Monday, January 31, 2011

World History (4): Axial Age

The following "conversation starters" were developed for my world history students at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, beginning in 2008.

The Axial Age

1. Let's first step back and look at the big picture. What changes people the most -- relationships, things, or ideas? Is the human story more about the people within our heart, the things outside our body, or the thoughts inside our head?

Some have argued that relationships are the drivers of life's most significant changes (e.g., New Testament writers and Plutarch's biographies). If it's relationships that drive change, then we need to follow the tracks of relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, priests, sages, and inspirational leaders.

Others have written that things are the engines of change (Marx's dialectical materialism). If it's things that are the agents of change, then we need to look at the way a people make a living, work the land, use technology, and bring about the expansion and contraction of empires.

Still others have said that ideas are the engines of transformation (Plato's Forms and Hegel's dialectic). If it's thoughts that change us most, then humankind's cultural evolution is explained by symbols, language, ideas, ethics, philosophy, and religion.

I imagine most of us take the position that all three elements help us make sense of the past. Relationships and things and ideas -- all have their place in a balanced narrative. But in telling our common story, historians will sometimes emphasize one or the other to develop an analytical, narrative, or interpretive thread.

Let us use the Axial Age to illustrate. My hypothesis is that the Axial Age -- that collection of simultaneous movements around the world that dramatically developed the human estate's morals, religions, philosophies, and ideas -- could only have come about as a result of the physical catastrophies that preceded it. Around 1200-1100 B.C. catastrophe hit the Mediterranean and Middle East. Troy was defeated. Mycaenean civilization collapsed. Egyptian civilization faltered as the Hebrews escaped to Canaan. Sea Peoples went desperately in search of a better life. A dark age began for most of the peoples in the region. We are not sure what caused all of these dramatic events to occur. But when civilizations did recover, the Axial Age was launched. Had humankind learned something from the physical catastrophe and resulting dark age ... perhaps that one should not put trust in physical empires but in spiritual quests? It is my hypothesis that the physical catastrophes were linked to the great spiritual leap forward.

2. What is the Axial Age?

The term "Axial Age" was coined by the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, to describe the breathtaking innovations in religion and philosophy that transformed human thought across the Afro-Eurasian landmass during the first millennium B.C. Jaspers thought he saw a pattern in ancient history from about 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. His notion of the "Axial Age" pulls together four diverse revolutions in different parts of the globe -- Judaism in the Middle East, Confucianism in eastern Asia, Buddhism in southern Asia, and Greek philosophy in southeastern Europe. It is the time during which all the foundations that underlie current civilizations came into being. These foundations are intellectual and spiritual in character.

3. How relevant are intellectual and spiritual movements that occurred two to three millennia ago?

Religion and philosophy are an inescapable part of human nature and history. They endure because they meet profound psychological needs. They answer our existential questions -- if not fully, then plausibly enough to give us comfort. Most everyone wants assurance that our existence has meaning and purpose.

The "Axial Age" is of fundamental importance to understanding where you came from. It describes four revolutions -- four innovative turning points in thinking -- Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy. Each of these four revolutions impacts people's lives and institutions to this day. The church to which I belong is part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, drawing spiritual comfort and moral insight from Hebrew patriarchs and Jewish prophets. Chinese institutions are Confucian to this day. My sister and cousin are practicing Buddhists, renamed Jin Hai and Heng Sure, respectively. Greek philosophy -- especially Socrates -- informs my thinking, writing, and teaching in the college classroom. The answers to questions put by human beings during the Axial Age are truly the gold standard when it comes to living a good life.

In a very real sense, you and I still inhabit the Axial Age.

4. So is the Axial Age one of history's thresholds?

Yes. If religion and philosophy are fundamental to ordering our mind and heart, then the Axial Age is arguably one of the top ten thresholds of human existence. To give you an idea of how important the Axial Age is, put it in the perspective of a long time line: five earlier thresholds would include the "cultural Big Bang," Neolithic Revolution, the creation of civilizations in the Bronze Age, the invention of writing, and the formation of the first empires; two contemporary thresholds would be the creation of republican government in Rome and of democratic government in Athens; ten later thresholds would include the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Western Empire, church-state struggles, the invention of movable type, the Reformation, Age of Exploration, Scientific Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution. The Axial Age is right up there with the most significant revolutions in human history because it changed what counts -- the way people think.

