Sages of a Pivotal Age

Book cover
The Great Transformationby Karen Armstrong

Knopf. 469p $30


Karen Armstrong’s latest book covers arguably the most ambitious topic that she has yet attempted. The scope is vast, covering multiple continents, cultures and chronologies. Hundreds of years, dozens of major figures and a landscape that stretches from Mount Olympus to the Great Wall of China would make this a research and writing challenge for any author. Tying this together is the term Axial Age, a designation for most of the first millennium B.C. as the period that produced the Hebrew prophets, the Persian Zarathrustra, the Indian codifiers of Brahmanical traditions, Chinese sages like Lao Tzu and Confucius, Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha and Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The Great Transformation is a big book, one that reminds me of the textbooks that I once assigned in survey courses on world religions. Those tomes, which were packed with enough technical terminology and historical detail to make even the best student’s head swim, were ordinarily divided into the seven great religious cultures of south, east and west Asia: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, Shinto, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For each of these a historical chronology was elaborated that took the story of that tradition from its genesis to the present day. In her latest book Armstrong does much the same but reverses the structuring principle. She divides her 400 pages of text into 10 chapters, nine of which represent time segments that span the period from 1600 to 220 B.C.E. Chapters are then broken into four sections that explore the evolving religious worlds of India, China, the Near East and Greece, respectively.

Armstrong does not, however, move mechanically through these four in the order just cited. She varies her treatment in both sequence and substance. Chapter 8, for example, offers us many pages on China and Greece but just a few on India and nothing on Israel. By contrast, much of Chapter 5 is devoted to the prophets Jeremiah, Job and Ezekiel, as well as to the biblical P source, while China receives but two pages. As this mention of Hebrew prophets suggests, a significant portion of Armstrong’s treatment entails descriptive summaries of important texts. Genesis and Isaiah, the Iliad and the Chandogya Upanishad, the Analects of Confucius and Plato’s Republic are but some of the renowned productions of this Axial Age for which a précis is provided. Interspersed with these textual summaries are sections of historical description that seek to situate the individuals, groups, theories and practices that she targets for attention. It is this combination of the textual and the contextual that moves her narrative forward.

What creates coherence, however, and provides the pre-text for Armstrong’s project is the notion of an axial age. That term, as Armstrong notes on the second page of her introduction, must be credited to the 20th-century German existentialist, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). (Jaspers’s English translator, with less concern for alliteration, uses the phrase axial period’ for the German Achsenzeit.) Trained as a psychiatrist, Jaspers wrote across a range of fields: epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, ethics and theology. He published the German original of his The Origin and Goal of History (Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte), the book that popularized the axial age concept, in 1949, a time of postwar disintegration and desolation in Europe.

Looking back to the beginnings of historical consciousness, Jaspers identified striking spiritual, philosophical and sociological similarities in the first millennium civilizations of China, India, Greece and Israel. He credited these similarities to a pronounced change in human consciousness, whose enduring effects continue to shape our contemporary cultures. As Jaspers declares in the opening pages of his analysis, In this age were born the fundamental categories within which we still think today, and the beginnings of the world religions, by which human beings still live, were created. Jaspers’s expansive gaze sweeps from earliest to present times, but his speculative philosophy of history was no disinterested academic exercise. Rather, its rationale is captured by Shakespeare’s slogan What is past is prologueor, put more precisely, What is past should be prologue. In Jaspers’s words: Until today mankind has lived by what happened during the Axial Period, by what was thought and created during that period. In each new upward flight it returns in recollection to this period and is fired anew by it. Jaspers clearly viewed the postwar situation in Europe as one badly in need of such recollection and renewal.

The desire to link a comprehensive conceptualization of human history with a summons to social and ethical renewal was certainly not limited to Jaspers. In 1956, just three years after the appearance in English of Jaspers’s book, Arnold Toynbee published his Gifford Lectures as An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956). He too theorized about the epiphany of the higher religions, seeking to identify their essential truths and counsels and to distinguish these from nonessential accretions. Toynbee wanted to move human religious consciousness beyond group selfishness, defined in terms of epistemological exclusivism, to a higher synthesis. Such, for Toynbee, was the only basis from which religion could continue to provide reliable human guidance and foster sentiments of tolerance and goodwill.

A generation or two ago, grand historical hypotheses like those of Jaspers and Toynbeewhat contemporary theorists like to call metanarrativeswere still in vogue. Today’s postmodern sensibility tends to dismiss them as conceptually indefensible. Yet even as the interest in metanarratives has waned, as the suspicions with which they are greeted have grown, Jaspers’s notion of an Axial Age continues to garner intermittent attention. About 25 years after the first appearance of Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, a group of prominent scholars collaborated on the production of a dedicated issue of Daedalus, devoted to both an elaboration and a critique of the concept. More recently, the Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt issued an edited volume of the papers of 21 scholars under the title The Origins and Diversity of axial age Civilizations (1986).

Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation offers yet another manifestation of this occasional upsurge of interest in Jaspers’s speculative historiography. She departs, however, from the more academic orientation to be found in those earlier publications and presses a particular agenda. Like Jaspers himself, Armstrong wants a recovery of the spiritual and psychological apprehensions of the Axial Age to serve as a source of renewal and rectification in the present age, a period also beset with wars and conflicts. Her concluding chapter, The Way Forward, is replete with exhortations to seize the insights of the Axial Age and put them at the service of our own individual and societal reformation. First, Armstrong insists, we must practice individual and corporate self-criticism: Before stridently insisting that another clean up its act, we should look into our own traditions, scriptures, and historyand amend our own selves. Then we must take reformist action: Instead of sweeping uncomfortable scriptures and historical disasters under the carpet in order to preserve the integrity’ of the institution, scholars, clerics, and laity should study difficult texts, ask searching questions, and analyze past failings.

Yet, the aim of such exercises is not, for Armstrong, a refurbished doctrinal orthodoxy; rather, it is the recovery of a deeper level of spiritual awareness. In words that are reminiscent of Toynbee’s search for the essential truths, Armstrong sets forth a simple test: If people’s convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound. This is the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major traditions. Armstrong has little tolerance for doctrinal dickering, and the prophets and sages who populate her Axial Age seem to share her impatience. Repeatedly, she points to those forms of spiritual instruction that promote individuation, that foster an interiorized, reflective effort to connect with the ultimate source of meaning.

Such a search for personal religious insight seems well tuned to what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called the new expressivist understanding of religion. Although easily caricatured in the facile phrase I’m not religious but I’m spiritual, this reorientation represents a significant shift in modern religious consciousness. Sketching its contours in his recent Varieties of Religion Today, Taylor notes that injunctions to follow one’s own path, to elude the grasp of orthodoxy, fit nicely with our increasingly pluralist profile. A self-ratifying spiritual sensibility quite easily recognizes its counterpart in another person and offers the necessary social space and protection. Armstrong puts this more altruistically: The sages were ahead of us in recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an immeasurable’ outlook that extends to the ends of the earth without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern.

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