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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Arrested Development

When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy seemed to correspond to my own moral development, at least up until The Return of the Jedi. Star Wars, the first of the three was a classic good vs. evil morality /adventure tale- perfect for my own understanding of the world at the time. The world was simple, clear cut. There were good guys and bad guys, and the best one could hope for was to end up one of the key players on the side of the good guys. The sheer nobodyness of the main characters- Luke was just some kid living on a desert planet, Han and Chewy like futuristic truck drivers, the lowly droids a couple of clowns, contrasted with the sheer scale of what they were up against was democratizing- you couldn’t just be one of the good guys- you could be ONE of the good guys.

The Empire Strikes Back, for my money by far the best of the 3, was released in 1980.  The movie itself introduced elements of mysticism and mythology in its plot line, and also an element of moral ambiguity. Vader, we find out, is Luke’s father- the lines between good guy and bad guy had been slightly smudged.

But if things in the movies were getting morally complicated, things in the real world took on a surreal good vs. evil dichotomy.  It is impossible for me to explain to someone who was not of a certain age during this period of time- and was a boy- how the flare up of the Cold War that took place during this time colored the imagination.  This was the period of Regan’s Evil Empire Speech, and his SDI, aptly panned the Star Wars initiative.

Hollywood and the culture were amplifying the political reality to infuse the world, at least for a particular breed of media-tuned young boys, with an air of looming showdown and apocalypse.  Adults, should have known better, but as a kid I was too busy preparing myself for a hero’s role in a real life version of Red Dawn , amassing troops on my Risk board, listening to jets fly overhead at night thinking “this is it!” and begging my parents to see the horror show of The Day Afterwhich had they let me might have scared me straight.

By the time we get to the Return of the Jedi, the ambiguity is gone. The bad guy is converted, the good guys win, the Evil Empire is defeated. The progress towards adulthood, with the exception of sexy Leia, has stopped. Adults it seems never grow beyond the realm of fairy-tales. Even if, in the real world, such fairy-tales never make sense.

Whether Regan’s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of  the Eastern Bloc is an interesting historical question, and one in which I have an open mind. The fact of the matter remains that the outcome was not the matter of some “force” of good working for the survival of the human race and freedom, but a piece of extremely good luck. Barring any such force, he might just as likely have gotten us all blown up.

Perhaps the only time this good vs. evil rhetoric made sense was when the Allies battled against the Nazis. But even then, the Allies managed to cross over to the “dark side”, or at the very least, gave the conflict a shade of grey, when they began deliberately killing civilians from the air, and brought Stalin, Hitler’s doppelganger, into the lighter side of the force.

As an adult, the dangers of this arrested development and simplified moral imagination were brought home to me with the disaster of the Second Iraq war.  Adults holding to a vision of  the universe as a drama of good against evil not only made stupid policy mistakes, but also fell into the most grotesquely immoral behavior on a individual level.

Unfortunately, the 9-11 wars, from where I sit, have not proven to be a painful initiation to adulthood, but another version of the Return of the Jedi.  Both the right, and the left,  continue to paint one another as not just misguided, but demonic as the country drifts towards oblivion.

All this got me wondering where this whole good vs. evil fairy tale that is so dangerous, and politically crippling given our destructive capacities, and need for cooperation on enormously complex problems, actually originated.

Some might blame the heritage of a particular aspect of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  For my part, I go a little further back, and blame a bewildered searching prophet who lived on the steppes of Central Asia around 1200 B.C.E.  I blame Zarathustra….