1. Time: Cyclical and Linear.
Most human cultures in antiquity regarded time as cyclical, like the seasons. A tree buds, its leaves open in spring, the air is warm with birdsong, then the days become colder and shorter, the foliage is all aflame with color, and the dead leaves fall sleep under their blanket of snow, returning to the roots of the tree in the earth. A new spring comes after the winter, and the earth flowers anew. Every man is born, grows, and begets children. The young rejoice in their passion and strength, supporting the old and raising children of their own. The dead sleep under earth and snow, and new feet tread the dewy grass. Generations come and go. The worlds themselves grow, flame out, and are shaped again. There are infinite endings but no finality, and therefore no eschaton, no apocalypse. Had Western civilization maintained this cosmology, the present essay would be unnecessary, perhaps even inconceivable.
And that could well have been the case, were it not for certain little-known but epochal events that we will discuss presently. For cyclical death and renewal is the observable way of things, and in an earthly life well lived one walks in peaceful harmony with it. You don’t need to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” since “the sun also rises”. (In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, is the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who will be fighting for the Oxford professorship of poetry against the heavyweight champ Ernest Hemingway.)
How was this cyclical process called? In the Indo-European languages, there is a verb meaning “to go”, a vocalized -r- (pronounced something like rri). The English words right and rite come from it, as do their cognates Greek arete, “virtue, excellence”, Armenian ard “now, thus”, and Iranian arta and asha “order, righteousness”. The word arta is embedded in recognizable names from ancient history: several kings of Persia were named Artaxerxes. Armenians still name children after the ancient Artashes and Artavazd. That word, arta, with its diverse cognates, is the standard ancient term across much of Eurasia for the way of the world, the orderly and natural way things go: sunrise, sunset; spring, summer, fall, winter, new life; birth, youth, age, death, reincarnation. Going and rightness seem to be semantically bound, and not just in the large language family I’ve cited: in Hebrew, a Semitic language, the word for religious law and custom, halakha, is formed from the root lekh, which likewise means “go”.
Which is all very well, until the normal rhythm of life is seriously disrupted and things stop going as they should, the system breaks down, and something palpably wrong breaks the cycle of life. Imagine a bent or busted wheel on a chariot or race car, the vehicle spinning out of control and leaving the great oval track. Thousands of spectators in the stands rise in a collective howl of dismay, their faces frozen in horror as the golden limbs of the charioteer are mangled in the reins, his body crushed and ruined; as the driver, like a minuscule, horrible doll down there in his helmet and brightly colored suit, staggers from the burning wreck and collapses, a human torch.
That’s when the circular paradigm— you go round and round the track, lap after lap ad infinitum— can seem inadequate to describe reality and may be replaced by the linear one, by time experienced as an arrow, by time as a one-way deal. Not a circular or oval track, but a landing-strip-like affair: touchdown, taxi, stop.
Nowadays in the west we tend to regard history as linear: man acquired language, made tools, hunted, learned how to farm, domesticated animals, discovered the wheel, invented writing, built cities and ships, established warring nation states, powered machines with steam, whale oil, electricity, petrol, and the atom. There was a beginning. Will there be an end? The Greek word from which our “history” comes means the recounting of a story, and all stories have endings. But history is a story we’re caught up in, where we’re perpetually in medias res. Nobody knows what the end will be like or even if there’s going to be one. (And when people say that history repeats itself, they don’t mean it literally: it’s an ironic remark about the seeming inability of human brings to learn a lesson from a mistake and then not make a similar mistake later.)
An individual human life is susceptible to proper storytelling, in the sense of Herodotus’ historia, as history or story: it’s a narrative with an ending. Just skip ahead to the last pages of any biography: Auden, Tolkien, Genet, Goya, Lorca, and Cervantes on my bookshelf were born and died, as shall we all. There’s a new context for that much misused expression, Me too. It’s a one-way trip, not a return ticket. But is The End really the end? No one knows what happens to an individual’s consciousness and personality after the death of the body.
Where man lacks evidence, he supplies fantasy: linear cosmologies abound in imagined heavens, hells, and purgatories, and these are staffed by throngs of vividly described bureaucrats, angelic and demonic. Even cyclical cosmologies must somehow address the question of death, and accordingly they came up with the invention of reincarnation: things go round and round and you keep coming back. But there’s a moral problem there: don’t Talaat Pasha, Hitler, Pol Pot, and company pay for what they did? It isn’t fair they massacre a whole nation, drop dead, spend some mimsy-woomsy time in the Bardö state or whatever, and then come back to earth as a cute little baby, play in the sandbox, eat sandwiches at sunny picnics, go to the high school prom, get a varsity letter in college, marry, punch out two kids, and then take family trips: Mom, Pop, Johnny (olim Genghis Khan), Sis, and their woof-woof dog. If that’s all that’s going to happen, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Gorgon or the Virgin Mary, a Khomeini or an Albert Schweitzer. If that’s how it works, then damn, it doesn’t make sense. There’s a “how” but no “why”.
