When the Persian army crossed the Hellespont into Greece it was as a sword in the hand of a leadership concerned with the propagation and prospering of Zarathustra’s thought-provoking message. The empire founded by Cyrus, organized by Darius and fostered by Xerxes – was not only Zoroastrian in its society and culture but was actively functioning as an embodiment and missionary of Zarathustra’s doctrine. Let us look first at Achaemenid society as described by the Greek historian Herodotus, who encountered it first hand. Regarding the religion of the common Persians he writes: “They are not wont to establish images or temples or alters at all; indeed, they regard all who do as fools, and this, in my opinion, is because they do not believe in gods of human form, as the Greeks do.” He adds that the Persians do not believe in a God so petty as to entertain prayers asking for an alleviation of the particular problems of any given individual, and so their only lawful ‘prayer’ is for the well-being of all.
Herodotus goes on to explain that the highest value and principle around which their society turns is “truthfulness” and contempt of deceit. We find in his account evidence of an active implementation of Zarathustra’s principle that thoughts, words, and deeds must perfectly reflect each other: “Whatsoever things it is not permitted to them to do, of these they must not even speak. Lying is considered among them the very basest thing and, second, indebtedness…because, as they say, a debtor is bound to lie somewhat.” Apparently from the age of five and up, Persian children were rigorously disciplined to make a practice of always telling the Truth. For Herodotus writes: “They train their sons from their fifth to their twentieth year in three things only: horsemanship, archery,and truth-telling.”
One particularly colorful practice which reveals the love of Truth in Achaemenid society is that, according to Herodotus, the Persians would never enter into debates and discussions of serious matters unless they were drunk on wine. The decisions arrived at would later be reviewed in sobriety before being executed:
They are very addicted to wine…[and]…They keep very strictly to this practice, too: that they are wont to debate their most serious concerns when they are drunk. But whatsoever they decide on, drunk, this the master of the house where they are when debating proposes to them again on the next day, when they are sober. And if they like it, too, when sober, they act on it; but if they do not like it so, they let it be. And whatever they debate, in preliminary fashion, sober, they give to final decision drunk.
It seems that they believed the wine would embolden them to drop all false pretenses and get to the heart of the matter.
Yale philologist Stanley Insler has also noted a curious feature of Achaemenid society which testifies to its wholehearted embrace of Zarathustra’s principles. Ancient Persian names were always descriptive of a person’s qualities and would be chosen by parents as a wish for the kind of person they would like to see their child become. We have an immense inventory of 1,500 such names inscribed on the many Old Persian tablets surviving from the period. Some of them are: aspaugura– “strong as a horse”; hubaoidi– “sweet-smelling”; viraka– “little hero”; or vsavah and humizda– “having good fame” and “winning a good prize”. These express longings for strength, heroism, beauty, fame and fortune. But what is striking is that the vast majority of names on these tablets do not refer to such qualities, bur rather incorporate the attribute of “Truth” or Arta in Old Persian (Asha in the even older dialect of Zarathustra), for example we find: Artapana– “Protector of Truth”; Artakama– “Lover of Truth”; Artamanah– “Truth–Minded”; Artafarnah– “Possessing the Splendor of Truth”; Artazusta– “Delighting in Truth”; Artastuna– “Pillar of Truth”; Artafrida– “Prospering the Truth”; Artahunara– “Having the Nobility of Truth”, and so forth.
