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A Different Turning Point for Mankind?

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 his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (On the Origin and Goal of History) and invented the Achsenzeit (Axial Age) as a designation for the period from 800 to 200 BC. This is the text that underlies all the collected essays in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, the thick volume edited by Robert Bellah and Hans Joas. In 1949 Jaspers looked back nostalgically to a pre-Christian epoch in world history. He readily seized upon the contemporaneity of Confucius, Buddha, the Jewish prophets, Socrates and his disciples, and, in his view, Zoroaster too, to argue that this era was a pivotal moment in world history, an Axial Age. He claimed to have found inspiration in Hegel, although Hegel himself would certainly not have imagined a turning point that would replace the Christian one.

In matters of substance, Jaspers, as he acknowledged in his book, made use of the long neglected work of Ernst von Lasaulx as well as the 1870 commentary of Victor von Strauss on Laozi, the founder of Daoism. Whatever its antecedents, the theory that Jaspers launched with great subtlety and brilliance was very much his own. He explicitly compared what he was doing with the work of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, who identified numerous historical epochs that all had a beginning and an end, eight for Spengler and twenty-one for Toynbee. Jaspers opted for a comprehensive “before and after” approach that would single out a time when human history changed. In the forefront of the change, as he saw it, were philosophers: “Zum erstenmal gab es Philosophen’’ (For the first time there were philosophers). This was presumably not unrelated to the fact that Jaspers himself was a philosopher.

The Bellah-Joas collection of papers on the Axial Age and its consequences is the latest and perhaps most substantial contribution to the discussion that Jaspers started over sixty years ago. Most of the contributions to this volume derive from papers that their authors presented at a conference held at the University of Erfurt in 2008, where, to stimulate discussion, Bellah had provided drafts of the last four chapters of his forthcoming book, Religion in Human Evolution, which was eventually published in 2011. The conclusion of the present volume reproduces material from the final chapter of that book.

The Erfurt conference on the Axial Age was but one of a long series of conferences on this subject over the last three decades. Jaspers’s idea of an Axial Age has been taken up in earnest by sociologists, such as the two editors, but much less by philosophers. The charismatic impresario of most of the conferences, as well as a major participant and arguably the most prolific expositor of Jaspers’s thought, was the late Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt, who devoted himself unremittingly to promoting Jaspers’s hypothesis as an instrument for analyzing global history. As a veteran of two of Eisenstadt’s conferences on the Axial Age, I can confirm that Jaspers’s ideas could bring together historians of antiquity and sociologists in debates that were always exciting and occasionally even fruitful.

As Joas rightly stresses in his introductory chapter, the fundamental characteristic of the Axial Age was the emergence of a transcendental vision in the work of its principal thinkers. Some were prophets, but most were philosophers who were to a greater or lesser extent concerned with divine power and presence. Their vision had an impact on what went on in the real world, or “the mundane sphere” in axial jargon. Earthly politics and morality had to be evaluated and, when necessary, altered by reference to the transcendental vision that the pioneering thinkers had introduced. This is what Eisenstadt called the institutionalization of a transcendental vision.

The Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Eisenstadt involved in several of his discussions, saw this institutionalized transcendentalism as having acted as a catalyst for the analysis and criticism of existing social customs and systems. In Jaspers’s terms, human society itself became an object of reflective analysis, and for him in 1949 there was no sign of this before 800 BC. A transformation of this kind was imagined to have affected morality, politics, and religion. The religious component of transcendental doctrines inevitably dictated innovations and transformations in both theology and ritual. Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism all exhibit the impact of the supposedly axial pioneers.

Obviously this is heady stuff, with a rich potential for high-minded silliness, but it has proven to be a useful way of thinking about the development of ethics, political thought, and religion, particularly among sociologists. Historians, like Momigliano, have occasionally joined the discussion but not led it, and philosophers, with the distinguished exception of Charles Taylor, who is represented in the Bellah-Joas volume, have been conspicuous by their absence. It is wholly understandable that in writing his big book on religion in human evolution, Bellah, an eminent sociologist, would have had recourse to Jaspers’s ideas. But by his own admission he makes use of a neo-Darwinian notion of evolution in the human past, even though this notion does not fit at all comfortably with Jaspers’s postulate of a great turning point or axis. Jaspers’s attribution of this idea to Hegel appears to be a faulty recollection of Hegel’s word “pivot” (Angel)—rather than “axis” (Achse)—to designate a turning point between two entirely different periods of the human past. But for Hegel these periods were, as Jaspers knew perfectly well, pre-Christian and Christian. The idea of a decisive turning point is hardly evocative of Darwinian evolution, and the complete title of Bellah’s book illustrates this incompatibility: Religion in Human Evolution: From the Palaeolithic to the Axial Age. Jaspers’s hypothesis undoubtedly has implications for what happened after the Axial Age—critical reflection, action on the basis of preordained moral or religious concepts—but it is not easy to incorporate it into any evolutionary interpretation of either the pre- or post-axial periods. Bellah ends his book with four chapters on the axial developments in China, India, Greece, and ancient Israel, but he does not carry his evolutionary theory beyond that.

The word that Eisenstadt liked to use for historical developments that lay outside, and usually after, the Axial Age was “breakthrough,” which took over the German expression Durchbruch. The Axial Age itself was imagined as the greatest of all breakthroughs, although it has never been clear exactly what was being broken through. For Christ and Muhammad as momentous historical dividers after the supposed Axial Age, Eisenstadt and others could invoke the notion of a “secondary breakthrough.” The same could presumably be said of the age of Galileo and Kepler, and the editors of the volume under review even ask portentously, “Is it possible that we have entered a new Axial Age?” But it is not obvious how we would be able to tell, and what difference it would make if we could. What is much more pertinent is whether the Axial Age itself can survive as anything more than a stimulus for historical or sociological discussion.

The best of the essays in the Bellah-Joas volume comes from Jan Assmann, another veteran of Axial Age conferences over many years. He has a rare clarity in addressing murky issues. This may have something to do with his experience, as an Egyptologist, in expounding pharaonic theology. The greatest achievements of ancient Egypt, above all the monotheism of Akhenaton, all occurred outside the charmed frame of Jaspers’s Axial Age. Assmann is well aware of this. He says explicitly that he cannot believe in the Axial Age as “a global turn in universal history” in the middle of the first millennium BC, but he nevertheless finds the concept of axiality “a valuable and even indispensable analytic tool in the comparative study of cultures.” He is right on the mark when he writes: “Jaspers’ opposition between the Axial and the pre-Axial worlds appears to me in many respects as a secularized version of the Christian opposition of true religion and paganism or historia sacra and historia profana.” For Assmann, Akhenaton, Moses, and Zoroaster (whom he dates to the second millennium BC, not the first) are axial figures, no less than Jesus and Muhammad in the first millennium AD. Assmann argues that what makes these individuals “axial” is not when they lived but when their work became canonical, and that depends on the rise of literacy and the written record.

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