The Axial Age or Axial Period, as its sometimes called, was the period of antiquity circa 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. characterized by human thought directed toward understanding man’s place in the world. That inquiry sought a moral structure which would explain how man should live his life to achieve happiness and be in balance with the wishes of the gods. The Axial Age was not confined only to the West, but spanned the globe from the Middle East, though India, and included China. It featured individuals such as Plato, Confucius, Buddha, and Jeremiah, whose ideas had a profound influence on the future of religion and philosophy. The fact that these thinkers lived across the globe and emerged at nearly the same period in history suggests that human moral evolution had reached the same point simultaneously, perhaps under the influence of common factors.
Take a look at the graphic below which shows the timeline of the advent of philosophy/religion across the great cultures.
We’ve discussed the stages of Greek history many times. Greek philosophy began when its founders sought to explain the universe. Once the universe was placed in a philosophical framework, man began to think about his place in it. He wondered about the purpose of life, how the universe came into being, and how he could live in harmony with the wishes of the gods. Greek philosophy was built upon the foundation of Plato and Aristotle who represented the idealistic and practical approaches to an understanding of the world.
Nearly simultaneous with Greek philosophical development was the advent of philosophical systems under Buddha, Confucius, and the Hindu priests who had adapted the ancient Vedic religion to their time. In the middle east, the Jewish religion developed out of the monotheism of Zoroastrianism. Religion was fused with philosophy. The gods were assumed to exist and what remained was for man to decipher their wishes.
The label Axial Age was first described by the philosopher Karl Jaspers who wrote about the evolution of human thought during the first millennium B.C. Jaspers introduced the concept in a book called The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1968. He considered the Axial Age as unique and one which ushered in the age of human thought. The term Axial is a translation of the German word for pivot, referring to a change human in direction.
Like any new idea the Axial Age has its proponents and detractors. Let’s delve into that a little further.
In the previous post, I discussed the book Why the West Rules, by Ian Morris. Morris is supporter of the Axial Period as a change in the direction of human history, although with reservations. I quote from his book: “Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher struggling to make sense of the moral crisis of his day, called the centuries around 500 B.C. the Axial Age…Jaspers portentously declared, ‘Man as we know him today, came into being’”
Morris has some interesting thoughts on the Greeks and Romans.
“Greece’s real contribution to Axial thought came not from Democrats, but from the critics of Democracy, led by Socrates. Greece, he argued, didn’t need democracies, which merely pooled the ignorance of men who judged everything by appearances; what it needed was men like himself, who knew when it came to the one thing that mattered – the nature of the good – they knew nothing. Only such men could hope to understand the good… through reason, honed in philosophical debate.”
Of course the beliefs of Socrates were carried forward by his pupil Plato in The Republic and Laws, and Plato’s successor Aristotle in Ethics and Politics.
Morris doubts whether the philosophical geniuses of the first millennium B.C. guided societies through some type of intellectual barrier. He gives three reasons for this opinion: 1) the Axial Period covered many centuries and is not a sudden event, 2) the most important Axial thinkers came from small communities and were not well known, and 3) since Axial thinking was a reaction against kings and their bureaucrats, its real contribution was in the area of social development, not societal behavior.
Morris believes that the real engine for the advancement of man was the character of man himself: lazy, greedy, and frightened. Morris believes these are the true characteristics that propel the human race forward. He uses the Romans to prove his point.
“It was a spectacular example of the advantages of backwardness, combining organizational methods pioneered in an older core with military methods honed on a violent frontier. It slaughtered, enslaved, and dispossessed millions; and drove social development at an accelerated pace.”
Another more adamant critic of the Axial Period was Antony Black, writing in the Review of Politics, 2008.
Black disputes any notion of an Axial “Period” because the change was not rapid enough and did not involve a greater number of cultures. He agrees that this period saw an advancement in complex human but wonders if it were merely due to the state of societies of that time - that turmoil was causing a rejection of the status quo and the desire to “invent” a new path forward. A rational view would dictate that power be based on merit instead of birth and that the rich should care for the poor and this intellectualizing of human behavior eventually led to a deepening relationship among members of a society who shared a common belief.
I find Jaspers theory quite interesting. The fact that the tendency to complex human thought sprang up at approximately the same time in human history indicated a common human desire to create philosophical systems which would light the way for man to achieve wisdom. Whether it was a driving force or an incidental attribute of forces already at work, is a matter for future debate.