May 31, 2010
In the span of just a few short centuries, between roughly 750-350 BCE, human society in Europe and Asia was transformed by an array of original thinkers and new systems of thought never seen before in history. The list is astonishing: Lao Tzu and Confucius in China; the Buddha and the Upanishads in India; Zoroaster and the Old Testament in the Middle East; and Plato, Sophocles and so many other great minds in Ancient Greece.
The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, was the first to remark on this phenomenon in his book, The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1949. He called it the Axial Age, because as he saw it, this period was like a great axis, when “we meet with the most deep cut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being.” Since then, the Axial Age has been a favorite subject of books and symposiums, with scholars trying to figure out exactly what was happening during those times, and why.
A general consensus has evolved that the new systematic ideologies that arose, speculating on mankind’s place in the cosmos and offering new sets of values for how we should interact with each other, were a result of the greater size and complexity of society. Cities were getting bigger; empires covered vast tracts of land, incorporating multiple diverse cultures. Author Robert Wright offers a good summary of some of these changes:
Certainly [the first millennium BCE] is a millennium of great material change. Coins are invented, and appear in China, India, and the Middle East. Commercial roads grow, crossing political bounds. In the course of this millennium, markets… supplant state-controlled economies. Cities get accordingly big and vibrant and, in many cases, more ethnically diverse… [M]ore and more people found themselves in an environment radically unlike the environment natural selection had ‘designed’ people for.
But in fact, as I’ve described in a previous post on agricultural values, people had already evolved new sets of values for thousands of years that separated them from the hunter-gatherer values we’d been selected for by evolution. So to be precise, the Axial Age, in my view, represents a second step away from that original value-constellation.
But there’s a big issue that’s not explained by the simple theory of society getting bigger and more complex. The Axial Age revolution didn’t happen in all the great civilizations of Eurasia. In fact, it completely bypassed the two civilizations that were among the greatest of them all: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, as has been noticed by classical scholar Benjamin Schwartz among others. Why was that?
My own theory is that Mesopotamia and Egypt were simply too stable and monolithic. Things generally worked there. Sure, there were all kinds of crises and invasions, famines and catastrophes. But through all their dynastic turbulence, the fact remains that both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization and culture continued in a fairly stable form for thousands of years. Meanwhile, in each of the areas where Axial Age values did erupt, societies were enduring centuries of social and political instability and political fragmentation.
In China, Lao Tzu and Confucius emerged during an era known as the Warring States Period, when regional warlords were continually jostling for power with each other. This only ended with the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.
Not too much is known about the political structure in Northeast India at the time that produced the Upanishads and the Buddha, but the celebrated German Indologist Hermann Kulke describes it as a time when Aryan settlers from the northwest were bringing their ancient Brahmanical traditions into contact with the indigenous populations. As he describes it:
Nowhere in the whole of Northern India the contrast and even opposition between Brahmanical and monarchical institutions on the one side and indigenous and heterodox cults and pre-monarchical institutions on the other side seem to have been more striking than in the eastern countries.
And once again, politically, the area was fragmented into a collection of “strong chieftaincies and small kingdoms.”
The picture of instability and fragmentation is the same when you consider the Hebrew experience of constant invasions, destruction of their temple, and exile to Babylon. And finally, while the Greeks were fortunate to avoid the catastrophes of the Hebrews, their culture was highly fragmented politically, with their city-states constantly at war with one another, uniting only temporarily to face the Persian threat from the east.
It took the existential angst of seeing communities continually beset by war and uncertainty, along with a lack of a central, unifying socio-cultural force, to generate the intellectual ferment that could give rise to the great breakthroughs of thought characterizing the Axial Age. So what were these breakthroughs? And did they share any common features, or where they all unique?
Probably the most important feature shared by all these Axial Age breakthroughs in thought was what Benjamin Schwartz has called a “strain toward transcendence.” Here’s how he describes it:
If there is nevertheless some common underlying impulse in all these “axial” movements, it might be called the strain toward transcendence… a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.