Science answers “how” questions; the humanities and religion, “why” questions. What we used to call the sixty-four-dollar question, before the US Dollar became the Democrat Peso, is Unde malum? That is, Where does evil come from? And a corollary to it would be, Isn’t there some kind of recompense for a good man who suffered; and retribution, for an evil man who flourished? If there isn’t, then can’t we conclude that virtue and vice simply don’t matter? Plato’s Thrasymachus would sneer here that justice is merely the power of the stronger to compel. Or to put it in plain American English, the Golden Rule means, he who has the gold makes the rules. Systems of reincarnation, since they are based in religion, not in observable science, and must therefore address “why” questions, were forced to take this problem into account, and accordingly Buddhists and Hindus have saints like the Mahatma Gandhi come back as healthy, happy people; tyrants and sinners, as sick, dirty dogs, and so on. If you’ve achieved perfection, you fly right off the wheel altogether, into the indescribable bliss of Voidness. How the Void can be nice and what that means is an intriguing subject, but you did not sign up for a seminar on Buddhism, gentle reader. Let’s not go there— there being Nirvana (which means “releasing the breath”, not a Californian blissed-out vacuity, by the way)— and stick to the straight and narrow path of our essay, the straight line that leads to Apocalypse. That line is: What is linear time and what are the implications of the idea that linear time has an ending? Where did that idea come from? Who thought it up first? How was it transmitted to our culture? What have we done with it?
2. Linear Time, Apocalypse, and Zarathustra.
Apocalypse, the catastrophic and transformatory event that brings the world as we know it to a final and permanent end, with justice done, rewards and punishments meted out, and all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted, is a corollary of the idea of linear time. It’s so familiar that it may come as a surprise to you if you’re not in the Religion Biz that its origins are in a faraway and ancient civilization about which we know little— and, given the trend in American education in history and the humanities, are doubtless bound to know less and less.
The first known application of the idea of linearity and limit to religious cosmology seems to have come from ancient Iran, where cataclysmic events shook an ancient genius, the prophet Zarathustra (English Zoroaster, from an ancient Greek form of his name) into reformulating the understanding of time, of endings, and of the role of human beings in a great, linear, unique cosmic drama. His vision was to have profound and far-reaching effects on the development of global civilization. In the second millennium BC, Zarathustra’s peaceful nomadic-pastoral society somewhere in northern Central Asia, which seems to have regarded the cosmos as cyclical, was disrupted by an unprecedented catastrophe. The consensus is that it was a violent incursion of horse-riding marauders with newfangled weapons. I am waiting for some academic with itchy fingers to write an article arguing that climate change was involved. Whatever the case, the prophet-poet was unprepared by his previous belief in the automatic operation of what his old religion called arta or asha— in the-orderly-and-natural-way-things-go— to explain the present chaos, much less confront it. Arta did not work alone. Walking peacefully in harmony was not enough. There was no harmony. This was a war between good and evil in which you had to take a side and do something. He left his home to seek the truth.
After ten years of wandering and thinking, Zarathustra experienced a prophetic vision in which he beheld how the world began (this is called cosmogony). There occurred the confrontation of two spirits that hitherto, in pre-eternity, had been separate. One was the creative divinity of perfect good (Ahura Mazda, meaning the Lord Wisdom); the other, a wholly malevolent, destructive and inferior demon of radical evil (Angra Mainyu or later Ahriman, meaning the Frightful Spirit). Zarathustra revealed his vision in a collection of sacred songs, the Gathas. They are very likely the first poems ever written by a named human author. Historical time and the world are the scene of a unique war between the two forces, and we are in the middle of it: the visible universe is the battlefield. This war had a start and it will have a finish; and the ethical choices of every human being affect the outcome one way or the other. That is, what every one of you does here in your lifetime is meaningful and important. Humans have free will to choose which side they will be on. Every man and woman counts. You were made by the good God, not by the evil demon. You’re unique. You matter. Your freedom and dignity are your birthright.
This means that, yes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Without Zarathustra, back in the mid-second millennium BC, there would never have been a Fourth of July 1776. No Valley Forge boys. No Stars and Stripes. No Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Martin Luther King. America is not a mistake, a crime, a problem, or a tragedy. It is still the last, best hope of mankind, and for those who live under tyranny and barbarism in places like China, Iran, and Cuba the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes are emblems of freedom. The United States of America is great, not because it is rich or powerful. It has become rich and powerful because of its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution, and its values. These are rooted in belief in one God and in the Ten Commandments. America is all those things because it is a Judeo-Christian country. But Judaism and Christianity themselves would never have developed into what they are, without Zarathustra— as we shall see.
Cyclical time, by definition, begs the question of endings. But the idea of linear time cannot. Imagine any line you’ve ever drawn, any piece of string. It is finite, it has an end. Your life started and will end. What happens then? Will the world end, and what happens when it does? I don’t know, but it’s the business of prophets and visionaries, in the absence of hard evidence, to answer these questions, by supplying what I have unkindly called fantasies. That is an uncharitable designation, since it is not the intention of a religious man who propounds a system of faith to deceive himself or his followers, even if that may be the result of his activity. What he thinks he is doing is revealing something that has been hidden hitherto. The Greek word for revealing something hidden is apokalypsis. Bingo. Zarathustra beheld the future: both the life after death for each of us, and the end of the world as we know it for all of us.
