1.2.3 Discovery of the Axial Age

Our search for causes is confronted with the phenomenon of the so-called Axial Age, a term invented by the philosopher Karl Jaspers who collated a whole series of observations of this phenomenon, as it came to be discovered in the nineteenth century.

The discovery of the Axial Age is one of the great episodes in the more general drama of the archaeological revolution, whose most notable incident is perhaps the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by the army of Napoleon in its invasion of Egypt. The sudden opening to the mystery of ancient Egypt in the decipherment of its ancient hieroglyphics heralded the massive new findings of the nineteenth century. The at first less spectacular but in many ways as significant discovery of the Axial Age did not impinge on public consciousness until much later, and in fact has still not done so. From his The Origin and Goal of History, we have Karl 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.
Our perception of the suddenness of the Greek transformation, and the parallel emergence of the prophetic age of the Israelites now finds its explanation, or rather a larger question in search of an explanation, in the realization that an entire spectrum of cultures across Eurasia in the period, as Jaspers depicts it, from -800 to -200.
Here simple periodization uncovers something spectacular, however we are to interpret the result. And yet this discovery has been almost orphaned by an inability to properly grasp what the evidence shows. Jaspers is not alone in his observations, which collate a whole series of such. Joseph Needham, in Science and Civilization in China, notes:
The close coincidence in date between the appearance of many of the great ethical and religious leaders has often been remarked upon: Confucius, c. -550; Gautama (Buddhism), c. -560; Zoroaster (if a historical personage), c. -600; Mahavira (Jainism), c. -560, and so on. But the Chhun Chhiu period was also contemporary with many important political events, such as the taking of Nineveh by the Medes in -612, the fall of Babylon to Cyrus in -538, and the invasion of the Punjab by Darius in -512, all examples of Iranian expansion. At the beginning of the Warring States period, the Greeks checked Iranian expansion westwards (-480), and the middle of the -5th century saw the erection of the Athenian Parthenon. The concluding stages of the Warring States time are contemporary with many outstanding events, such as the conquest of Alexander the Great (c. -327), the foundation of the Maurya dynasty in India and the beginning of the reign of Asoka (-300 and -274 respectively), and the Punic Wars in the Mediterranean (-250 to -150) which overlap with the first unification China under Chhin Shih Huang Ti. But the beginning of the Roman Empire (-31) does not take place until well into the Han dynasty.
These observations began earlier in the nineteenth century as global historiography began to force the issue of a multicultural perspective, and this entailing the need for synchronous study. The first philosopher of history to mention the Axial phenomenon would appear to be the little known Lasaulx (1856), who observes,
It cannot possibly be an accident that, six hundred years before Christ, Zarathustra in Persia, Gautama Buddha in India, Confucius in China, the prophets in Israel, King Numa in Rome and the first philosophers—Ionians, Dorians, Eleatics—in Hellas, all made their appearance pretty well simultaneously as reformers of the national religion.
A sense of something defying probability arises spontaneously as we notice this phenomenon. Victor Von Strauss (1870) notes,
During the centuries when Lao-tse and Confucius were living in China, a strange movement of the spirit passed through all civilized peoples. In Israel Jeremaiah, Habakkuk, Daniel and Ezekiel were prophesying and in a renewed generation (521-516) the second temple was erected in Jerusalem. Among the Greeks Thales was still living, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Xenophanes appeared and Parmenides was born. In Persia an important reformation of Zarathustra’s ancient teaching seems to have been carried through, and India produced Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.
We can now return to consider the Greeks, and note that many observations of the type collected by Jaspers exist for isolated instances of what we can see is connected to this ‘Axial Age’ phenomenon. Thus the philosopher Bertrand Russell opens his A History of Western Philosophy with an exclamation of wonder at this generative era:
In all history, nothing is so surprising or difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece. Much of what makes civilization had already existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and spread thence to neighboring countries. But certain elements had been lacking until the Greeks supplied them…What occurred was so astonishing that, until very recent times, men were content to gape and talk mystically about the Greek genius. It is possible, however, to understand the development of Greece in scientific terms, and it is well worthwhile doing so.
We suddenly see the question of Greece in the larger context of the Axial Age, and to understand the question in scientific terms requires an objective look at a phenomenon that we had not suspected, where the occurrence of so many novelties in parallel seems at first inexplicable. In any case we are left with a question, is there a science of history?
The implications of the Axial Age have thus left its study stranded in a kind of limbo, as the phenomenon has tended to drift into misinterpretation. Karl Jaspers, in a curious blend of the religious and the secular, brought a carefully balanced sense of the philosophy of history to his depiction of the question, but many in his wake have tended to see a kind of generalized ‘age of revelation’ in which the issue of religion is given center stage. And this has tended to scare away serious students of the subject. But if we examine the data of the Axial Age more closely we discover to our surprise that it is more than just an historical garlanding of sages and prophets. If we zoom in more closely we discover to our astonishment that these sages and prophets are merely the tip of an iceberg, that the Axial phenomenon encompasses an entire social transformation in place of an entire stream of culture. And we soon see that the question of religion is only one aspect of the mystery. For as the remark of Bertrand Russell suggests the case of Greece comes to the fore in the synchronous emergence in parallel of multiple Axial exemplars, and leaves as its clearest case the spectacle of secularism at the point of its birth in world history.
