5. Symphony of Emergence


Cycle, System Return:
The Axial Age


Section 5 .1

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism, And Theories of Evolution
4th Edition
The Book
By  John Landon





5. Symphony of Emergence  
     5.1 Cycle, System Return: The Axial Age  
        5.1.1 Non-genetic Evolution
        5.1.2 Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation
        5.1.3 Art, Evolution and The Tragic Genre  
     5.2 Stream and Sequence: The Axial Transitions   
        5.2.1 Archaic Greece: The Clue 
        5.2.2 The Old Testament as Eonic Data 
        5.2.3 Aryans, Hinduism, and a Buddhist Revolution
        5.2.4 Axial China: Continuity and Discontinuity
        5.2.5 A Flowering of Greek Tragedy and The Birth Of    Democracy  
     5.3 A Rebirth of Freedom...Cycle, System Return       
     5.4 On The Threshold of World Civilization  
        5.4.1 Slavery, Abolition, and Eonic Sequence
        5.4.2 Religion and Empire       

 6. Transition and Modernity


    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

     5.1 Cycle, System Return: The Axial Age


An entire epoch of higher civilization is now reaching its end, and the world of early Sumer is a forgotten legend buried in the oddities of Akkadian cuneiform, while the civilization of Egypt is in decline. Although we don’t see the total collapse into medievalism that will occur in the next Occidental phase of our history our system comes close to this at many points, as civilization is frozen in the repetition of its basic forms. Most of all the progression of empires has risen to dominate civilization. This creates a crisis of development. Something spectacular is about to occur.

The dilemma of empire and globalization proceeds apace, but a new experiment is about to emerge. Our next phase will see a most remarkable play on this curse of empire, in the interplay of the Assyrians and the Israelites. Thus our tale is about globalization, but with a difference. Simple ‘global implosion’ will not perform the work of real globalization. ‘Eonic globalization’, so to speak, here the creation of four or more new oikoumenes and their tradition from the synchronous transitions (the ‘Axial Age’), clearly mediates the destructive collision of cultures soon imperialized that is set in motion by the dynamism of civilizations emerging from the Neolithic. Further, the ‘world religion’ as a new form of oikoumene generator comes into existence. In the wake of Sumer and Egypt, an immense Eurasian diffusion field has arisen and there the independent streams of culture enter the stage of higher civilization or state formation. We can observe this in successive intervals proportional to distance, first the Indus civilization, then the Shang in China, the Minoan and then the Mycenaean, and into Africa and Europe. Perhaps even the Olmec in the New World .  

The entry and spread of Indo-European and other cultures from Eurasia has set the stage for an entire new set of peoples to pass through the next phase of the mysterious eonic sequence, the Italic and Greek peoples, the Indic and the Iranian. The next period will also generate a remarkable attempt in the appearance of Christianity to braid the colliding culture streams of the Semitic and Indo-European peoples in what almost seems like an experiment in integration. The question of the Indo-Europeans has suffered many confusions, among them the debate over their homeland, and more recently the debate over the Aryan migrations into India, but the overall picture is clear. A whole new cast of peoples enters the oikoumene created by the first stage of civilization, first as disciples, as with the Myceaneans, then as exemplars of the eonic sequence itself, as with the Classical Greeks. But it is important to see that the eonic sequence proceeds independently of these cultural streams to create transcultural oikoumenes.[i]

We have created the question, then, in relation to our eonic sequence, what next? The stream and the sequence interplay quite obviously stages the competition of two different futures in each case. More specifically, what are the next points of transformation in this ‘eonic’ series? That is, when do we again see a period of phasing onset, of parallel, interactive, zones of accelerated cultural evolution? Now, all at once, the Axial phase makes complete sense.

Suddenly across Eurasia in China, India, Assyria-Persia, Canaan-Phoenicia-Israel, Greece-Rome, we see the rapid synchronous movements of the eonic evolution of civilization in parallel, multiple streams of culture cross the Axial interval. Within about three centuries the foundations for another two millennia come into existence with enigmatic randomness and patterning mixed together. We might wonder why it is that this phenomenon takes place as it does, where it does. One moment it seems global, and then local. Our five zones of transition spawn a great new age then pass rapidly into the creation of oikoumenes, from Rome to China.

Archaic Greece: The clue The idea of the Axial Age has devolved into a new myth of an age of revelation, but the point has been missed that the overall effect is something far broader than religion. The birth of secularism  occurs in concert with the birth of the great religions. We see the birth of science, philosophy and democracy in the system of Greek city states.

