17 October 2015

In defence of Iranian civilisation

Iran is one of the world’s great and enduring civilisations, with which we unfortunately have a long-standing misunderstanding. Several, actually. One of the few things for which I give President Obama a great deal of credit is the Iran deal which will hopefully put an end to the sanctions regime we have been under for the past twenty years. It is an absurdity, a long-standing farce, that our society in its arrogance should seek to hold Iran to a standard to which America does not hold herself. It is a crime that we should ignore the great debts Americans owe to Iranian civilisation. And – whether you like it or dislike it – it is the very height of folly to believe that the Iranian government is any more irrational than any other government when it comes to foreign policy, national defence and military action. Certainly no more irrational than our own is!

It is sad indeed that, blinded by Zionist nationalism, so many of us in America have forgotten that without the intercession of the Iranian monarch Cyrus the Great, there would not have been a Jewish nation, because there would never have been a Second Temple. Cyrus liberated us from our Babylonian bondage and even gave us the funds to rebuild in the Holy Land. The fullest expositor of monotheism outside the Israelite prophetic tradition was Zoroaster: the first prophet to proclaim a single God, transcendent, without form and not contingent upon history or culture, and the first prophet to proclaim truth, beauty and goodness as transcendent ideals, outside of historical or cultural constraints. Needless to say, the monotheism of the Iranians left an indelible mark on the Israelite prophetic tradition.

The friendship between the Jews and the Persians would continue with the marriage between Esther and Ahasuerus (a.k.a. Xerxes the Great), and it is solely on account of Esther’s boldness and Xerxes’s love for his wife that the Jewish people still exist today. When Christ Our God was born, the first men to see and adore him after his birth were the Magi of the East – and the Magi, of course, were Iranian Zoroastrian priests, whose cosmopolitanism is still reflected in the modern makeup of the Iranian nation. The Iranian son of Prince Anak Pahlavi, known to history as Saint Gregory Photistes, was tortured and imprisoned for fourteen years by the mad King Tiridates III for his Christian faith, and eventually cured Tiridates of his madness, baptised him, and with him baptised the first nation to wholly embrace Christendom – Armenia.

Zoroastrian theology left its imprint, moreover, upon all Greek philosophy subsequent to Pythagoras. Before that, the Greeks had no concept of the unity of the cosmos, nor of the oneness and formlessness of God which would be the hallmark of Platonist and Aristotelian thinking. That all too many of our classicists persist in identifying the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids as barbaric, or even more laughably tyrannical, merely because two of their emperors (Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great) opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded foreign policy is nothing more or less than a reflection of their dependence on that government’s own propaganda. Socrates also opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded religious policy, to his death; would these same classicists render him also a barbarian?

Speaking of Greece and Iran, the division of polities into the ideal types of Occidental republics as opposed to Oriental despotisms, having its roots in Aristotle, has sadly long outlived its usefulness. However, thanks to Machiavelli, his followers in the Whig-historical school of Edward Gibbon, and the dialectical-materialist historiography of Karl Marx, the concept of the ‘Oriental despotism’ of which Iran has always been the prototype has sadly stayed with us.

The Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov came somewhat closer to the truth when he looked to the dual nature of the Orient, and described Iranian civilisation as being marked by the principle of spiritual and creative freedom. For Iranian Oriental civilisation, in Khomyakov’s view, the person comes prior to her limitations. Khomyakov’s Iran is monotheist, organically ordered, personalist and communitarian. It prefers the arts of poetry and song, the written and the spoken word, the breath by which persons express their spiritual state and come into free agreement with others. This Khomyakov contrasted with the ‘Kushite’ Orient, which is polytheistic or animistic, limited in humanist resources, and ordered in artificial systems. Kushite cultures are marked by the a priori of necessity, of the awareness of bodily limitations, of violence – and they express themselves in monument and sculpture, in grandiose architecture. The conflict between Cyrus’s Persia and Nabonidus’s Babylon was the archetypical confrontation between Iranian and Kushite principles.

Iran is thus a massive, yet largely and sadly unregarded, philosophical and theological wellspring for the West – and always has been. Even where the Greeks wanted to assert their independence from Iran, they nonetheless regarded her with admiration and respect. Aristotle cannot be made to shoulder all the blame for the modernist cultural chauvinism we have inherited from Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu, Mill, Hegel and Marx, who have always regarded the ‘Orient’ as inferior, and who have despised the native rural-agrarian basis of Iranian civilisation. It is this cultural chauvinism, sadly, which is still driving so much of our policy toward Iran and the countries around her, and it is a bad habit we need very much to break.

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