Last night I had the privilege of listening to a podcast called Hardcore History, by Dan Carlin. In the particular segment I listened to, he gave an in-depth history of the Assyrians, Medians, and the rise of the Persians in a preface to the famous battle of the Persians against the three hundred Spartan soldiers vying for control of a road. Not only was it a fascinating account of the ebb and flow of History, but it also opened me up to a broader view of the Paradox I want to discuss today: The Paradox of Black and White.
This is not to mean just the hues in the title, but the symbolism behind it. Mr. Carlin mentioned several times in his podcast, King of Kings, that the time he was discussing was a period of “Black and White.” This can be seen as good and evil, light and dark, and saint and sinner, but not necessarily the multi-faceted prism between the two. He suggested that we have moved past the black and white aspect, but I argue that in many ways, we are still there. In the United States where we currently see the battle between the Conservatives and the Liberals, the Christians against another other religious doctrine and the Atheists and Agnostics. The underlying current is flipping a coin over upon itself between its two sides with neither ever reigning over the other in permanence.
This paradox can be seen all throughout History with the perception of good fighting against the perception of evil. There is a saying consider that “History is written by the victors,” so the perception of what is good and what is evil is always skewed. The victor is the side of the good, while the loser represents evil. In many cases, this is readily apparent when faced with the atrocities committed during World War II and the Holocaust. Clearly, Hitler’s actions were that of an evil man. But did he see himself as evil? No, probably not. He believed that he was acting for the good of the world by ridding it of the “scourge” of the Jewish people. Do his “good” intentions make his actions any less evil? Absolutely not. Because ridding the world of “undesirables” is evil, in modern society.
If the Holocaust has gone down in History as a dark time, then why is there such a big push to rid the world of the LBGTQ community? Of the people with any different skin color than white? Of anyone who is not a Christian? Just to name a few examples. Doesn’t this fall along the same lines of Hitler killing all of the Jews? In my mind, it absolutely does. So why is our society leaning this way? I believe it is because there is a dark side to every human being and sometimes, that darkness overwhelms our goodness.
I was talking to my counselor about this in my last session and she described it as a part of a “Chaos Theory.” This breaks this paradox down into its basic core of nature. The natural world is cyclical and can be observed as the circle of life (thank you, Lion King). It is in the nature of the world to destroy and create anew. We see this in forest fires that destroy everything in its path, but it is then reborn with new flora and fauna that grows and flourishes in a newly fertilized land. See, the ash that falls to the ground is full of nutrients that the old trees had sucked out of the dirt as they grew. Those nutrients revitalize the infertile soil and give it the ability to host new life, but us humans look upon fires with fear and dread. That fear is what drives us to see them as evil things when it is all part of the natural world.
Now going back to the light and the dark residing within all of us; it is human nature to look at those darker impulses and give them an external source. We cannot face the fact that those dark thoughts that scare us so badly could be fabricated within our own minds! The religious folks say they come from Satan to tempt us away from the glory of God, so they fight them down using their faith. Betty De Shong Meador wrote, “At the beginning of a new millennium, humanity still suffers as a result of the separation of spirit from matter that took place in antiquity…Dominant monotheistic religions effectively taught generations that evil is outside ourselves, with Satan over there, in others.”
So what about those who are not religious, how do they explain those dark thoughts that encroach upon their minds? Atheists do not see it as a problem of good and evil, it is more about what is moral and immoral. It is simply a part of nature that I gave an example of with the forest fire. Cory Markum wrote an in-depth article called “The Problem of Evil,” which gives a very good explanation of this very real question. The link is below.(1)
The ancient poet, Enheduanna, writes that nature is both light and dark. She insists that we see the glorious and horrendous acts that humans can commit in order to better understand them. By recognizing that polarity within ourselves, we are better equipped to subdue the darkness. I once again quote Ms. Meador, and I do so because she words it so elegantly. “Only by acknowledging our capacity for evil can we possibly learn to contain it,” as written in Inanna Lady of the Largest Heart. This means that we must look away from the external sources we give it and take responsibility for that darkness residing within us, so we can arm ourselves against it.
And now I go back to Dan Carlin’s podcast regarding the Persians and the Spartans.(2) He took it way back in time to fully explain the motivations of both sides of the conflict. We have centuries of one superpower, Assyria, dominating the known world (known to them) through fear and military power. Assyrian warfare was a thing of nightmares and they knew how to use that fear to their advantage. The king, Ashurbanipal, boasted that he “built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.”(4) How frightening is that? If this was their modus operandi, wouldn’t you want to see that dynasty ended? What could possess a someone to do something so horrific to another person?
The majority of us would call that king evil, I know I would. But to imagine what he might have been thinking, he was trying to prevent further uprisings with his brutality so to avoid more death. His people may have seen him as a hero. Thankfully the Assyrians and their brutal warfare were not in power for much longer after Ashurbanipal. The Medes and Babylonians, together, took down the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C.E. After that, a new Median king came to power by the name of Cyrus the Great.(3)
As he was the son of a Median princess and a Persian prince, he ruled over both countries immediately after ascending to the throne. From there he captured Lydia, absorbing the Ionian Greek cities and the Aegean seacoast as they were Lydian vassals. That was when he turned to Babylonia. The Babylonians were unhappy with their current king, Nabonidus, as the old king had rebuked their patron deity, Marduk, in preference for the moon god, Suen. Cyrus easily took Babylonia and then began the process of freeing the Jewish prisoners held within Babylonia and rebuilding their temple. He seems like a pretty good guy, right? He took over the lands that were once in the Assyrian empire and ruled with perceived tolerance. He was known as a restorative king.
So now we can fast forward to the time of Xerxes of Persia and the battle with the three hundred Spartans, a battle that has been immortalized through entertainment and media. In this story, the Persians were painted as the villains who wanted to take over the world, one civilization at a time. Perhaps this is a correct telling of it, but it could also be propaganda against big bad Persia with their one million soldiers. Everyone likes the underdog and we know this because of the masterful historian, Herodotus, who was witness to this conflict. While Persia won the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans are still remembered as vicious and brilliant strategists; a frightening force for any army to face.
I know that this seems like a completely random digression from my original point of this post, but there is a reason for my departure here. If you look through the lens of time, you can see the various shades of black, white, grey, blue, green, yellow… the entire spectrum of the rainbow when it comes to the perception of good and evil. What is actually good and what is actually evil? Is it in the portrayal of History, written by the victors who paint the enemy as evil tyrants, or is it the actual truth? When it all comes down to it, we live in a constant state of paradox. The very nature of the world is a constant contradiction. What we see as black and white is actually our lack of total understanding of the shifting fabric of our reality. I can’t help but find it fascinating.
E., & Meador, B. D. (2006). Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna. Austin: University of Texas Press.
The Problem of Evil
Dan Carlin’s King of Kings
Cyrus the Great