The political leadership of the Achaemenid dynasty upheld this Zoroastrian principle of Truth at the core of Persian society from its very founding. When Cyrus the Great invaded Babylon and deposed the brutal King Nabonidus he declared the world’s first humanitarian charter as the inaugurating seal of the Persian Empire. It reads in part:
… I am Cyrus. King of the world. When I entered Babylon… I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land… I kept in view the needs of its people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being… I put an end to their misfortune. The Great God has delivered all the lands into my hand; the lands that I have made to dwell in a peaceful habitation…
Cyrus’ successor, Darius, is remembered for inventing an ingenious system of organization for his vast Empire, which is the direct predecessor of the federation system of states and governors (Satrapies) employed by the United States. Thomas Jefferson studied Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus, which holds up the first Persian Emperor as the ideal statesman. A great effort was made never to ravage a conquered territory, and even if possible, to keep its indigenous king in power and only append to him a Persian governor who would assure the upholding of basic human rights, the collection of taxes and the supply of young men for the Persian army. Cyrus spared the lives of all three kings of the major kingdoms he conquered: Astayages of Media, Nabonidus of Babylon, and Croesus of Lydia. Even though the latter had attacked Persia first, and without provocation, Cyrus made him an advisor at the Persian court. This stands in striking contrast to the contemporary Greeks’ routine of plundering cities conquered in battle and raping their noble women, as well as the way in which the Assyrians would raze a city to the ground and bind its people into slavery. Not only were occupied territories spared the pillage typical of conquests of the time but great projects of restoration were undertaken. Such was the state of affairs that the people of many oppressive kingdoms greeted the arrival of the Persian army enthusiastically as it made its way from India and Western China to Egypt and finally, Greece.
In short, though the reign of the Achaemenids is often recognized as the world’s first real ‘Empire’ – it is in fact more appropriate to call it a Universal State – with its decentralized system of local governors, vast royal roads, and the world’s first postal system. Such a designation is more fitting, above all because of the sense of humanistic cosmopolitanism which the Achaemenid dynasty fostered. Herodotus writes: “The Persians welcome foreign customs more than any other people.” He explains that they adopted whatever they saw as universally best in and of itself, its ethnic origins did not matter. Achaemenid art is also recognized as a unique attempt to consciously mix the artistic traditions of all the subject people into a humanist style that would reflect their new unity. Native custom was far less important than perpetual reflection on the Good. By comparison to the history of kingship and conquest before them, the Achaemenids were not pursuing a narrow-minded nationalistic agenda of subjugation. They were seeking to secure peace upon the face of the earth through the liberation and prospering of all its children. They were the first people in recorded history to envision “humanity” as an abstraction set over and against tribal or ethnic identity. Harvard Professor Richard Frye writes in his Heritage of Persia:
In the victories of the Persians… what was different was the new policy of reconciliation and together with this was the prime aim of Cyrus to establish a pax Achaemenica….. If one were to assess the achievements of the Achaemenid Persians, surely the concept of One World …. the fusion of peoples and cultures was one of their important legacies.
In this we see a patronage of the stewardship of the earth that lies at the heart of Zarathustra’s doctrine. The Achaemenid openness to reflecting on the inherent good of others’ traditions vs. their own, and the like, is a reflection of a people whose God is not ‘the God of the Persians’ (as that of the Jews is emphatically “the God of Israel”), but the God of the whole Living World. We hear the following of the Achaemenid justice system in practice from Herodotus:
..no one, not even the Great King himself, may kill anyone on charge of a single crime, nor may anyone of the rest of the Persians do irremediable harm to any of his servants on occasion of a single act. Only if, on consideration, he finds the wrongdoings more in number and greater than the good deeds may he use his pleasure.
In one inscription of Darius the Great at Persepolis in Iran, he sees “the Lie” as equally devastating to the land as invasions and famine and prays to Ahura Mazda to allow his people to abide in Truth: “Darius the King says: May Ahuramazda bear me aid…and may Ahuramazda protect this country from a (hostile) army, from famine, from the Lie! Upon this country may there not come an army, nor famine, nor the Lie; this I pray as a boon from Ahuramazda…”
Another of the inscriptions that Darius left us at Persepolis rejects both the oppressive doctrine of might makes right and the politics of ressentiment that passes for ‘social justice’ today: “By the favor of Ahura Mazda I am of such a kind that I am a friend of the Right, and not a friend of the Wrong; it is not my desire that the weak man should suffer injustice at the hands of the strong, nor is it my desire that the strong man should suffer injustice from the weak.” He goes on to assert that his governance is based on Asha and Vohu Manah: “I desire what is right. I am not a friend of the man who follows the Lie. I am not hot-tempered; the things that develop in me during a dispute I hold firmly under control through my mind, I am a firm ruler over myself.” Such claims are essentially echoed in the Behistun inscriptions. These are no idle words for we know that the Achaemenid rule was the first and only Empire in history not to employ slavery but to outlaw it, no doubt because in Zarathustra’s view to live as a slave would preclude the possibility of developing a cultivated intellect (Vohumanah) so as to truly become a human being. Every worker at Persepolis was paid a living wage.
