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The Axial Age and Its Consequences

The Axial Age and Its Consequences

Robert N. Bellah
Hans Joas
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 500
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  • Book Info
    The Axial Age and Its Consequences
    Book Description:

    This book makes the bold claim that intellectual sophistication was born worldwide during the middle centuries of the first millennium bce. From Axial Age thinkers we inherited a sense of the world as a place not just to experience but to investigate, envision, and alter. A variety of utopian visions emerged and led to both reform and repression.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06740-0
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The notion that in significant parts of Eurasia the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE mark a significant transition in human cultural history, and that this period can be referred to as the Axial Age, has become widely, but not universally, accepted. Since the very term “Axial Age” is unfamiliar to many, we may begin with a brief explication of it. It has become common to refer to certain texts in literature, philosophy, and even theology as “classics,” that is, as enduring subjects of interpretation, commentary, and argument that make them, whenever they were first composed, contemporary and part...

  4. Fundamental Questions

    • 1 The Axial Age Debate as Religious Discourse
      (pp. 9-29)

      It is an undisputed fact that Karl Jaspers invented the term “Axial Age” in his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, but it is also uncontested that the basic idea behind the new term is much older and was not first developed by Jaspers himself. While these facts seem to be clear, the same cannot be said about the exact meaning of the concept of an Axial Age, the origins of the term, and the origins of the idea behind it. In the following, I will offer some material that could help to clarify these three matters, but...

    • 2 What Was the Axial Revolution?
      (pp. 30-46)

      Any view about the long-term history of religion turns on an interpretation of the Axial Age. What was the nature of the Axial revolution? This is sometimes spoken of the coming to be of a new tension “between the transcendental and mundane orders,” involving a new conception of the “transcendental.¹ But “transcendental” has more than one meaning. It can designate something like a “going beyond” the human world or the cosmos (1). But it also can mean the discovery or invention of a new standpoint from which the existing order in the cosmos or society can be criticized or denounced...

    • 3 An Evolutionary Approach to Culture: Implications for the Study of the Axial Age
      (pp. 47-76)

      One of my early heroes was the great literary theorist Northrop Frye. His book Anatomy of Criticism took my young undergraduate imagination by storm. Frye was a system builder, and I saw in his approach the possibility of exploring the deepest interactions between the flow of cultural change, and the reactions of creative minds to their situated historical contexts. Great writers obviously held a high place in the governance of ideas and beliefs in the cultures he examined. Yet their minds were also, unavoidably, creatures of the cultural moment. The deep structure of their minds—the shifts in cultural contexts...

    • 4 Embodiment, Transcendence, and Contingency: Anthropological Features of the Axial Age
      (pp. 77-101)

      The process most often invoked in describing the hallmark of the Axial Age—or, to circumvent tricky problems of timing and synchronicity, of the Axial cultures—is the “discovery of transcendence.” “Transcendence,” however, covers a wide range of meanings. When applied to the distinction between our cognitive grasp of the world and its internal structure, for example, it denotes an epistemological conviction that is entirely neutral with regard to religious truth claims. The Axial Age debate emphasizes another aspect: it takes the religions and philosophical worldviews developed in the Axial cultures to be focused on a transcendent realm, a divine...

    • 5 The Axial Age in Global History: Cultural Crystallizations and Societal Transformations
      (pp. 102-125)

      The Axial Age denotes a series of profound cultural transformations that occurred in some of the major civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East, and South and East Asia in the centuries around the middle of the first millennium BCE. The term was coined by Karl Jaspers in a small book, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, which appeared in 1949.¹

      Jaspers, who at the time had played an important role, together with Alfred Weber and others, in trying to reconstitute the University of Heidelberg after the end of Nazi rule, erroneously believed he was using a term from...

