Home | Introduction |  Chapter 12 3 |   Conclusion 

  1.2 The Axial Age

 

We assume the flow of world history follows random logic, conditioned as we are by Darwinism. The rapid growth of archaeological knowledge since the nineteenth century has greatly expanded our views of world history and, significantly, crossed a threshold of five thousand years, the bare minimum interval, we are about to see, for grasping the logic of historical evolution. This data begins to show the unmistakable evidence of a non-random pattern in world history since the invention of writing. This pattern can be seen from two angles:

1. The first is of the so-called Axial Age, the enigmatic synchronous emergence of cultural innovations and advances across Eurasia in the period of the Classical Greeks and early Romans, the Prophets of Israel, the era of the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, and Confucius in China.

2. The second, related to the first, is of the mysterious drumbeat pattern of turning points or transitions proceeding down a mainline of the diversity of civilizations. Looking at this Axial phenomenon we are forced to consider that it is really a step in a sequence, and moving backwards and forwards we suddenly discover the full pattern. Note that these turning points are equally spaced, with an interval of about 2400 years, clear evidence of a cyclial phenomenon.

TP1: the rise of advanced civilization in Egypt, Sumer, ca. -3000
TP2: the sudden synchronous effect of the Axial Age, ca.-600
TP3: the rise of modernity, ca. 1800

In one stroke we discover what was said not to exist, a complete Universal History, rich in interior significance and meaning. We call this pattern the 'eonic effect', a superset of the core Axial Age phenomenon. This pattern is vast, and yet we can in this unique case get a better sense of it from a high-level view beyond the details, a stroke of good fortune.

The ‘Axial Age’ began to be observed in the nineteenth century. The sudden synchronous appearance of cultural innovation in Rome, Greece, the Middle East, India and China in a period centered on -600 is inexplicable under conventional assumptions. Standard causal reasoning about the 'evolution of cultures' fails because of the simultaneity of relative advances in these separated areas. The phenomenon does not emerge by slow evolution from the prior state of these separate cultures. There is some kind of global factor operating independently of particular civilizations. This is not the evolution of cultures, but a series of time-slices of multiple cultures in parallel. Since this period produces a series of world religions a confusion has arisen over the idea of some kind of 'spiritual age', but a closer look shows that the full effect is multidimensional. For example, in the case of Greece we see the emergence of philosophy, science, democracy, and much else that doesn't fit into a religious framework. Behind Buddhism we see Upanishadic yogis, and these shade into a set of philosophers. Heraclitus is a philosopher, but he is a little bit like a sage-yogi. Pythagoras is an actual 'yoga philosopher', almost explicitly. Confucius is a philosopher, but his work produced a kind of semi-sacred, semi-secular 'culture philosophy' rather than a religion. Clearly our categories blend between themselves at this stage prior to differentiation into philosophy and science. We really have two patterns in one, the synchronous emergence of the Axial period, and the sequential series operating in a kind of drumbeat pattern. The connection between the two is at first not clear, until we grasp logic of the overall pattern. 

Synchronous emergence What makes the Axial Age remarkable is the factor of synchronous emergence in independent regions stretched across Eurasia where the innovations occur so fast we cannot ascribe this to mutual diffusion.       
Sequential directionality
The Axial phenomenon is a subset of a larger ‘eonic sequence’ that generates a mainline of development.          

The idea of the Axial Age was codified by the philosopher Karl Jaspers in his The Origin and Goal of History. We have Jaspers’ observation:

The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism , sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra  taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the Philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato—of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953, Part I, Ch. 1.

This statement says nothing about the birth of Greek science, or the birth of democracy in the Greek Axial period. We are confronted with an elusive synchrony, but must be wary of trying to reduce such diversity to a common denominator. We could also say the opposite. There ought to be some common denominator, for we do see striking resemblances between the different areas. But the essence of these Axial Age innovations must be at a high level of abstraction we have yet to find. 

Archaic Greece: the clue We can become distracted by an emphasis on a series of creative individuals and sages. But these are merely shining lights in a far broader phenomenon at the level of whole cultures. The Axial phenomenon is the result of the actions of individuals, but these individuals generate a coherent outcome that surpasses their isolated contributions. This point, and the Axial phenomenon generally, can be seen at its clearest by studying the period of the Greek Archaic flowing into its Classical flowering: the period from the Greek Dark Ages to its period, from ca. –900 to –600, followed by two centuries of stunningly multifaceted innovation across an entire spectrum of culture. Because they are innocent of metaphysical historicism histories of the Greek Axial give unwitting testimony to the extraordinary character of this period. Armed with the periodization pattern of the Greek instance we can rapidly uncover the similar and isomorphic ‘core Axial’ significance of the other cultures in the spectrum: Israelite, Indic, Chinese, Roman. The Greek Axial shows how the phenomenon undergoes rapid fall-off after around –400, the onset of the Age of Alexander and the subsequent periods of empire being clear cases of decline from the peak period.