Israel: A frontier effect The fascination of the Old Testament lies in the way the factor of the ‘state’ passes into that of ‘religion’ in the gestations of a transition. The Old Testament gives transparent testimony to the cultural frontier in the double Egyptian and Sumero-Mesopotamian fields of diffusion, and also makes equally clear its sense of new relative beginnings generating in an exterior ‘close-far’ region. Core Sumer and Egypt slowly fade, as the ‘acorn field’ spawns new start zones. Note the significance of Assyria, and the point is seen. These Mesopotamian Universal Empires are all in the way. It is outside, but ‘too close’, a transitional area, and yet a runaway freight train unable to escape the past. It simply disappears at the climax of rapid change. Persia is slightly better, but still hampered. It injects Zoroastrianism into the pool, and wanes. Tiny Israel morphs outward and carries the day, at least in the westerly direction.

China : The period of Confucius One of the strangest cases of the Axial 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 ‘ 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.

A Eurasian Integration Note the way the Axial interval samples the cultural stream regions all across Eurasia, almost comprehensively. Clearly the phenomenon is trans-civilizational. This ‘sampling’ is the other usage of our term ‘eonic’. The clearest example is Buddhism. The eonic series ‘samples’ the prior stream of religious history and ejects a streamlined package ready to ship outwards into global culture. With this example, the analogous process in the emergence of the Old Testament becomes clear.[ii]

Stream and Sequence Our stream and sequence metaphor is especially apt here in the Axial interval: multiple independent streams of culture cross the temporal boundary of the ‘eonic sequence’ and show transformations in place synchronously.

Our perception of five transition areas follows the geographical spectrum logic of the eonic sequence attempting to spread out, and our first approximation could be extended. Thus there is a great deal more to the Middle Eastern transition than the case of Israel. And yet the fact remains that Israel turns into ‘Israel’, an oikoumene generator, the only survivor of this field, the reason being obvious, its ability to produce transcultural vehicles. This ‘tugboat’ Israel effect is remarkable. Herbert Muller in Freedom in the Ancient World notes:

All the great achievements of the early civilizations came in the early centuries of their history, long before the end of the third millennium BC…Finally, however, there did occur among some newer peoples in the first millennium BC the revolutionary change that Karl Jaspers has called the ‘Axial period’. The change was marked immediately by the appearance of great names—no longer the names of kings and conquerors, and of their gods, but of great individuals of a very different kind: Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tse; Amos Jeremiah, and Isaiah; Homer, Thales, Solon, Aeschylus, Socrates, and a hundred other Greeks. Together they represent the most extraordinary creative era since the rise of civilization, distinguished in particular by the emergence of the higher religions and of philosophy and science….It seems more extraordinary because of the mysterious coincidence that the most influential of these pioneers all appeared in or about the sixth century B.C., independently, in widely separated lands, without any apparent influence on one another…I assume that we do not know [the causation], that we can point to some relevant conditions but cannot wholly explain it, and that a student of freedom should not be distressed thereby, since we could explain it only if history were completely governed by determinate laws…I would suggest that it was perhaps the plainest demonstration of the power of genius, the difference that great men make in history.[iii]

This is a strange puzzle. All we can say, then, is that ca. -1200 we are in the world of Ugarit, the Phoenicians, a Canaanite world whose exact details are still being discovered. This world is, by and large, sequentially dependent on the Egypto-Mesopotamian generation field. Within two centuries after the Exile, a new world is coming into being, in a fashion that has defeated the ‘Assyrian continuity’ trap, as civilizational evolution. As of -400, we see, with respect to an ‘Israel’ in this general field a new emergentist monotheism still baring the traces its ‘geo-focalized’ sourcing. Monotheism is an outcome of an eonic transition self-referentially applied to itself.

Israel: In a crisis of degenerate empires in proliferation we see a new experiment, the kingdom turning into a cultural integrator as a ‘religion’. We see the deeper movement spawning a new ‘kingdom everywhere’ as the new type of religion. The idea of the ‘ kingdom of God’ is born here, in the most natural fashion, as an almost ‘national’ root idea, self-extending in the passing beyond ‘nation’ to an ecumenical idea.

Transition and Oikoumene Our model is an interrelation of transitions and oikoumenes. It is not a question of civilizations, but the creation of inter-cultural vehicles of integration. The most spectacular cases are those of the Judaic and Buddhist traditions, lightweight cores of ‘travel anywhere’ religious doctrine. But note the hidden or transformed ‘ghost of the state’ lurking in both. They are a new combination as this progresses to ecumenical forms that can spread across cultures. Thus what we see is not the civilization, but four or five transitions each of which produces a series of oikoumenes.

