In Creation, a 1981 novel by Gore Vidal, he attempts to revise Herodotos’ Enquiries (Historia); setting out the war between Persia (Iran and its empire) and Greece (Athens) of the fifth century BC from a Persian perspective; and including, like Herodotos, a survey of the then known world.
The novel’s protagonist, Kyros Spitama (c. 504-424 BC), a grandson of Zarathustra yet a sceptic, seeks the origin of all things, the creation, and in his role as Persian Ambassador meets the following people:
Herodotos of Halikarnassos 484-425 BC. An aristocrat with political ambitions, he may have been involved in a revolt against Persian control of his city, and fled to Athens. His Athenian sources for his account of the war with Persia may have been biased.
Anaxagoras of Klasamenai 510-428 BC. A Greek pro-Persian aristocrat who moved to Athens. He believed that the world consisted of substances a bit like atoms, organised by Mind, which manifested itself through motion. He speculated on the nature of the sun and explained eclipses. He was an influence on Sokrates.
Sokrates of Athens 470-399 BC was a philosopher concerned not with the creation of the world but men’s behaviour within it. Not essential to his portraits left by Plato and Xenophon and so probably authentic, Socrates was a mystic who underwent trances during which he heard a voice which he called his daimon or spirit, just as did Joan of Arc. He rigorously defined the terms he used in discussions, and attempted to get others to do the same. He felt that self awareness, would lead to virtue and that without such examination hubris would result, excess, violence, unbalance. He was critical of extremism in the democracy of his time but believed in its ability to heal itself of faults.
Zarathustra of Bactria 628-551 BC seems to have returned to an earlier religion similar to that found in the Upanishads of 1500-1200 BC and his reforms date to the sixth century, the scriptures he revived to the 10th century BC. He opposed the various cults in Persia derived from the south, the Euphrates-Tigris region via the Assyrians, substituting a fire or sun god, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord). In his ethics and cosmology there is a conflict between Truth and the Lie. Every human is free to choose a side, and every action taken influences the struggle one way or the other. Eventually Ahura Mazda will triumph. This faith in Persia influenced later ones in Greece, Judah and Arabia.
Pythagoras of Samos 570-495 BC was a merchant’s son who fled Samos after conflict with its tyrant Polykratos. He travelled in Persia and was influenced by ideas from Egypt, Babylon and India (all part of the Persian Empire). He believed in transmigration of souls, and that all things were a product of number. He expounded a heliocentric theory of the solar system. His school in southern Italy revered him as a holy man. He deeply influenced Plato.
Mahavira of Bihar 599-527 BC or 480-408 BC was a Jain teacher who attained enlightenment and reached nirvana. The religion of the Jains is the oldest surviving one and dates from at least the twelfth century BC. It is pre Aryan and may have been one of the faiths of the Dravidian and Harappan cultures. Mahavira preached non-violence and tolerance, truthfulness and chastity. He believed that only by conquering the passions can one leave the body and its cycle of endless reincarnation and attain union with spirit, and thus nirvana. Unlike other teachers he believed that this conquest would hasten the release from samsara.
Siddhartha Gautama of Rupandehi Nepal 563-483 BC or 480-400 BC, the Buddha, was a teacher who by austerity and meditation attained nirvana. He travelled eastern India to preach the Middle Way, a more accessible path for ordinary people to end entanglement in samsara. Siddhartha saw that samsara was suffering, that attachment led to desire and other passions, which led to belief in the illusion of the world. He felt compassion for those unaware of this illusion, and formulated a way of life to help those seeking release. Although Buddhism is a religion, the Buddha is not a god, but a person who has transcended godhead and religion, both of which are part of samsara. Buddha has achieved non existence, an example for his followers.