At dawn on the fourth morning after the end of a man’s earthly life, Zarathustra taught, his soul leaves the body and ascends to the Mountain of Justice for his earthly deeds, the good and ill he has done, to be weighed by the three divinities Mithra (Friendship), Rashnu (Rectitude), and Sraosha (Listening). Then he must cross the bridge that spans the gulf between this world and the next. If he has been found worthy— if the good he did in his time on earth outweighs the evil— the bridge that opens before him will be wide, the beautiful embodiment of his conscience will welcome him, and he will be guided to heaven, a place called the Abode of Song. It is a garden, and many languages use the Persian word Paradise (literally, “walled garden”, cf. the Garden of Eden, Hebrew ‘eden meaning, in turn, “delight”) to describe it. But if he has been wicked, the bridge will narrow to a knife edge and his evil deeds will grip him and plunge with him into the dark, freezing stench of the maelstrom-like funnel of hell, with its darkness and torments.
At the end of our one-way, linear string of historical time, Zarathushtra taught, much the same thing will happen, writ large: the whole world will be judged. The souls of the dead, stepping delicately down from the mansions of the holy or hauled up from the stinking prison house of hell, will be reclothed in their physical bodies for their day in court. Again. Yes, the individual and collective apocalypses overlap, they are to a certain degree repetitive. The main difference between them is that the cosmic apocalypse happens here and involves a radical transformation of the visible, material, corporeal world, while the soul’s apocalypse has of necessity to happen in an otherworld invisible to us. That latter invisibility is necessary because the world after a person dies looks the same, except they’re absent from it. Either they’re gone and that’s it, curtains. Or there’s something going on behind the veil.
3. Apocalypse and the Idea of a Messiah.
Crucially, the Zoroastrians taught, the advent of three semi-supernatural hero-saviors, men of virgin birth, will herald the end times, the Apocalypse. (The Zoroastrian term for the end times is Frashegird, the “making wonderful”: Armenians still use their form of the old term, hrashakert, to describe a Divine miracle.) This introduces the key element of messianism into the picture of the apocalypse. The three successive Zoroastrian messiahs are called in Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Saoshyants. The term means Saviors, and their names are given as Ukhshyat-Ereta (Righteousness will flourish), Ukhshyat-Nemah (Praise will flourish), and Astvat-Ereta (Righteousness in the flesh). They are to be born at thousand-year intervals when a virgin girl steps into lake Hamun in the eastern Iranian province of Seistan and is impregnated by the miraculously preserved seed of Zarathustra. They will lead the final battles against the forces of evil. A hill temple on that lake, Kuh-e Khwaja (the Mountain of the Master), is in Christian legend the very place from which the Magi— the word is an Iranian term for a priest of the Zoroastrian faith— departed for Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus.
All these ideas of Zarathustra’s, about innate human freedom and dignity, a clear distinction between good and evil (no moral relativism allowed), human moral responsibility and ethics, individual judgment, reward, and punishment in the afterlife, and a final judgment at the end of time after a final pitched battle between the sons of light and the powers of darkness, were unprecedented in the history of human thought. The religion that took shape around his revelatory songs, the Gathas, is called Zoroastrianism in the west, though the ancient Iranians who practiced it called it simply Vanguhi Daena (Persian Behdin), the Good Vision. It became the national faith of numerous Iranian peoples, from Eastern Europe to the borders of China, and the small Parsi and Irani communities of India and Iran still practice it today, fourteen centuries after the conquest of Iran by the Muslim Arabs.
But Zoroastrianism became known, then influential, in the Near East and the Classical, Greco-Roman world because it was the state religion of three successive empires, the Persian Achaemenians (559-330 BC), the Parthian Arsacids (250 BC-226 AD), and the Persian Sasanians (226-651 AD). The Achaemenians ruled Anatolia, including Ionia on the shores of the Aegean: many of the great thinkers of Classical Greece, including Herodotus, the Father of History, were Persian subjects. The Ancient Iranians ruled the Near and Middle East and Egypt, too. Isaiah, a prophet of ancient Israel, acclaimed the Achaemenian king Cyrus as God’s anointed. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is mashiach, English messiah. At first, the term meant only a duly installed local king favored by God. A king’s coronation involved aromatic oil being dribbled on his head. The rite of Chrismation, preceding Baptism in the Christian church, is a continuation of this. But with the Persians, the concept of the messiah took on a much more spiritual and universal sense, linked to eschatology (speculation about the end times, from Greek eskhaton, “end, limit”). My fellow Jews back then saw much in the Iranian faith that was admirably akin to our own ethical monotheism and strengthened it; other ideas that were new to my tribe, such as those about the afterlife, either took root or passed harmlessly through as topical fashions.
