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.

Ketman: Veiling God


“There is not a single true Moslem in Persia.”
—Reported statement by a Persian to Arthur Comte de Gobineau
(cited in “Versions of Censorship”, by McCormick & MacInnes)

One of the great accomplishments—or offenses—of Islám was in conquering and subjugating the Persian Empire. Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire a millennium earlier, but it hadn’t been very long until another Iranian empire had taken the place of Alexander’s Hellenistic successors. Even during that short Hellenistic era, Iranians were disenfranchised but they were not so subjugated and humiliated as they would be under Islám.

Classical Islám is known for having been somewhat tolerant of the “people of the Book” (Arabic: أهل الكتاب, Ahl al- Kitâb), but it was far from certain whether Persians qualified as People of the Book at the time of the Arab conquest. Zoroastrianism, as it was practiced, was an oral tradition. The high priests of Persia used books as archives, not as liturgical aids.

It couldn’t have helped that Zoroastrians were generally seen as idolators, because of their use of fire in worship.

Modern Shí‘a (شيعة) Muslims—at least those of Iran—do generally consider Zoroastrians People of the Book, but that is more likely due to the influence of Zoroastrian apostates on the development of Shí‘a Islám than any early Arab view.

It is no secret that one of the closest companions of Muhammad and ‘Alí was a Persian, but that Persian (Salmán) was a Christian. The Arab conquerors had little reason to show tolerance to Zoroastrians, except that the latter were the citizens of a great empire, and may have had a thing or two to share with the Arabs, if only the Persians could be converted.

Many of the Zoroastrian “converts” to Islám were known to be less than dedicated Muslims. There are records of mass apostasies in the years after the Arab conquest. There may have been many Iranians that welcomed Islam, but there were certainly many that did not.

The persecution complex of the Shí‘a is well-known. It is understood to have originated in the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Shí‘a by the Sunni, but I cannot help but wonder whether some of this Shí‘a sense of injustice is rooted in the near-annihilation of Zoroastrian Iran.

The persecution of the Shí‘a apostates of Zoroastrian Iran may have also contributed to the practice of Islam as secretive, esoteric religion that seems rather antithetical to the worldly, practical, and political nature of the Qur‘án.

discretion: … in order to protect one’s own life and security, and those of one’s imam and his companions, as well as the integrity of his doctrine, “secrecy” designated by terms such as taqiyya, ketman and kòab÷ [?] is a canonical obligation for the Shi‘ite.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi

Zoroastrianism, like the Islám of the Qur‘án, is not an ascetic or esoteric faith. Secrecy and esoterism may have been the only means for Iranians (and others) to entertain their heretical epiphanies under the yoke of Islám. If their faith was to survive, it would have to do so in the name of Islám. So I’m not surprised that so many Súfí mystics gave lip service to Islám, or called their heresies “esoteric” readings of Islám. What choice did they have?

Esoterism and secrecy were not Persian passions before Islám. To the contrary, one of the defining characteristics of Zoroastrianism is its aversion to deception. The Zoroastrian notion of Evil, Druj, is typically translated “the Lie”, but alas, it became easier to lie under the shadow of Islamic swords.

It is perhaps best to describe Islamic esoterism as a natural bi-product of Islám. It was probably the might of Islám and its ruthless persecution of heresies (not to be confused with Jews and Christians) that gave rise to Islamic esoterism, so esoterism is an ironic inevitability in the Islamic world. Still, we may yet detect the whisperings of pre-Islamic religion in the orthodox doctrines and esoteric heresies of Islám.

To be continued

Further Reading

The Divine Guide to Early Shi’ism: Sources of Esoterism in Islam, by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi.

Encyclopedia Iranica: Shi‘ite Doctrine by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (2005)

Christopher Hitchens:

A discussion of chapter three of “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz.

Daena

Verses celebrating Daena, that celestial maiden of ancient Iran; symbol of faith and conscience. … This is largely plagiarized from the Vendidad (Fargard 19) and Hadhokht Nask, employing some degree of arbitrary license.

♦—♦—♦

At the end of the third night,
when the dawn appears,
it seems to the soul of the faithful one
as though he were delivered
amidst plants and aromas;

it seems as if a wind were blowing from the region of the south,
from the regions of the south, a sweet-scented wind,
more sweet than any other …

And it seems to the soul of the faithful one
as if he were inhaling that wind into his nostrils,
and he thinks: ‘Whence does that wind blow,
that sweet-scented wind … ?’