Following Schwartz, we can think of Axial Age philosophers observing the catastrophes occurring in their societies as a result of people following the primary values of the agricultural age, which I refer to as the Age of Anxiety. These values extolled wealth and social hierarchies, glorified destruction of enemy nations, and emphasized propitiation of local, ancestral gods as a means to success. Perhaps each of the foundational philosophers asked themselves how to transcend these destructive values, how to find a system of thought that could provide greater meaning and fulfillment to their communities.
If this was their aim, they seem to have succeeded, for in each Axial Age breakthrough we see a universalization of cosmological explanations and a broadening of the moral community to extend beyond the borders of a particular nation or empire. As the philosopher of comparative religions, Huston Smith, has noted, each Axial Age breakthrough system established a form of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would want them to do to you. In his view, “these counsels of concern for the well-being of others were one of the glories of religion during its Axial period.”
While each Axial Age breakthrough had this transcendent characteristic in common, their other notable element was how unique each new systematic philosophy was. For the first time in history, different cultures established their own intellectual foundations for a worldview and began to evolve their thought traditions accordingly. In China, India and the Eastern Mediterranean, three very different traditions evolved, each of which would affect the future course of their region’s history.
In China, the Taoist and Confucian traditions agreed on the underlying nature of the Tao as an intrinsic, dynamic force that harmonized heaven and earth. They disagreed on how to interpret this force, whether to emphasize individual fulfillment or social harmony as a way to live one’s life, but they didn’t question the underlying cosmology.
In India, the Upanishads began to develop a systematic interpretation of the cosmos, linking the individual’s soul, or atman, with the universal being, or Brahman, and describing a spiritual path whereby a person could unlearn the habits of the mundane world and realize this universal linkage between himself and the universe. The Buddha’s philosophy was, in some senses, in radical opposition to the Upanishadic doctrines, emphasizing a middle way between the alternatives of holy asceticism and worldly suffering. However, even this radical departure continued to accept some underlying cosmological foundations of the Upanishads, specifically the belief in the soul’s reincarnation and the ultimate goal of release from the continual cycle of rebirths.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, the two major Axial breakthroughs of Hebrew monotheism and Greek rationalism at first seem very different. They do, however, share a structural element that underlies both the Christian and Islamic cosmologies, forming the foundation of the monotheistic worldview that has since dominated vast regions of the world. This structural element can be summarized as the world’s first truly dualistic worldview, a universe comprised of two utterly different dimensions: an eternal dimension that is sacred, immaterial and unchanging; and a worldly dimension that is profane, material and mortal. This same dualism is applied to both the external world and to the internal world of human nature, splitting the human being into two: a body and a soul.
This extreme dualism is so pervasive in our modern world that many of us just take it for granted without even questioning its origins. But in fact, it’s unique in the history of human thought, and following the conquests by Christian and Islamic powers over so much of the world, it’s had a powerful effect on billions of lives and the direction of our entire world. The next post will examine the sources and implications of this relatively new and powerful layer of human values.
 In fact, most scholars nowadays believe that Lao Tzu was not a real person, but that the Tao Te Ching was a compilation from multiple authors.
 Cited by Watson, P. (2005). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, New York: HarperCollins.
 Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 238-9.
 Schwartz, B. I. (1975). “The Age of Transcendence.” Dædalus, 104(2), 1-7.
 Kulke, H. (1986). “The Historical Background of India’s Axial Age”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
 Schwartz, op. cit.
 Smith, H. (1982/2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
 Whether the Buddha himself accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, or whether his followers infused the Buddha’s original ideas with some of the trappings of the contemporary cosmological speculations, remains a controversial topic. See Batchelor S. (2010). Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
 I call it “extreme dualism” to differentiate it from a fuzzier kind of “dualism” intrinsic to human thought, whereby a certain “essence” or “spirit” is seen to exist separately from the material body. However, in earlier forms of “dualism,” the spirit is still thought to have a material existence, frequently associated with the breath, the wind, or something with a much finer essence than the body.