Persian influence on Greek thought began with Cyrus’ invasion and occupation of Lydia, whose capital city, Sardis, was according to Herodotus “the resort of all wise men of Hellas”. A short time later Lampsacus was one of the first Hellenic towns to be conquered by Cyrus and once under the authority of the ‘pax Achemenica’ it became a haven of thinkers persecuted for slandering tradition in Greek mainland cities such as Athens. The channels for influence increased drastically when by 450 BC Darius had extended Persian rule beyond the Hellespont to the shores of the Danube in the North, and the Adriatic sea to the West. Herodotus reports that Darius’ conquest brought many Zoroastrian colonists with it to settle in Greece, particularly in Macedonia and Thrace in cities such as Abdera and Eion. We know of instances in which Zoroastrian Magi became the tutors of children of Greek aristocrats, one such case being that of Protagoras, whose father Maendrius welcomed and feasted Xerxes.
Alfred North Whitehead once famously remarked that the whole history of Western Philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. The two greatest influences on Plato were Heraclitus and Pythagoras. Heraclitus has a very explicit connection to Iran. He was at one point invited by Darius the Great to become the Court Philosopher of the Achaemenid dynasty. If we look at the remainingFragments of Heraclitus’ writings on Nature, we see many parallels between his thinking and that of Zarathustra and these have no precedent whatsoever in Greek thought. One of them is the reverence for Wisdom and “thinking well” set apart from all else. In fact, at one point Heraclitus cautiously hints that Zeus is not the true God and he refers to the true Lord as “the Wise One.” He takes the chief aim of human life to be the cultivation of the best or most intelligent thinking, and to align one’s thoughts, words, and deeds: what you say and do should be based on careful contemplation, not a casual unreflective acceptance of what others have said. In this regard, Heraclitus levels a scathing critique at the ritual priesthood and at the poetic bearers of tradition or custom among the archaic Greeks. He is as critical of Homer and Hesiod, and of the ritualistic priesthood of his society as Zarathustra is of the priestly caste repeatedly targeted throughout theGathas.
Heraclitus adopts fire – an undying or everlasting fire – as the symbol of cosmic order. This idea of cosmic order, which he refers to in terms of the interpenetration of cosmos and logos, is identical toAsha or Arta in Persian thinking, which you will recall is associated with the element of fire in theGathas. This metaphorical eternal fire of Lord Wisdom’s mind becomes the central sacred symbol of Zoroastrianism. Such fires are perpetually tended at Zoroastrian temples to this day. Heraclitus also lays an emphasis on dualistic or oppositional forces as the wheelwork of evolutionary development in the cosmos. There are small details which are also significant. For example, one of the Fragmentsrefers to throwing out corpses as quickly as one can, which was anathema to the Greek practice of mortuary rites, but is very similar to the Zoroastrians taking their dead bodies to the dakhmeenclosures where they would be picked clean by vultures.
Darius extended his invitation to Heraclitus at the moment when the Athenians orchestrated a revolt of the Ionians against Persian rule. The Persian satrap and governor of Ephesus, a man by the name of Hermodorus, was a personal friend of Heraclitus. In one of his Fragments Heraclitus goes to the extent of saying that his fellow countrymen who revolted against the Persians ought to be executed to the last man and the city should be left to the children (those not yet brainwashed into opposing enlightened Persian rule). He was an ardent opponent of democracy, which he saw as the mob rule of the ignorant rabble. A man who says something like this, and always means what he says, cannot be considered a ‘Greek’ other than by birth – unless he is also to be considered a traitor. Rather, by seeing his fellow Ephesians as traitors to a noble regime sincerely aspiring to be in line with cosmic order, Heraclitus identifies himself as a proud Iranian citizen.
