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 Source

The theme, or motto, of this blog has its source in an essay of Plutarch entitled “On Listening to Lectures.” Here’s a translation of Plutarch’s actual words:

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.

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!)

Our Daily Bread: Mazda in the Shadows

The Bahá’í religion, though Islamic in its fundamentals, retains a remarkable wealth of Zoroastrian residue from its Iranian heritage.

The Faravahar: Glory of God

The Most Great Peace

In spite of all the prophecies of doom that I had to endure as a young Bahá’í, I remember having a vision of a more distant future utopia; a clean, civilized world civilization that would balance urban and rural economies, and accomplish great scientific and technological feats. This is what Bahá’ís call the Most Great Peace. Though I now find it unrealistic, I still look back on that naive vision with sentimental sighs of what might have been if reality hadn’t broken into my childhood and robbed my world of its innocence.

Yet there are many Bahá’ís who still look forward to the Most Great Peace.

It was years after I abandoned that vision that I encountered the ancient vision in whose womb the Most Great Peace appears to have been conceived. I discovered that the ancient Zoroastrians also had such a utopian vision of a renewed, purified world. Note that they weren’t looking forward to the end of the world, but rather its reform and renewal. This vision permeates both Bahá’í and Zoroastrian world views.

Progressive Revelation

It’s not just a utopian view of the future that these oldest and newest of Iranian religions have in common, but their views on the purpose and history of religion are also quite similar:

Be it known that, the reason for mankind becoming doers of work of a superior kind is religion; and it is owing to it only that there is a living in prosperity through the Creator. It is always necessary to send it (religion) from time to time to keep men back from being mixed up with sin and to regenerate them. … All the reformers of mankind (i.e. prophets) are considered as connected with its (religion’s) design;… —Dénkard 3.35

Thoughts, Words, & Deeds

The phrase “doers of work” in the above passage is reminiscent of the great Zoroastrian mantra “good thoughts good words good deeds.” Does this not recall one of characteristic themes of the Bahá’í Faith, as a religion of deeds that recognizes the influential nature of words?

Glory, Light, & Fire

As I’ve discussed before, the closely related themes of fire, light, and glory are also held in common between these two faiths. Some of this commonality can be tracked through Iranian religious themes of illumination and glory from Zoroastrianism through Shí’a Islám to the Bahá’í Faith.

The “New” Calendar

Then there’s the Bahá’í calendar, which is based on the old Iranian solar calendar—from name days, feasts, an end-of-year adjustment, to No Rooz itself, rather than the lunar Islamic calendar, except that the Bahá’í calendar replaces the natural 12:1 lunar:solar cycle ratio with 19:1, and inserts a month of fasting (in Islamic fashion).

Fire Temples and Sunrise Temples

Even the Bahá’í “mashriqu’l-adhkar”, a term that carries an intimation of fire in its meaning “dawning place of remembrance” seems to hearken back to the old Persian fire temples than the Islamic mosques that were also inspired thereby:

… The fire-temples of the world stand as eloquent testimony to this truth. In their time they summoned, with burning zeal, all the inhabitants of the earth to Him Who is the Spirit of purity. —Bahá’u’lláh, in a letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl


  • emphasis on cleanliness
  • love of gardens (Zoroastrians are famous gardeners)
  • 15 as the age of maturity (or is it technically 14 for Bahá’ís?)

Some related entries:

Our Daily Bread: Changing Faces

Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mánikchí Ṣáḥib, as we considered recently, is a rather progressive composition, and one can easily detect signs that it was addressed to a Zoroastrian. Without going so far as to recite “good thought, good words, good deeds”, the letter discussed the triad of good thought, expression, and action that is so familiar to Zoroastrians, and exalted the place of wisdom to divinity as we’re told Zoroaster did three millennia ago. It did not touch upon the more obvious theme of fire, which Bahá’u’lláh did in a couple of letters to Zoroastrian Baháís, but gave passing reference to the theme of purity. Like Bahá’u’lláh’s letters to Zoroastrian Baháís, that letter omitted any mention of Muhammad, Islám, or the Qur’án.

Beside all that, the letter was just plain warm and affectionate:

Thy letter hath reached this captive of the world in His prison. It brought joy, strengthened the ties of friendship, and renewed the memory of bygone days. Praise be to the Lord of creation Who granted us the favour of meeting in the Arabian land, 1wherein we visited and held converse. It is Our hope that our encounter may never be forgotten nor effaced from the heart by the passage of time, but rather that, out of the seeds thus sown, the sweet herbs of friendship may spring forth and remain forever fresh and verdant for all to behold. (1.3)

Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl, also in the volume Tabernacle of Unity, is conspicuously different, and of evident Islamic content and character.

