What was the axial age?

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The Axial Era was a period in world history. It’s called the “Axial Age” because it was a pivotal time, a turning point on an axis, in religion and philosophy. The oldest of our great world religions became what it is today in the Axial Age. The first of the great philosophers whose work still shapes civilization lived in the Axial Age.

The expression “Axial Age” was coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), in his book Vom Ursprung and Ziel der Geschichte (The origin and purpose of the story), published in 1949. Jaspers argued that such an axial age must involve all of humanity and must be “that point in history when man first discovered the notion of himself that he has since made”.

A turning point

“One such historical axis, or turning point, seems to be in the years around 500 BCE, in the intellectual development that took place between 800 and 200 BCE,” Jaspers wrote. “This is, it seems to me, the most crucial turning point in history; it was then that the man as he is today was born. For the sake of brevity, let’s call this period “the axial age”.

I recognize that the axial age theory is not really comprehensive. It mainly focuses on Asia and the Mediterranean civilizations of the time, especially Greece. Also, the dates given for it are a bit fluid. Sometimes it is between 900 and 300 BCE; sometimes 800 to 200 BCE; and sometimes it focuses more narrowly on 500–300 BCE.

And I agree that the Axial Age was trendier a few years ago than it is now. Some academics have dismissed it as being too “courteous”. It was claimed to represent a kind of spontaneous expansion of consciousness in the human species. But let’s put that aside and look at what happened in the Axial Age.

What happened at the axial age?

It was a time when humans were becoming more analytical and reflective. Around the same time, while scattered over vast distances, remarkable individuals ushered in the beginnings of philosophy and science. The ideals of compassion and universal love emerged first.

It is a remarkable thing that so many giants of human civilization lived around the same time. Confucius of China and Gautama Buddha of India both lived, we believe, between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Laozi, author of the classic Daode jing (Tao te Ching), would have been a contemporary of Confucius. The early Greek philosophers Xenophanes, Heraclitus and Democritus were also alive during this same time. Socrates was born in the 5th century BCE and died early in the 4th.

It was also a time when older religious traditions, including Judaism and Hinduism, underwent significant changes. For example, earlier Judaism was not truly monotheistic; the God of Judaism was one god among many others. Historians tell us that true monotheism, the proposition that there is only one God, emerged around the 6th century BCE.

Take Vedanta, for example

An example of axial offset: In the 1st thousand years before our era, the tradition that we now call Hinduism entered a phase called “Vedanta”, which means “end of the Vedas”. The Vedas are the earliest scriptures of Hinduism. The oldest, the Rig Veda, dates from at least 1200 BCE and may be much older. But in the 1st millennium BC, new scriptures emerged called the Upanishads. The main Upanishads are believed to have been composed between 800 and 300 BCE.

Why is this important? The Vedas are primarily concerned with correct ritual and propitiation from the gods. This was important to ensure blessings instead of disaster if the gods were displeased. The Upanishads, however, show their authors reflecting deeply on reality beyond rituals, and asking questions that we still ask ourselves today. What is the basic nature of existence? What is the fundamental nature of the self? And what is the relationship of an individual being to the vast unknowable cosmos?

Hinduism as we know it today was very much shaped by the Upanishads as well as the epic poems of the Ramayana (c. 300 BCE) and the Mahabharata, which includes the exquisite Bhagavad Gita (c. 3rd-2nd century before our era), one of the jewels of world religious literature. These poems reflect and expand on many of the teachings presented in the Upanishads.

New ideas about morality

The answers offered by the distant thinkers of the Axial Age were not necessarily identical, especially with regard to the physical world. But one change that emerged in many different places was a change in the way people thought about morality. Earlier codes of morality – for example the Ten Commandments, traditionally dated to 1300 BCE – emphasized obedience to particular rules. The writers and thinkers of the axial age for the first time stressed the importance of compassion. Rules and rituals were always important, but so are humanity and kindness.

For example, Confucius taught that the five qualities of a good person are benevolence, righteousness, ritual propriety, wisdom, and reliability. The Buddha emphasized four sublime virtues – compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy (joy for the good fortune of others; sometimes this is shortened to “empathy”) and equanimity, avoiding extremes and remaining balanced in the midst of difficulties. Cultivating these qualities, integrating them into yourself, took ideas about morality beyond simple obedience to rules.

There was also a new emphasis on self-discipline in the Axial Age. People had recognized that complacency, wealth and power can cast shadows. Greed is not good if it causes others to go without. Virtues like kindness, generosity, and moderation are qualities that enable people to live together harmoniously and create lasting communities.

The golden rule

Most Axial Age religions and philosophies offered a variant of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated. A variant of the Golden Rule found in the Torah – “Love your neighbor as yourself”, Leviticus 19:18 – may be older than the Axial Age. Leviticus describes events dating back to the 14th century BCE, and parts of it could be that old. But scholars today say it reached its present form during the Persian period, from 538 to 332 BCE.

It’s not always phrased the same way, but the basic tenet of the Golden Rule seems to have become nearly universal during the Axial Age or immediately after. It is found in the Confucius Talks. It is stated in several different ways in the early Buddhist scriptures. It is in the Daode jing of Taoism and the Mahabharata of Hinduism. Thales of Greece (c. 624-546 BC) said: “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.

How did it happen?

It is sometimes claimed that these commonalities have arisen because all religions come from the same common source, an ur-religion of unknowable antiquity. But if that were the case, we would have seen all these commonalities much earlier, at least in the Bronze Age (about 3300 to 1200 BCE), a period that has left enough traces. Instead, we see them springing up spontaneously in many different places, all around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE.

It is probably the case that the ancients traveled more than we realize. It is not impossible that there were Axial Age contacts between India and China of which we are not aware. Historians propose that there were trade routes between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan as early as 3000 BCE.

But as far as I know, extensive cross-pollination between distant Old World cultures was not so common until Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) charged across Asia, leaving a band of Hellenic civilization in its wake. The edicts of Ashoka of India, who reigned from 268 to 232 BCE, have been found as far west as Kandahar, Afghanistan, written in Greek. The Silk Road trade began in 130 BCE and over time there was an extensive network of trade routes linking China to the Roman Empire. There were places in Central Asia, ca. 200 BCE until the first centuries of the 1st millennium CE, where Greek, Persian and Indian cultures intermingled.

But that was after the end of the Axial Age. So we can’t say for sure why it happened, just that it happened.

Statue of Confucius in a Confucian temple in Shanghai. Source: Photo 17485738 / Confucius © Typhoonski | Dreamstime.com


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