Axial age

Axial age

German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the axial age ("Achsenzeit" in the German language original) to describe the period from 800 BC to 200 BC, during which, according to Jaspers, similarly revolutionary thinking appeared in China, India and the Occident. The period is also sometimes referred to as the axis age.cite web | author=Mickolichek, Lindsay | year=2005 | title=The Axis Age | format=PDF | work=EDMT380.001 | url= | accessdate=2006-06-14]

Jaspers, in his "Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte" ("The Origin and Goal of History"), identified a number of key axial age thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophy and religion, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive inter-communication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China. Jaspers held up this age as unique, and one to which the rest of the history of human thought might be compared. Jaspers' approach to the culture of the middle of the first millennium BC has been adopted by other scholars and academics, and has become a point of discussion in the history of religion.

A Pivotal Age

Jaspers argued that during the axial age "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently... And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today".cite book | first=Karl | last=Jaspers | authorlink=Karl Jaspers | year=1951 | title=Way to Wisdom | pages=99-100 as quoted in cite web | author=Norfleet, Phil | title=The Axial Age of Karl Jaspers | work=Great Minds| url= | accessdate=2006-06-14] These foundations were laid by individual thinkers within a framework of a changing social environment.

Thinkers and movements

Jaspers' axial shifts included the rise of Platonism, which would later become a major influence on the Western world through both Christian and secular thought throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Buddhism, another of the world's most influential philosophies, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, who lived during this period. In China, Confucianism arose during this era, where it remains a profound influence on social and religious life. Zoroastrianism, another of Jaspers' examples, is crucial to the development of monotheismcite book|last=Boyce|first=Mary|authorlink=Mary Boyce|title=Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices|publisher=Routledge|location=London|year=1979|id=ISBN 0-415-23903-6] -- although Jaspers uses the Seleucid-era estimate for the founding of Zoroastrianism, which is actually the date of Cyrus' unification of Persia, and Zoroastrianism itself is significantly older.cite book|last=Boyce|first=Mary|authorlink=Mary Boyce|title=Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices|publisher=Routledge|location=London|year=1979|id=ISBN 0-415-23903-6]

Jaspers also included the authors of the Upanishads, Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Thucydides, Archimedes, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah as axial figures. Jaspers held Socrates, Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama in especially high regard, describing them as exemplary human beings, or as a "paradigmatic personality".cite book|last=Jaspers|first=Karl|authorlink=Karl Jaspers|others=Hannah Arendt, trans.|title=The Great Philosophers: The Foundations|publisher=Ralph Manheim|location=London|year=1962|pages=99-105 cited in cite book | first=Karen | last=Armstrong | authorlink=Karen Armstrong | year=2006 | title=The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions | edition=First edition | publisher=Knopf | location=New York | id=ISBN 0-676-97465-1 |pages=287 ]

Characteristics of the axial age

Jaspers described the axial age as "an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness".Jaspers, 1953, p.51 quoted in Armstrong, p. 367] Jaspers was particularly interested in the similarities in circumstance and thought of the Age's figures. These similarities included an engagement in the quest for human meaningcite book | last=Neville | first=Robert Cummings | title=Religion in Late Modernity
url= | year=2002 | publisher=SUNY Press | id=ISBN 0-7914-5424-X | pages=104
] and the rise of a new elite class of religious leaders and thinkers in China, India and the Occident.cite book | last=Eisenstadt | first=S. N. | authorlink=Shmuel Eisenstadt | title=The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations
year=1986 | publisher=SUNY Press | id=ISBN 0-88706-094-3 | pages=1-2 | chapter=Introduction | chapterurl=
] The three regions all gave birth to, and then institutionalised, a tradition of travelling scholars, who roamed from city to city to exchange ideas. These scholars were largely from extant religious traditions; in China, Confucianism and Taoism; in India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism; in the Occident, the religion of Zoroaster; in Canaan, Judaism; and in Greece, sophism and other classical philosophy.

Jaspers argues that these characteristics appeared under the same sociological circumstances: China, India and the Occident each comprised multiple small states engaged in internal and external struggles.

The term and the theory

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".

German sociologist Max Weber played an important role in Jaspers' thinking.cite web | year=2006 | title=Karl Jaspers | work=Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy | url= | accessdate=2006-06-14] cite book | first=Arpad | last=Szakolczai | year=2003 | title=The Genesis of Modernity | edition=First edition hardcover | publisher=Routledge | location=UK | id=ISBN 0-415-25305-5 | pages=80-81 | url=] cite book | first=Arpad | last=Szakolczai | year=2006 | title=Encyclopedia of Social Theory | chapter=Historical sociology | publisher=Routledge | location=UK | id=ISBN 0-415-29046-5 | pages=251|chapterurl= ] Shmuel Eisenstadt argues in the introduction to "The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations" that Max Weber's work in his ', ' and "Ancient Judaism" provided a background for the importance of the period, and notes parallels with Eric Voegelin's "Order and History". Wider acknowledgement of Jaspers' work came after he presented it at a conference and published it in "Dædalus" in 1975, and Jaspers' suggestion that the period was uniquely transformative and generated important discussion amongst other scholars, such as Johann Arnason.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong explored the period in her "The Great Transformation",cite book | first=Karen | last=Armstrong | authorlink=Karen Armstrong | year=2006 | title=The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions | edition=First edition | publisher=Knopf | location=New York | id=ISBN 0-676-97465-1 ] and the theory has been the focus of academic conferences.cite web | author=Strath, Bo | year=2005 | title=Axial Transformations | url= | accessdate=2006-06-14] Usage of the term has expanded beyond Jaspers' original formulation. Armstrong argues that the Enlightenment was a "Second Axial Age", including thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein,Armstrong, p.356] and that religion today needs to return to the transformative Axial insights.Armstrong, pp.390-399] In contrast, it has been suggested that the modern era is a new axial age, wherein traditional relationships between religion, secularity and traditional thought are changing.cite journal | author=Yves Lambert | title= Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms? | journal=Sociology of Religion | year=1999 | volume=60 | issue= | pages= 303|url= | doi= 10.2307/3711939 ]

Further reading

* Shmuel Eisenstadt (1982). The Axial Age: The Emergence of Transcendental Visions and the Rise of Clerics. "European Journal of Sociology" 23(2):294–314.
* Rodney Stark (2007). Discovering God: A New Look at the Origins of the Great Religions. NY: HarperOne.
* Gore Vidal (1981). "Creation". NY: Random House. A novel narrated by the fictional grandson of Zoroaster in 445 BC, describing encounters with the central figures of the Axial Age during his travels.

Notes and references

* Jaspers, Karl; Bullock, Michael (Tr.) (1953). "The Origin and Goal of History" (1st English ed.). London: Routledge and Keegan Paul. LCCN 53001441. Originally published as Jaspers, Karl (1949). "Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte" (1st ed.). München: Piper Verlag. LCCN 49057321.

External links

* [ Religions Timeline] - Sacred-Texts timeline
* [ The Axial Age and Its Consequences] - A 2008 conference in Erfurt, Germany

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