A Different Turning Point for Mankind?

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Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution/Gift of Charles Lang Freer/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Confucius and Buddha Cradling a Qilin,’ Ming Dynasty (left), and Gustave Doré: Isaiah, 1865 (right)

Reflecting on human history over the previous millennia, a few European thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries noticed a surprising conjunction. Many of the world’s most influential figures—Confucius, Buddha, the prophets of Israel (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zoroaster all emerged in their respective nations—China, India, Judaea, Greece, and Iran—in the middle of the first millennium BC, roughly between 800 and 200 BC. Although more recent scholarship has tended to move Zoroaster out of this chronological frame back into an earlier one, the coincidence remains impressive. The French Iranist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron in the late eighteenth century may have been the first to draw attention to it, and a German philosopher, Ernst von Lasaulx, subsequently expanded on it in a dense but little-known work of 1856 under the bizarre title A New Attempt at an Old Philosophy of History Based on the Truth of Facts. While stressing empirical analysis, von Lasaulx conspicuously privileged religion and argued for organic growth and decay in world history.

In Europe at this time the great turning point in the history of mankind was generally agreed to be the earthly appearance of Jesus Christ, who quite clearly did not arrive simultaneously with the magisterial figures of the mid-first millennium BC. Hegel went so far as to assert that the idea of the trinity of God was the pivot on which the history of the whole world turns—both its starting point and its goal. The centrality of Christ in history, or at least Western history, impelled the classical historian Johann Gustav Droysen to compose a very long narrative, beginning with Alexander the Great, that would trace Greek and Near Eastern events that led inexorably, as he believed, to Christianity. His work on what he called Hellenismus, which today we often call Hellenistic culture, gave a new momentum to studies of early Christianity, but he was oblivious of the intriguing coincidence of Confucius, Socrates, Buddha, and their expositors.

Meanwhile, in a world conceptually if not physically apart, Muslims had long before inaugurated their own historical time with the migration (hijra) of Muhammad to Medina in 622, and that date remains to this day the great turning point for Islamic historiography. None of the historians in China, India, or Iran seems ever to have noticed that the careers of their ancient leaders and thinkers occurred in the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or the Hebrew prophets. Drawing attention to this chronological oddity was an entirely Western enterprise that may have gained a certain traction from German Romanticism by invoking exotic peoples and places. But even in the West it had limited currency because the beginning of Christianity remained the immovable turning point in human history.

All this changed after World War II, when a German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, published in 1949 …

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