Almost as remarkable as the sudden onset of the Axial Age is its sudden waning and the return of what we should almost call ‘history as usual’. There is something odd about it. The world against which the Axial phenomenon reacts was itself a kind of middle age. And the succession to the Axial period is another. We are left to wonder what the significance of the Axial Age might be. And most of all we are confronted with a question of dynamics.
And we are confronted with something unlikely: the uniqueness of this period. Jaspers’ use of the term ‘axial’ is ambiguous in that respect. It seems to point to a unique period in history, a pivot point. But a larger look at world history suggests something quite different, a succession of ‘axial’ periods. We have but to zoom out to see that a very simple pattern is at work in the progression of civilizations since the Neolithic. Jaspers himself attempts to generalize his finding, but is obstructed by the issue of ‘civilizations’. And his examination of modernity is on the threshold of discovering a ‘second axial age’, but is thrown off the scent by the confusions of secularism.
It is odd at first to consider the solution to be a frequency hypothesis, but, whatever the case, the basic facts speak for themselves: the Axial Age is part of a larger sequential structure. We should start moving in two directions, backward toward the Neolithic and forward toward the present. The ‘axial’ character of modernity is often noticed. Thus Bruce Mazlish observes, “The German philosopher Karl Jaspers has spoken of the periods when the great religions arose as ‘axial periods’. At such times, there is a ‘revolution’ in the conditions of human existence and society turns on its axis.”
Postmodern riddle explained? All at once, if we can trust the analogy, we see why the sense of a ‘postmodern’ age arises: it is not the decline of a civilization, but the waning of an impetus, clearly visible after the Axial interval, that mimics ‘decline’. Out postmodern confusion is a similar reaction to the immense impetus of the rise of the modern.
We should begin to backtrack to find the ‘axial’ before the ‘Axial’. Joseph Campbell finds an axial period at the dawn of Sumer. The Sumerian source is easy to underestimate. It looks primitive to us now, but its immediacy of creative surging gives birth to ‘real civilization’ in the odd ‘early hybrid modern’ where the village passes to the large city-complex. Its effect must have been as seminal as the later Greek transitional era to those who received its influences. It is as if everything was invented all at once, in embryo, to constitute the root-ideas of coming civilization. Thus,
In the epoch of the hieratic city-state (3500-2500 B.C.), the basic cultural traits of all the high civilizations that have flourished since (writing, the wheel, the calendar, mathematics, royalty, priest craft, a system of taxation, bookkeeping, etc.) suddenly appear, prehistory ends, and the literate era dawns. The whole city now, and not simply the temple compound, is conceived of as an imitation on earth of the cosmic order, while a highly differentiated, complexly organized society of specialist, comprising priestly, warrior, merchant, and peasant classes, is found governing all its secular as well as specifically religious affairs according to an astronomically inspired mathematical conception of a sort of magical consonance uniting in perfect harmony the universe.
We note the obvious similarity of this statement to Jaspers’ observation of the later ‘Axial’ Age. Describing the swift transition from the era of earliest Egypt, Michael Hoffman, in Predynastic Egypt, is driven in some puzzlement to adopt the economic take-off idea of the economist W. W. Rostow as a metaphor to account for the sudden change that produces the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the Pharaoh Menes:
The immediate archaeological problem in explaining the cultural identity of Menes and his state is to account for the sudden embarrassment of riches that characterizes the material culture of Egypt between the Late Gerzean (ca. 3300 BC) and Archaic period (ca. 3100-2700 BC) in terms of a sophisticated, multifaceted explanation. Professor Renfrew borrows the term ‘take-off point’ from the economist Walter Rostow to characterize the rise of civilization and the proliferation of certain types of artifacts. Over the years a number of propensities develop within a social system, which predisposes it to a really major transformation. When that transformation does occur, it is so thorough as to convey the impression of crossing a critical threshold.