Kong Qiu Zi, Master Kong or Confucius from the state of Lu (modern Shandong) 551-479 BC was a teacher, and an advisor to the government of Lu. He lived in a period of political instability and war, was exiled for a time, and developed a system of thought designed to foster balance and stability in the family and in the state. There are remarkable parallels between Kong Zi and Plato. Rather than a formulaic order to promote stability Kong Zi focused on inner peace and balance, found by observing the best traditions of the stable past. From this good actions flowed, to others, and by extension, to the self. His ideal was the philosopher king who would introduce a reign of justice. Many of his ideas were developed by later thinkers, and he remained influential in China until the advent of Communism.
Li Er Zi, Master Li or Lao Tze from the state of Chu (modern Hunan) 600-531BC was a court official who is associated with the teachings of Taoism and the writing of early versions of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao is the Way, the All, immensely powerful and containing all humans can experience. We are a natural part of the Way but bring disharmony upon ourselves. The Tao Te Ching guides us to our original union with the Way. Taoism uses some of the techniques familiar from Zen to give the seeker an awareness of their primal state. They can then gain a new perspective on any occupation they pursue, even a religious one. It is a state where stillness and flowing are identical. Taoism has in some cases become a religion and Li Zi a god, but these are later developments.
These people could have met at a round table sometime about 450 BC. Such a meeting, though unlikely, highlights the vital role that the Persian Empire filled in circulating ideas, not just trade, from its 20 counties or satrapies, which included India, Babylon, Egypt and Greece. This is usually credited to Alexander the Great but is an achievement of Kyros and Darius. Vidal has taken license with four of these nine figures, Zarathustra, Pythagoras, Kong Zi and Li Zi, making them slightly later than traditional dating supposes.
If traditional dates are taken as correct, in 450 BC Kyros was 54, Herodotos was 34, Anaxagoras was 60, Sokrates was 20, Zarathustra had been dead 100 years but his religion had spread throughout Persia, Pythagoras dead 50 years but his ideas preserved by his followers. Mahavira was 30 (or had been dead 77 years but his influence lived on), Siddhartha was 30 (or had been dead 30 years, but his followers were founding Buddhism in his name), Kong Zi had been dead 30 years though his followers were then codifying his ideas, and Li Zi dead 80 years though the Tao Te Ching preserved his teachings. All except Sokrates, Kong Zi and Li Zi had lived in or near Persia and its territories so a possible meeting place might have been Miletos, Babylon, or Susa. All, except Sokrates, were wanderers in their lifetimes.
At that time there were no nationalities, no nations. In Greece there were a number of city-states, poleis, in northern Europe a number of raiding nomadic tribes, and in the Euphrates-Tigris valleys a number of cities once part of earlier empires, of Sumer, Elam, Assyria, Akkad and other states, now united under Persian rule.
In Greece, which included the southern Black Sea coast, the coast of Turkey, the Greek islands, mainland Greece, eastern Sicily and southern Italy, city politics were between aristocrats and popular leaders called tyrants. Neither of these was democratic, but the tyrants were vital in forming a democratic party in many states, which was politically an oligarchy, not a democracy. Greece was half way between the tribal rule of its ancestors, the Aryan tribes of the north, and the civilised rule by a king or emperor which spelt prosperity for all other civilisations such as Indian, Near Eastern or Egyptian. Much of Greece in fact was under Persian control. The Greeks, like the Phoenicians, were great traders, and carried ideas and cultures all over the known world of the West, as the Persians did in the East. The Greeks were also involved in almost ceaseless civil wars between oligarchic factions, their most enduring legacy to the West.
Concepts such as philosophy, religion, science and moral codes of behaviour were only then being formed and distinguished one from another. Science was not experimental but based on metaphysics; religion was primarily national and patriotic but was evolving into something more universal; morality was based on the best way to serve the state honourably; philosophy was replacing patriotism as a guiding principle. A major change (from Western perspectives) was the defeat and deportation of the Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon in 597 BC, where they came in contact with an early form of Zarathustrian religion. The Jews had practised Henotheism, like all Near Eastern peoples, the belief that their god Yahweh was more powerful than gods of other peoples; now they saw Yahweh, like Ahura Mazda, as the one, universal god and creator.
