5. Symphony of Emergence 


Stream and Sequence:
 The Axial Transitions


Section 5 .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

     5.2 Stream and Sequence: The Axial Transitions


We are beginning to sense that the Axial Age is something more than a cluster of brilliant sages: it is a transformation of a whole cultural sphere. We can also look at it in terms of our ideas of stream and sequence: a series of parallel streams suddenly intersect with a larger sequence. We begin to notice the Axial pattern in terms of creative individuals. But its philosophers and sages are the tip of the iceberg, and behind them we see whole cultural regions, out of the blue, proceed rapidly to a new stage of culture. On the one hand it is essential to induce change through individuals seeding cultures with new ideas. But this does not explain the overall coordination over time of complex emergent events, i.e. a string of poets, the birth of democracy, or a world religion. The clearest and best-documented case is that of Archaic/Classical Greece. Roughly we have the following remarkable surge: 

Early tribal history of the Greeks
1200-900       From Mycenaean period to Greek Dark Ages
900-600         Dark Ages yield to Archaic period
600-400         The great take-off period, the Greek ‘Miracle’
400 onward:  We enter the Hellenistic, it’s over 

Compare this now to Israel :
Early Canaanite ‘stream’ history
1200-900?    The onset of the ‘Israel/Judah’ kingdoms
900-600        The history of ‘Israel/Judah’, emergence of Prophets
600-400        The Exile period, crystallization of texts
400 onward:  A new religion has come into existence 

Note the remarkable similarity! This periodization is slightly formulaic. The interval from -900 to -400 encloses the basic mystery, the intersection of stream and sequence. But the three centuries from -900 to -600 show the field of action, with a ‘divide’ point about -600, as the ‘output productions’ proceed from the ‘Axial’ causation. Similar periodizations break through their disguises in Rome, China and India. Note the isomorphic character of these two histories. It is impossible to distinguish ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, once we see the connection. This is the embedded ‘transition’ pattern. In the middle of continuous stream of culture a sudden relative speed up occurs. We must realize the high level at which this dynamic is operating. And remarkably in both cases a great literature comes into existence, the Greek and Old Testament epics. Note that ‘Israel/Judah’ disappears near the Exile, depriving us of a flowering or realization period, but enforcing a mysterious extra-state character to what will be a ‘cultural complex’ that travels transculturally. Note that our system treats states and religions equally in its dynamics, and it is the case that the core Axial period for ‘Israel/Judah’ is about a state, and not about a ‘world religion’. Judaism as we know it comes much later, as do Christianity and Islam. 

The five centuries from -900 to -400 enclose the principal effect. But the real interval is very early, from -800 to -600. This periodization in turn shows us what’s going on in the case of Israel. The case of Archaic Greece is especially telling because we aren’t distracted by religious questions. Its clarity is enhanced by the fact that its earlier Mycenaean phase collapses and Greece goes into what is called its Dark Age. This is the ‘stream and sequence’ effect. The stream of Greek cultures shows many civilizations, but that part that we call the ‘Axial interval’ stands out. Why? Because, as we shall see it intersects with a greater sequence. In the same way the Old Testament is confusing, because it includes, just as does the Iliad, the prior tales and chronicles of a Canaanite people, the stream history, but the crucial era is the Axial interval and this occurs in exact concert with that of Archaic Greece. It is clear that the Israelites were aware of something strange happening in their history: they noticed their ‘Axial’ transformation. 

The sudden reawakening of Greek history in the Archaic period after the collapse of the Mycenaean is the classic clue. Thus its sudden resurgence, as if on cue and in parallel with the other regions of the Eurasian continent, is the more remarkable. We are stunned, by zooming out to see the whole pattern, to see that the Greek Archaic is exploding on schedule in a larger system, not solely as the result of antecedent influences. Against the backdrop of world history as a whole this brief period from around -900 to -400 induces an immensity of innovative advances, with an intensity that has never been matched to this day, although the rise of the modern is a fair competitor. Note that we cannot ascribe simple causal/local influences as the cause of this phenomenon, since we are observing a part of a total Eurasian phenomenon. Each of five regions, Rome, Greece, Israel/Judah, India, and China, has an analogous interval in this fashion (the Roman being a bit late), although the Chinese and Indian are less well-known. The case of (early) Rome is really an aspect or variant of the Greek case, and can be considered, at this level of generality, in the same category. We can see that Rome arrives a bit later, for the obvious reason that it waits on diffusion from the Greek system. 

We have the clue to the Old Testament: it contains a core account of precisely this interval, with a great deal of other material tacked on as lead-up history. The Axial interval is more about the emergence of the Bible than of Israelite history. Much of the content of the Bible distracts us from the crucial Axial interval. The tales of Abraham, Moses, the Exodus, are clearly the mythical lore of a Canaanite people who, especially during the Axial interval, accumulate a literature that, at the end of this interval, becomes what we know of as the Bible. Note the resemblance of this to the way the Greek Iliad and Odyssey come into existence. Achilles and Odysseus are not Axial figures, but the crystallization of the Greek epics is a prime Axial effect! The Homeric period in the eighth century is followed by an immense flowering of literature, which becomes incandescent in the period of Greek Tragedy. The latter lasts barely a century, and is gone. Stand back from this analogous biblical phenomenon, which casts its spell to this day. Is it not a very odd and historically embedded text? We see that its correlation with the Axial interval reveals at once its real significance. Our approach almost does better justice to this history. It makes almost no sense stripped of its religious mythology until we see its Axial context.

