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Spiritual insights in the Axial Age
on 9 May 2007
The range of Karen Armstrong's work on the history of religion is becoming ever more ambitious. To her previous works on Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam she has added in this book sections on Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and Greek thought. She examines how thought in China, India, Ancient Greece and the Biblical Middle East became transformed during the Axial Age (the phrase was coined by Karl Jaspers)- the seven hundred years between about 900 BC and 200 BC - from primitive beliefs and practices into the more sophisticated religious and philosophical teachings which laid the intellectual foundations of the following centuries. All this in 400 pages, so it is sometimes a bit of a gallop, especially in the first two chapters (about a fifth of the book) which describe the 800 or so years before the Axial Age begins. After that, when the transformation really gets going, Armstrong allows herself much more space to expound the teachings of the great axial thinkers.
She argues that axial insights were often the result of suffering and that the search for them was born out the experience of the local region being convulsed in unsettling change, in chaos and in violence, the political and economic background of which she provides in rather more detail than I think is really necessary.
The 700 years described as the Axial Period are quite long and have been stretched to this length in order to accommodate processes that happened in different phases and at different speeds within it. Indian thought, for instance, was already becoming quite sophisticated at the beginning of that period, whereas Greek thought matured much later. Armstrong considers `the first phase of the Axial Age of Israel' to have ended with Ezra in the 5th century BC, but to have had a second flowering four hundred years later, outside the limits of the so-called Axial Period, under the rabbinical sages in the first century BC, and then through the teachings of Jesus and of Paul. Even further beyond these chronolgical limits, she sees in Muhammad's message of peace and tolerance (she does not mention his other side) the teachings of the Axial Age being again renewed.
What is interesting is that the insights of the Axial Period emerged from societies that were after all very different from each other. I was struck at least as much by the differences that emerge from her account between the attitudes of the various civilizations as I was by their similarities. For example the fascinating sections on China (fascinating because the material is probably the least familiar to most of the readers of this book) show an approach there which I think is in many ways quite unlike that found in India, Greece or the Middle East, even if at the end some similar insights are reached. Karen Armstrong herself from time to time contrasts, en passant, the views of the axial sages from different civilizations, just as she points up similarities, sometimes ingeniously and illuminatingly so.
The first stage of the transformation was the time when, in the various civilizations, the purpose of rituals changed from doing something for the gods to doing something also for (not necessarily in that order) the community and for the individual who was partaking in the ritual. This involved the new notion that the individual had an inner self that could be transformed. That would lead to a call for introspection and self-knowledge. That in turn created two tasks which are at the heart of the Great Transformation. The first was to set goals for this inner self, some of which were ethical: the elimination of egoism, the Golden Rule that you should not do to others what you would not have done to you, and therefore the cultivation of non-violence, love and compassion. The second task was to devise the means of reaching these goals - in other words the development of spiritual training. All this is superbly, nobly and topically summed up in the last ten pages of the book.
It is this process which Karen Armstrong considers the essence of the Axial Age. 'In Greece' she writes, 'despite some notable contributions to the Axial ideal - especially in the realm of tragedy - there was ultimately no religious transformation'. When Plato and Aristotle deserted the spiritual quest and turned their attention to cultivate pure reason, she recognizes of course that in point of chronology they belong to the Axial Age; but she intimates that, however transformative in their different ways Plato and Aristotle were (as, in a lesser way, were Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics), they departed from what made the Axial Age so valuable to her.
This is not always an easy book to read. Parts of it are wonderfully lucid and carry you along; others are quite heavy going. But hers is a demanding subject, and one must stand in awe of the range of her knowledge and her skill in interpreting her material.