Odd to think that religion, which people quarrel, persecute and kill over, only concerns a little over half the world’s population. Almost 3.5 billion people (of a total 7.4 billion) have no god: Jains and Buddhists (some Buddhists) believe god is part of the illusion of samsara; the Chinese are under the influence of Kong Zi, Li Zi and Communism, all secular moralities; and there are all the atheists, agnostics and non-committed.
So what would these nine people talk about? We will take for granted, as this is a fantasy, that Vidal’s chronology is correct, that these people would be willing to meet one another, that they can understand one another, and that they all are working for the common good. Also that there is not too much conversation about the weather, cost of living or bad health.
Two, Kyros and Herodotos, are recorders, tellers of travellers’ tales. They tell of the Persian-Greek conflict and set the scene for the gathering of the other thinkers. Both Herodotos, with his tale of a shattering defeat of the mighty Persian empire, and Kyros, with his story of a minor skirmish on the unimportant western fringe of the empire that harmed the Greeks more than it did the Persians, are suspect witnesses. But without them we would know little of the past or of these other thinkers.
Another two, Anaxagoras and Pythagoras, had explored the world, its substance and mechanism, both with a desire to understand the reason for existence. Both depended on Persian and Babylonian sources, though the idea of transmigration of souls was both an Indian and a pre Greek, pre Aryan one.
Two, Sokrates and Mahavira, thought that before anything, one should know oneself and leash or eradicate the passions that distort judgement before doing anything at all. Sokrates took the way of mental clarity, Mahavira that of pure intentions.
Two, Zarathustra and Kong Zi, believed that what one was transformed one’s society and the world itself, and taught ways of creating a virtuous community. They inculcated the virtues of truthfulness and sincerity, of public virtue or morality. Kong Zi, like Sokrates, was thought the wisest man of his time: both men denied it, claiming to be the most ignorant. Was not that wisdom?
And two, Siddhartha and Li Zi, sought immersion in the Way, a process that annihilated the self and all its questions that can never be answered and made it part of something else, unknown but ineffable.
How long will it take them to realise they all have the same vision, but have arranged its parts in different orders? The Way is always the Way.
How would they think about a question such as the nature of the Self, which asks so many questions and provides so many distractions to prevent finding answers? Is there an immortal soul? What is ‘me’ we are all so conscious of?
Sokrates would probably start by asking what all thought was meant by the Self. Unless so defined no-one would know what they were talking about. But as youngest member he would have had to defer to the others. His teacher Anaxagoras might have offered a circular definition, saying that the Self was that which sought knowledge of the All, of Mind. Mahavira would have agreed that the Self was separate from, but destined to be a part of the All, but first needed to prepare in this life for that union. Pythagoras would have agreed too on the need for purity, but felt there were many Selves within us, that perhaps the Self was a delusion. Zarathustra would have felt each Self was an important part in Ahura Mazda’s battle against the Lie, that no matter how unimportant the Self might be it was important as part of that struggle.
Kong Zi would have agreed that each Self played an important part, no matter how minor, in the community of each group of peoples, and that a harmonious union of Selves would foster wisdom in its members. Only Siddhartha and Li Zi would have poured scorn on this discussion, feeling as they both did that the Self was a distraction from the All and should be annihilated by correct meditation. But first corrected and made virtuous, would say Zarathustra and Kong Zi. But first identified, would say Anaxagoras and Sokrates, and Pythagoras and Zarathustra. Not by this discussion would the Self be purified, or even identified, would reply Siddhartha, who always had the last word, because of his enigmatic smile.
While they were gathered, many topics were discussed, many questions asked. Has there ever been such a meeting of gifted and insightful people in human history? Can you think of a question they may have discussed?
As for the novel, Creation, the Persian-Greek conflict is given little space, Persian court politics only a little more, the doctrines of the wise men Kyros meets only a little more still. The book really focuses on the travellers’ tale, a tale told by Kyros in Athens about the distant places he has seen, the customs and societies he found, and the politics and manipulations that were the same wherever he travelled. Research is impressive and unobtrusive, but the rather bland characterisation prevented much reader involvement, or so I thought.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.