We are confronted with a problem of analysis and description, five worlds in parallel over several centuries, in a triad of eonic, economic, and technological sequences, so stupendous that we should refrain from instant explanations and do the only thing we can do, pass and point in one step across the whole band, to show one common denominator, the rough architecture of transition, a fluid cultural stream:

                        …before -900 (at the outside)

                        a system in transit: clustering creative individuals

                        initial results of transformation, a divide

                        long term outcomes as oikoumenes.

This is the pivot of classical civilization at its onset, a period of great renewal and advance. The Old Testament is really built around this sequence, and everything before -900 is one level of myth, the period after, ‘history’, however much we find its account to suffer as ‘myth’ of another kind. This account is distracted by the ‘sourcing myths’ of Moses and the Exodus, before -900, when the real core is the era of the Prophets, a truly classic pearl-stringer sequence, whose abrupt and meaningfully timed appearance derandomizes the overall picture, to say the least, and leads to the wreckage of forms of ‘how does it work’ history. In fact the case is surely a variant of what we see in Archaic Greece, in broadest outline.

Notes and Observations With mysterious timing, the ‘system return’ of our macro-sequence stages the so-called Axial Age. In fact, the term ‘Axial Age’ is misleading. The ‘Axial interval’ is actually the transition to a New Age that will last until the rise of the modern world. The spontaneous metaphor of a symphony with a conductor has occurred to a number of people. Thus Koestler, referring to our Axial period, notes,  

The sixth century scene evokes the image of an orchestra expectantly tuning up, each player absorbed in his own instrument only, deaf to the caterwaulings of the others. Then there is a dramatic silence, the conductor enters the stage, raps three times with his baton, and harmony emerges from chaos…[iv]

That symphony is still larger than we suspected, and the Axial Age is but one moment in a larger concert originating in the Neolithic, or before.

The Axial interval is one of the greatest mysteries of world history, and we have constructed, very cogently, a frequency hypothesis to clarifly its significance. The result is a massive spectrum of innovations across Eurasia. Nothing can match this until the rise of modernity. The parallelism of the separate areas of sudden advance confront us with something operating beyond space and time in some fashion that we have placed at the doorstep of a Kantian analysis, as a kind of orphan of theory.

Axial Interval vs Eonic Transition The idea of an eonic transition from -900 to -600, with a take-off interval of two to four hundred years, -600 to -200 gives clearer understanding of the Axial Age. Our statistical region, from ca. -900 to -600, amply encompasses the phenomenon, followed by a kind of ‘divide’ at around -600, after which there is a hybrid situation where the Axial effect is yielding to a realization period.

A Divide This is easily visible in the case of ‘Israel’, that abstraction, which the Exile period creates. In Jaspers’ version, which some might find preferable, at first, the statistical region from -800 to -200 is taken as the Axial Age. The problem with this, and our periodization using the eonic sequence uncovers the point at once, is that the Axial Age is already over by -200, and a closer look shows us that.

The Axial Age collates two periods, gestation and take-off The interval definition from Jaspers of the Axial Age from -800 to -200, is too large, collates two periods, and conceals a rough divide. Our eonic scheme is better, keeping in mind that the separate areas are not quite in sync. It is worth savoring for a moment the synchronous emergence of the Old Testament collations and the passage of the Greek Archaic into the brief period of Classical flowering. They are far more similar that we think. The period of Solon and of Josiah and the crystallization of a new national religion in Judah, followed by the Exile, are the significant moments leading us to place a divide (quite tentatively) at this point roughly ca. -600. The match to our model is remarkable indeed, as the system marshals its resources in slingshot fashion. The standard literature here can be very misleading.

We should also consider that our timing and periodization here for Greece here is odd, at first sight. The Greek flowering seems to come late, and is technically outside of the transitional interval. Just as the Israelite transition is concluding in the period of the Exile, the great Greek flowering is getting underway. There is no contradiction, and we simply need to look closely at the Greek Archaic, as it hides the seminal moment of transformation.

This synchronous emergentism is the most remarkable feature of this second visible stage in our eonic sequence, although, as we have seen, it is present in the previous ‘axial’ phase of Sumer and its parallel Egypt.

Frontier Effects A point to observe is that the ‘frontier effect’ is clearly in evidence throughout.China, India, Greece (Rome), and finally, most remarkably, the tiny ‘Israel’, are all, briefly, ‘frontiers’ in some sense. The core area around Sumer, and the Egyptian field, both fail to show a characteristic advance zone. Isn’t this remarkable? Thus the efficacy of the eonic sequence: something independent of the individual civilization is at work, and our ‘sequence’ can switch horses and break out of the continuity trap. It is important to see that while this phenomenon is in one way ‘global’, in another it is clearly focused, and resembles a system operating on a minimum principle: transitional hotspots, or pivots, and then diffusion into oikoumenes.

