also spracht zarathustra

The following hypothetical conversation between Moses and Zarathustra may help clarify the difference between signs, signifiers, and the signified. It's a conversation in three acts. Act 1 is about the thing (signified). Act 2 is about the qualities (signifiers) of the thing. Act 3 is about the name (sign) of the thing.

Act 1. The Thing.

Moses: "Are your people deists or atheists, believers or unbelievers?"

Zarathustra: "Deists, of course. How about yours?"

Moses: "Deists, naturally."

Act 2. The Qualities of the Thing

Zarathustra: "So tell me more about how your people identify deity."

Moses: "OK. Here goes. We worship deity. Deity sets rules for us to live by. Deity is the uncreated creator. Deity created the world and everything in it in seven days. Deity is one. I don't know the word for deity in your language but in English the word for deity is God. Now it's your turn."

Zarathustra: "I don't agree with you or your people. You are right in some respects, wrong in others. We too worship deity and try and live by the rules set by deity. It's true that deity is the uncreated creator, and that deity created the world, but not in seven days. Rather, by means of six divine sparks, or emanations, we call the amesha spenta: Manah, Asha, Kshathra, Armaiti, Haurvatat, and Ameretat. Yes, it's true that my people believe deity is one, but I have an Greek friend who tells me his people believe deity is many. And I have a Hindu friend who tells me her people believe deity is many-in-one. Yes, I too do not know the word for deity in your language but in English the word for deity is God. In the Avestan language, it is "Dadvāh"."

Act 3. The Name of the Thing.

Moses: "Deity has many names, and no names. Sometimes, we use the name "Jehovah"."

Zarathustra: "The name of deity is "Ahura Mazda".

One of the points of the three-act conversation above is to show that Moses and Zarathustra believe that on the subject of deity they have some things in common and some differences. In fact both the differences and the commonalities are illusions. When the respective sets of signifiers are not identical, then people using different signs ("Jehovah", "Ahura Mazda") to point to the same things signified ("god", "deity") may end up in disagreement, but it is an absurd disagreement, as absurd as the disagreement between a French-speaking person and an English-speaking person about whether it is correct to say "noir" or "black" in relation to the absence of light.

When the respective sets of signifiers are not identical, however, then there is a fundamental difference. But it is still absurd to have an argument about it, because the difference arises from things that are different. For example, the Amesha Spenta in Zoroastrianism are not part of Judaism. The set of attributes of deity in Judaism is not the same set of attributes of deity in Zoroastrianism. There is no logical reason to go on a crusade because "A" is not "B". It's just plain dumb. It's misunderstanding, not disagreement. It's terminology, not ontology. It's language, not truth.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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