Make sure the butter’s soft. Today we are nourished by several slices, beginning with this:

Once the validity of a divinely appointed Prophet hath been established, to none is given the right to ask why or wherefore. Rather is it incumbent upon all to accept and obey whatsoever He saith. (2.46)

This is a reponse to the basic question of reason vs. revelation: should we live according to reason, or according to the dictates of revelation? Whereas Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mánikchí Ṣáḥib seemed to take the former position, his letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl takes the opposite position, as clearly and concisely as Bahá’u’lláh ever did. That is not to say that he didn’t make similar statements elsewhere, for he certainly did, in the Aqdas, Íqán, and in other places.

The reason given in the present letter is that men do not possess the rational capacity to go it alone:

It is nonetheless indisputably clear and evident that the minds of men have never been, nor shall they ever be, of equal capacity. The Perfect Intellect alone can provide true guidance and direction. (2.22)

Thus it must be that, according to Bahá’u’lláh, human reason is better fitted to understand the words of the prophets than what it might otherwise gather from life.

It is important to note, though, that excessive analysis of scripture can be a hazardous pastime. For, because of the great variance in intellectual capacity, scripture is conceived to be understood by feeble minds as well as Sen McGlinn. It isn’t a matter of reason or evidence; it’s a matter of obedience:

It is incumbent upon all to turn their gaze towards the Cause of God and to observe that which hath dawned above the horizon of His Will, since it is through the potency of His name that the banner of “He doeth what He willeth” hath been unfurled and the standard of “He ordaineth what He pleaseth” hath been raised aloft. For instance, were He to pronounce water itself to be unlawful, it would indeed become unlawful, and the converse holdeth equally true. (2.31)

And finally, we have a fourth slice that echoes the opening passage of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas:

The whole duty of man is to recognize Him; once this hath been achieved, then whatsoever He may please to ordain is binding and in full accordance with the requirements of divine wisdom. (2.24)

Sorry: that’s a lot of toast, and the slices aren’t thin. Don’t eat it all at once.

Perhaps the fact that the letter is addressed to a Muslim Baháí has a lot to do with Bahá’u’lláh’s striking change in tone and content in this letter. This leads me to pause and wonder, can the entire repertoire of Bahá’u’lláh be sliced cleanly into mutually distinct revelations, if the blade is sufficiently sharp and serrated?

Our Daily Bread: Flamin’ Metaphors

Two of the letters that Bahá’u’lláh wrote to Zoroastrian Bahá’ís touched upon the theme of fire, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism. In one letter, he simply mentioned fire several times, along with several other Zoroastrian themes (light, deeds, charity, gardens, water, and purity). There’s a lot of key terms thrown in, but not much food for thought, IMHO. In the other letter, he goes into greater depth, so we have cut today’s slice from that letter:

O friends of God! Incline your inner ears to the voice of the peerless and self-subsisting Lord, that He may deliver you from the bonds of entanglement and the depths of darkness and enable you to attain the eternal light. Ascent and descent, stillness and motion, have come into being through the will of the Lord of all that hath been and shall be. The cause of ascent is lightness, and the cause of lightness is heat. Thus hath it been decreed by God. The cause of stillness is weight and density, which in turn are caused by coldness.

Though there are indications that fire is an important metaphor to Bahá’u’lláh as a source of light, the only explicit statement in this letter regarding the metaphorical value of fire regards it as a source of heat, motion, and presumably energy in general.

Bahá’u’lláh continues:

And since He hath ordained heat to be the source of motion and ascent and the cause of attainment to the desired goal, He hath therefore kindled with the mystic hand that Fire that dieth not and sent it forth into the world, that this divine Fire might, by the heat of the love of God, guide and attract all mankind to the abode of the incomparable Friend.

Bahá’u’lláh appears to be under the impression that these metaphors have not occurred to anyone before him:

This is the mystery enshrined in your Book that was sent down aforetime, a mystery which hath until now remained concealed from the eyes and hearts of men.