Innovation must escape the ‘empire’ trend. The verdict on this point is grim, and we can see that the emergence of Persia , not dissimilar to the case of Greece, is unable to escape this imperialistic cast or blight on civilization. The case of Persia remains somewhat mysterious, for it is at once a clear correlate with Greece, with a similar cultural potential, and yet also a correlate of India, and the emergence of parallel ‘spiritual’ realizations from a corpus of Indo-European linguistic stock, should have spelled a larger contribution. Yet the Persians/Medes succumb immediately to the ‘Assyrian disease’, and we are confronted with drama of the Persian Wars recorded in the ‘rebellion against antiquity’ in the fringe zone of the Greeks. We should note that just at the ‘divide’ point, Persian and Israelite monotheism meet and blend. The irony is that a stateless entity should be the vehicle to convey a new tradition.

Brief Escape From Empire In reality, we notice that Greece itself experiences merely a brief interval, precisely timed to our eonic periodization, of respite from this phenomenon of empire, and then succumbs in the wake of Alexander. The usual periodization of the Axial period is thus misleading. By the time of Alexander, we suspect, it is well over. Let us note the remarkable fact that the emergence of monotheism, one of the prime ‘eonic emergents’ of this Axial period, occurs decisively in the period of the so-called Exile, when Persia and ‘Israel’ interact, as if the nimble and, ironically, impotent Canaanite non-kingdom were the only vehicle to carry the day. As if unable to untangle monotheism from empire, the Persia Zoroastrianism seems almost to cast its lot with the Israelite stream.

Surviving Empire In the remarkable case of Israel we see a victim of empire producing something new to replace it: an oikoumene religion, or a set of them. Nothing could be more remarkable than this frontier effect in the case of ‘Israel’, or rather ‘Israel/Judah’, that patch of Canaanite geography in the double shadow of Sumer and Egypt, suddenly spawning a religious literature, assembled from the folk tales and chronicles legends of its history. The most remarkable aspect of this phenomenon is the way that the geography is constantly challenged, whittled away, leaving a literary remainder, one that will soon diffuse into the general oikoumene emerging first in the Hellenistic, then in the Roman periods. This clever way of transcending geography is a tour de force of the Axial period.

The sudden transformation of India and China in this interval is equally remarkable, given their distance from the mainline, and we must suppose that some aspect of our eonic sequence, still unknown to us, is at work here: may we speculate that at a certain stage of advance those ready to respond to this general eonic field will do so. Whatever the case, we can see that the response of India and China is dramatic and and will produce two new parallel traditions of civilization, as if this epoch of civilization, just prior to the final stage of globalization to come in the modern period, were an experiment in parallel worlds, an exploration of diversity, and a set of side bets, as it were, against the future.

China The case of China is confusing because we are not sure what we are seeing, with an exact isomorphism of dates and outcomes, empire, but nothing like the Greek democratic experiment. The answer is just there. We see the tension of a transitional passage, exactly timed to the others, in another attempted transformation of culture/politics. What is remarkable in the case of China is the interplay of momentum from the past and the still significant effect of parallel emergentism. Clearly this sector of our eonic sequence cannot quite free itself from the momentum of empire, and yet nonetheless we see the signature of the Axial Age emerges in the midst of this other dynamic. The age of Confucius and the Taoists, for example, is in perfect timing with the overall concert, yet embedded in the same continuity of imperial integration going on since the Shang period. Truly a mysterious wonder.

India In India , we see a variant of the Greek city-states, but the result will be quite different, with an outcome that resembles that of ‘Israel’: the emergence of a world religion, or several, in fact. The complexity of Indian history is matched unfortunately by the poor quality of the historical data we have to deal with, and this leaves a number of critical questions so far unanswered, e.g. the question of the Indo-European migrations.

In fact, if we adopt the idea of a transition from -900 to -600, a divide, then a realization period like what we see in Israel, the confusion evaporates at once. The place of Hinduism is misunderstood in all accounts, and the decisive appearance of the religion of Buddhism (and/or Jainism), next to the Occiendental proliferation of monotheisms, is the most striking feature of the Axial Age, but one that has confounded those who wish to see in this period some sort of generalized ‘age of revelation’. The disconcerting emergentism of an atheistic and theistic religion in parallel is grist for our ‘eonic mill’, but an obstacle to facile religiosity, and perhaps this is part of the mystery of the Axial Age itself, which operates at a deeper level than such distinctions.