    • 6 The Buddha’s Meditative Trance: Visionary Knowledge, Aphoristic Thinking, and Axial Age Rationality in Early Buddhism
      (pp. 126-145)

      Discussions of the great historical religions that developed during the Axial Age centered on their preoccupation with universal transcendental religious soteriologies and ethics that spilled over the confines of earlier smallscale societies. They also entailed a preoccupation with theoretical or conceptual thinking, an attempt to understand the world through the mediation of abstract concepts. I do not know how far these issues are relevant for all Axial Age religions, but they are perhaps true of most of them. However, it is also the case that our theoretical discussions could ill afford to neglect what I think is true of most...

    • 7 The Idea of Transcendence
      (pp. 146-188)

      The idea of an Axial Age has many facets. However, in Karl Jaspers’ thought its decisive feature “is man’s reaching out beyond himself by growing aware of himself within the whole of Being.”¹ “In some way or other man becomes certain of transcendence,” and thereby becomes human in a new and decisive sense: “It is impossible for man to lose transcendence, without ceasing to be man.”² Reference to transcendence is the defining characteristic of Axial man.³ Its correlate in human life is “faith”—not the faith of a particular religious tradition but what Jaspers calls “philosophic faith,”⁴ a faith that...

  5. A Comparative Perspective

    • 8 Religion, the Axial Age, and Secular Modernity in Bellah’s Theory of Religious Evolution
      (pp. 191-221)

      In this essay I propose to bring together into critical reflection Robert Bellah’s theory of religious evolution, debates concerning the Axial Age, and the most recent debates concerning our modern “secular age,” in order to examine some of the ambiguities, equivocal meanings, and aporetic tensions built into our modern category of “religion.”¹ I will proceed in three steps. First, I want to examine some of the difficulties built into any theory of religious evolution that needs to function with some unitary, transhistorical, and transcultural, indeed universally “human” category of “religion” that somehow cuts across pre-Axial, Axial, and modern secular contexts....

    • 9 Where Do Axial Commitments Reside? Problems in Thinking about the African Case
      (pp. 222-247)

      I am interested in a relatively simple question: Where are Axial commitments located socially, or to put it another way, what does it mean to say that something is an “Axial civilization,” especially for latecomers to global modernity in places like Africa, who sometimes receive pieces of the Axial in disconnected chunks? I have been fascinated by Shmuel Eisenstadt’s argument in Japanese Civilization (1996) that Japan could embrace Axial elements while keeping an archaic core. Despite absorbing many aspects of two great Axial traditions—Buddhist philosophical sophistication and Confucian techniques of governance—Japan remained fundamentally pre-Axial. Japan retained central archaic...

    • 10 The Axial Age Theory: A Challenge to Historism or an Explanatory Device of Civilization Analysis? With a Look at the Normative Discourse in Axial Age China
      (pp. 248-274)

      After the end of the cosmopolitism of the Enlightenment, Occidental uniqueness and superiority have become firm features of the Western self-understanding. Hegel’s statement that “the Oriental has to be excluded from the history of philosophy” (1940, 152) and Leopold Ranke’s echo that for understanding world history “one cannot start from the peoples of eternal standstill” (1888, viii) are two prominent examples for a conviction that became dominant in the historical disciplines. World philosophy and world history have been Occidental.

      There were few serious attempts to overcome this mind-set. One is Karl Jaspers’ theory of the “Axial Age,” published in 1949...

  6. Destructive Possibilities?

    • 11 The Axial Conundrum between Transcendental Visions and Vicissitudes of Their Institutionalizations: Constructive and Destructive Possibilities
      (pp. 277-293)

      In this essay I shall examine the tensions and contradictions attendant on the institutionalization of Axial visions. These tensions are, first, the result of problems inherent in the institutionalization of Axial visions—for example, the implementation of economic and power structures. Second, these tensions are rooted in the internal structure of Axial visions—most notably in the tension between their inclusivist universalist claims and their exclusivist tendency, rendering their institutionalization potentially destructive. These problems point to the continual tension between constructive and destructive elements of social and cultural expansion and evolution.

      The crystallization of Axial civilizations constitutes one of the...

