Manichaeanism on the March!

by Gary Leupp

War talk is comforting because it renders the choices apparently stark and the options superficially clear. The idea that this [“war on terrorism,”] is a Manichaean struggle between our forces of democracy and good and their forces of fanaticism and evil is a consolation and an inspiration.

London Observer, September 16, 2001

The arrogance that marked the latest Manichaean pronouncement of the U.S. President, George W. Bush, alleging an “axis of evil” on the international stage has justifiably produced a backlash of adverse reactions.

The Hindu, February 4, 2002

President Bush is serious about his Manichaean formulation of the war on terror-“either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2002

Bush’s Manichaean approach to the post-Sept. 11 crisis has its virtues, but whether it will hold up as a sensible way to deal with as complicated an international problem as the United States has ever faced remains to be seen.

New York Times, April 6, 2002


simplicity is a genuine virtue in, for example, mobilizing a nation for war. It was quite effective for a while when Bush declared, after Sept. 11, that we were engaged in a Manichaean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism.

Michael Kinsley, April 18, 2002

People all over the world are calling the Bush administration “Manichaean.” Since Manichaeanism isn’t taught in our high schools, I thought it might be a good idea to put these references into some context.

Once upon a time in the land of Persia (Iran-a great country which has contributed immensely to human civilization)-there lived a man named Mani. Mani probably lived from 215 to 276, in a complicated religious environment. Zoroastrianism was the longstanding state religion; Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism were also vying for influence in Iran’s Sassanid Empire. Mani tried to pull them all together into a new, universal religion. (Religious syncretism was common in Iran, where Bahai also originated.). He proclaimed himself a prophet, in a line including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. His eclectic teaching quickly spread like wildfire into Syria, Europe (as far as Spain) and China. It was the state religion of the Uighur Empire in the 12th century. Most Catholics don’t know it, but St. Augustine (who lived in North Africa) was a Manichaean for a decade before he embraced Christianity in 386. Mani’s doctrine became the third world religion, after Buddhism and Christianity, spread by missionaries up and down the Silk Road, until it was stymied by repression in Europe, and official opposition in China, and the rise of Islam in southwest Asia. It pretty much disappeared by the ninth century—a world faith that failed.

And why did it fail? In part, because it was so simplistic. Mani saw the world as a battleground in which Good/Light and Evil/Darkness existed in eternal conflict. No gray areas for him. From the beginning, there had been a Realm of Light (in the north), ruled by the Father of Greatness; and the Realm of Darkness (in the south), ruled by the Prince of Darkness (representing smoke, fire, storm, mud and darkness). (Some may observe that this term also applies to a contemporary political figure, but I don’t want to digress.) These two existed in a state of perpetual warfare until the Father sent Jesus the Radiant, who then awakened Adam, the first man, and the first in a long line of prophets including Zoroaster, Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Paul, and Mani himself. At the end of time, there will be a great war, after which Jesus will return. The world, will implode, setting off a conflagration that, burning for 1468 years, will constitute the final victory of Light.

Again, this doctrine pretty much died out over a thousand years ago, but there are some New Agers, and some in Washington inclined to what the French foreign minister has called simplisme, who seem really, really into it.

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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