The importance that Karl Jaspers accorded to the Axial Age comports with the belief of a number of historians -- Christopher Dawson, Arnold Toynbee, Samuel Huntington, Russell Kirk, and Stephen Tonsor, among them -- that religion is the basis of culture -- it's what puts the "cult" in culture. Religion provides the common worldview that forges a people together in a way that fear, terror, political commandeering, or marketplace connections do not. If a people share a transcending sense of mission, then they are inspired and empowered to undertake heroic feats on behalf of something greater than themselves.

From what has been said, it can be seen that the Axial Age was only the second time in human existence that a dramatic change in thought occurred around the globe. The first time was the so-called cultural Big Bang, which was in high gear around 35,000 years ago as evidenced by thousands of cliff and cave paintings. These paintings reveal a burst of aesthetic awareness and a higher degree of self-consciousness about man's relationship to animals and divine spirits. (See the work of Richard G. Klein and Ian Tattersall for more on this controversial concept, the "cultural Big Bang.")

During the Axial Age, human beings advanced beyond the cultural Big Bang in startling new ways. A handful of new religions, philosophies, and ethical systems expressed our species' expanded consciousness, organized around Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy. Daoism, the Vedic traditions, and Jainism also developed at this time. Each one of these systems counted large numbers of adherents and transformed the way people viewed themselves, the world, and human destiny.

5. What about Christianity, Islam, and Zen, which develop later? Why aren't they part of the Axial Age?

True, the two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, are foundational worldviews of one of every three human beings on earth, but they lie outside the Axial Age proper because they are derivative of what the Jews had already achieved -- that startlingly new Axial Age invention, monotheism.

Likewise, Zen is derivative of Buddhism.

6. What is the relationship between the Axial Age and the world's founding civilizations?

There is no simple answer. The Axial Age commenced some 1,500 years after the four major riverine civilizations had been founded in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India. Only in China did Confucianism develop where an early civilization arose, along the Yellow River. The other three major philosophies and religions developed at the periphery of riverine civilizations. So Judaism arose between the Nile on the one hand, and the Tigris and Euphrates on the other. Greek philosophy developed across the Mediterranean Sea from the Nile and at a distance from the Fertile Crescent. And Buddhism did not grow out of the earlier Indus River Valley civilization, which had collapsed, but in the Ganges River Valley.

Isn't it interesting that three of the four Axial Age revolutions occurred away from centers of urban life and literate populations? The Jews illustrate. They were nomads wandering in the desert before they settled in Palestine. Later they were exiled from their remote civilizational outpost. Yet their great teachings endured to enrich much of humankind.

Some historians assert that the outbreak of these religious or philosophical revolutions coincided with the rise of the first great empires on earth. If true, there would be a compelling logic in this unity: Just as emperors unified vast expanses of the earth's surface, so teachers unified the worldview of extremely diverse peoples. But the relationship between the Axial Age and empires is not that clear cut.

Other historians observe that it is no accident that the Jewish Messiah, the Chinese sage-king, and Plato's philosopher-king all arose about the same time. "Each was a response to a crisis in a society of the ancient world. Each would ... restore order to a troubled society."

7. How did Axial Age innovations change thought and life?

There are four general ways in which the Axial Age changed the people who fell under their influence. Whether they embraced Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, or Greek philosophy, there was a dramatic change in people's view of ultimate reality (metaphysics), their view of the nature and destiny of human beings (anthropology), their view of how people should relate to one another (ethics), and their everyday spiritual practices (the rites and duties of spiritual discipline). It cannot be overemphasized. These changes were revolutionary in their day. Vast populations of human beings were impacted by these revolutions in thought, and the changes stuck. They even survived the corrosive critiques of the Enlightenment and lasted into the modern age, despite the cognoscenti's pronouncements to the contrary. (Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter's appeal to evangelicals in 1976, as well as the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, surprised all the experts. None of the Ph.D.'s in the social sciences saw these transformations coming.)

8. And more specific changes?

There are many:
- the belief in one all-powerful God (created by the Hebrews and carried forward by Christians and Muslims);
- the embrace of reason, not the gods, to explain natural and social phenomena (pursued by the Greeks);
- the development of an ethical understanding of all relationships (worked out by Confucius);
- the evolution of spiritual practices that took hold in great cultures (Vedic cults and Buddhist practices).

9. Summarize the importance of the Axial Age.

The Axial Age was a truly revolutionary time. Just as the Neolithic Revolution dramatically changed the material conditions of human life, so the Axial Age dramatically changed the way human beings think. In a very real sense, you and I still inhabit the Axial Age.

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