As we examine the Axial Age in its breadth we are confronted with the difficult question of arriving at the history behind each of its exemplars. Thus the history of India behind and leading up to the remarkable era from the appearance of the Upanishads to the birth of Buddhism is difficult to reconstruct. And yet the basic outline of the Axial phenomenon is clear. And the question of what is historical in the Old Testament at first bedevils any simple account of the birth of that remarkable document. China, in turn, while it clearly echoes its parallel cousins, confronts us again with a confusing picture of the period in question. Ironically, then, despite the hopes of religionists for some secular version of the idea of an ‘age of revelation’, the clearest example given to us, the period of the Greek Archaic onward, shows us in detail something quite different, and in many ways far more remarkable: a kind of evolutionary leap or jump to a higher level of civilization, one very well balanced between all the categories of culture.
The notion of the era of Classical Greece as the birth of the secular would at first seem paradoxical. We need not press the point save to note that the birth of philosophy as a critical consciousness sows the seeds of rationalism for the first time. In fact, a balanced view is essential, for the essence of the Greek phenomenon could as well be argued as the last flowering of a strange form of political polytheism, and we should be wary of assigning a modernist label to what we see. But the gestation of philosophical tradition in Greece shows us the first birth of the Enlightenment, as it were, along with the first birth of science, the first Scientific Revolution millennia before the one that centers the transformation to the modern world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The point here is that the Axial phenomenon is clearly connected to a larger set of categories than the merely religious, a point that is clearly indicated in Jaspers’ original description, although he is struggling in the text of his work on the subject to remain without his theological boundaries, and yet to see that something larger is at work than the legacy of Christian historicism. Axial Age Greece was a multidimensional masterpiece whose legacy has ultimately transformed world civilization.
As we look beyond the pointillistic sprinkling of great minds in the Axial interval and examine the question of what happened to the culture as a whole we begin to see that there is a kind of transition in a cultural totality leading to a new and more advanced stage of civilization. The Greek phenomenon thus crystallizes as new cultural substrate in its Dark Age, then begins a kind of take-off in the Archaic period beginning in the eighth and ninth centuries. We see a field of city-states emerge in a spectrum of political experiments, as dramas of class struggle and republicanism yield finally to the first great democracy in world history in the case of Athens. Pervading this general tide of sociological rebirth is the manifold of cultural achievements that we associate with the classical era, from the creation of the Homeric epics from an oral tradition, with a great flowering of poetic art climaxing in the birth of the Greek tragic genre. We see the birth of philosophy, and science, and, indeed, the birth of historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, and others. The entire account of the Greek achievement here is then something far larger than the individuals that make it up and constitutes a kind of eerie time-slice of creative upheaval, one as remarkable in swiftly coming to a close as in the suddenness of its arising.
In fact the dates suggested by Jaspers for his ‘Axial Age’, -800 to -200 seem overly generous, for we can see, if we take the example of Greece as a defining instance, that the interval of great innovations is essentially over by -400, and that the onset of the Hellenistic period is of a quite different character. This is clear from the way the great experiment in democracy yields to the resurgence of empire in the conquests of Alexander the Great whose legacy is to create a larger oikoumene into which the achievements of Greek civilization diffuse. We thus are confronted with an interval of the Greek Axial Age that almost suggests a kind of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, to use the phrase of the evolutionists, for we can almost clock the ‘punctuation’ in the brief period from the late ninth century to the generation of Plato and Aristotle, followed swiftly by the seeming ‘equilibrium’ period in its wake as history seems to resume its less spectacular course.
While many who have attempted to grapple with Jaspers’ framework of an Axial Age have narrowed their focus to the issue of religion, we can begin to suspect, to the contrary, that the case of Greece suggests something broader. And if we take to heart the case of Archaic Greece, and look at the emergence of Israel, we begin to see an analogous period of social transformation that just so happened to produce the seeds of what was later to become a series of monotheistic religions. It is important to see that the history of Israel in the Axial period at least is that of a Canaanite culture and its passage through an age of empires, as it creates an epic literature of itself, and leaves this in its wake, as a set of seeds that will, as with the case of Greece, diffuse into a larger oikoumene. We can begin to see the structural similarity between the two histories, and to notice what is most surprising, the way in which whole literatures seem to come into existence in a strange timing, that of the Axial Age itself.
Later we can attempt to grapple with the parallel histories in India and China, but already we seem to have a basic clue: the general stream of historical emergence is punctuated with a set of innovations that pass into the larger field of history to influence a later oikoumene. The effect is obvious in both China and India, where a close look might also resolve the two harsh contrast between the religious and the secular. For the effect as a whole shows clearly the way in which categories are fluid, as philosophy becomes religion, and religion becomes politics, and politics becomes ‘sacred’. From Confucius to the prophets of Israel, to the philosophers of Greece and India, we sense of continuous spectrum of realization that is in a most spectacular display of historical dynamics producing a new whole new epoch of civilization in its wake, as this takes the form of a series of reborn ‘civilizations’.

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