Judaism thus became a conduit in the pagan Greco-Roman world for the diffusion of Iranian ideas of messianism and apocalypticism, and these were particularly pronounced in the two faiths that emerged from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Both the latter religions took shape at times when pre-Islamic Iranian political and cultural influence was at its height in the Near East (the Parthian Arsacids, at the time of Christ; the Persian Sasanians, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad), including ancient Israel. Thus, Jesus is believed by his followers to have been the messiah, and of virgin birth: the word Christ is Greek for “anointed one”, a translation of the Hebrew. Messiah to them meant not merely the king of Israel but the universal savior and commander of the war against evil at the end of days. Since He has come and gone and the world has not visibly changed— there has been no apocalypse— Christians reshaped the idea of the end of the world to include a second coming. For Muslims, who revere Jesus as a prophet but do not believe He was God incarnate, the eschatological, messianic figure is called the Mahdi, literally, the rightly-guided one. The two dominant sects of Islam differ somewhat on this point: the Sunnis do not focus on messianism, while the Shi‘is (whose movement is, not surprisingly, centered in Iran, with its Zoroastrian roots) have developed an elaborate complex of legendry about the messianic and eschatological “hidden Imam”.
You can be a good, ethical monotheist without focusing on the afterlife or the end times. It is enough to know that there is good and evil, that you are free to make a moral choice, and that the choice you make and the acts you perform on that basis, in this unique lifespan, matter. The world needs good people: focus on what you yourself have to do, and trust in God about the future and the unseen. As the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts put it: “Do good because it IS good.” That is how most Jews, Christians, and Muslims see and live life, I think.
Messianism, which was very important to Jews in the Second Temple period, the end of which roughly coincided with Jesus’ lifetime, is not a central theme of normative Judaism any longer except among certain sects, and there is no single authoritative doctrine concerning it. Since the world is essentially no different from the way it has always been, it is apparent, in the Jewish view, that the messiah has not yet been here. When he does come, the sober medieval philosopher Maimonides taught, there will not be any cosmic convulsion and the laws of nature will be the same as now. People will be born and die, work will need to be done and food will need to be eaten. But all human beings will be endowed with piety, wisdom, and understanding: the change will come from within, and will emanate outward into society. And that change will obviously be very great and have a fundamental impact on society, even if everything else in nature stays the same.
4. Impatience: Bringing on Apocalypse Now.
All the above is fine for scholars of comparative religion following the complex skein of threads of thought that make up the multicolored tapestry of what our civilization is. But in the real world outside the ivory tower people get tired of the daily grind, the normal misery of life, and the lurid eruptions of war and pestilence that flare periodically and make our misery a good deal worse than normal. Inundation on the east coast and conflagration on the west coast. The Holocaust. Atomic weapons. The best lack all conviction, Yeats lamented, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely the second coming is at hand. People yearn for it to be over already. If there are end times, if there is an apocalypse, if the messiah is due for an appearance, then Apocalypse Now!
Apocalypticism, fueled by the lurid Book of Revelation (Greek, Apokalypsis) in the New Testament, has been a perennial preoccupation in Christendom, especially, as one might expect, in times of crisis. Here in America, for many years, the Left Behind series has been the nationwide bestseller. The title means this: the period of Tribulation preceding the Second Coming of Jesus is preceded by the Rapture— the evacuation to Heaven of a select few saved Christian souls— with everybody else being left behind to face the unpleasant music of the Antichrist and Armageddon. The point of Left Behind is that apocalypse is not coming at some faraway future time. It’s imminent, just around the corner, and we had better prepare for it right now. The prospect of such impending apocalypse, unsurprisingly, affects people’s views on world politics. Some of these impinge on issues close to the heart of this writer. A number of fundamentalist Protestant Christians support the State of Israel on the basis of an apocalyptic belief that the Jews must all be ingathered once more in our ancient homeland for the battle of Armageddon to occur and the machinery of the Second Coming to start moving. Armageddon is an actual place, a short drive from Haifa in the middle of farming country. Tel (= Hill of) Megiddo, as the place is called by the natives, is an interesting archaeological site, and ancient Near Eastern empires used to duke it out in the vicinity.
But damned if I want the mother of all battles to take place anywhere near the plowed fields of the local kibbutz. Many of these apocalypse-obsessed people, who sometimes describe themselves as Christian Zionists, are genuine friends of my little embattled ancestral homeland (and I am duly grateful for that). But I still think it disquieting that the theoretical basis of their amity, whether or not they are fully aware of it, is the belief that my lot are to be assembled there (everybody smile for the group photo, please) in order to perish in a nuclear war to end all wars— as dispensable bit players in somebody else’s drama. It’s a refraction of an older belief that the conversion of the Jews must precede the Second Coming. After two millennia of crusades, inquisitions, and worse, that just ain’t gonna happen nohow. Christianity is a profound religion with many good things to offer, and the Jewish relationship to the great Western civilization Christianity has made is irrevocable— but it’s another religion. Israel is a Middle Eastern country that is trying to provide a safe and normal life for Jewish children, in the wake of a Holocaust during which Christendom largely looked the other way when a million Jewish children were murdered. The last thing Israelis, or Arabs, for that matter, want or need is a sanguinary Armageddon to satisfy the cosmic scheme of some evangelist preacher on the far side of the planet. My kinsmen there will find a good and mutually beneficial and respectful modus vivendi, I hope, with our Muslim neighbors that does not involve World War III. We and our Arab cousins will write the script of our own play, thank you very much.
