5. Symphony of Emergence 


Karen Armstrong's 
The Great Transformation


Section 5 .1.2

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

     5.1.2 Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation


The appearance of The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong has introduced a new set of confusions into the question of the Axial Age. Our previous remarks about a so-called ‘Second Axial Age’ show how the analysis can go awry if we identify the Axial period with the phenomenon of religion. Thus the subtitle of her work, “The Beginning Of Our Religious Traditions”, is already a distortion of the broader balance we can see if we take into account the total phenomenon, especially the at first anomalous case of the Greek transition. Armstrong’s distinction of mythos and logos, with the comparative puzzlement or denigration of the later, shows the result of the misplaced emphasis on religion. This prejudice against rationality is a reflection of the current postmodern critique of the modern theme of reason so evident in many New Age attacks on modernity, as they call for a new era of spirituality. Armstrong, evidently aware of the first edition of World History and The Eonic Effect, seems uncertain how to proceed, on the one hand noting the modern transformation and yet pointing to the need for a second Axial Age to solve the problem of the dreaded ‘rationality’ spawned by Greeks, the black sheep of the previous Axial Age. The rise of the modern is that ‘second’ Axial Age and it is about a different business than religion.[i]

We see that the Axial interval is only secondarily a question of religion. In the first place, the religions that do appear in the wake of the Axial interval are not absolute innovations but, in our terminology, relative stages or transformations in place of outstanding religious traditions. Thus this period is not as such the beginning of our religious traditions, this having long since occurred. It is nonetheless close enough to see the emergence of the major religions such as Buddhism and the Occidental monotheisms in the context of the Axial Age, if we remember that, strictly speaking, they do not emerge exactly in the Axial interval but after it. They are mideonic phenomena. Thus, significantly, Armstrong is hard-pressed to explicate the emergence of Islam long after the Axial interval. But this is no problem in our approach. Islam shows a clear lineage from the Axial period but is an independent mideonic process initiated for reasons explicable on other grounds than Axial analysis.

Armstrong then proceeds to downplay the element of synchrony in the Axial phenomenon, attempting thence to collapse the distinct transitional cultures quite wrongly into a set of ‘Axial peoples’ (there is no such distinction between peoples), proceeding to a kind of sausage interpretation of quite different things in terms of an ‘Axial ethos’. But the range of Axial transitions shows multiple distinct outcomes sharing an abstract character of ‘innovation’ or creative renewal, with or without any echoes of content. Our eonic sequence seems to exploit diversity rather than impose some unified cultural matrix. This confusion becomes quite drastic if we try to find the common denominator between a theistic and atheistic religion!

The eonic sequence is about many things and the prime moment of the emergence of the so-called great religions is only one aspect of that. Our system never repeats itself and the outcome of the modern transition shows the diminuendo rather than the amplification of religion. The question of religion for the future is not answered by our eonic model, but we can say that anything that will resemble the Axial Age creation of religions will have only the elements of the modern transition to work with, anything else likely to be ad hoc reformations of earlier elements. A closer look shows that the Age of Reason quietly proceeded in its own vein, especially if we look closely at figures such as Spinoza, the emergence of Biblical Criticism, and the German Enlightenment. The issue is not the regurgitation of religious doctrines but, ironically, the critique of reason itself that challenges the core of the ideological distortions and metaphysical extravagance of the Axial descendants. The works of Hegel and Schopenhauer show two branching explorations, one toward reconstituted post-Christianity, the other toward Buddhism, appearing almost instantaneously at the Great Divide of the modern transition. Schopenhauer outwitted the literature of ancient sutras almost without trying, and without realizing what he had done. These formulations are, of course, only momentary philosophic gestures, but they show how our modern transition, with what almost seems like cunning, seizes the high ground against the postmodern flood of religious restoration attempted in the various New Movements reflecting the traditions of antiquity. The question of a Second Axial is thus solved in disguise by the Enlightenment era. The question of rationality needs to be seen in its full scope, from the rationality of science, to the critique of reason, religion within the limits of reason, to the Hegelian Reason in history, to the confusions of scientism and its technocratic nemesis. Hegel’s ‘reason in history’ is a genuine upgrade, whatever we think of it, of the vulgar theism spawned in the Old Testament. These issues can’t be resolved with eclectic ideological concoctions of postmodern ‘spirituality’ or the ministrations of New Age gurus.

In general the complexity of the Axial Age should caution us against simplifications or generalized interpretations. Our strategy is first to map the phenomenon in its broader context. The attempt to interpret the content of the particular transitions is a second and very difficult task requiring an independently expanded scale.



   Web:  chap5_1_2.htm


[i] Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation ( New York : Knopf, 2006), A Short History of Myth ( New York: Canongate, 2005).





Last modified: 09/25/2010