I got a book in the mail today, ‘Religion In Human Evolution‘. I should say a tome, it’s pretty hefty. The cover had a word I didn’t understand on it, but an interesting one. Axial, as in Axial Age. The subheading of the book is ‘From The Paleolithic To The Axial Age’. So what does axial mean? Age of the axe?
The Pivotal Age
OK, axial itself is basically a pivot, or an imaginary line along which something rotates. The Axial Age is a fairly trippy concept advanced by German philosopher Karl Jaspers that there was a period in history (between 800 and 200 BC) after which human thought underwent a profound revolution. Note that this is before the major Abrahamic prophets (Jesus, Mohammed) and, indeed, before year zero in modern ‘history’.
Fear Of A Brown Planet
What Jaspers argued was that “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.”
This is a pretty revolutionary concept in itself. What ‘we’ call history is largely western, largely written, and – while it has Greece as a starting point – is largely interpreted through Roman months, and Christian time. I once had philosophy professor ask me what India had ever contributed to civilization. I was shocked but couldn’t think of anything, because I hadn’t learned anything.
What Jaspers seemed to say was that revolutionary ideas emerged almost simultaneously across the world (except in South America, where that prof was from), and that India was no slouch.
The thinkers he cites include Plato types in Greece, which is essentially where western history ends its citations. However, Jaspers also cites Jain thinkers and the Buddha (India), Confucius (China), and Zoroaster (Iran). These characters are usually included only as historical footnotes, but Jasper says that they were actually pivotal. Giants if you will, upon whose shoulders we all stand.
A Disjointed Revolution
The revolutionary ideas here were – if I may ignorantly paraphrase – basic reason and logic from Greece, social ethics from China, personal ethics (non-violence, asceticism) from India, and monotheism from Iran. At the core of ideas is the idea that humans can master their own destiny in a systematic way. Somewhere along the way, though, eastern revolutions were subsumed, which I think led to a western culture that’s missing something fairly substantial (and eastern cultures that have also forgot).
In the western, rational education I got, I’d always thought that social and personal ethics came from logic and rationality (I could have been wrong). What the axial age suggests is that these ideas came at the same time, and that my education was sorely lacking in Chinese social values, Indian moral values and a broader perspective of monotheism in the Middle East.
Anyways, that’s the word of the day, axial, pivotal, as in the Axial Age.
The word axial in the phrase axial age means pivotal. The name comes from Jaspers’ use of the German word Achse, which means both “axis” and “pivot”. (Ze Wiki)