    • 12 Axial Religions and the Problem of Violence
      (pp. 294-316)

      Pre-Axial religion in archaic societies was replete with sex and violence. Ideally, sex and violence should be treated together, because both are associated with tribal survival as well as with forms of antisocial ecstasy and excess. However, my concern here is solely with violence, because it poses the most acute problems for Axial religion and is a key element in the crucial difference between Us and Them.

      Axial religion has many different characteristics. Whereas pre-Axial religion is often bound in with the powers of Nature, its temporal rhythms and cycles, Axial religion either abandons such cycles for timelessness or creates...

    • 13 Righteous Rebels: When, Where, and Why?
      (pp. 317-334)
      W. G. RUNCIMAN

      Whatever disagreements there may be among historians about the provenance, nature, and scope of the intellectual innovations originating in Israel, Greece, Iran, China, and India during Karl Jaspers’ “Axial Age,” the emergence of critical reflection on the source and use of political power by reference to some transcendental ethical standard marks a major transition in human cultural evolution. How does it come about where and when it does? And what accounts for the different forms that it takes?

      The search for an answer to these questions leads far back in the history of the human species. Recent research in paleoanthropology,...

  7. Reevaluations

    • 14 Rehistoricizing the Axial Age
      (pp. 337-365)

      Since the historicizing argument to be developed below runs counter to stronger trends and more widely shared approaches in the present discussion, it may be useful to begin with a brief indication of the main points at issue. To rehistoricize, or bring history back in, is—most obviously—to make a case for reemphasizing the Axial Age as a historical epoch, with at least approximately definable boundaries, rather than transfiguring its innovations and achievements into an ideal type of “axiality.” But it also means to pay more attention to the internal historicity of the epoch: changing constellations as well as...

    • 15 Cultural Memory and the Myth of the Axial Age
      (pp. 366-408)

      The theory of the Axial Age is the creation of philosophers and sociologists, not of historians and philologists on whose research the theory is based. It is the answer to the question for the roots of modernity. When and where did the modern world begin as we know and inhabit it? The historian investigates the past for the sake of the past. The quest for the roots of modernity, however, is not interested in the past as such but only as the beginning of something held to be characteristic of the present. These are two categorically different approaches that must...

  8. Perspectives on the Future

    • 16 The Axial Invention of Education and Today’s Global Knowledge Culture
      (pp. 411-429)

      Education in its most basic sense is coeval with humanity. In historical societies, as the author of a distinguished study of education in Western antiquity has noted, education can be seen as transmitting “the concentrated epitome of a culture and as such it is inseparable from the form of that culture and perishes with it.”¹ In another sense, however, as the conscious effort to form—and reform—human individuals and society to correspond to ideals of imagined but unrealized possibilities, education is one of the great legacies of the Axial turn. The new human possibilities envisioned by the great Axial...

    • 17 The Future of Transcendence: A Sociological Agenda
      (pp. 430-446)

      “A total metamorphosis of history has taken place,” wrote Karl Jaspers sixty years ago in the immediate aftermath of World War II. “The essential fact is: There is no longer anything outside. The world is closed. The unity of the earth has arrived. New perils and new opportunities are revealed. All the crucial problems have become world problems, the situation a situation of mankind.”¹ But it was a spiritually empty unity. There was a universal economic and political interdependence, based on the universal permeation of technologies of dominance, but it did not rest on any common ethical foundation.“[S]omething manifestly quite...

    • 18 The Heritage of the Axial Age: Resource or Burden?
      (pp. 447-468)

      In this volume the contributors are focusing on the Axial Age and my chapter will do likewise. However, my work on the Axial Age comes out of a larger project concerning religion in human evolution from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.¹ I will therefore begin with a word about evolution itself as a concept. I assume that none of the contributors to this volume has a problem with the theory of biological evolution, even though we may have some different ways of interpreting it. Problems arise when we speak of social and cultural evolution: Is that even a valid...

  9. Bibliography: Works on the Axial Age
    (pp. 469-538)
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 539-542)
  11. Index
    (pp. 543-548)