Instead of accepting the invitation of Darius he sequesters himself in the Temple of Artemis. The significance of this has hitherto been lost on commentators. Who is Artemis? Greek historians and anthropologists tell us that she was the goddess of the Amazons, and recent research has demonstrated that the Amazons were a historical people – they were the female warriors among the Sarmatians, an Iranian tribe from the Caspian Sea region that, together with another closely related Iranian tribe, the Scythians, extended their dominion north around the Black Sea and down into the Bosphorus region, where legend has it that they built the original Temple of Artemis as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. “Artemis” has no clear sense in Greek, but if you read it through the lens of Persian linguistics you get a contraction of the compound Arta Amesha. Recall the many compound ancient Persian names that include Arta or “Truth.” The Amesha from this one is the same as in Zarathustra’s Amesha Spentas, in other words Artemis means “Immortal Truth” or “Truth, the Immortal” – a hypostatization of Asha somewhat in the style of the later European “Nuda Veritas.” The chief symbol of Artemis is the archer’s bow and arrow, the ancient Persian symbol of Truth referenced by Nietzsche when he puts this maxim into the mouth of his returned Zarathustra: “To speak the truth and shoot well with arrows, that is Persian virtue.”
While Heraclitus did not make it to the royal court of Iran, choosing instead to stand his ground and fight for Arta at the furthest Western frontier of the Empire, the other greatest influence on Plato, Pythagoras of Samos, did spend a decade in the capital of the Persian Empire. Pythagoras had traveled from his native island of Samos to Egypt, where he was studying in the temples with the Egyptian priests, when Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus the Great, colonized Egypt and integrated it into the Persian Empire. He gave orders for Pythagoras to be “arrested” and brought to the capital of the Persian Empire. What the Shah meant by this joke was that since the Persians were such seekers of Wisdom (Mazda), they wanted to bring this curious fellow back to Babylon so that they could pick his brain and see what he could possibly also learn from them. According to Iamblichus and Porphyry, Pythagoras spent twelve years studying under the Magi (Moghan) or Zoroastrian priests in the administrative capital of Iran. He returns to his native Samos only when the island is conquered by the Persian Empire. Samos comes under Persian rule in 522 BC and Pythagoras returns there in 520 BC. He spends about a decade at home before moving on to southern Italy, where he establishes a very revolutionary school of thought.
Now we have moved back in time before the generation of Heraclitus and Darius. There was, as of yet, no such thing as “Philosophy” in Greece at all. In fact, it is well known that Pythagoras was the first person in Greece to refer to himself as a “philosopher”. He coins the term. In Greek there are a number of different words for love. Eros refers to erotic love. Agape refers to compassion. Philia in particular refers to friendship. By saying that he is a beloved Friend of Wisdom, or has a relationship of intimate friendship towards Wisdom (Greek Sophia, Persian Mazda) he is evoking that very unique relationship to God that is anathema to ancient Greek religion and even to subsequent Abrahamic faiths (except insofar as their mystical offshoots have come under Persian influence). As I discussed in the first part of this essay, in Zoroastrianism there is the notion that Man is a Friend of God and that God requires the friendship of Man in order to unfold the plan of righteousness in the world. It is not a coincidence that Philosophy only emerges in Greece after the first man to conceptualize it spends a decade in the capital of an Empire whose religion (Zoroastrianism) is natively and properly referred to as Mazda Yasna or “Wisdom Worship”, a doctrine which conceives of the rapport between humanity and Lord Wisdom as an intimate friendship.
Porphyry and Iamblichus tell us that although Pythagoras absorbed a number of influences from a variety of cultures, the Magi had the deepest influence on the fundamental spiritual orientation of the Pythagorean Order. One example of this is Pythagoras’ teaching against animal sacrifice and cruelty towards animals. Some folktales suggest that Pythagoras reached India, but there is no good evidence to support his having gone any further East than the capital of the Persian Empire. Consequently, rather than seeing this as any influence from Hinduism, it is much more likely to be a reflection of those elements in Zarathustra’s teaching that have to do with the protection of animals – especially the Cow – from harm, as well as ancient Persian laws that codified abuse of certain animals, such as cruelty towards dogs, as a capital offense.
