Blame Zarathustra

The story in its most simplified form goes something like this: the world has fallen into a deep state of chaos and death. All the old ways have collapsed and everyone is confused and does not know what to do, they are lost. The reason this is happening is that there is a war enveloping the cosmos.  A force of disorder, an order based upon the power of lies, has set itself against the peace and good of the world. They have launched a war for the possession of the future. Each individual must now choose sides in the great and coming battle. They can choose to join the side of evil, lies and disorder or the side of the good, truth and peace. Ultimately, the good will prevail, the unjust will be punished and the peace of the world will be restored, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  This will be the final battle, the birth of paradise.

This narrative makes for great story telling- just think of the world of J.R. Tolkien or Star Wars, and were it the case that such stories were only part of our fantasies there would be no issue, and they would remain what they should be, a great piece of childish fun.

The problem, of course, occurs when such narratives are overlain on political and social reality, for the passion and blindness these kinds of stories engender can be found behind some of the bloodiest events of human history. To name only the most prominent: the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, including the English Civil War, the Inquisition, the Terror of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the internal terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazism, the Second World War, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Something about these types of stories seem to tap into a primal element in human beings, nevertheless, their origin can be traced to historical time.

Zarathustra, otherwise known as Zoroaster, was probably the person most responsible for having first created and popularized a version of this story around 1200 B.C.E. What he had discovered was a “technology” that enabled human beings to engage in a kind of mass tribalism. Dividing whole societies or even all of human-kind into two warring armies created what were in effect super-tribes joined to one another with the kind of depth of feeling and exclusiveness that was once the monopoly of extended kin-groups.  It was a passion that was able to override biological instinct and turn “brother against brother”, and allowed human beings to murder one another in “good conscience” on the grounds that they were waged in battle with an army of demons.

Zarathustra was not trying to do this. What he was seeking after was a path to peace.

The Aryan society in which he lived had gone from an age of idyllic pastoralists to one of warriors. The catalyst for this transition had been, as it has been many times since, technological transformation.  Aryans living in what is now southern Russia had come in contact with the more advanced civilizations in Armenia and Mesopotamia to the south.  From these societies the Aryans learned the art of iron weaponry and the chariot, which sparked a wave of war and banditry, as the whole of the steppe was consumed in violence. The gentle gods of the Arayans gave way to the cult of the militarized Indra- the dragon slayer.

Zarathustra, a priest of the old Aryan gods sought out an answer to the bloodshed. Dreams and visitations came to him. Nothing took place on earth which was not a reflection of the things of heaven. Perhaps Indra and his devas- the shining ones- had brought war not just upon the earth, but upon the just gods of old, the amesha- the immortals.

Then, Zarathustra was visited by the greatest of the amesha- Mazda- lord of wisdom and justice.  Lord Mazda told Zarathustra that he was to mobilize the people for a coming holy war against the forces of evil.

Who could challenge the great Lord Mazda, the most powerful of the amesha?  Zarathustra reasoned that Mazda must have a divine opposite, a god of equal power dedicated to disorder and evil- the god of the lie- Angra Mainyu.

Every human being was called to choose sides in the great and looming battle. ..

It was here that Zarathustra introduced his greatest innovation, for he abandoned the cyclical view of history that had been perhaps the only way human beings, up until then, had thought about time.  In cyclical history time spun round and round within regular cycles of birth, strength, decay and death, historical seasons to match the natural one.  Zarathustra broke free from this cycle. The world was racing toward an end of history- a climax and day of judgment. The great battle would end in the victory of Lord Mazda over the forces of the wicked. A blazing river of fire would run from the heavens into hell and destroy forever the spirit of evil. The world would become a final paradise. . .

Zarathustra crafted his tale on the eve of the Axial Age, a period of religious awakening that gave us some of the deepest, most influential, and compassionate figures of human history: the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius.  But his story lived on. It lived on in the The Book of Revelation, in the 12th Iman of the Shia branch of Islam, it lived on in the religious wars, the idea of world revolution found in communism, in Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity… in the current apocalyptic logic behind the looming confrontation with Iran.

It is the world’s most dangerous fairy-tale, and if we do not someday soon break its spell, its dark side will come true.

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Utopia Secular and Religious

Utopia scholars such as Ronald Schaer have argued that the concept of utopia, properly understood, is a secular one that originated in the early sixteenth century with Thomas Moore. Yet, as Schaer himself points out, the most powerful of 20th century utopian movements can not really be understood with out reference to the eschatological visions of the Judeo-Christian, and one should add Islamic, traditions

Indeed the worldly paradise predicted at the end of days ,and hoped for by elements these religions to a greater or lesser extent, is, even if we proceed with intellectual caution, more intimately connected with the political consequences of the idea of utopia than Schaer would have us believe. In many ways the most powerful of the secular utopian movements have borrowed so much from their religiously conceived predecessors as to be almost indistinguishable.

One might wonder where human agency has gone in religious utopianism, for underneath the secular version of utopia lies the humanist assumption that we can build the future. Yet, the most powerful secular utopian movements also seem to lack this quality of human agency, with some other entity serving the role once ascribed to God. For communists, utopia was to emerge through the deterministic forces of history, for Nazis through the war of nature, for the current Transhumanist/Sigularian movement the promises of religion- immortality, collective consciousness, omniscience are to emerge through the deterministic evolution of technology.

The difference between utopianism which wears the guise of religion in comparison to plain vanilla religion is that religious-utopianism promises the eminent arrival of a new and perfect world within the life-time of believers.  Religious utopianism points to a future state not a lost paradise at the beginning of human history. Lastly, whereas religion guides individual moral behavior, often for the purpose of obtaining happiness after death, the goals of religious utopianism are collective in character and serve as a guide to political action now.

The reason we should be paying close attention to utopia as religiously conceived is that, today, secular utopias are far less potent than religious ones, and failing to take heed of religious utopias blinds us to their very real capacity to effect the world in the here-and-now, rather than merely affect the state of human spiritually, or subsist as some ethereal hope for some promised land, far-off, at the “end of history”.

Utopian thinking continues to have a great hold on the human psyche, and utopian movements are one of the major forces guiding political action today. We should, therefore, try our best to understand them. In the immediate future, such an understanding would provide some insight when comes to the looming showdown with Iran- the subject of my next post.