It is important to evade confusion over the question of Hinduism. Hinduism is a hybrid of the ancient tradition of Indian religion stretching backward for millennia, and the Aryan concept nexus of the Vedas. The hybridization of these separate strains is misleading. The Indo-Europeans are not the source of the Indian religious tradition, and the new hybrid is a distortion of that inheritance from antiquity. The Buddhist strain, distilled from the primordial Jainism (from which Hinduism borrows its yogic tradition), is thus in a real sense more representative of the ancient tradition.

Greek Rationality Finally, the case of Greece shows us the way in which false interpretations of the Axial period as some kind of ‘spiritual age’ are contradicted by the facts. Karen Armstrong in her The Great Transformation succumbs to this confusion, and begins to find the ‘rationality’ of the Greek transition problematical. This is a misunderstanding of what is really afoot in the Axial interval, and this springs in part from the failure to see the larger eonic sequence. Israelite monotheism could just as well be seen as a rationalization of earlier religion. The Axial Age is not about religion, but about the evolution of civilization, and finally of the men inside it. All aspects of this civilization are at issue, therefore, from state formation, to science, art, and philosophy, thence finally religion. We should note that Israel was first and foremost one and the same exemplar of state formation we see in the emergence of Egypt and Sumer. The Greek transition is indeed giving birth to the stream of rationality in history, and requires no apology next to the transformations of religion.

Greek Polytheism We could easily ‘pull a fast one’ and rewrite the Greek Axial Age as a flowering of polytheism, as this beauteous bouquet spawns the politics of the polis, a host of artistic realizations, and the great tour de force of Greek tragedy. Beside this the discovery of rationalism is almost a sideshow.

IHVH The record of Israel is one of the deterioration of the initial impulse to see some cosmic force at work in history, evading at all costs the degradation of ideas into theistic superstition. Clearly we have lost the original inspiration and have only the exoteric religious cult of vulgar theism. The mystery of the Axial Age was something that the ancient Israelites began to suspect, and then recast in a religious language applying only to their own culture, and that some decayed into the Biblical Grand Narrative that persists to this day. But the Biblical account can delay our understanding. The example of Greece can help. The Axial period is not about the intervention of God in history. The idea of a monotheistic god is itself an eonic emergent inside the system itself. The whole transformation is about upgrading religion from the chaos into which it has descended. Israel/Judah is in the same stream of religion proceeding from the Neolithic, albeit with its own characteristic forms, with the obvious source resemblance to the Phoenicians and others.

The point here is that the relatively later redactors of the Old Testament are turning into eonic observers!

Old Testament and Eonic Observers It suddenly began to dawn on the Israelites that something remarkable had happened to them over the previous three centuries before the Exile. They sense the Axial Age in action, and undoubtedly confused the issue in some ways. It struck them that only a cosmic force (which they at first refused to call ‘god’) could induce such a transformation at the level of states and empires. It seemed to them that, as with Heraclitus, reality (logos) was speaking to them in a direct revelation. And so in a sense, for the Israelites and the Greeks, it was.

Unfortunately the tale was backdated to include Abraham, Moses, and the rest. These are stream histories before the ‘sequence intersection’. The crucial dynamic is the cascade coming into existence after -750 up to the time of the Exile, exactly in concert with the emergence of the Iliad and/or Greek tragedy. The Greeks never became aware of the similar dynamic in their own history.

And it is clear that at an earlier stage in history a perception of entire geographical regions undergoing transformation could only lead primitive minds to posit the action of a cosmic force or divinity. We are quite hard-pressed not to succumb to design arguments ourselves, until we realize that a designer would not do history this way! This is a very ingenious system at work. Only the awareness that such arguments don’t work will disciple us to think in terms of a ‘system’. We can see that while the action of the eonic sequence, and its Axial interval, is something stupendous, it makes poor sense of the data to bring in theistic notions. The Israelites were themselves concerned to forbid the abuse of ‘god names’.

Indo-Europeans In The Great Transformation, a somewhat unfortunate attempt, among many, to understand the Axial period, Karen Armstrong opens with a chapter on the ‘Axial peoples’ and the idea of an ‘Axial Age spirituality’. The idea is entirely incorrect: the Axial Age is about the transformation of history from beyond history, and the transformation of certain Indo-Europeans and Semites, in that history. Such tribal thinking is entirely misleading. There are no intrinsically ‘Axial’ peoples, since the whole effect shows clearly that the eonic sequence simply works on whatever culture it finds in each region. Nor is there an Axial Age spirituality, the Axial period being not about ‘spirituality’ but about the transformation of cultures along a whole spectrum of elements, from politics to art, and in relation to the greater globalization that is underway.[v]

Metal Age Chronology Breaks Down We pass from the Bronze to the Iron Age and yet this technological transition does not express the change that is soon to come, which is far broader than the technological. The discovery of iron, we should note, has already long since occurred, and it would be difficult to ascribe a direct causal relationship between the immensity of the changes to come and this new technology. Nonetheless its significance remains considerable: the age of cheap iron has a democratizing effect on the fighting of wars, and it is hardly an accident that the hoplite battalions of Greece arise in this new technological phase, and are able to defeat the armies of the more ancient method of war and empire.

