books on the Achaemenid Empire, all aiming at the general audience. One
of them is just bad, the second one is unnecessary, the third explains
what everybody already knows. This is the wrong way to introduce people
to one of the most fertile branches of ancient history.
Lincoln, Religion, Empire, and Torture
Bruce Lincoln's Religion, Empire, and Torture. The Case of Achaemenian Persia
is a scholarly book as it is meant be: well-researched and
well-written, accessible to the non-specialist while offering a lot to
the specialist as well. The author argues that Achaemenid
religious dualism, in combination with the idea that a good Creation
had been disturbed by Evil and the idea that the king had to restore
the world's original goodness, could only create an imperialistic
culture in which torture was common. After all, once the king had
defeated his enemies, the original goodness of the world was restored,
and those who still objected were, consequently, evil. Punishing them
was a good thing to do, and doing bad things to bad people was
considered to be a good thing.
The trouble is that we already knew this. Lincoln applies one of the lessons of Adorno and Horkheimer's famous Dialektik der Aufklärung: any
ideology claiming universal applicability, even a rational system like
Enlightenment, can turn into irrationalism and become extremely
inhumane. It will be remembered that the example offered by Adorno and
Horkheimer was modern Anti-Semitism, which beautifully illustrates the
inner tensions of a society that wants all people to be equal, and
becomes aggressive against a group that cannot be fully integrated.
Many social scientists, like Michel Foucault, have arrived at similar
Lincoln adds to his book a "Postscript on Abu Ghraib", because he
thinks that his analysis of the Achaemenid case "suggests comparison to
certain contemporary data" (p.xv).
In this postscript, he refers to president Bush's sense that the USA
are "God's chosen instrument for the accomplishment of his purpose for
all humanity" (p.98), and claims that this universal ideology must lead
to incidents like Abu Ghraib. Of course it is to be lauded that Lincoln
places his results in a wider contact, but I do not understand why
Lincoln makes precisely this point. After he had corroborated the main
theory, there was no need to concentrate on some one parallel. He is
understating his case.
I think that the explanation for Lincoln's postscript is that he assumes his readers to be ignorant of the Dialektik der Aufklärung. I
also think that he underestimates his audience; it is not my experience that
the general reader is unaware of the results of twentieth-century
social science. However, if Lincoln is right, there is something wrong
with our educational system that is almost as serious as the problem
described by Adorno and Horkheimer and so elegantly corroborated
in Religion, Empire, and Torture.
So, unlike the books by Farrokh and Holland, Lincoln's book is not bad
or unnecessary, although the author is essentially stating the obvious.
Must Achaemenid studies be abandoned, as I have suggested in
the title of this overview? Of course it is a rhetorical question.
Briant has brought Iranology from its preparadigmatic stage to the
level of a serious branch of scholarship. Still, the books under review
are bad, unnecessary, or stating the obvious - and these books are what
reaches the general audience. If this is the best that Iranologists can
offer to explain their studies, they risk losing support for
excavations and other research, and the end of their discipline.
It is of course tempting for scholars to proceed with their usual
research now that the discipline finally rests on sound foundations,
but serious scholarship is - due to the internet - rapidly being
overtaken by an unexpected revival of the scholarship of the 1970s, with its propagandistic implications. All
progress that has been achieved is rapidly being undone.
Iranologists should indeed abandon Achaemenid studies for some time.
The sources can wait as they have done for centuries, and
archaeological remains in the ground are safe; what needs to have
priority now, is to make the results available to others. Progress at
the universities is irrelevant if it does not reach a wider audience.
The tax payer has a right to know for what aims his money is spent and
the scholar has a duty to explain.
We need better, accessible books. I mean books that are meticulously
checked; writing for a general audience is not an excuse for
sloppiness. And the readers must be addressed not below their level,
but a bit higher. Popularizing scholarship does not mean that you
the results and present them at a lower level, but that you make the
audience climb to a higher one.
[Thanks to Bill Thayer and Bert van der Spek]
Jona Lendering for
Revision: 16 July 2008