Remarkable, to say the least. What about Mesopotamia? In Prehistoric Europe, Philip Van Doren Stern wrestles explicitly with the evolution/revolution paradox and observes the sudden jump to the first level of civilization in the first hydraulic world of Mesopotamia as it emerged from its mysterious roots of it in the era of the so-called Ubaid and before:
Something happened in Sumer during the fifth millennium B.C., when all the rest of the world was still so primitive that the Sumerians had to make their own way. The initial stages proceeded slowly for a thousand years or more, and then, during the five centuries between 3300 and 2800 B.C., culture accelerated so rapidly that in this brief time villages became cities and cities grew into city-states…Roux[Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, London. 1964,] merely says of this extraordinarily rapid cultural development in Sumer that ‘a close examination reveals no drastic changes in social organization, no real break in architectural or in religious traditions. We are confronted here, not with sudden revolution, but with the final term of an evolution which had started in Mesopotamia itself several centuries before.’ Perhaps. But perhaps he is applying our modern time scale to an age when centuries were equivalent to our decades. For a village to become a city in a few hundred years when there had never been a city anywhere before, is, to put it mildly, something more than ordinary evolution.
Again, remarkable. And this statement suggests we can keep on going backward to find a still earlier case, but for the moment we have discovered something very simple, and a resolution, to some extent, of the riddle of the Axial Age, it is but one in a series. There is one last piece to our puzzle, the rise of the modern. Having moved backwards toward the beginning of civilization, we can move forward from the Axial period.
The sudden waning of the Axial effect, as we have noted, is dramatic. By -200 the Axial phenomenon is clearly over, and the onset of empire seems like a rush into a vacuum, to replace a brief period of republican experiments. The onset of the Hellenistic world of empire is almost a return to the world whence the Greek experiment hopes to escape. In the case of Greece the period of spectacular achievements is over as the Hellenistic, soon yielding to the Roman world ushers in the age of great empires. It is interesting to consider the cognate relation of the Greeks and the Romans, and to consider that the early appearance of Rome and its republic is really a part of the Greek phenomenon. As we study the Greeks we note the way in which their common culture was a function of language and custom, and that this was in turn a medium binding a set of city states and their colonies across the Mediterranean, including the southern part of Italy. Was not Rome, in a sense, a child of that nexus of all things Greek, as the diffusion of ideas and the vague sense of a new age animated those in the immediate field of Hellenic influence?
Thus, the emergence of Republican Rome is really still another branch of our far-flung Axial Age, and the appearance of the Roman Republic is the cousin to the surge of republican experiments in the age of Greek political innovations, and the uniquely prophetic creation of the world’s first democracy in Greece. There is something significant in the brevity of the Athenian experiment, and the endurance of the Roman. The Athenians will leave a hope for the future, not to be realized until millennia later, in the rise of the modern world. The Romans will carry the issue in its sturdy republican form until the onset of its imperial phases precipitates finally the breakdown of its phase in Axial swaddling clothes and the age of the Caesars begins, enduring all the way into the medieval period.
There is something odd about our use of the term ‘middle ages’. We spontaneously consider that the era after the fall of Rome is the middle of something. In fact, it is in the middle between the Axial Age, as a boundary point, with its associated Roman continuation, and the rise of the modern world millennia later. This ‘medieval period’ suffers a charge against its reputation in our minds, then, one frequently protested by various parties to its defense, in the way we see it as in some fashion not up to the standard of either its Axial beginning point or its modern recurrence. Whether this downplaying of the medieval interval is fair or not, the fact remains that our very terminology reflects a larger pattern of history, and on a scale that goes far toward explaining why a pattern of overall coherence is hard for us to detect. For until the rise of modern archaeology the beginnings of our traditions seemed to be those visible in the Axial period. The intimations of unknown earlier acts of the play are seen in the unexplained appearance in Biblical history of the Egyptians, or Assyrians, lurking in the background as remnants of some unknown world thought to be passing away.