That is not to say that Jews, being human beings with a linear cosmology, are not equally susceptible to apocalyptic fantasy in times of stress. In 1666, following the terrible pogroms led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in Eastern Europe, many Jews followed the popular movement led by the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi. (The number of the beast of that year is a coincidence since Jews use a different reckoning of time: today, 21 July, would have been at that time 18 Tammuz 5426 according to the Hebrew calendar. See? No 666.) The results were disastrous. At the present time, in the wake of the still greater communal trauma of the Nazi Holocaust, many followers of the dynamic Jewish movement of Chabad, a branch of Hasidism, believe the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, to be the messiah. (This writer belongs to a Chabad synagogue and community.) These pious folk pray fervently for his imminent return, with the messianic era and all the trimmings: the sun and moon will shine with equal strength, the exiles will be gathered again in the Land of Israel, the Temple will be rebuilt, etc. Disastrous current events (coronavirus, the collapses of a pilgrimage site in the Galilee and of an apartment building near Miami, etc.) are explained away as the “birth pangs” of the messiah: the worse things get, according to this logic, the better they are about to be, as though the sinking ship’s going to hit bottom any day now and the only way is up. (Raise the Titanic?)
Who knows, they may be right. But the Jewish mainstream is kind of skeptical. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer told a story about the people of Chelm. Chelm is a real city in Poland and its Jewish community was illustrious. But they were the butt of jokes anyhow. Hell, I live in Fresno, California. I can take being made fun of. In the story, the good Chelmites hear the messiah’s on the way so they put a chair at the city limits and hire a fellow to sit there all day. So they can have advance warning of the advent of salvation. The punchline is what expresses a fairly common, if sadly ironic, Jewish attitude towards messianism, apocalypticism, eschatology, etc.: It didn’t pay much, but it was a steady job!
5. Manmade Apocalypse: Political Revolution.
The problem with the impatient, seat-of-the-pants apocalypticism and messianism of latter-day Protestants and Jews is that for all the politics, drama, and hoopla, nothing actually happens. You can sit on that spindly bentwood chair on the turnoff (Welcome to Chelm! Rotary Club. Masons. Hasidim. Our Lady of Czestochowa) from Rzeczpospolita Polska interstate 99 till the cows come home. Nothing ever happens. Well, even if something is happening, then the mills of God are still grinding too millennially slowly for people who need to get their flour, go home, knead the dough, kindle the oven, bake the bread, and feed the kids. (How’s that for an extended metaphor?)
That’s why many people opt for do-it-yourself, manmade apocalypses to hurry matters along. These are, of course, the political Revolutions that convulse countries from time to time. They nearly all have religious overtones: the ideology of the servile revolt of the first century BC that the captured and enslaved Anatolian nobleman Spartacus led, was framed in Dionysian mythology. It collapsed and Crassus crucified the rebels along the Appian Way. (Watch the movie.) The Zealots who championed Israel in revolt against the same Roman oppressor about a century later, in 66-73 AD believed they were bringing apocalyptic redemption. They failed and the Second Temple was destroyed. Several generations later, the charismatic Bar Kokhba (Son of the Star, hailed as the messiah by no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva, one of the titans of nascent Rabbinic Judaism) raised the banner of rebellion again, and his failure, in 135 AD was final, or almost. It marked the beginning of a long exile, and it was to be nearly two millennia before the Children of Israel were to throw off alien domination and reconquer our land once more. A Zionist prayer recited in many synagogues calls the State of Israel reshit tsmichat ge’ulatenu, “the first flower of our redemption”. I like the sentiment but question the conscription of Divinity into the message. Let’s remember how wrong Akiva was, and try to keep religion separate from politics.
The French revolutionaries of the late 18th century didn’t involve God in their schemes at all, and sanctified the reckoning of time to themselves: replacing the Anno Domini of the Christian calendar, they made the autumnal equinox of 1792 the first day of the Year One. Shortly thereafter the guillotines went into action. (You were forced in high school to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.) Then the tyrant Napoleon drenched Europe in blood. Way to go, citoyens! (But I like the Marseillaise anyhow, especially in “Casablanca”. Don’t you?) Next act. The Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 (its full hagiographical title, Great October Socialist Revolution, refers to the now-defunct calendar of Tsarist Russia), despite its militant atheism, employed the full trappings of Eastern Orthodox iconography, with banners and heroic scenes, all in the symbolic red of the martyrs’ blood. When V.I. Lenin declared victory, he borrowed the words of Jesus on the cross: “It is accomplished!”
Except that, yet again, it wasn’t accomplished: the same secret police, now called Cheka instead of Okhrana, spied on the same unhappy peoples of the same Russian Empire and shipped them off to slave labor in the same Siberian mines. The same bureaucracy mismanaged the same vast, sleepy, drunken, mistrustful country. The same soldiers fought and died to save their homeland, despite the callous, cruel inefficiency of the same besotted commanders. As the economy faltered and the Soviet Union, for all its Potemkin villages and fevered propaganda, failed to produce Paradise, we were told that the eschatological bliss of Communism was “on the horizon”. A popular Russian joke invoked the dictionary definition of the word horizon: an imaginary line that vanishes as you approach it. (A cynic might say the same of the Parousia. Or Moshiach.) All of which The Who summed up: “Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss.” Won’t get fooled again, sang The Who. But the leitmotif of the history of revolutions is just that: people getting fooled again, and again, and again. Just ask the motley crew who took over part of Portland, Oregon last year. History repeated, as farce.