The Axial Age is defined by Jaspers as occurring in the interval from about –800 to –200, but a closer analysis suggests the need to modify and break up this interval. However, the basic point is clear. But the Axial phenomenon is evanescent and begins to wane rapidly by –400. By –200 the ‘Axial’ period would seem to be well over, and the core period of intensity would seem to center around –600. This is the period of Solon in Greece, and the Exile in the case of the clearly correlated history of Israel recorded in the Old Testament. Solon seems to precede the great spectacle of Greek democracy and Athenian culture, but the transformations that make this possible are already complete in the Greek Archaic period, whose seminal foundations have created a new framework of advance. As we zoom in and study this data in detail, we will attempt to distinguish the generative period, from -900 at the outside, to -600, roughly, followed by a 'realization period', from about -600 onward. By -400 there is a sudden fall off, and the process is on the wane. But this division into transitions is not dogmatic and the five centuries from –900 to –400 enclose in each case the parallel developments of the Axial period from Greece to China. And a mysterious process it is. We see the generalized resemblance of all the exemplars, but each is also unique.

For the Axial Age period, we have at least five seminal areas suddenly showing characteristic 'pivotal' intervals in concert:

Archaic to Classical Greece The period from the Greek Dark Age to Alexander contains the great clue to world history. The period of Archaic Greece overflowing into the Classical period lays the foundation for a whole new order of civilization, and produces the beginnings of philosophy, science, and democracy.  

Histories of Israel The phenomenon of ‘Israel’ is in the Old Testament is a considerable enigma but its significance falls into place once we see that it simply reflects its place in the Axial phenomenon. This involves the period from about -900 to the Exile, and does not include the (mostly mythical) accounts of Abraham to Moses. No historical myth, theory of evolution, or universal history has ever produced a coherent account of this history. But the eonic effect will clarify its status at once, and in a very simple and elegant way, if we see that the key issue is the core period of the Prophets around which additional history is adjoined as epic prelude.  

China: The period of Confucius One of the strangest cases of the eonic effect is the sudden transformation in medias res of the Axial period in China. This comes right on schedule in the midst of an otherwise continuous history! The rise to organized states in Chinese civilization begins very early, and yet we see the synchronous effect right in the correct time frame, as an overlay on the prior development. China and Europe are both at the fringes of the ‘eonic sequence’, at this point (we notice nothing in Europe).  The Chinese case is inexplicable in isolation. This shows that the Axial/eonic effect occurs on schedule independently of the local dynamics of civilization.

India: Upanishads to Buddhism The case of India resembles that of our ‘Israel’ in producing a world religion from the temporal sequence, as if sifting from a tradition that is already clearly formulated (relative transform) and existing prior to the transition. We see that some dynamic is operating independently of the politics of cultures and empires in the reactions of religion to state integration. With the forest philosophers who renounce history, India creates a protected zone, a parallel world in the Axial spectrum.  

Early Rome We should include the case of Rome either by itself or as a cousin of the Greek case. Note that when we speak of the Greek period we are referring to a network of city-states stretching all the way to southern Italy. The appearance of Republican Rome in the wake of the Axial Age is prime data for the eonic effect. Note that the Roman Empire is a much later phenomenon, and in fact dramatizes its own deviation and decline from the sturdy Republican beginnings appearing in the Axial interval.

New World?? Seldom considered is the possibility that the New World civilizations might show Axial influence, given the clear global character of eonic action in the Axial (and other) intervals. A close look shows, remarkably, the Mayan generation period in sync with the overall pattern. That is, the Mayan, as a relative start in sync with the Axial Age, and thus not the earlier Olmec (analogous to the contrast of Mycenaean and Axial Greece). We should refrain from jumping to conclusions here since the isolation of the New World cultures creates hard-to-interpret evidence. 

The question of the Axial Age has spawned a new historical myth of a semi-secular idea of a spiritual age producing the world's great religions. The fact that Buddhism (and Jainism) are ‘atheistic’ while the Israelite Axial interval spawns a theistic religion makes any simple interpretation highly problematic. The case of Greece is then downplayed because it doesn’t fit the religious pattern (it actually shows a last great flowering of polytheism along with the seminal emergence of a critique of such). The pattern is far more complex than an association with transcendental mythologies.  If there were ever an age of ‘revelation’ it has to be the Greek case, whose multidimensionality is spectacular. Out of the blue, a frontier area relative to the Middle East undergoes a prodigious flowering. Note the extraordinary synchrony of the core Old Testament period of the Prophets, and Archaic Greece. Then note how the Indic zone recycles itself in Buddhism, stripped of all local associations with ‘Hinduism’ (a highly vexed term. Our historical dynamic thus transcends the content enclosed in the remarkable 'Axial interval'. Note that the Israelites said as much, and then fell into the crystallization of their historical realization short of the implied universalism of thought generated by the sense of ‘Big History’ in action. This religious interpretation, then, of the Axial Age fails on several grounds, among them, for example, the fact that Zarathustra may well have lived before the Axial interval (and Lao Tse is sometimes placed quite late). Monotheism was not invented in the Axial Age. What we see instead is a kind of elaboration, or repackaging of outstanding or prior

 

 

 

  

 


Top