Dark Ages Although the ‘Dark Age’ in the wake of the ‘Roman Empire’ is a striking example of the ‘mideonic’ dynamic of decline visible throughout our eonic sequence, we do not quite see such an extreme collapse in the later succession to Egypt and Sumer. But in the case of Greece, we do actually see a collapse of civilization and a Dark Age, as the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ coincide with the disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization, and even the question of the historicity of the city of Troy, and its fall depicted in the later Iliad, is possibly connected with this period of chaos as the larger system of Sumerian successors are struggling with an almost entropic endgame in their progression of empires. This endless succession of empires needs a new idea. And the crystallization of slavery proceeds apace. Against this backdrop the next phase of our eonic sequence, the so-called Axial Age, will be spectacular.[vi]

The history of Israelite religion remains very difficult to understand, and the constant hybridizing of secular and religious categories is not much help. It cannot be explained, or explained away, in simple sociological terms. There is something genuinely obscure and, unfortunately, incomplete, about all accounts here. At least, one strain is recognizable: the emergence, in a fashion so reminiscent of the modern period of a social movement of Prophets expressing a theme of social justice. One thing we can say is that from a high level view we see something indeed remarkable: the evidence in writing of something missing for the Neolithic (where we suspect organized religion to have been born), a complete history of the transitional phase of an emergent religious stream. We should say ‘stream’ because the result of the Judaic transition is not actually a religion, but a ‘stream’ that will produce many religions. It might help to apply our evolution formalism  to Israel . Strange at first, but try it as an exercise, and suddenly you will see that it works.

The Old Testament as a Record of ‘Evolution’ It is highly useful to rewrite in one’s mind the Old Testament as evidence of an evolutionary process in our sense. As we look backwards at the era of the first religion s (in the context of civilization) we must wonder what we are missing. If only we had some record, for example, of the period ca. -5500 in Northern Mesopotamia , we might see the eonic evolution of religion in its correct context. The Old Testament is a true first in world history.

Relative Transformations All accounts of the Axial Age are bedeviled by the failure to grasp the idea of relative transformations (e.g. fertilizer in a garden does not produce absolute beginnings from seed, but relative transformations, spurts of growth). We rarely see absolute innovations, and see instead the sudden remorphings of things that were already there, e.g. monotheism.

The Evolution Formalism We can apply our evolution formalism to Axial Israel, with a remarkable result. We see the microevolution of the Israelites (cf. a work such as The Bible Unearthed to see the very ordinary Canaanite history turn extraordinary) undergo an intermittent macroevolutionary episode as seen in the Axial interval, and this macro aspect is one thing, the micro aspect another. It is the latter that is the actual creator of religion, please note. Thus the relationship of System Action  and Free Action is clear in retrospect, although it confused its adherents at the time.

The Old Testament tradition clearly records the reality here, without understanding it. For example, it says that Abraham is the first monotheist, and yet monotheism is the product of the ‘age of revelation’. The contradiction is only apparent when, armed with the eonic model, and the idea of relative transformations, we see that the eonic sequence itself has nothing to do with monotheism or religion, but is only remorphing elements in its direct path. The idea of a relative transformation is almost that of the idea of a ‘reformation’, and this term arises spontaneously during the Protestant Reformation to express an eonic explanation.

In the original account of the Axial Age there is a certain ambivalence in Jaspers toward his own discovery. The perception of the eonic sequence requires seeing the way in which relative transformations (e.g. the Axial Age did not invent monotheism, but produced a relative transformation that we see in the Israelite transition) are at work in the sudden punctuations of our eonic history. This can be especially confusing as we study the evolution of religion in world history. Thus, there is a problem with Jaspers’ treatment of the Axial Age. His most interesting analysis of his own revolutionary discovery cannot be taken as fully correct, and deserves to be challenged, because his definition is contradictory. His account confuses the secondary generation of Christianity, his Axis of History, with the Axial Age.