This effect of relative beginning in what we have dubbed the ‘Axial Age’ seems then to suggest a complete unit, of ‘punctuation’ and the ‘equilibrium’ that follows in its middle period, until what is apparently another punctuation occurs, and this we call the rise of the modern world. We are getting suspicious. If the Axial Age is a kind of new beginning inside a larger history, its uniqueness would seem to have been the result of our lack of knowledge of earlier civilizations. But this lack of knowledge about the earlier stages of civilization is no longer the case: the rise of archaeology has shown us the antecedents for the mysterious Assyrians and Egyptians who appear in the Biblical text. And as we proceed backwards we are left to wonder if some antecedent ‘Axial’ period is not visible in the historical image crystallizing in archaeological fixer. We already know the answer, if indeed we are aware of any of the findings of modern archaeology, which show us the so-called rise of civilization at the end of the fourth millennium in strangely synchronous emergence of Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations. Strange to say, we can even produce a rough interval between these moments, of just over two millennia.
The dynamism of the Axial period, its seminal creativity, seems to fret an entire an entire cycle of civilizations, and is unmatched by anything until the rise of the modern world. What is remarkable is the loss of so many of the innovations of the Axial period, a notable example being the birth of science, and its slow passing away with time, such that by time of the medieval period, in the Christian West, its birth among the Greeks is almost a forgotten memory. Its partial survival in the world of Islam is like an ember fire carried across time.
And then suddenly in the sixteenth century we see once again, almost like a timed renewal, what is in many ways a recursion of many of the innovations of the Axial period, with some important differences. The parallel transformations of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, Copernicus and Luther, stand at the threshold of the modern transformation leading to the rough point, around 1800, when a transition to a new era seems complete, and a new age begins, at the threshold of globalization. The phenomenon of the rise of modernity is the object of many theories and controversies, but the basic observations of the phenomenon resemble the exclamations we find with the Axial Age.
There is a mysterious seminal generation springing from the period ca. 1500, indicated by the onset of the Reformation. Over and over our sense of historical modernism draws us to this point of the so-called ‘early modern’, and into a controversy or equivocation over its significance as one of the great turning points of history. Relative to world history, progress explodes in the sixteenth century, despite the puzzle over the Renaissance. The abrupt start after 1500 is constantly suggested and then challenged or retracted because its proponents cannot account for it, or sort out the fact that a discontinuity might interrupt prior continuity.
This sudden change in direction is reflected in the puzzled observations of a host of historians. J. M. Roberts in his History of the World opens by noting, “After 1500 or so, there are many signs that a new age of world history is beginning…”. William MacNeill, in his The Rise of the West, calls the career of Western civilization since 1500 a vast explosion. Geoffrey Barraclough, in Turning Points in World History, notes the remark of Paul Valery that Europe is a ‘peninsula of Asia’, a western appendix of the Eurasian land mass, and asks, “How was it that this western appendix came to be in a position to exercise this power, this domination over the greater part of the world?” He cites the factors of technological and scientific proficiency, the revolution in transport and communications, that ‘caused’ this brief hegemony, but in a manner typical of historians stumbling over the eonic effect is driven to note, “So much, I think, is obvious; but it tells us very little”.
Marshall Hodgson, in The Venture of Islam, speaks of the Western Transmutation, 1600 to 1800, and sees the connection with the earlier period, generated from Sumer, but his analysis focuses on the history of technology, and fast-forwards to exclude the Reformation.
What happened can be compared with the first advent several thousand years BC of that combination, among the dominant elements of certain societies, of urban living, literacy, and generally complex social and cultural organization, which we call civilization.
Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence asks, “Granted for the sake of argument that ‘our culture’ may be ending, why the slice of 500 years [from 1500 to the present]? What makes it a unity? The starting date 1500 follows usage: textbooks from time immemorial have called it the beginning of the Modern Era.” There is no implication of decline or decadence after the interval of transition, since a new era has come into being. The conclusion of the eonic sequence should be great new beginning.