The Party bosses would have made Karl Marx spin in his grave like a top: who they were (functionaries) and what they did (mass murder) was the exact opposite of what he wanted. In 1977 my Dad came for a few days to England, where I was a graduate student, and one sunny morning we walked together to Marx’s resting place in Highgate cemetery, not far from the flat I shared with an amiable Parsi Zoroastrian chartered accountant in north London. The grand old man lies under a massive stone plinth culminating in his defiant head with its full beard. A latter-day Hebrew prophet! Dad read Marx’s words that are chiseled in gold on the monument: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways— the point however is to change it.”
We two, father and son, a pair of old-style Reds (Yes, Senator, I am now and have always been…), sat down later on a park bench outside the cemetery, looking south towards the bustle of central London on a weekday, and Dad explained that workers themselves, not Communist party bureaucrats or trade union bosses, are their own vanguard, that change happens when an individual is conscientious and thoughtful, when he understands by himself what’s around him, how the world functions, and then works together with others, in free association, to work hard and improve things. Maybe my fellow tribesman, the author of the Communist Manifesto, was not all that different from our Aristotelian forebear in medieval Spain, Maimonides: the messianic age won’t be supernaturally altered, but men and women will just think clearly and act with common sense. And remember Zarathustra’s assertion of human dignity and freedom of thought. Not very apocalyptic, but more kind of like what the American Revolution— which the established church of Marxism disdains— aimed for.
But aren’t revolutions sometimes necessary? Evolution and peaceful progress sometimes cannot happen. Surely there is sometimes no other way to get rid of entrenched evils protected by vested interests, than by the violent overthrow of the existing order. Yes, and that is what the American Revolution was. As for the Russian Revolution, it may be helpful to point out here that there wasn’t one of these in the fateful year 1917. There were two. In March, the Russians forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate, and in that first Revolution established a constitutional, representative, multi-party democracy. That new revolutionary order included a variety of left-wing parties. Lenin’s Bolshevik— literally, “Majority”— faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was in fact neither majority nor democratic. His faction became the majority only by establishing a one-party state and eliminating their other comrades, such as the Social Revolutionaries and Anarchists, after the overthrow of Russia’s Democratic Revolution. And as we know, Stalin went on to purge the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of nearly all its original Bolsheviks, too.
What the Communists scornfully dismissed as “bourgeois” revolutions: 1776 in America, March 1917 in Russia— did not deserve the deprecatory epithet. They were genuine revolutions intended to introduce necessary change that would not have been possible by any other means. But they were not apocalyptic. They did not presume to turn over the entire human and natural cosmos: they understood both that this is not possible and that the attempt to do it will inevitably lead, not to paradise on earth, but to an orgy of destruction. And the survivors will have to crawl out of the wreckage. The Founding Fathers of the United States were liberal thinkers, practical men whose long view of the future embraced much of the amelioration Marx and the Communists sought but never achieved.
All of which is very well, but sometimes it takes a simpler, more personal, more vivid explanation to understand in one’s bones how a big idea went wrong.
I’ve been traveling to the Soviet Union, then Russia, since the age of fifteen. I speak and like the Russians, Communist or otherwise. For several summers at the turn of the 21st century I stayed in the hospitable, cozy St. Petersburg apartment of an old friend now deceased, Professor Karen Nikitich Yuzbashian. Karen Nikitich was then an old man, rail-thin, who had seen the Stalin terror firsthand: his father was exiled to a labor camp, basically for the crime of being educated and knowing a foreign language. As a teenager Karen had to care for his family, in Moscow, during the Nazi invasion. After the war he studied with the great Iosif Orbeli, curator of the Hermitage, and became a teacher of Armenian and Byzantine studies at Leningrad State University. Karen was also a researcher at the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Erevan; and when the USSR collapsed, he served as a delegate in the independent Armenian parliament.
During the White Nights, I used to read in my room in Karen’s flat till about midnight, when he would call out in Armenian, James jan, k’entres? (James, my dear, how about supper?) We sat in his tiny kitchen, sliced bread and cheese, and toasted each other with shot glasses of vodka, and talked in Armenian and Russian about everything under the sun. Once Karen Nikitich explained the problem of the Bolshevik Revolution: “Let’s do THIS!” he proclaimed, fist in the air, “and not think about this, and this, and this, and this, and this…” the fist becoming a pointing finger, trailing off into eternity.
And for the first time, after a lifetime of reading books and thrashing it all out in discussions, I didn’t just think I understood. I KNEW. May the Lord illuminate his soul: one of the joys of the afterlife will be meeting Karen Nikitich again.
