarch argues that the prevailing wisdom of all peoples is based upon a common belief in a cosmic dualism of Good and Evil.

… it is from two opposite Principles and two antagonistic Powers; … that Life becomes of a mixed nature; …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLV

The primary example provided by Plutarch for what he regards as a universal belief is the Zoroastrian religion, to which he dedicates two sections of “On Isis and Osiris”.

And this is the opinion of most men, and those the wisest, for they believe, some that there are Two Gods, as it were of opposite trades—one the creator of good, the other of bad things; others call the better one “God,” the other “Daemon,” as did Zoroaster the Magian, …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLVI

But when Plutarch endorses these cosmic dualisms, he endorses them as representations of a deep, moral-metaphysical reality.

Just before Plutarch brings up Zoroaster, he argues against Stoic Deism and the Materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, criticizing them as opposite, equally unacceptable extremes. He summons our friend Heraclitus to introduce the alternative:

… the harmony of the universe is reciprocal, like that of a lyre or bow, according to Heraclitus, …

On Isis and Osiris, XLV

And just after discussing Zoroaster, Plutarch returns to Heraclitus, combining three of the Ephesian philosopher’s fragments into a single compound argument:

Heraclitus directly calls Mars, father, lord, and ruler of all things; and says that Homer, when he prays that “Perish Contention, both from gods and men,” forgets that he is cursing the origin of all things, inasmuch as they derive their origin from contention and antipathy, and the Sun will not overpass his appointed limits, otherwise: “The avenging tongue of Law would find him out,” …

On Isis and Osiris, XLVIII

Thus we find in Plutarch Zoroaster sandwiched between slices of Heraclitus. One might dare suggest that Plutarch saw some correspondence between those two ancient thinkers, one an Iranian, perhaps a Mede or a Persian, and the other a Greek subject of the Persian Empire.

Seeing Zoroaster in this light, not as a literalist but as a proto-Heraclitean, I wonder what fruit an imaginary encounter between Nietzsche and Plutarch might bear. What if the German were to suggest to the Greek that he had seen the potential in Zarathustra and thereby reformed the Persian prophet, beyond Good and Evil, into a Heraclitean? Would Plutarch have been surprised? Might Plutarch have asserted that Zarathustra was a Heraclitean all along?

Zarathustra the Yes Man.

There is perhaps no message more essential to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra than the whole-hearted affirmation of life as an individual experience.

I am a blesser and a Yea-sayer, … into all abysses I carry my blessing Yea-saying.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3.4, Before Sunrise

This affirmation of life as a whole appears to be the end to which Nietzsche employs the Stoic notion of eternal recurrence, but his affirmation of everything owes much to Heraclitus (who may have inspired the Stoics to think of eternal recurrence in the first place). Fundamentally, it is the Heraclitean vision of the impermanence and intertangledness of everything that causes Nietzsche to take valuation of life “beyond good and evil”. But that is another discussion.

What I wish to point out here is that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a prophet of affirmation, and an iconoclast to the idols of rejection.

To Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy is the teacher of rejection, the “preacher of death”:

There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom rejection of life must be preached.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.9, On the Preachers of Death

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has also been called a prophet of “dionysian pantheism” and “amor fati”. This is not exactly the image that most Zoroastrians have of their prophet, but the two Zarathustras are not as dissimilar as one might presume, for Zoroastrianism is notable as a religion that values “this life” most of all, and considers this “physical” or “getig” world to be the full realization and highest state of existence.

The getig existence is better than the previous menog one, for in it Ahura Mazda’s perfect creation received the added good of solid and sentient form.

—Mary Boyce, “Zoroastrians”, page 25

The Avestan origin of the word “getig”, Gaethya, derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning ‘to live’. The opposite of getig is “menog”, which derives from the root “to think”. Though the mental world is considered the primal world, it is the living world that is the ultimate fulfillment of existence. Zoroastrianism does not look to any world but the present “living” world for its ultimate fulfillment, and in seeking that fulfillment, it endeavors to defend a twofold principle of virtue that is at once Truth and Life against the opposite principle of Lie and Death.

Though Nietzsche may indeed have thought that his Zarathustra was the true prophet of life-affirmation, I sometimes pause to wonder whether the fatalistic sense of his doctrine of eternal recurrence is, as Heidegger thought, actually a rejection of the transient character of life. It may be that the Zoroastrian idea of engagement in a cosmic battle or ethical striving is a better model for a truly life-affirming worldview, even though it does not depict every aspect of existence as equally blessed.

No other religion expresses as clearly as Zoroastrianism the affirmation of life, …

—S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, pg. 118

The earthy, irreverent, self-parodying joviality that distinguishes a part of the Parsi character was born of a mixture of influences that included the Zoroastrian life-affirming outlook, …

—Jesse S. Palsetia, The Parsis of India, pg. 186

The Zoroastrian conception of human existence is essentially a joyful and life-affirming one…

—Diané Collinson and Robert Wilkinson, Thirty-Five Oriental Philosophers, page 4

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 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.

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.

Love, Sympathy, and Value

The September 13 episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast really struck a chord with me. I spent most of the episode mumbling non-verbal cues of non-committal acquiescence, but by the end I was slapping the steering wheel, saying, “that’s fucking beautiful” with tears welling up in my eyes. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The key, to violate the plot line and jump to the climax, is to recognize the sympathetic and value-conscious aspects of love. Adam Smith came close when he recognized the sympathetic nature of human intelligence, and some Stoics seem to have believed in our natural capacity to appropriate others into our sense of self-consciousness (oikeiosis), but neither party, so far as I know, combined the notions of sympathy and value-consciousness as does Australian philosopher Jeanette Kennett:

What I saw so vividly in the most general sense was my son as a valuer.

Her trembling voice, no doubt, may have influenced my reaction, but this thinking has a deep appeal to me. It is not enough to sympathize with the joy and pain of others (please read Smith before you correct me with the word “empathize”). That is fine, but I believe the word “love” means something more, and the idea that we directly experience—or “see vividly”—the subjective value-consciousness of others is about as close as I’ve heard an idea get.

Thank you for listening, that was very brave of you. People have to learn that underlying business, the message of everything is love. Which is why society sticks together. You and I have love. —Jonathan, in Tell me I’m Here by Anne Deveson

If I’m selling Adam Smith or the Stoics short here, please let me have it. I would be happy to give them their due.

Because I believe love to be an innate inclination, I cannot use this line of reasoning to endorse Christian love, because Christian love is founded on a narrative of divine love. The dominant idea taught by the Christ-myth is that God loves us, therefore we ought to love one another. This sounds nice, but I believe that it undermines one aspect of love that I value most: its innate character. I would rather associate with the Stoics, who likely wielded a great influence upon Christianity, and came very close to speaking what I feel to be the truth.

Still, it seems to me that all classical western models miss an critical ingredient: value. Perhaps they left it out because they took value for granted. Perhaps it went without saying, but I believe that, in this age, it needs to be said. Plato came close in his near-deification of Beauty, but he didn’t develop that theme enough to convince me that he acknowledged the fundamental importance of value. I know that sounds rather circular: of course value is important! But I don’t mean to say that our sense of value is tied to what we find important; rather, I believe that our very existence is value-laden.

In looking for a classical symbol of this point of view, if not a philosopher or a kindred spirit, I cannot think of a better example than Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his essential intuition of a value-laden world, though the insights of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis and Smith’s theory of moral sentiments are crucial. … And let’s not forget Kennett!

PS: At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m not sure that I would have ever appreciated such discussions on love had I not become a parent.

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.


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.


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?

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.