6. Transition and Modernity

The 'Axial' New Age 


Section 6.6.2

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

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





6. Transition and Modernity 
     6.1 A New Age Begins  
        6.1.1 From Reformation to Revolution  
     6.2 An Age of Enlightenment  
        6.2.1 The Crisis of The Enlightenment  
        6.2.2 Theory and Ideology: Das Adam Smith Problem
        6.2.3 Toward a New Enlightenment 
     6.3 The Great Divide 
        6.3.1 Revolutions Per Second: The Rebirth of Democracy 
        6.3.2 Econostream != Eonic Sequence          
    6.4 System Shutdown: Between System Action and Free Action  
       6.4.1 The Curse of Mideonic Empire?      
     6.5 1848: End of Eonic Sequence?  
          6.5.1 Last and First Men
          6.5.2 Theory and Ideology: Out of Revolution
     6.6 New Ages
          6.6.1 The (Eonic) Evolution of Religion  
          6.6.2 The 'Axial' New Age
          6.6.3 The Great Freedom Sutra 
          6.6.4 Schopenhauer and The Caveman Buddhas
          6.6.5 Coda: Amlothi's Mill

 7. Conclusion


    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

6.6.2 The 'Axial' New Age


Contemporary New Age movements, stretched between radicalism and conservatism, are an attempt to recover the sense of the ‘new age’ that appeared after –600 in China, India, and the Occident, when the great religions were born. We take for granted the attitude of denunciation expressed by the Hebrew prophets of the world of Babylon without quite asking ourselves why it is that they took this stance, unless as a committed religionist we accept this as a religious issue of pagan morals. The Judaic core-period shows a classic emergentist ‘New Age movement’, in another age. Our eonic outline of periodic architecture gives us no trick answers, or the ability to grind out explanations without close study of actual facts.

 All we know is that a group of men gave direct expression to religious and cultural ‘new aging’ and yielded their discourse to immediate successors during ‘downfield new aging’. This is evidently a religious issue, for the obvious ‘superficial’ point is that this was an era of rapid religious evolution, as the form and content of monotheism as we know it took shape and became the inner substance of a new field of culture, assembling itself from earlier elements. But the issue is a deeper one, for behind the religious factor stands what history was to confirm, the passing of an antique world, whose last representatives were the Assyrians, and the Egyptians of the New Kingdom , their creative energies spent. Thus, Jeremaiah expresses his furious anathema of Babylon, more than a symbol of the Mesopotamian world that preceded the classical:

And Babylon shall become a heap, a dwelling-place for dragons, an astonishment and a hissing, without an inhabitant.

What? Babylon wasn’t all that bad, but the prophecy was confirmed. In a similar vein, Isaiah prophesies:

Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. Their bows shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.

 And Babylon , the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah …[i]

What is remarkable is how prescient these predictions were, not as revelatory visions but in their sense of geopolitical becoming, and the sense of the dawning of a new era. Where the Greeks, nearby and simultaneous, experienced a fantastic flowering of culture without grasping what was happening to them, the Hebrew prophets began to perceive as the first ‘futurologists’ the changing shape of civilization itself. And in India there was a ‘Great Awakening’, in China a fascinating play on a combination of Indian mysticism and Greek rationalism.

The great world generated from Sumer had already been in a ‘last phase’ for centuries and the world of developed and developing culture and civilization was very much changing gears in this era. And a close look will certainly discover sooner or later the first primitive version of the still earlier ‘new aging’. We know it is there, from, for example, the automatic clocking of the Egyptian dynastic tradition from ca. –3000. Nothing could be more natural, once the reason is seen. The tactic of the prophets to ascribe this to the wrath of divinity throws us off the scent, although it give vivid testimony to those who were involved in the creation of the new, which they interpreted in terms of religious evolution, and the need to create a new conception of the divine. Religious issues apart, they were attuned to the phenomenon of rapid transition itself that was so clearly, to our hindsight and our reconstruction of the earlier period, in convulsive passage.

 But the countermovement against modernism is already reminiscent of what happened in the ancient world in the period before the coming of Christianity, but after the centuries of the great flowering. In The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds  puzzled over the interruption in the Greek Enlightenment:

Looking at the picture as a whole, an intelligent observer in or about the year 200 B.C. might well have predicted that within a few generations the disintegration of the inherited structure [of the pagan religious world, the ‘Inherited Conglomerate’ of Gilbert Murray] would be complete, and that the perfect Age of Reason would follow. He would, however, have been quite wrong on both points...To understand the reasons for this long-drawn decline is one of the major problems of world history.[ii]

In a discussion of great importance, not only for understanding what happened in the ancient world but of what might happen in our own, Dodds describes, for example, the onset of astrology like a blight and the loss of the seeds of rationalism, and the weakening, and complete loss, of science. The experiments in political republicanism and democracy seem to vanish into thin air as the processes of empire gain the upper hand and remain in place to the modern world. Further, there is the same influx of mystical ideas and religious forms into the western oikoumene. This is the ‘failure of nerve’, a term invented by Bury who gave it to Gilbert Murray.[iii]

But unfortunately this explanation will not work, even as the defense of the Enlightenment turns into its very opposite, the yogi’s Enlightenment, indeed that of the well-documented ‘gymnosophist’ (naked Jain) of antiquity, for it is not a failure of nerve that is the difficulty. Nor is it correct to scapegoat ‘mysticism’, never defined. Heraclitus was a mystic. There were many men like Socrates in India in the age of Buddha, who wasted no time on ‘mysticism’.