Jaspers’ Axial Age—A difficulty One of the basic difficulties in Karl Jaspers ’ concept of the Axial Age can be seen in an objection raised by Toynbee, who nonetheless failed to see the significance of the parallel phenomenon. Toynbee’s basic idea is simply to ask why such as Moses or Mohammed, to say nothing of Jesus, are not included in the Axial Age at all. The objection is cogent and shows there is no ‘Axial’ period in the sense intended. There is one in a sense unintended! The seminal ‘wholesale’ effect of the Israelite transition spawns a series of monotheisms (in association with the Persian brand of monotheism).[vii]

We have addressed this problem already with our idea of ‘relative transforms’ in an eonic sequence. That is a bit abstract, but the basic issue is very simple, exactly the effect in a drumbeat system. There is a complex interplay of human inventiveness and the action of the eonic sequence. At some points they are independent and at some points they intersect. When they intersect, the result is spectacular. But the eonic sequence has no monopoly on religion, it simply transforms what it finds. We need to see that religions can obviously rise at all times (Christianity, Islam), but that intersection with the eonic sequence gives the result a special character.

Toynbee’s line of argument reveals the impulse to extend the ‘turning point’ to include extra things, all the relevant spiritual traditions, and falsifies the significance of the unique turning point we call the Axial Age. It is unnecessary to do this, and in any case makes poor sense of the data. The problem is that we are stuck on the idea of an ‘age of revelation’ It certainly looked like one to the Israelites, and later Christians, but the dynamics were quite different.

 The eonic sequence is a timing device, the emergence of religion something different. Men at all times are concerned to express or innovate their religions. They can found new ones at any time. But at that majestic moment when the eonic sequence found various religious streams in its direct path, the result was the creation of a series of world religions. More exactly it was the creation in Israel/Judah of a religious literature in one isolated people with the potential to generate a new set of traditions. But these traditions consolidated much later than the Axial Age itself and are not a part of it. And this of course seems to raise an issue of legitimation.

All we can say is that this confusion is typical, just the kind of thing that would arise in those who experience the effect of an eonic sequence. They are forced to consider two different levels at work, but are unable to quite make sense of it. In any case the sources of legitimation for the successor religions require a new idea. Thus the emergence of the Christian founder is made over to the drama of the god-man. Whatever the case, Christians, without understanding the eonic effect, stepped around it at all points because they saw two things at work, the Axial Age itself, and the later mideonic creation of a religion that fed on that source but generated its own ‘starting point’. Given the dynamics of the eonic effect, action and reaction occur. As with the emergence of democracy, a new religion will exist in a state of tension with respect to the eonic sequence. It will express its ‘revelation’ in an ‘eonic’ history, and yet be in a state of equal and opposite reaction to that dynamic as it moves to its own self-realization, its own history. And this generates both the promise and the peril of an historical ideology that is also in some fashion anti-historical, and, quite apart from anything else, a stage in the expression of man’s freedom.

 System Action and Free Action This is a useful moment to consider our distinction of System Action and Free Action. We can see that the Old Testament is primitive and superstitious, yet records the action of a larger system of history. It fits the data perfectly here, despite its fuzzy architecture of whole and part. By the definition of our terms, the Israelite transition shows System Action, while its succession, which actually produces the religions we know of in later times, are the produce of Free Action. The complex history of the Israelite transition appears to show a combination of state-formation, and a theocratic-state religion accompanying that. But the overall picture also shows elements of developing folk religion, state manipulation of that, and, beyond everything, a most remarkable series of prophets emerging somewhere in between folk religion and the state theocracy. This is not a situation easily explained by the usual sociological explanations.

The distinction made here might seem odd, but it is essential to keep distinct the ordinary temporal evolution, so-called, of religion, and the dramatic changes, the other form of evolution, as we have defined it, that occur along the eonic mainline. If this seems strange then reexamine the facts of the case, and ask if this is not a strange circumstance, an odd history. One group of people suddenly, over three centuries starts to move toward something called monotheism, a literature comes into being at the end, and this diffusionary complex proceeds into a greater environment, where it eventually, along with many other factors, of course, becomes the ground for the creation of several new religions. The source, and the religions, are distinct.

In fact, everything follows our eonic analysis exactly. And the participants themselves were saying essentially the same thing in religious language. But this analysis requires sticking to the facts: the period of so-called revelation is not that at all, but a stage in the eonic sequence, and the actual creation of the ‘Great Religions’ is a later stage, outside of the eonic sequence. Again, Christians struggled with this fact, and clearly made this distinction in their own language. We should note that this is a clear distortion created by patriarchal cultures entering from stream to sequence: Semites and Indo-Europeans. In a real sense this is a departure, if not decline, from the balanced matriarchal/patriarchal religions of the Neolithic. The facts of the case can be seen in India where the two end up coexisting instead of replacing each other.

