How Zoroaster Set the Stage for Socrates and the Scientific Revolution

The historical battle between truth and tradition

Jared Barlament

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Millennia ago, the Persian prophet Zoroaster made the revolutionary claim that men had the right to think for themselves and criticize their traditions. Generations after him, the Greek philosopher Socrates developed a dialectical method for his students to properly do these exact same two things. And, a millennia and half after that, the European philosophers of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment broke from Roman Catholic dogma, often on threat of death, to proclaim again these same rights. The latter two are celebrated to no end today in the Western education system. The one who sparked it all hardly gets a mention.

To understand the context surrounding Zoroaster’s revolutionary declarations, we must set an eerily familiar stage. While the historicity of Zoroaster is undisputed, the actual historical era in which he lived is very much up for debate; some claim he may have lived somewhere between 1500–1200 BC, while others say he likely lived all the way in the 600s BC. Regardless of the exact dates, though, it is certain that he lived in an era of intense social stratification.

The religion of the late Bronze Age (or early Iron Age) Iranians was characterized by the worship of a great number of gods and an oppressive class hierarchy in which the priestly, princely and warrior classes controlled the vast majority of ordinary people. Zoroaster, crucially, didn’t necessarily throw out all the aspects of this old religion to start anew. Like most prophets, rather, he essentially reshaped the old religion to fit a new set of philosophical values.

This philosophy, as tends to happen with prophets, gets complicated, but we can try to grasp it through an interview; one the California Zoroaster Center did with Kaikhrosrov D. Irani, who was a student of Albert Einstein in Princeton in his early days, an expert on Kant in his later years, a lifelong expert on and practitioner of Zoroastrianism and a professor at the City College of New York before his death in 2017. To Irani, Zoroaster’s revolution was not his reorganization of the Iranian pantheon into a pantheon under the supreme Ahura Mazda. Nor was it even necessarily the introduction of a good-versus-evil duality, in which the moral light god Ahura Mazda faced off against the immoral darkness god Angra Mainyu. Rather, his revolution was that he placed the…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.