Out of all the post I’ve made on this blog, so far, one in particular solicited the sharpest criticism. It probably had something to do with the title. Naming the post Blame Zarathustra and then connecting the ancient sage to the invention of what I characterized as an extremely dangerous strand of dualistic thinking that normally goes by the name of a later prophet and his religion- Mani and Manichaeism- brought forth much justified criticism from still practicing Zoroastrians and scholars of his ancient faith.
I decided I should do a little homework before holding to such sweeping assertions. I was, in other words, in search of the real Zarathustra, and that search led me to a book of exactly that title: the wonderful In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek.
Kriwaczek’s aim is to uncover both the truth and the legacy of the figure of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), a man he characterizes as the first prophet. His quest takes him throughout Asia and Europe through both the past and the present. For Kriwaczek the new vision that Zarathustra, brought to the world was that:
Unlike other prophets of antiquity, Zarathustra had taught that history was neither cyclic nor eternal. The struggle described between good and evil would one day be brought to as head in a great battle, and after many troubles and torments, the forces of good would be victorious.
Evil would be vanquished; history- the world as we know it-would come to an end. (148)
Zarathustra thus brought two ideas into history that were to be of enormous consequence. The first was the view of history as a battle between the forces of good and evil. The second was the promise that the ugly reality of not just human history but the natural world would come to a beneficent and final end. This latter idea has proven perhaps the most potent for it broke with the much older traditions of a cyclical and therefore irredeemable history. Cyclical views of history and nature were those such as the Hindu idea of Yugas or epochs- a golden age, Satya-Yuga, inevitably giving way to successively worse ages until the total decay of the Kali-Yuga ended and the cycle began all over again. Other cyclical theories of history, such as that of the Greek poet, Hesiod, were almost identical to the Yugas.
Kriwaczek thinks these two ideas: the war between good and evil, and the idea that history is linear and leading to a positive end state, influenced the almost as ancient Hebrew idea of God as an actor in human history. Kriwaczek holds that the ideas of the Hebrews regarding “the end of the world” that were developed independently and can be found in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, among others, were far more this-worldly in nature than the vision of Zarathustra. The early prophets foretold the coming of a messiah and the reordering of the political world in which the Jews would play the role in world affairs we ascribe to conquering and imperial peoples such as the Romans. What the early Hebrew messianic visions did not hold was the idea that history itself, and the relationship of humankind with the world would be revolutionized, which was the view of
the Zoroastrians. ( 149-150)
Kriwaczek sees the Book of Daniel, with its intense imagery and prophesy of a world transformed, which was compiled from earlier stories during the Maccabean revolt of the Jews against the Greeks, as a bridge linking the Hebrew messianic and the apocalyptic legacy of Zarathustra. The Maccabean revolt resulted not in Jewish independence, let alone,Palestine becoming the center of a new and divinely sanctioned world power, but to the intervention of the Roman general Pompey and the Jews absorption by the growing Roman Empire. Under these conditions, Judaism abandoned its worldly millennialism for a concept of an end of the world that would transform the very nature of the human relationship with God, nature, and each other- ideas much closer to Zoroastrianism. (160)
These ideas regarding the imminent end of the current world and the birth of a new one were especially popular among so called “God-fearers”, gentiles who had adopted elements of the Jewish faith. (166) The Roman Empire provided a vast network for the interchange of ideas, people, and products. In these conditions Judaisms became a proselytizing faith actively seeking converts in all corners of the Empire. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. this “open” Judaism was perhaps the most numerous and widespread faith in the Roman world. Perhaps, one of the major reasons Rome crushed the revolt in Palestine with such violence as depicted in The Jewish War of Josephus.
One uses the singular term Judaism for the faith during this period, but in fact Judaism was a spectacularly diverse religion during the late periods B.C.E and early periods of the Common Era giving rise not just to the schools of the Pharisees and Sadducees depicted in the New Testament, but to apocalyptic sects such as the Essenes and, of course, Christianity.
If Kriwaczek gives us a good grounding in Zoroastrianism and Judaism we need other scholars to move further afield. The religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, in her Book Of Revelation explores how a group of Christians best represented by John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, built upon earlier beliefs to create their own version of a world that was soon to undergo a second creation, after an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil.
John of Patmos lived in truly apocalyptic times, especially for early Christians. Not only was there the evil decadence of figures such as the emperor Nero, there was the brutal persecution of Christians, the before mentioned invasion of Judea and burning of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which must have truly made it seem that the world itself was coming to an end.
John of Patmos must have been tapping into a deep need for apocalyptic narratives for Christianity’s great rival during its first centuries was an even more dualistic faith in the form of Manichaeism founded by the prophet Mani (216-276 C.E.). Manichaeism was a form of gnosticism, a broad array of beliefs on the nature of humankind and the world to the divine that if it had one broadly shared feature it was the idea that the material world was corrupt and the individual, therefore, was called to free his spirit from its spell. Manichaeism imagined a world torn between a world of light and a world of darkness. It was an amazingly flexible faith able to spread from societies as diverse as the Roman Empire, Safavid Iran, India and even China.
After Mani, the best known Manichean was a man who converted from that faith to Christianity- Saint Augustine. Augustine probably did more than any other person to move the Church away from its apocalyptic and utopian strain. His great work The City of God reimagined the Christian community as mystical city, not the seed for some type earthly paradise.
Of course, dualistic ideas regarding the battle between good and evil, and the understanding of history as the unfolding and eventual conclusion of this epic struggle didn’t disappear within Christianity because of Augustine. The philosopher John Gray in his excellent book, Black Mass, traces these beliefs from the figure of the mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1135-12o2 C.E.), through the Reformation and English Civil War, right up until the secular utopias of the 20th century with their own dualistic, apocalyptic narratives- Communism and Nazism.
Part of the inadequacy of Gray’s otherwise compelling book is that he seems to think no good has ever come out of this strain of thinking. I believed this fervently myself until I began to look more deeply into the matter, and came across a figure such as Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). This Catholic friar who lived in the Americas was perhaps the first hero of the movement for human rights, bravely defending the rights of Native Americans against Spanish atrocities. He was also a man whose world view was steeped in dualistic and apocalyptic thought believing the end of the world which would start with the conquest of Europe by Muslim armies to be imminent, and the New World to represent a last refuge for Christian civilization.
How could both of these views be compatible, I thought? And then I remembered my readers’ criticism of my initial post about Zarathustra. “I just didn’t get it”, they seemed to be saying. Zarathustra was talking about something more internal- in the mind and heart- than external, located in the political realm. It seems to me now that what Zarathustra invented, contrary to the parody of him by the genius Friedrich Nietzsche who saw the first prophet as the source of the tortured conscience of humanity, the very possibility of moral progress. As individuals, and as societies, we are called by this ancient sage to choose between good and evil, and in choosing the good, day by day, we can move the world toward ever brighter light.