The First Monotheist

September 21, 2023

I’m continuing to read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and I learned another fun series of facts I thought worth writing about. I’d heard of Zoroastrianism, and knew that it had something to do with Persia, but I’d failed to remember from World History class (shocker!) that it was the first monotheistic religion. Given that most people today, if they believe (or more likely, claim to believe, in God) they tend to believe there’s only one. This is an extremely important development in the history of human thought, and may be owed to Zoroaster.

He’s an extremely ancient figure, so much so that no one really knows when he lived, typically placing him somewhere between 1500 to 1000 BC. Zoroastrianism was the religion of the ancient Persians, and dominated much of the Middle East for a millennium, until being overtaken by Islam.

Aside from many of its very interesting ideas about free will, heaven and hell, creation and anti-creation, etc., one idea I found especially refreshing to find in minds that long predate Jesus, Socrates, Confucius, and even the first philosopher – was the rejection of asceticism; the abstinence of sensual pleasures which often also leads to the withdrawal of societal participation and sense of social responsibility. Zoroastrianism apparently differs directly with the founders of many of our modern religions in this regard. To quote Gibbon:

But there are some remarkable instances, in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet, assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the Divine favour, he condemns with abhorrence, as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence. The saint, in the Magian religion, is obliged to beget children, to plant useful trees, to destroy noxious animals, to convey water to the dry lands of Persia, and to work out his salvation by pursuing all the labours of agriculture.

One may wonder how much pointless human suffering was caused by the elevation of self-inflicted pain to an act smiled upon by God. This isn’t to diminish the merits of well-directed sacrifice – a sacrifice to some social purpose – just sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake.

Continuing with Gibbon:

We may quote from the Zendavesta a wise and benevolent maxim, which compensates for many an absurdity. ‘He who sows the ground with care and diligence, acquires a greater stock of religious merit, than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers.’

While the rejection of asceticism doesn’t exist without the opposing danger of hedonism, and while I’m sure a closer look at Zoroastrianism would reveal many strange features, it is interesting to see a religion that explicitly celebrates the application of our efforts toward positive social utility. If you’re going to be judged by God, it’s nice to be judged by whether you do good in the world, instead of being judged simply by the degree to which you abstain from participating in its evils.