JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Religious Philosophy of the Medo-Persians.

§ 8.

1. Turning westward from India, we encounter the Persians, a people which holds a prominent place in ancient history. A Philosophy, in the strict sense of the term, we do not find amongst them. But their system of religion has many elements of a philosophical character, and, besides, has exercised an important influence on the doctrinal systems of subsequent ages, notably on the heretical theories current in the early Christian times. For both reasons it deserves careful notice. Zoroaster, who is said to have lived in the sixth century before Christ, was, if not the founder, at least the reformer of the religion of the Medo-Persians. To him is ascribed the Zendavesta, an exposition of their religious doctrines.

2. The Zendavesta assumes two ultimate principles of all things -- Ormuzd and Ahriman. The synthesis of these two principles in a higher Zeruane-Akerene (Infinite Time), from which both are derived, is a doctrine of later origin. These two principles, Ormuzd and Ahriman, are mutually antagonistic. Ormuzd is the unclouded infinite light, the being of supreme wisdom and perfection, and, as such, the author of all good. Ahriman, on the other hand, is a being of defilement and gloom, and, as such, the principle of darkness and author of all evil. He is, therefore, the enemy of Ormuzd. Ahriman was originally a being of light, but he envied Ormuzd, thereby lost his brightness, and became the antagonist of Ormuzd. The dualism involved in these two principles is not, therefore, a primary, eternal state; it arose in consequence of the falling away of the one principle from the other.

3. Ormuzd uttered his "honover" (I am), and thereby created the good spirits and all that is good in the visible world. Ahriman, on the other hand, brought forth the spirits of evil (Dews), and, in alliance with these, perverted the creation of Ormuzd by opposing to its brightness and its blessings destroying activities and works of evil. This explains why good and evil are blended in the world, and why the course of the universe puts before us a constant struggle between good and evil.

4. The spirits created by Ormuzd are ranged in a certain hierarchical order. The Amshaspands occupy the first rank; the Izeds the second. Last in order come the Fervers -- protecting spirits, and archetypes whose perfection men must strive to reproduce. In the same way, the Dews created by Ahriman have their differences of rank.

5. The souls of men were created by Ormuzd, and dwelt originally in heaven. But their union with material bodies has involved them in the struggle between good and evil that fills the world. It is, therefore, the duty of man to serve Ormuzd, and to combat Ahriman and his works. The latter obligation is fulfilled by benevolence towards others, by cultivating the soil, by exterminating the living things that have been created by Ahriman, &c.; the former by sacrifice and the worship of fire, the symbol of Ormuzd. If man fulfils these duties here below, his soul is admitted to the presence of Ormuzd on the second day after the death of the body. Should he offend against these obligations -- i.e., should he serve Ahriman in life -- his soul is condemned after death to companionship with Ahriman in hell.

6. The antagonism and strife between Ormuzd and Ahriman are not however to last for ever. Ahriman will eventually be overcome, will then reconcile himself with Ormuzd, will enter with all his following into the kingdom of the latter, and eternal peace shall ensue. The resurrection of the body will be part of this restitution of all things. In this wise is the final triumph of good over evil announced.

7. There is, it is clear, a distinctly ethical principle involved in this system, inasmuch as it binds man to resist evil. But this resistance is something altogether external. Man is bound to combat evil in the outer world, and in the corporeal part of his own being; further than this his obligation does not go. The perfecting of the inner self is not insisted upon nor suggested. Good and evil are both extrinsic to man. Of an interior moral perfection the Zendavesta knows nothing.

8. It is further deserving of remark that the religious system of the Persians speaks of a Mediator between the two antagonistic principles to whom it gives the name Mithras. Mithras stands between Ormuzd and Ahriman to aid the former in his struggle with the principle of evil, and to lead the latter to final transfiguration in Ormuzd. Through Mithras light and life flow out upon creation, in the strength of which evil is combated in the world and everything at last brought to union with Ormuzd. He it is who introduces to Ormuzd the souls which, after the death of the body, are found fully purified.

9. The religious worship of the Persians was concerned chiefly with fire -- the symbol of Ormuzd; their priests were for this reason styled Athrava (provided with fire), and bore different names according to their sacrificial functions. The Athrava were replaced in later times by the Magi -- at once a caste of priests charged with the functions of religious worship, and a caste of sages in exclusive possession of the wisdom of the nation. They were particularly devoted to Theology and Astronomy, to Physics and to Medicine. Beyond this we know little of the wisdom of the Magi.

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