Note the phrasing “your Book,” which seems indicative of some degree of estrangement, or at least displacement, and lack of perfect camaraderie. This was not the only time that Bahá’u’lláh spoke of the Avesta as such. In fact, that’s the only way I’ve ever seen him refer to the Avesta. Did he ever refer to the Qur’án as “your Book?”. Bahá’u’lláh evidently regarded himself as a Muslim, but I digress.

I think it’s a safe bet that, had Bahá’u’lláh acquainted himself more with Zoroastrian scholarship, he may have been exposed to a number of other less obvious fire metaphors, such as those associated with purification, assessment of purity, transformation, transmutation, moral truth, and order. Not that he didn’t delve into such themes, he just didn’t appear to recognize their relationship to the fire that the Avesta calls “Asha”.

One of my favorite fire metaphors is the Logos image of Heraclitus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who was quite probably familiar with Zoroastrianism, as well as Armenian fire worship.

Our Daily Bread: the Sanctity of Life

Today’s white slice of wisdom comes from The Tabernacle of Unity, a compilation of works of Bahá’u’lláh published in 2006. It advises Bahá’ís on the extent to which they ought to value human life:

O servants! This nether world is the abode of demons: Guard yourselves from approaching them. By demons is meant those wayward souls who, with the burden of their evil deeds, slumber in the chambers of oblivion. Their sleep is preferable to their wakefulness, and their death is better than their life.

What value, then, should be put on human life? It is well-known that Bahá’u’lláh was not against the death penalty, or even cruel punishment:

Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. —Kitáb-i-Aqdas

There’s no deterrent like execution, or better yet, a painful execution.

It seems fair to suggest that Bahá’u’lláh adopted the Islamic standard with regard to corporeal punishment, but would Bahá’u’lláh also advise that anyone authoritatively judged as a “demon” (say, a covenant breaker) be put out of their misery? Would Bahá’u’lláh also adopt an Islamic standard in that regard?

After all, their death is better than their life. Right?

To address this question, we might inquire whether Bahá’u’lláh might have ever ordered the assassination of an enemy. He had certainly been accused of such an act, but—not surprisingly—he claimed to be innocent of the crime.

Ethos as Destiny

This is a continuation of our reflections on character as destiny.

We left this discussion having stripped down the self to nothing but her choices, but that was not where I wished to leave her. I would sooner clothe her in all the particulars of the universe than leave her a naked abstraction.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Charles H. Kahn breaks down Heraclitus’ epigram ethos anthropoi daimon as follows:

‘character, for man [is his] daimon’. The meaning of the sentence depends on the meaning given to daimon.

As discussed before, we could read this as it has often been read, as the pronouncement of an inspirational speaker: yes, you are the master of your own destiny!, or a Kahn puts it, the cause is not in the stars but in ourselves. That may be how Heraclitus meant it, but as I have argued previously, it sounds a little out of character (pardon the pun) for a man whose mantra appears to have been all things are one.

Kahn suggests two basic definitions for daimon:

  1. one’s destiny, fortune; one’s prosperity or misfortune
  2. a god, divinity, or angel; one who distributes or assigns a portion

I believe both of these definitions are equally appropriate, and I’m not terribly concerned with drawing a distinction between them. My concern is whether Heraclitus intended to suggest that character is the lone causative agent by some causational unfolding of one’s personal destiny, or rather, whether Heraclitus may have meant that character, as is said of virtue, is a destiny—a fortune—unto itself.

Though Kahn does not address this issue directly as it pertains to this specific epigram, he does discuss it in relation to another aphorism.

But if everything that goes up must come down again, since there is no transmundane realm, no escape from the cosmic cycle …, one might question the coherence of this conception of the soul’s path upwards to celestial light or fire as a ‘greater destiny’ … where is there any ultimate difference of principle between the nobler and the baser fate, where in the long run is there any advantage allotted to wiser lives or better deaths?

Here we see Kahn confronting Heraclitus, and demanding consistency of him. If we do so, we must suspect that daimon must mean something other than one’s ultimate condition at the moment of death (or ascension).

Kahn continues …

This is the specifically Heraclitean form of a general question that any monistic system of ethics must face. And Heraclitus would surely have answered like Spinoza: the beatitude which rewards a life of excellence is the quality of that life itself; in his own words ‘man’s character is his fate’, his daimon for good fortune or for bad.

Hence, we might reword the phrase a touch:

Character, for man, is his fortune. —Heraclitus

… and we might be reminded of something that was said 500 years later:

Virtue is its own reward —Ovid

I think I prefer the non-compensatory language of Heraclitus, ambiguous as it is.