And it seems to him as though his own Daena
were advancing toward him on that wind,
in the shape of a maiden fair,
bright, white-armed, strong,

tall-formed, high-standing, full-breasted,
beautiful of body, noble, of a glorious seed,
of the size of a maid in her fifteenth year,
as fair as the fairest things in the world.

‘Then comes the beautiful,
shapely, strong and well-formed maid,
with the hounds at her sides,

she who can discern right and wrong,
with great following, happy,
and of high understanding.

And the soul of the faithful one addresses her,
asking: ‘What maid art thou,
who art the fairest maid I have ever seen?’

She answers him: O thou
youth of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds,
of good religion,
I am thine own conscience!

‘Everyone did love thee for that greatness, goodness, fairness, …
strength and freedom from sorrow,
in which thou dost appear to me;

‘And so thou, O youth
of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds,
of good religion!
didst love me for that greatness, goodness, fairness, …
strength, and freedom from sorrow, in which I appear to thee …

‘I was lovely and thou made me still lovelier;
I was fair and thou made me still fairer;
I was desirable and thou made me still more desirable;

‘I was seated at the fore
and thou made me foremost,

‘through this good thought,
through this good word,
through this good deed of thine; …’

© 2008 Dan J. Jensen

Citadel of Glory

The name “California” appears to go back far beyond Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian. This should not surprise us, for Montalvo’s novel implied that the name was well-known when it was published ca. 1510. The word apparently occurred in the 11th Century epic poem the Song of Roland, at a point in the poem where a Christian army had just been defeated by a Muslim army. In the poem, California was spelled “Califerne”, but that spelling may reflect poetic license, as it occurs at the end of a rhyming stanza. The following citation is provided to illustrate the rhyme:

Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere
Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,
E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,
Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne
E cil d’Affrike e cil de Califerne.

Lynn Townsend White Jr., a California historian, made the following observation about the legendary country of Califerne:

To them [the Spanish conquistadores] California was a land of Orient with fantastic attributes which have been somewhat clarified by a learned authority on Iranian mythology, A. J. Carnoy. Califerne, he asserts, is the Persian Kar-i-farn, “Mountain of Paradise.” On this mountain dwelt enormous birds, half eagle and half lion, in the West generally called griffins.

I have not read Carnoy, nor have I ever heard of Kar-i-farn in any other connection, so I must remain skeptical, but I can put its constituent words together. For me, Kar-i-farn does not translate to “mountain of paradise,” but rather something like “citadel of glory”. Perhaps that’s close enough.

To be more specific …

The word “kar” means something akin to “edifice” in Persian. The same word in Sumerian and Assyrian meant “fortification” or perhaps “citadel”. One may wonder how “kar” could morph to “kal”, and one would be justified, but consider that the Arabic word for fortress or citadel is “qal`ah”.

The word “farn” or “farnah” is an old form of the Persian word “farr” or “farrah”, which means “glory”, as in the glory of God, or the divine splendor of the sun.

It is no surprise to hear griffins spoken of in connection with ancient Persia. The guardians of the Persian Empire were great statues of griffins called “Homa”, sometimes referred to as the “Guardians of the Light”. It would make sense for these “Guardians of Light” to inhabit a “Citadel of Glory”, but I have not yet been able to corroborate Carnoy’s account.

Was California named after a heavenly paradise out of an ancient Persian myth? Is the California condor thus related to the Homa of ancient Persia through legend and myth? The jury is still out, and may remain out for some time.

Morality and Cosmic Dualism

When we look into our basic perceptions, it seems that every slightest perception is in some way pleasurable or painful. Objectively, we can describe the mechanism of pleasure and pain, but we cannot explain the ultimate fact that there is an observer. It is the I am. Whether it is the I think is a matter of some debate.

It seems absurd that somehow the observer is a product of some objective mechanism. How could subjectivity ever emerge from objectivity? The two must coexist at the root of existence. Thought may emerge from some mechanism, but it can hardly be argued that perception itself is thoroughly mechanical.

The Observer does not experience sensations with an indifferent eye, but rather, it always seems to make some kind of value judgment. We can never be truly indifferent: it is not our nature. It seems to me that this moral polarity is a fundamental characteristic of perception itself.

Good and Evil are not simply emergent charateristics of things, but rather, Good and Evil are fundamental, coexistent attributes of subjective reality. This is not to suggest that we can ever comfortably give names to Good and Evil, as Nietzsche put it, but rather, that Good and Evil are two ubiquitous, mutually-opposed aspects of reality. Good and Evil, it might even be proposed, are, in a subjective sense, the stuff that things are made of.