6. Apocalypticism Without Religion: Scientism.
The new religion of scientism popular on the left provides another sort of apocalypticism without God. Wildfires in the American West? Rains and floods on the east coast, and in Europe? It’s climate change, they say— and to that extent there is a scientific basis. But the apostles of Climate Change with capital letters become apocalypticists when they go on to assert that what we are experiencing is not the periodic climate change that has recurred throughout history, but a sort of mystical eschaton, a one-time, culminating event of the whole human and planetary adventure. The Climate Changians cast themselves as saints, with their opposition to capitalism, industry— modernity itself! And in their vision, fossil fuels, entrepreneurial businessmen, and the other appurtenances of modernity are assigned the role of original sinners. The Climate Changian eschatology wears a certain self-righteous mantle of anger, the familiar garb of religious fanatics: “The science is in!” they proclaim roundly. And anyone who protests that science doesn’t pronounce, it only asks questions, experiments, provides provisional solutions, and is open to new evidence that might negate older verities— anyone who says all that is not the holder of another point of view, but a morally bad person, a kafir, a sinner, a heretic. If you accept their immovable “scientific” position you’re one of the chosen, the elect, the saved. If you question it, as some scientists have done, you’re morally wrong. You have to be silenced. Nothing could be less scientific than this approach. Silencing and canceling people who question public policy on another scientific issue, the medical approach to Covid— casting thought as sin— is another example of science as apocalyptic and inquisition. It’s no surprise that the same people who are most strident about Climate Change succumb also to the hysteria about lockdowns.
Beware of any science, or proponent of science, that presumes to answer “why” questions, because that’s not science any longer, it’s religion. The misuse of science in this way by the Nazis in their crackpot theories of race and eugenics should be a warning. They, too, said “the science was in.” They, too, had “critical race theory”. They, too, were apocalypticists, just of the Nordic pagan variety: Hitler envisioned Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods, complete with Valhalla in flames, as the final act of his degenerate play. He got a local version of what he wanted, just 987 years sooner than he had planned for the Thousand-Year Reich. His capital city exploded, burned, and flooded, the Führer expired in his bunker— but the world didn’t end, somehow it never does, and the Berliners themselves were left to pick up the pieces, bury the dead, rebuild homes and businesses, and get on with the business of living.
A Russian dissident writer once said that in the West people lead lives; in the East, they undergo experiments. Experiments are generally performed, he might have added, under controlled conditions. Thus, East Berlin was to be a laboratory of the Soviet form of paradise— but to avoid contagion the test tube of socialism had to be quarantined from West Berlin. One didn’t want the innocent, vulnerable builders of the new Eden to be tempted by capitalist snakes and their offers of tasty apples. That didn’t work, either. The wall came down, the experiment was tossed aside, real life resumed, and the Berliners went to visit each other and drink coffee. Then they rebuilt where the concrete barriers, the gun turrets, and the barren stretches of no-man’s land had cut a gash through the city’s heart. And mind you, socialism was never scientific in any way: the result was predetermined, which is the exact opposite of scientific method.
7. The Opiate of the People.
That’s the thing with manmade apocalypse. No matter how spectacular it is, there’s the morning after, when you wake up with a bad headache. We’re left to clean up after the apocalyptic adventures forced upon this fragile world by messianist misfits. Life generally doesn’t end in a revelatory blaze of glory, but in a hospital bed, and facing that fact is the real heroism. It’s heroic, too, to get on with it, to carry on, knowing that maybe the messiah will come and the world as we know it will be transfigured, perfected, whatever, or maybe not. But that’s not your job: you have to be a good man. And in the meantime you’ve got to go to work, send the kids to school, visit dentists and doctors, pay bills, buy groceries, and cook dinner. And when a loved one dies, you have to shoulder the unbearable agony of their loss.
I’m not denying that we need consolation in all this. The enemies of Karl Marx are fond of deriding his comment that religion is the opiate of the people; and the self-proclaimed friends of Marx, the Bolshevik vandals who destroyed Russian Orthodox churches and the Maoist barbarians who eradicated Tibetan monasteries also cited this as scriptural justification, as it were, for their barbarism. As the Yiddish saying goes, “God save me from my friends! My enemies I can take care of myself.” What Marx really said was that when a person is suffering, he needs an opiate for his pain and it should not be withheld from him. Working people are suffering, and religion eases their pain. Sure, Marx looked forward to a time when life might become less painful; another German-speaking Jew, another exile who also became a Londoner, Dr. Sigmund Freud, likewise acknowledged the ubiquity and permanence of human sorrow and sought to lessen it by treating our neuroses. Eschewing transcendence, he proposed work and love as the ultimate therapies.
Apocalypticism is, I think we can agree, a cosmic possibility but an unhealthy obsession; and religious faith and living out the teachings of the Bible are neither a stupefying narcotic nor an enfeebling neurosis. We cannot live without hope, we can’t encounter the world and others without some measure of faith, and without charity— the Apostle Paul used the word to mean love, but charitable donations are welcome, too— we cease to be human. Maybe there is a next world. Maybe there is a great fulfillment of everything, a breaking of the bank. Maybe one of the religions is the ultimate truth, or, more likely, each of the great religions sees the same truth, differently refracted through the turning prism of human perception. But in the interim you and I have to make a go of it in the time given us, right here, with faith, hope, and charity.
8. What Is To Be Done? Read a Book.
“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading,” said Logan Pearsall Smith. Don Quixote took reading much too far— but you know that only because you read Cervantes. There’s no way around it. Anyone who’s read this far is a reader. “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” That’s T.S. Eliot. You probably do the same. Literature helps me to get on with it. When the pearl of this essay (as it were) started to take shape, the bit of grit at the core wasn’t an exposition of the Zoroastrian ideas that informed Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. It was a speech from a play one had seen, then read.