Pythagoras is known as the founder of mathematics in the Western world. At the core of Pythagoras’ mathematics there is a binary opposition between peras or “limit” and apeiron or the “unlimited.” The world is brought into being through a dynamic interaction between the former principle of order and the negatively infinite or unlimited, in other words chaos. The place where we see this elaborated in the greatest detail is a text of Plato that the majority of scholars believe is the most Pythagorean book that he wrote. It bears mentioning that Plato was, of course, a member of the Pythagorean Order. Plato’s “creation myth” in the Timaeus portrays chaotic unformed matter being shaped by mathematical principles of order, limit, and proportion, so that the good creation can come into being. The most renowned idea of Plato, that of incorruptible perfect and eternal archetypes, the eidos or “forms” of all existing things – plants, animals, human beings – has no precedent whatsoever in Greek thought, but it most definitely does in Zoroastrianism. Ahura Mazdaprimordially creates a world of perfect archetypes, the fravartis or fravashis, of all natural beings in a luminous state (eidos suggests something that shines in its appearance) before they are assaulted from out of darkness by the chaotic and deranging forces of the Lie.
The deepest Persian influence on Plato, via the Pythagorean Order, was probably in the domain of his political philosophy. The Greeks had a number of traditional forms of political organization:Democracy, Oligarchy (rule of the wealthy), Timocracy (martial law), Tyranny (the arbitrary rule of one absolute dictator). Relatively unstable city states frequently alternated between these types of regime. For example, a democracy would wind up being taken advantage of by wealthy people who manipulated the ignorant masses to establish an oligarchy, and then perhaps some champion of the people would rise up from out of the military, initially promising to eliminate corruption together with his comrades, but eventually murdering his fellow generals and establishing himself as a tyrant. By contrast in ancient Iran, for centuries before the classical Greek period, there was a well-established tradition of the alliance between the philosopher and the king. This goes back to Zarathustra’s own relationship with Kavi Vishtaspa (Kay Goshtasp).
Pythagoras adopts this system of sovereignty grounded on the reverence for Wisdom. When he founds his school in southern Italy, he trains the children of the feudal landowners with a view to restructuring the government there into a genuine Aristokratia, namely a meritocracy wherein the most intelligent and competent people are making policy on the basis of expert knowledge and under the guidance of a single chairman who is essentially a philosopher-king. This project met with ferocious resistance. Eventually there was a coup, wherein the feudal lords burned down the Pythagorean schools and Pythagoras either died in that fire or he barely escaped and died of his injuries shortly thereafter. Plato, who inherits this idea of Guardianship of the Wise from the Pythagorean Order, also tries to implement a philosopher-kingship in Syracuse and is almost martyred as well. He is forced to leave the city in disguise by the cover of night, once custodians of customary Greek culture in the court of the young man he was trying to influence managed to regain control of the situation.
The most revolutionary aspect of the political system that Plato intended for his philosopher kings to unfold in Greek society is the equality of women, or at least the equal opportunity of women to serve in all capacities in the society. This, again, is an idea that has no precedent in Greek culture. Some scholars have suggested that this is possibly a sign of Spartan influence, but women in Spartan society were only marginally more free than in Athens where they had no political or property rights and where the most accomplished and independent women were prostitutes. Spartan ladies had the kind of independence that frontiers women did in the old American West, because Sparta was a militaristic society wherein men were often at war so that women had to be relatively more resourceful in order to, as it were, man the homestead. If we really want to look at the society in Plato’s time where women had a completely different status, then we have to look at Achaemenid Iran. Women in the Persian Empire were property holders. They had their own estates and people employed in their service on those estates. If we look at the records that are signed with the personal seals of these ladies, and the letters that these women wrote, we can see that women were even paid at a rate equal to the salary of men for specialized labor.