A Patriarchal Age Another issue cautioning the notions of revelation is the temporal stamp of the monotheism of the Axial Age. A strange kind of ‘patriarchal’ age comes into being. This era shows the displacement of the antiquity of goddess religions, with some ambiguity in India. In Pythagoras’ Trousers, with a feminist viewpoint of the ‘axial’ era, Margaret Wertheim notes, “Across Eurasia the sixth century B.C. was a turning point for mankind,” and explores some of the patriarchal implications of the era of great change. There is arguably a slight regression here, granting that so many millennia of goddess religion had undoubtedly produced a decline of such forms. A new perspective was temporarily needed. There is a clear dilemma here. In any case the vestigial remains of an Asherah in the Old Testament are the token of this change. Religion is advancing, yet it seems to be contracting. This is a difficult question, in part requiring a fuller contour map of our entire eonic argument, whence we will discern the slow influence of nomadic myth structures on the basic cast of the great religions. The Semitic and Indo-European streams bestow their own character onto the resulting outcomes of the Axial transformation. In any case, the patriarchal phase is clearly not characteristic of the larger evolution of religion in the history of civilizations. [viii]

The identical process is evident in India, but with a different content, in fact with the result of ‘atheistic’ religions mixed with the persistence of the goddess elements in the transformation of Hinduism The period of the ‘axial’ simply transforms what enters, as the goddess religions are succeeded by the patriarchal. We need draw no final conclusions beside our basic outline, except to try and determine, if possible, the earlier transformations that have produced ‘religion’ as a recognizable social construct. The fact of the matter is that the earliest ‘cathedra’, the basic idea of the ‘holy house reaching the sky’, the ziggurat, is a temple of the goddess from the era of Eridu, before even the rise of the state. It is little wonder a feminist historian should wonder at the idea of the Axial Age.

Two Religions Emerging In Parallel The question of the Axial Age and religion is clearer, in some ways, in the case of India, where the appearance of Buddhism in the wake of the Axial interval exactly parallels in its timing the emergence of the Judaic corpus by around -400, two centuries after the divide, in the era of Ezra. There is, significantly, a question now as to the exact date of Buddha, his birth now being said to have occurred somewhat later than the usual one, a generation after the ‘divide’, ca. -600 to -550. Clearly we must be careful in assigning Gautama to the Axial Age itself, since he clearly suggests the kind of rationalized packaging of a religion that is characteristic of the first moments just after the transition. That later date would be a reminder that, just as with the Israelite transition, the period of religion formation follows the transition itself. The Axial interval, in India , is unfortunately poorly documented, and we can’t quite grasp the exact stages at work. But we can see two strange things happening. One is the transformation of Hindu elements into the Upanishadism that is clearly a forerunner of Buddhism. The other is the mysterious ‘different chord’ visible in the progression of Jain sages leading up to the figure of Mahavir. One thing that should caution us about later datings of Gautama is the reported interaction of these two, and the ambiguity in Gautama’s mind about his own place. Was he another successor in the line of the Jains, or was he the beginning of a new tradition? A most significant dilemma itself.

The questions of Indian religion are immensely difficult, and suffer from the lack of adequate histories, and we are confronted with the enigma of the real sources of the kind of advanced yogic religion that is consolidated in the Buddhist tradition, but which clearly long preceded their crystallization as a facet of Hinduism. This involves the complex issue of the place of the Indo-Europeans in the history of India , and the now controversial debate over their origins, entry into India , and the place of their great religious document, the Rig Veda, in the gestation of the later forms of the religions of liberation, such as Buddhism. Many of the problems disappear if we see that Hinduism is a hybrid of more ancient tradition and the Indo-European Vedism which is something entirely different.

The Iliad, in perfect timing The Old Testament is confusing. See what is happening by looking at the emergence of Greek epic, a perfect case of stream and sequence dynamics (the bardic tradition is a stream, its moment of glory sequence). The Iliad is the first great manifestation of the new era. As Herman Frankel  asks at the beginning of Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, “For us Greek literature begins with the Homeric Iliad and the Odyssey. Why, unlike the literatures of other peoples, does it start at once with such brilliant and mature creations? Why does it not crawl painfully into view out of murky depths, gradually gaining sureness of form and clarity of content?”. With Greece, we see the full effect that is less apparent than if we skim a few prophets or religious founders off the top of the data. For here we see, as in the case of China, the full effects of economic, artistic, scientific, political and religious evolution. One difficulty with a scientific analysis of this Greek transitional period is the fact that science itself emerges from this very period under study.[ix]

 The emergence of the Old Testament has become entirely confusing. A simple look at the parallel phenomenon occurring in the Greek Axial Age will help to resolve the perplexity.



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Last modified: 09/28/2010