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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.
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on 2 September 2007
In the Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong traces the origins and development of spiritual thought during the Axial Age. The Axial Age was a period between approximately 900 - 200 BC, in which new philosophical and religious concepts emerged in four disparate regions - namely China, India, Israel and Greece - and which still have a lasting impact on our world today.

Armstrong does an admirable job of expounding the political and social situations of the period, and how they eventually developed into the new schools of thought. Although the situations in the four regions are highly different, they share some striking similarities as well. The Axial Age was a very violent and unstable period, and the new schools of thought are all arisen from the same basic need for a better life, in which compassion, understanding and tolerance all play an important role.

Through all this, Armstrong attempts to impart a valuable lesson which we would do well to heed in our time and age. Instead of focusing on the differences between the different religions, we would do well to remember that these differences evolved out of the very particular needs and situations of the people of that time, but that they ultimately all share the common ideals of compassion, understanding and tolerance. Religious thought should not be dogmatic, but should rather be a guide towards achieving those ideals.

Or to use one of Buddha's metaphors in the book: "In just the same way my teachings are like a raft, to be used to cross the river and not to be held on to."
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on 28 October 2008
Very well-written, and it flows past as you read it very nicely. The four stars come mainly from that, and from the courage even to tackle so vast a subject. However its interest comes more from seeing what Karen Armstrong's view is, rather than on the content of what she says as such. She covers a vast range of material and history, but regarding the areas about which I know a little, her views are often highly idiosyncratic.

For example, she spends a long time discussing Sparta as a model of Greek cities, whereas Sparta was almost as exceptional in Greece as it was of any other society past or present. Her idea that justice became completely arbitrary under Athenian democracy is also an extremely exceptional view. She emphasises the role of slavery in Greece, without mentioning that Persia, India and China, with which she is making a comparison, had much greater slavery and less freedom.

Similarly, stating as a fact that Laozi wanted to use contradictions as a way of inducing people use mystical insight rather than rational logic, is also another oddity. There are many more conventional ways of taking Laozi and it would have been better if she at least mentioned other approaches.

Most illuminating of all is her view that Mohammad was the "last flowering of the Axial age". It is hard to say, given that she has already extended the era 800 years, why she doesn't continue with subsequent thinkers in the tradition, such as al-Hakim or the Sikh gurus or even Bahaiullah or Hazrat Inayat Khan. What is interesting here is the limit she puts on her ecumenicalism. The Axial age sages are recognised by most Muslims as earlier prophets. However, normally, only an orthodox Muslim would consider Mohammad to be the "last".
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on 11 July 2016
A wonderful book. Harder going than some of her others but worth persevering with. she really takes you through all the real spiritual movements, not just the official religions and relates them to the philosophical currents of their times.
Hugely interesting and satisfying.and naturally highly recommended.
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on 20 September 2007
Ms. Armstrong, who spent some time in a convent, started off by writing about Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). These religions are relatively close to each other theologically, and she did a good job. Then she started ranging wider, and turned to the East, writing about Buddhism. In the present book, she adapts a wider view and goes to the origins of the present major faiths, both Eastern and Western.

It would be a wonderful approach, except that it is marred by two fatal flaws: First, Ms. Armstrong is not really familiar with the Eastern traditions, having picked up most of her understanding from English language editions of secondary books. Eastern traditions can not be assimilated from an Encyclopedia or understood through an index. These have to be either lived or learnt at the feet of a master.

Second is her attempt to fit the chronological contours of these faiths to the hourglass of Western time perceptions, and her grand argument about an Axial Age. As a result, we are asked to believe that all the surviving great faiths started in a convenient 700-year period from 900 to 200 BCE. Not because it happened thus, but because it is essential for Ms. Armstrong's thesis.

If you are comfortable with the above, buy the book for its racy text and its grand view. However, take her overall argument with a pinch of salt. Ms. Armstrong is a better entertainer than she is a scholar.
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on 30 December 2014
I just love the way that Karen writes
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on 24 February 2015
very well written and interesting
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on 12 September 2009
No other scholarly work on religion and spirituality can match the insight that Karen Armstrong provides in all her work including her account of the ' great transformation ' when it all began. A must read for all who want to embark on a spiritual journey with an open mind and heart.
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on 22 February 2016
Most valuable book and Karen Armstrong has strong hold on history. Great historian and scholar
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on 24 November 2015
If you are following a Life Path these are the kind of books that you should be reading.
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