Greek accounts are rather critical of Persian men for allowing their women to have tremendous influence over those of them who were in leadership positions. They mocked Persian men for being under the thumb of their women. We also have a few examples where Persian women were commanders or admirals in the military, whether in the Immortal Guard or the Persian Navy. This is consistent with what we read in the oldest of Zoroastrian scriptures: “Thy good dominion, Mindful Lord, may we attain for evermore: may a good ruler, whether man or woman, assume rule over us in body and mind, O beneficent of beings.” Zarathustra consistently refers to men and women when he demands that each individual conscientiously exercise his or her free will and his respect for the wishes of his daughter, Porouchista, at her wedding ceremony, is an especially colorful vignette in the Gathas. Unlike in mainstream Hinduism, or in the original teachings of Buddha, according to which a women needs to be reborn as a man before attaining perfect enlightenment, let alone the utterly misogynistic Abrahamic religions, in Zarathustra’s teaching women have the potential to be men’s equals because each person is regarded first and foremost as an individual soul. This is Pythagoras and Plato’s prototype for women receiving an equal education to men, including military training, so that they would be fit to serve in the highest leadership positions of a justly governed society. Even Plato’s notion, absurd to his contemporary Greeks, that leading women should be offered maternity leave or some kind of childcare so that they can pursue a career, finds its only pre-modern precedent in ancient Persian society.
The strongest objection that one might level against a Zoroastrian influence on Plato actually winds up being more evidence in favor of it. This has to do with his concept of the Noble Lie. One must place this concept in its proper context within the pages of Plato’s Republic. At one point he claims that lies are only acceptable as tactics in warfare or stratagems employed in combat against the enemy. Yet we also see noble lies employed with the aim of reorganizing society, especially on the basis of a revision of fundamental religious beliefs. How can this be considered an instance of military strategy or an intelligence operation against an alien enemy?
Throughout the Republic there is a sustained critique of Homeric epic poetry and the kind of moral values that it is inculcating in the Greek youth. On a number of occasions, Plato comes very close to saying that the Homeric myths are lies and that they are corrupting the minds of the youth. Since this was such a dangerous thing to say – after all his own teacher, Socrates, was executed under the mere suspicion of his having impiously rejected the Olympian pantheon in favor of other religious ideas – Plato has to be careful about how he says it. What he winds up claiming is that we cannot accept that God would shape shift in order to deceive people, the way that Zeus often assumes the forms of animals to rape women. These ought not to be accepted as true stories because otherwise they will corrupt the morals of the youth, and besides we know very little with certainty about such by-gone prehistoric epochs and so we should take these fables and spin them in a way that will be more constructive for the cultivation of virtue.
At its most incisive this critique of customary Greek culture comes to the verge of claiming that there is some such God as Zeus but that he is a liar, a great deceiver. Perhaps Plato is using the Noble Lie as a stratagem or tactic in order to combat a Godfather who is a liar. From 381e-382a in Republic, Plato writes:
Nay, no fool or madman is a friend of God… Then, there is no motive for God to deceive? None. So, from every point of view the divine and the divinity are free from falsehood. God is altogether simple and true in deed and word, and neither changes himself nor deceives others by visions or words, or the sending of signs in waking or in dreams. You concur then, as our second norm or canon for speech and poetry about the gods that neither are they wizards in shape shifting nor do they mislead us by falsehoods in word or deed.
Well, the very messenger or courier of Zeus is Hermes the trickster, liar, and thief – who, by the way, is also responsible for the ritual slaughter of cattle that Zarathustra is so indignantly opposed to in his Gathas. What kind of a god is this who employs a career conman as his messenger to humanity? Plato knows that the most high god of the Greeks is a deceiver, essentially Zarathustra’s Angra Mainyu (i.e. Ahriman), the promulgator of the Lie. He has seen this only because he is under Persian influence. This is a shattering, culturally catastrophic recognition. It may be that Plato advocates the strategic use of deception only in response to the horrifying need to wage a military conflict with a demonic being who is a master manipulator of benighted human societies.