Dodds’ important description of the problem is far from complete in the sense of ‘taking sides’ with one party that failed, and not grasping why. Many parallel fields failed together. It is futile to blame Oriental religion s for the ‘failure of nerve’. These oriental sources, along with the clearly analogous Greek mysteries, all arose in parallel with the Greek Enlightenment in the era ca. –600 and interacted in a way that was quite natural. One tends to wring one’s hands and complain of superstition and cultic mysticism or the sudden onset of neo-reincarnationist beliefs, once again so characteristic of our own time, and it won’t do much good. For the effective historical force of all these factors was precisely their parallelism, and parallel decline. We see the original period through the lenses of traditions that come much later.

And beside the rationalist view there is the equally significant cultic side of the Greek flowering with the mysteries of Eleusis, near which arises the strange phenomenon of Greek Drama. We cannot subtract these from our consideration under the rubric of a master theme of rational advance. Nor can we play favorites with the simultaneous appearance in antiquity of Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism (and soon-to-come Christianity  and Islam). It is a symphony of many melodies. And the beginnings of science were virtually unknown to most, and remained at best seminal. Finally, the false distinction of the Oriental and Occidental is little more than geographical. A case could be made that the Occidental shows a different ‘tuning’ in the spectrum of ‘Being and Becoming’ leading to its better disposition to progressive culture. This theme is a trifle tired. The idea of ‘progress’ is a modern one, whatever its intimations in earlier times.

It is fascinating to compare China and Greece, and then China and India, and then India and Israel, at the roots of the classical source. We see in Taoism a kind of transition between philosophy, and religion. In India it is the Upanishadic movement that corresponds to the parallel transitions, analogous to the emergence of the prophet s in Israel, as the great New Age movement. Behind the picture of religious innovation, we can find a context of small states, economic development, and political change not unlike that which we see in Greece. In fact this backdrop is the ballast for the whole phenomenon. In India it produced an age of great ferment reminiscent of the Greek, notwithstanding the different spectrum of perspective. In one description,

When Buddha grew to manhood he found the halls, the streets, the very woods of northern India ringing with philosophic disputation, mostly of an atheistic and materialistic trend. The later Upanishads and the oldest Buddhist books are full of references to these heretics. A large class of traveling Sophists—the Paribbajaka, or Wanderers—spent the better part of every year in passing from locality to locality, seeking pupils, or antagonists, in philosophy. Some of them taught logic as the art of proving anything, and earned for themselves the titles of ‘Hairsplitters’ and ‘Earwrigglers’; others demonstrated the existence of God and the inexpediency of virtue…Large audiences gathered to hear…It was an age of amazingly free thought, and a thousand experiments in philosophy.[iv]

 This ‘materialism’ in not what we make it out to be on the basis of modern thought, and is in danger of grafting a modern conception onto an ancient context. But the fact remains that the later world of Hinduism is almost further from this era than the modern. The world of Samkhya rings a distinctively modern note. The remarkable aspect of early Buddhism is its ‘rationalistic’ touch, and its gesture to bring the primordial confusions of consciousness into some kind of ‘tuning’. This is evident in the distinct blend of philosophic rationalism and meditative consciousness that casts its aroma in the world of Buddha, and those who came before the rise of the monotheisms, or the idealistic philosophical Vedanta. The men of this time were not so much materialists as ‘still not confused’ by the relentless coming state theocracy

As the world of the modern New Age movement shows, the authority of the ancient spiritual teacher is not an easy or safe playground and long precedes the emergence of contemporary freedoms. Be ye Lamps unto yourselves, the Buddha warned. As if they foresaw the world to come and the horrific and dangerous variants about to spread into the world as esoteric exploitations, we are left the sutras of the Samkhya Karika or the Yoga Sutras (as well a good treatise on vipassana from, however, the denominational Buddhist sources) which essentially states everything that one needs to know in non-denominational form, without esoteric trappings, although it is difficult to make practical use of this now. The world of Indian moves in parallel to the whole, as the Axial period makes obvious. World history almost needed such a laboratory in isolation. Now as that legacy is bequeathed to the global stream a new and critical perspective is needed to recast and preserve this underground stream.  



   Web:  chap6_6_2.htm


[i] James Wellard’s Babylon (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972).

[ii] The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), E. R. Dodds.

[iii] The idea of the ‘failure of nerve’ comes from Gilbert Murray, The Five Stages of Greek Religion ( Oxford : Clarendon, 1935. It is elaborated by E. R. Dodds, in his The Greeks and the Irrational. He describes the profound change of tone that occurred between the period of classical Athens and the world of the later Roman Empire . But the ‘failure of nerve’ suggests a psychological explanation for a more complex process related to the issue of our ‘turning points’, and the tremendous multicultural confusion that attended the expansion of the Hellenistic world. For the idea transposed, cf. Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (New York: Norton, 1969), Volume II, “The Science of Freedom”, Chapter I, “The Recovery of Nerve”.

[iv] Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (New York: MJF Books, 1963), p. 417.





Last modified: 09/28/2010