This sudden take-off (relative to world history) has always been intractable for students of the question, and driven historical sociology into a frenzy of Renaissance resurrections, dialectical Big Bumps, Marxist social stages, Weberian econo-religious explanations, or the ‘European Miracle of the historian E. L. Jones.
As noted, the periodization question of the ‘rise of modern’ has many casualties in the realm of theories. Three sets of failed theories deal with these eras in isolation, those of the rise of the modern, the birth of civilization, and, to the extent they exist at all, efforts to explain the Axial period, along with the whole spectrum of interpretations of the classical civilizations, to say nothing of explaining the history indicated in the Old Testament. Without exception these theories have all failed. Suddenly we realize they are really all asking a similar set of questions about an invariant puzzle. The question of the ‘modern’ remains baffling until we see it in its greater context. Then the remarkable resemblance of the rise of the modern to the Axial interval, and especially Greek Archaic appears.
We are closing in on a pattern of universal history, at once simple, and mysterious, and clearly showing us the principle of coherence we were seeking in our perception of world history. And we are close to the resolution of the riddle of modernity, and to a perspective on the way it might suddenly show chaotification. We seem to be, not in the stages of the postmodern, but in the early stages of a great new era of world history, after passing through the transitional period of its onset. And as we explore this larger framework we can attempt to redefine the modern in a fashion more conducive to the needs of our future, beyond the domination of economic fundamentalism, or the imposition of false views of evolution on the outcome of something larger than Social Darwinist paranoia and environmental degradation. We begin to see the clue to better resolution than the return to traditionalism.
Democratic Revolutions One of the most mysterious aspects of our new perspective is the double birth of democracy, in classical Greece and the modern transition. This exact correlation is one of the most remarkable discoveries of careful periodization, and leaves us to wonder what it means.
As we examine this ‘ratchet effect’, the pattern confuses us because it does not follow the course of a single civilization, but jumps between civilizations as it proceeds. The question of the rise of the modern world also shows the displacement of change beyond the frontiers of the old Roman Empire into those parts of Europe that were only marginally a part of the ancient Roman system. We observe the Reformation, and see a religious phenomenon, but we might look beyond religion to see the opening of a new field of culture free from and at the exterior to the system of antiquity. In fact, we begin to sense another instance of the frontier phenomenon that we noted in the Greek Axial Age. This is in many ways the signature of this age of renewal, as it expands beyond the framework of antiquity, first to Northern Europe, thence to the Americas, and beyond. We must begin to wonder if the phenomenon we are trying to understand is not a globalization process more than a phenomenon of civilizations.
Our sense of modernity has been confounded by a false Eurocentrism, but we can begin to see beyond that. The constant references to ‘Western Civilization’, or the ‘West’, or the Judaeo-Christian heritage, in a series of Eurocentric terms, blinds us to the reality, which is that the rise of the modern is not a European phenomenon, as such, and finds its field of realization almost sooner in its exterior than in its homeland. The obvious picture left by history here is the temporal correlation of the spread of European, we should rather say, Eurasian, civilization to the Americas. It is hardly accidental that the North American colonies beginning in the seventeenth century already show the seeds sown by the English Civil War that will grow later in the classic harbinger of a new era dawning, the American Revolution.
There is obvious something larger than Europe then in the modern transformation and the result is the birth as much of a new global civilization as the passage of a cultural particularity called the European. The same interval of sudden change, followed by the creation of an oikoumene in the diffusion from a source, is visible in the modern world as it was in the Axial Age of Greeks. And a comparison of the two leaves us with a set of unanswered questions about the nature of historical change, and the more general issue of slow or fast evolution. We seem to see, or think we see, the slow evolution of modernity from a medieval world. But it resembles very closely the Greek Axial interval, and there we were left hanging with such explanations. There wasn’t anything at all slow about the Greek Miracle. In a few centuries it emerged from nothing, flowered in spectacular fashion, and was done. The sense of a resemblance with the modern transformation begins to suggest a new and different kind of explanation for the rise of the world we have inherited from the early moderns.