I like those modern plays that force two men representing polar opposites of thought and theory, action and practice, to sit down and discuss their ideas. In Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love”, A.E. Housman, who idealized love from a distance and mooned over handsome boys in elegiac poems, thrashes it out in Heaven with Oscar Wilde, whose approach to his homosexuality was, shall we say, more empirical. And then there’s Stoppard’s masterpiece, “Equus”, whose narrator is a psychiatrist who enjoys vacations on Aegean islands and coffee table books on the heroes and passions of ancient Greece but doesn’t let those passions get to him. Instead, he helps his patients to deal with their inner demons and experience a modicum of satisfaction in their disciplined, passionless, middle-class suburban lives. The other character is his patient, a disturbed teenager, who has created a real religion of intense emotion, worship, and physical sensuality with horses at its center. (After some friends and I left the theater in London after a performance of “Equus”, many years ago, I hugged my parked motorcycle and burst into tears. So there.)
“Marat/Sade” is the short title of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of The Marquis De Sade by the German playwright Peter Weiss. Marat was a Jacobin, an extreme radical, an advocate of the strategy of terror in the French Revolution; Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the centrist faction of the Gironde, killed him in his bath in 1793. As for the Marquis De Sade, well, I think you know who he was; but for the purposes of the drama let us say that as a proponent of radical, personal sensuality he plays Oscar Wilde to Marat’s Housman, whose radicalism is all politics and no love. I saw the play in Oxford: a troupe of articulate, impassioned, very handsome English students provided an unforgettable, electric performance. It was late winter, the weather was archetypally cold, rainy, and miserable, and I was clutching as a talisman a self-teaching manual of Modern Greek. A month later I went to Greece, but then it was back to academia. Life seems to be one attempt after another to make a break for it, but the prison walls close in, don’t they. Anyhow, these lines, spoken in the play by the Marquis De Sade to Marat (who’s languishing in his bathtub), sum up everything I have to say about apocalypse and revolution:
A woman finds her husband too short
she wants a taller one
A man finds his wife too skinny
he wants a plumper one
A man’s shoes pinch
but his neighbor’s shoes fit comfortably
A poet runs out of poetry
and desperately gropes for new images
For hours an angler casts his line
Why aren’t the fish biting
And so they join the revolution
thinking the revolution will give them everything.
a new pair of shoes
a new wife
a new husband
and the best soup in the world
So they storm all the citadels
and there they are
and everything is just the same
no fish biting
a worn and stinking partner in bed
and the soup burnt
and all that heroism
which drove us down to the sewers
well we can talk about it to our grandchildren
I was going to close by suggesting that if you want to know what’s at the end, don’t assemble members of a cult to insist the messiah come at once, since he won’t and you’ll wind up with Waco or Kool-Aid, or start a revolution, since that will end not in a burst of revelatory insight but in bloodbaths and tyranny, or even ponder the variant teachings on the subject of the Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, since one has already helpfully reviewed all that for you, cf. supra.
Read a novel or a short story, since art, not reality, is what’s got visibly linear, logical plots that are rounded off with endings. But then one reflected that there are very good books, like Count Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, that are not straightforwardly linear at all. If they’re linear it’s in a more mystical and ineluctable way: they have nested stories that spin strangely out, like fractal images. And there are Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, with the random chaos and cacophony of a street corner in midtown Manhattan at lunch time on a week day. But more important, the best novels do not end. They gesture to the reader to look himself, with all he’s gained, into time beyond, asking unanswered questions, leaving the mystery there, entire and expectant, and you close the book, startled by the intensity of your emotions, your thoughts quickened to look out past rocking chair, tea cup, apple, and porch, and the poignancy is that this is a mystery you will never know, not in this life, but knowing it’s there and that you won’t know is not just poignant, it’s glorious, isn’t it, and in it inheres the dignity, freedom, purpose of why you’re alive and sentient in the first place.
Lawrence Durrell has a poem with a simple refrain invoking “the Greek sea”. Why does one dissolve in tears at the thought of that sea, τ’ ανθισμενο πελαγο, the “flowering sea” of Seferis. One returns there, a mortal man on a quest that seems not to end.
For Pindar wrote all this many ages before now, sensing perhaps, or not knowing at all, how his perfect words might move us still to thought and passion. But all that matters, though, is that he did write, and that we do read.
εγω δε πλεον’ ελπομαι
λογον Οδυσσεος η παθαν δια του αδυεπη γενεσθ’ Ομηρον,
επει ψευδεσι οι ποτανα τε μαχανα
σεμνον επεστι τι
But I say the story about Odysseus is greater than what he actually suffered,
through the sweet speech of Homer;
for upon his fictions and winged machination
rests a kind of majesty
επαμεροι. τι δε τις, τι δ’ ου τις; σκιας οναρ
ανθρωπος. αλλ’ oταν αιγλα διοσδοτος ελθηι,
λαμπρον φεγγος επεστιν ανδρων και μειλιχος αιων
Creatures of a day! What is someone, what is he not? The dream of a shadow—
man. But when the divinely given brightness comes
a shining light comes upon men and their lifetime is as sweet as honey.