Note the way the historical facticity behind the Biblical myths changes its character after around -900 in the wake of the David/Solomon era myths and we have the histories of Israel/Judah or general Canaan up to the Exile. As foundational religious history, this is quite peculiar stuff, but in light of the Axial context it becomes precious historical lore indeed, the first documentation in writing of the genesis of a religious formation, a world historical moment. Note how various traditions of prophets suddenly without warning turn into the remarkable string of the classic Prophetic cluster in concert with the Greek timing. The sameness in difference from the Greek example is beguiling. We note how just around the Exile the Biblical corpus comes into something resembling its final form, and that from -400 onward the phenomenon is essentially finished, as the record is codified. The seeds of a ‘world religion’ or the materials for several have appeared and crystallized. Remarkably, as it happens, ‘Israel/Judah’ suddenly disappears at the period of the Exile, and we don’t see the analogous sudden flowering that we find in Greece after -600. It makes no difference, however, to the overall effect. There is an irony to this circumstance, it almost feeds the phenomenon itself by separating a literature from a region! 

Let us not forget that our discussions of religion in the abstract can forget the obvious: the Bible records the actual history of a Canaanite kingdom during the Axial interval. The religions arise later. Once that interval closes, the record stops. From that point onward, a tradition is born and its adherents are looking backward. The material, here as in the other cases, flows outward into its environment to have what effects it will have. For the peoples of that era, the Biblical corpus was a tremendous new cultural asset, an almanac of Civilization. It spread through the regions of the Roman Empire and beyond because it was of great help in the assimilation of tribal peoples to the shock of expanding civilization. We constantly think of religion in terms of metaphysical abstractions, but that misses the historical point that, sourcing in the Axial interval, a cultural instrument appears that assists the process of tribal integration into the world system. For its time the Bible was ‘state of the art’. 

We can be certain that the Biblical history is only one aspect of what must have been a far more complex ‘Axial interval’ in the regions of the Middle East as a whole. As our strange phenomenon shows it is trying to balance itself, as it were, across Eurasia. In the context of monotheism, the phenomenon of Zoroastrianism, and much else, should join our account. It is not clear just when Zarathustra lived, but it is highly significant that just at the Exile there is a blending of the Biblical and Zoroastrian literatures. Be wary of thinking that this period invents monotheism. That probably already existed, and is in fact a primordial belief fairly well known to the Paleolithic in the Great Spirit cultures, for example. What we are seeing here is the effect of the Axial interval on what is, as primordial monotheism, already probably in existence, mixed no doubt in a melee of polytheistic beliefs. That effect is to spawn a world religion. But the Axial Age  as such has nothing to do with religion, and in fact the term requires adjustment to historical realities: we see that religion in one sense, and speaking in broad strokes, is simply the ad hoc output of the Axial interval. It is important to see that the actual world religions we now speak of are constructs outside of the Axial Age, created by men recalling unsuccessfully the histories of that period.

In general the whole case of the Axial interval in the Middle East must be larger than what we see now. But the case of Israel/Judah is put in writing, and somehow carries the day because, and this is the whole point, it produces a literature and cultural record that outlasts everything else from this time and zone. We will brutally secularize this history, thus bringing out its true beauty, but let us note forget how remarkable Israelite history is. Just as the Israelites suspected, there is a Big History at work. And we have stumbled on something else of significance. As we move to complete our pattern, we will see that Sumer and Egypt comprise an earlier version of this kind of phenomenon, millennia before. But these centers of earlier advance are silent in the Axial Age. Why is that? 

The clue here is to see that Greece, and ‘Israel/Judah’ are essentially frontier areas, for their time, and that the drama of the great Empires, such as the Assyrian, which are the legacy in decline of these earlier periods, is being bypassed by clusters of innovation on their fringes. These empires are dinosaurs of an earlier age period. Note how the Greeks barely survived these attempts by Empire to destroy their world, that the ‘Israel/Judah’ is a dramatic account of the history of surviving or not surviving these destructive empires. The Axial Age here is a record of innovation outsmarting the momentum of the legacy of a previous cycle of civilizations. This frontier effect will help resolve one of the puzzles of the isolation of the rise of the modern on the fringes of the European system. Thus if you factor out the Sumerian core area, and the Egyptian zone, and consider the Occidental zone of the Eastern Mediterranean and South Asia, you suddenly realize there are very few innovation zones available. One is precisely the Canaanite region, another the Greek, conveniently buffered by Aegean . The Indian, Chinese, and Roman cases automatically fulfill this requirement also. 

We have the essential framework for what is happening in the Roman, Indian, and Chinese cases. In many ways the Roman phenomenon is part of the Greek, which spawned an immense network of city-states and republican experiments, from the Black Sea to southern Italy , some of them producing democracy, the classic Athenian. Thus Rome springs into existence in the wake of this network and is essentially a variant of it. We must keep in mind the obvious fact that all these cultural zones are extremely different in character and that we can’t be talking about the autonomous mechanics of these cultures or civilizations. The Axial phenomenon simply happens independently of the prior histories and cultural mechanics of each region. In the Greek case we do see, however, the expenditure of Axial impetus on innovative cultural forms, among them Greek democracy. Note that this appears suddenly in the wake of Solon, -600, and that it doesn’t last very long. Later we will realize even these particulars, down to the decades of a half-century interval, are not accidental.



   Web:  chap5_2.htm





Last modified: 09/27/2010